Recently the heroic and the hero have become fashionable again. Movie theatres seem to be showing nothing except film adaptations of superhero comic books. In popular fiction genres such as fantasy and science fiction, heroes and conventional heroic narratives are very common.
The concept of the heroic and the hero is a very old one and may even derive from structural features of the human mind (if Jung was correct). It can take different forms, however. This is relevant for the way we think about and understand the modern world and human society and is particularly important for individualist liberals.
There are a number of works by mythographers and historians of religion such as Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade that examine the commonest conception of the heroic and the narratives that it gives rise to and in which it is articulated. In this account, the essence of the heroic is the performance of deeds and achievements that are beyond the ordinary or mundane.
In addition, these deeds are of significant import — they save the world or a nation or cause from disaster or destruction, or they bring some kind of huge benefit to people in general (hence the recurring narrative of the culture hero who brings humankind the benefits of things such as fire or grain). The hero (who may be male or female) is