Twentieth-century philosopher Joseph Campbell believed that all heroes take journeys, confront the unknown, endure trials, and return home transformed—as did Buddha, Muhammad, and Jesus. Christians believe heroes are humble and turn the other cheek. Friedrich Nietzsche believed heroes were proud and forceful. Who is a hero? “He who conquers his evil inclinations,” according to the Talmud. “He who hangs on for one minute more,” says a Russian proverb.
Is John Wayne a hero because he portrayed brave men? Is Babe Ruth a hero because he hit home runs? Can we look up to Charles Lindbergh after he accepted a medal from the Nazis, or to suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, knowing she feared that immigrants would change American culture? Is General Dwight Eisenhower a hero even though he never risked his life? Can we admire Robert E. Lee when he fought to preserve slavery?
Nobody wants to be called a hero. After being widely acclaimed for his leadership in the Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf called his book It Doesn’t Take a Hero and passed along the glory to the men who served under him. When President Reagan saluted Mother Hale as “a true American hero” for taking babies with aids into her home, she replied, “I’m not an American hero. I’m simply a person who loves children.” John F. Kennedy turned aside praise of his war exploits by saying, “My boat sank.”
To many of today’s intellectuals, the word hero is antique. They appreciate epic heroes like Achilles and Beowulf, mythological heroes like Hercules, tragic heroes like Antigone. But human heroes belong to a credulous prescientific age. Intellectuals don’t have heroes; they have people they admire—some of the time.
Too male, too military, say feminists. Hero often means oppressor. In a patriarchal society, heroes have been warriors, cowboys, explorers. Our definition of hero reflects a “male model,” poetry critic Helen Vendler told me in an interview. “I often wondered what happened to the children when the hero went away to war.”
Deconstructionists find the word hero meaningless. In their view, no one is selfless or noble. Behind every altruistic act is self-interest. Social scientists tell us that human beings are not autonomous but conditioned by genes and environment, that we do what we are bred and trained to do, not what we believe is right. To some Americans today, the concept of a hero seems elitist and out of place in a democracy where all are equal.
“A hero is usually smug,” Ned Rorem told me in his home on Nantucket. Rorem, a composer, won a Pulitzer Prize for his music in 1976 and had recently been named president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City. Rorem doesn’t accept the word hero and has never had one. . . . I don’t know what noble or lofty means.” Mother Teresa “is a fraud,” he added; “She is in the hero business. . . . Abortion and birth control would help India.”
It’s hard to have confidence in the word hero when reputations rise and fall. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, visitors could stroll through a full-scale reproduction of the monastery where Christopher Columbus stayed in Spain before petitioning Queen Isabella for funding to sail to America. Life-size replicas of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria floated across a man-made lagoon. On display were seventy-one portraits of Columbus and facsimiles of his ships’ logs. Leading up to the 1893 exposition had been a year of parades and ceremonies commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage. Almost one hundred years later, in 1992, demonstrators threw blood on the explorer’s statue at Columbus Circle in New York City to protest the impact of colonization on Native Americans.
Besides, say skeptics, a skillful publicist can make an ordinary person great. Several patriots rode to Lexington on April 19, 1775, to warn Americans of the British attack, but Longfellow’s 1861 poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” made only one man a hero. Until John Filson mythologized Daniel Boone in the eighteenth century and Timothy Flint praised him in the most widely read biography before the Civil War, Boone was an average explorer, who in a moment of honesty confessed, “many heroic actions and chivalrous adventures are related of me which exist only in the regions of fancy.” Libby Custer wrote three best-sellers and gave hundreds of lectures around the country to assure posterity that in 1876 at the Battle of Little Big Horn her husband, George A. Custer, died a hero.
Names and stories linger in our memories and make a difference. Thomas Jackson became “Stonewall” Jackson during the Civil War, after he stationed his men in a strong defensive line and repulsed the Union troops at the Battle of Manassas in 1861. In the 1870s, Ned Buntline’s dime novels transformed William F. Cody into Buffalo Bill.
Heroes can also be elevated by early death. Until the British hanged him as a spy at the age of twenty-one, Nathan Hale was an ordinary soldier in the Colonial army. Cartoonists mocked Abraham Lincoln until the night he was shot. “This thing of being a hero,” said Will Rogers, “about the main thing to do is to know when to die.”
What a Hero Is Not
The word hero comes to us from the Greek, meaning demigod. Offspring of a divine parent and a mortal parent, the heroes of Greek mythology were less than gods but greater than ordinary humans—and if their exploits in the mortal world brought honor to the gods, they could join them on Mount Olympus for eternity. Achilles, the quintessential classical warrior, who kills Hector on the fields of Troy at the end of the Iliad, was a great hero to the Greeks because he was courageous and handsome and valued glory in battle more than life itself.
Later in their history, the Greeks applied the word hero to human beings. The most renowned human hero in the ancient world was the conqueror Alexander the Great, who marched from Egypt to India and conquered the known world in nine years before he died at the age of thirty-two. In the Sackler Museum at Harvard University, there is a Greek coin that on one side depicts Alexander the Great as a human being and on the other side as a god. In Greece there were hero shrines where citizens could worship. Heroes seemed more accessible than gods. The bones of human heroes, the Greeks believed, had magical powers. From the Greeks comes the notion of the hero as extraordinary, superhuman, charismatic, godlike, as well as the beliefs that heroes are above all physically brave and that the crucible of courage is the battlefield, where decisions and actions mean life or death.
For most of human history, hero has been synonymous with warrior. Although we often link these words today, we do have an expanded, more inclusive definition of hero than the one we inherited from the Greeks. Modern dictionaries list three qualities in common after the entry hero: extraordinary achievement, courage, and the idea (variously expressed) that the hero serves as a “model” or “example”—that heroism has a moral component.
Today, extraordinary achievement is no longer confined to valor in combat. As well as military heroes, there are humanitarian heroes, cultural heroes, political heroes. Thomas Edison lit up the night. Harriet Tubman rescued slaves. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Beethoven is a hero of music, Rembrandt of art, Einstein of science.
Likewise, courage means many things besides physical bravery: taking an unpopular position, standing up for principle, persevering, forging accomplishment out of adversity. After her life was threatened, activist Ida B. Wells continued to condemn lynching. Franklin Roosevelt battled polio. Helen Keller transcended blindness and deafness.
The moral component of the meaning of heroism—and, I believe, the most important one—is elusive. In French, héros is associated with generosity and force of character. And in Middle English, heroicus means noble. In dictionaries, heroic is an adjective of praise: some of its synonyms are virtuous, steadfast, magnanimous, intrepid. The Oxford English Dictionary uses the phrase “greatness of soul.” It’s an imprecise concept, like the word hero itself. There are many different ways to describe it, but I believe greatness of soul to be a mysterious blend of powerful qualities summarized by Shakespeare in Macbeth (IV.iii.91-94), where he describes the “king-becoming graces” as:
. . . justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.
When Nelson Mandela received an honorary degree from Harvard University in a special ceremony in September 1998, the seniors sat in the front rows. My son, who was among them, commented that there was an aura about Mandela, something about being in his presence that evoked a surprisingly powerful response. I believe the response he was describing is awe, which washed over many people attending the ceremony that afternoon and came from contemplating Mandela’s extraordinary achievement, his profound courage, and his greatness of soul.
I find it significant that the heroes in American history with the most staying power, like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, had this same greatness of soul. And I find it encouraging that the three people Time magazine picked as the most influential of the twentieth century—Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—each had this quality.
Heroes, of course, do not have extraordinary achievement, courage, and the qualities that comprise greatness of soul in equal abundance, but I argue that the more of them one has, the higher one is in the pantheon. And if you take an antonym for each of Shakespeare’s “king-becoming graces,” you come up with a pretty good definition of what a hero is not: unjust, untruthful, intemperate, unstable, stingy, wavering, vengeful, arrogant, capricious, impatient, cowardly, and volatile.
The greatest burden the word hero carries today is the expectation that a hero be perfect. In Greek mythology, even the gods have flaws. They are not perfect but rather hot-tempered, jealous, and fickle, taking sides in human events and feuding among themselves.
The Roman historian Plutarch wrote some of the earliest biographies of heroes: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. For hundreds of years these biographies were enormously influential in European and American education. Thomas Jefferson carried a copy of Lives in his knapsack. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and notebooks are sprinkled with quotations from Plutarch. For each of the biographies she read, Jane Addams’s father paid her fifty cents. Plutarch’s Lives was one of Harry Truman’s favorite books, and it lingered as one of the staples of an Anglo-American classical education until the turn of the nineteenth century.
Plutarch’s biographies were not hagiographies; in each he reminds us that an exemplary life has never been a perfect life, and we learn from his subjects’ vices as well as their virtues. For example, in his treatment of the Roman statesman Cato the Elder (one of George Washington’s heroes), Plutarch praises Cato for his frugality and integrity, and for being a good father and husband, but rebukes him for boasting about his achievements and mistreating his slaves. Plutarch acknowledged the flaws of the men he wrote about, but in the main he admired their many accomplishments.
In America today we have come to define the person by the flaw: Thomas Jefferson is the president with the slave mistress, Einstein the scientist who mistreated his wife, Mozart the careless genius who liked to talk dirty. These definitions lodge in our minds—especially if they relate to sex—and become the first and sometimes the only thing we remember.
As a society, we need to explore a more subtle, complex definition of the word hero, suitable for an information age, one that acknowledges weaknesses as well as strengths, failures as well as successes—but, at the same time, one that does not set the bar too low. We need to portray our heroes as human beings but let them remain heroic. Yes, Lincoln liked bawdy stories, was politically calculating, and suffered from melancholy. But he also exhibited astonishing political and moral courage, led our nation through its greatest crisis, and always appealed to the “better angels of our nature.”
A realistic definition of hero does not mean we include in the pantheon those who are evil. Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung were two of the most powerful men of the twentieth century, leading vast backward nations to global prominence while destroying millions of lives in the process. Though some in Russia or China still venerate them, few in America would call them heroes today. In his book ranking the one hundred most influential individuals in human history, Michael Hart observes, “It is not a list of the noblest characters.” Influential does not mean heroic. Nor is leader—a word to which hero is frequently linked—a synonym for hero. Adolf Hitler was a leader; Nelson Mandela is a hero.
Among those who are not fond of the word hero was the philosopher Sidney Hook, because throughout history we have called so many leaders heroes who have been greedy and wicked. Reflecting a recurring criticism of heroes, one that becomes particularly pronounced after World War II, Hook noted that “on the whole, heroes in history have carved out their paths of greatness by wars, conquest, revolutions, and holy crusades.” In his 1943 book The Hero in History, Hook suggested we take the word away from political leaders and soliders and give it to teachers.
A Hero by Any Other Name?
As I travel around the country talking to students, I have been asked many times, “Can’t a celebrity be a hero?” A celebrity can be a hero but, by definition, a celebrity is simply someone who is famous. Are celebrities usually heroes? It is hard to combine the qualities of heroism with the values of today’s entertainment industry.
In the media, the word hero is often used interchangeably with legend, icon, and idol. A 1998 cover of Esquire magazine featured Mr. Rogers and posed the question “Can you say . . . hero?” When Mr. Rogers retired in 2001, a television newscaster asked, “Can you say icon?” The name of a popular news magazine program that profiles famous people is Headliners and Legends. A recent issue of a pension fund magazine introduced a new advertising campaign with the headline “Icons, Thinkers and Everyday Heroes.” Questions about distinctions among these words surface all the time in my audiences.
Legendary stories have always swirled around heroes. Since the age of Homer, legends flourished in societies that had low levels of formal education and slow means of communication. Often embroidered more elaborately after death, legends enhanced the status of mere mortals. Today newscasters and talk show hosts do use the word legend to describe a fanciful story that has been woven into someone’s history but more often to describe some giant of the entertainment industry, like John Wayne, or some athletic superstar, like Babe Ruth. A legend is someone about whom stories have been generated by fans and publicists, someone who has become larger than life, someone around whom an aura of mystery has gathered.
Legends have a powerful emotional pull. We crave colorful, romantic stories. At the same time, an egalitarian, highly educated, information-rich society erodes legends and makes it harder to have heroes. Legendary history flourished in nineteenth-century America; contemporary historians believe it is their duty to distinguish legend from fact. We now have hundreds of books with titles like Penetrating the Lincoln Legend and Stonewall Jackson: Soldier and Legend. In a fact-based scientific society, people prefer their heroes to stand tall and strong without the help of legends.
Used liberally in advertisements and the entertainment industry, the term icon originally meant an image of a saint. This is still true in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but in our more secular world an icon need not be a saint. In computer listings under the keyword icon are books on Saint Basil the Great and Sir Thomas More. There are also books on Che Guevara, Frank Sinatra, Mae West, and the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Icon has become a fashionable word, applied to anyone or anything that some group will venerate, for whatever reason.
Less trendy, idol shares with icon the quality of worship. In the Bible, an idol is a false god, like the Golden Calf that Moses strikes down in the book of Exodus. Idol is often linked to immaturity; matinee idol, teen idol, rock idol are common blends. Idolatry implies slavish devotion, uncritical veneration, the kind of adulation found in cults.
Some Americans reject the word hero outright and insist on role model, which is less grandiose, more human. We search for role models in our daily lives, particularly as the American family disintegrates. We like to visualize these people—and, by emulation, ourselves—doing a particular job well, carrying out responsibilities, overcoming obstacles. People often ask me, “Why do we need heroes? Why aren’t role models enough?”
I like Jill Ker Conway’s distinction. Author of the best-selling autobiography The Road from Coorain, Conway recently ended a lecture on extraordinary women, such as nineteenth-century African explorer Mary Kingsley, with the statement “Women should have heroines, not role models.” I asked her later what she meant. Women, she said, are as physically brave and as daring as men, and the routine use of role model to describe outstanding women conceals their bravery and diminishes their heroism.
Conway’s distinction argues that heroine is a more powerful word than role model and that heroism is a reach for the extraordinary. Elizabeth Blackwell, who in the 1840s boldly persisted in her attempt to attend medical school for many years and later to find a hospital post at a time when few Americans—men or women—supported her efforts, is such a heroine. The woman physician who lives next door today is a role model.
Not all women are fond of the word heroine. Contemporary writer Maya Angelou has come up with a new word: shero. In library catalogs, heroine overwhelmingly refers to fictional characters, not to female figures in history. Even though dictionaries give heroine the same lofty definition as hero, to some it suggests the damsel in distress, the female in need of rescue, silent film star Mary Pickford tied to the train tracks.
Along with role model, the word mentor has lately become a strong competitor of hero. Like hero, the word mentor comes to us from the Greeks. In the Odyssey, Mentor was the tutor of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. Both in its origin and in contemporary use, mentor means teacher or adviser. A mentor is someone who has knowledge we would like to have or who, in corporate terms, can show us the ropes. A mentor “takes on” a novice: a student, a protégé, the junior associate in a law firm. We usually know our mentors and learn from them through conversation, imitation, and instruction. Beethoven is a hero of music, our music teacher a mentor.
Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., told me in a phone interview that she was inspired by Sojourner Truth, who rescued slaves, and Alva Myrdal, who fought for peace and social justice. All groups of young people “are in desperate need of heroism,” she said, but most of our heroes are “quiet role models working hard for their communities.” Edelman has described how her life was molded by men and women she admired and wanted to imitate. She calls the book Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors.
Many people, especially in schools, ask me about tragic heroes in fiction, like Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. For most of the twentieth century, the reigning definition of the tragic hero in literature emerged out of a series of lectures given by British critic A. C. Bradley and published in 1904 in a book called Shakespearean Tragedy. Like the Aristotelian Greek tragic hero, according to Bradley, the Shakespearean tragic hero was a person of “high degree” whose fall from greatness and eventual death is brought about by a “fatal gift,” eliciting “not only sympathy and pity but admiration, terror, and awe.” As with Greek heroes and Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes were extraordinary but not by any means perfect. It was in fact the tragic hero’s flaw and fall from greatness that elicited powerful emotions in Elizabethan audiences.
Modern playwrights have challenged this tradition. In 1949, a few weeks after the first performance of Death of a Salesman—one of the most popular and influential plays of our time—Arthur Miller wrote in an essay published in The New York Times, “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.” In the play, still widely read in high schools today, the salesman Willy Loman struggles and suffers and becomes a casualty of the American Dream. His wife, Linda, says, “I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.” Willy Loman is not extraordinary. He does not fall from greatness. His suicide could be construed as an act of despair rather than courage. Some consider Loman a victim. Loman is the guy next door, someone we know, a new American tragic hero.
Just as, in the theater, Willy Loman has become a hero, so in their everyday lives Americans look to their neighborhoods for their heroes. Today, many Americans define heroes as decent people who sacrifice or try to make a difference. They name streets after local World War II veterans, parks after teachers, bridges after local politicians and philanthropists. Rejecting historical and public figures, who may have feet of clay or a skilled public relations expert, they democratize the word hero and jettison the Greek notion of the hero as superhuman and godlike.
When I wrote to John Updike to ask about his views on heroes, he referred me to a book of his, Picked-Up Pieces, where I found a statement he made in an interview for Life magazine in 1966: “The idea of a hero is aristocratic. You cared about Oedipus and Hamlet because they were noble and you were a groundling. Now either nobody is a hero or everyone is. I vote for everyone.”
Emblematic of this transformation, John F. Kennedy launched his presidential campaign with the 1956 book Profiles in Courage, in which he writes about heroic senators throughout American history who put principle before party. In 1998, former Ohio congressman John Kasich launched his bid for the Republican nomination with Courage Is Contagious, a book about local heroes he met in his travels, people who are interested in “small victories,” not “home runs.”
The definition of hero remains subjective. What is extraordinary can be debated. Courage is in the eye of the beholder. Greatness of soul is elusive. Inevitably there will be debates over how many and what kinds of flaws a person can have and still be considered heroic.
Nevertheless, today we are reluctant to call either past or present public figures heroic. We are fearful they might be illusory, falsely elevated by early death or good spin doctors or the vagaries of history. The twentieth century has taught us well that leaders once thought heroes can turn out to be tyrants. And the tacit assumption that a hero is supposed to be perfect has made many Americans turn away from the word—and the concept—altogether. The contemporary preference for words like role model and mentor and the shift from the recognition of national to local heroes are part of the transformation of the word hero that occurred in the second half of the twentieth century.
There is something appealing about a society that admires a range of accomplishments, that celebrates as many people as possible, that looks beyond statues of generals on horseback into small towns and the obscure corners of history for its heroes. Making hero more democratic, however, can be carried to an extreme. It can strip the word of all sense of the extraordinary. It can lead to an ignorance of history, a repudiation of genius, and an extreme egalitarianism disdainful of high culture and unappreciative of excellence.
We need role models and mentors and local heroes; but by limiting our heroes to people we know, we restrict our aspirations. Public heroes—or imperfect people of extraordinary achievement, courage, and greatness of soul whose reach is wider than our own—teach us to push beyond ourselves and our neighborhoods in search of models of excellence. They enlarge our imagination, teach us to think big, and expand our sense of the possible.
The Hall of Fame
for Great Americans
“Take counsel here of wisdom, beauty, power.” —Inscription, south gate,
Hall of Fame for Great Americans
Standing on the highest hill in New York City, looking out over the Harlem and Hudson rivers, I am surrounded by heroes: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Union soldier wounded at Antietam and Chancellorsville, Supreme Court justice, and author of The Common Law; Susan B. Anthony, crusader for women’s rights; Walter Reed, army surgeon who discovered that mosquito bites cause yellow fever; educators Mary Lyon and Emma Willard. The founder of the American public school, Horace Mann, is here, along with painter John James Audubon, orators Daniel Webster and Patrick Henry, and inventors Robert Fulton and Alexander Graham Bell.
Designed by Stanford White at the end of the nineteenth century, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans has a sweeping 630-foot outdoor colonnade, which is open on the sides and covered by a terra-cotta tile roof. The colonnade has niches for 102 busts. Inside, a massive dome supported by gigantic green marble pillars covers an ornate library. Under the dome are statues of mythological heroes and the names of some of the creators of Western civilization: Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Goethe.
Walking down the colonnade, I see the faces of our most influential presidents and bravest soldiers. Opposite Stonewall Jackson is Ulysses S. Grant. Robert E. Lee looks into the eyes of Admiral David G. Farragut. Next to Theodore Roosevelt is pacifist William Penn. I pass Ben Franklin, and think about how much he accomplished in his long and happy life, and John Quincy Adams, and remember the slave ship Amistad and a life devoted to principle. Past Nathaniel Hawthorne is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Under Emerson is written the day is always his who works in it with serenity and great aims. Next to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is John Philip Sousa, under whom are etched the opening notes of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Some of the heroes have become footnotes in history: William Morton, who discovered ether; Maria Mitchell, who spotted a comet from her Nantucket observatory; physicist Albert Michelson, who in 1907 was the first American scientist to receive a Nobel Prize. Michelson developed instruments to measure more accurately the speed of light.
The brainchild of New York University’s chancellor Dr. Henry Mitchell MacCracken and paid for by financier Jay Gould’s daughter, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans was dedicated on Memorial Day 1901, an expression in marble and bronze of the nineteenth-century idealization of heroes. MacCracken hoped to remind Americans that they lived in a nation of accomplishment and opportunity, and he believed in recognizing teachers and poets as well as soldiers and statesmen. The centerpiece of a new campus for New York University, the hall was envisioned as the counterpart to England’s Westminster Abbey and France’s Pantheon, a tribute to America’s power and preeminence. It would unite a nation that still remembered the Civil War and revive idealism in citizens corrupted by the Gilded Age. And it would be democratic: Any citizen could nominate candidates dead twenty-five years, with a cross-section of one hundred notable Americans picking the winners every five years.
From the start the hall was a success. Newspapers urged readers to submit nominations, editorials lauded the achievements of candidates, and citizens tried to guess the winners. With trumpets, prayers, and eulogies delivered by eminent scientists, politicians, and lawyers, induction ceremonies were lavish and dramatic. The high point of the ceremony was the unveiling of the bronze busts and inscriptions. Sculptors competed for the commission. African American Richmond Barthé carved the bust of Booker T. Washington. Underneath is engraved the highest test of a race is its willingness to extend a helping hand to the less fortunate.
In the 1970s, the hall, grown rickety, was declared unsafe and closed for several years. Mark Twain’s eye disappeared and his cheek fell off. Since 1976, there have been no nominations, no elections. There is no money for busts or inscriptions. Three empty niches await the heroes elected in 1976: Clara Barton, Luther Burbank, and Andrew Carnegie. In 1992 the colonnade was fortified and the busts cleaned, a restoration which led to awards for historic preservation.
I have climbed the hill to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans many times and have rarely met any other visitors, though I once caught a couple kissing between the statues of John Paul Jones and Stonewall Jackson.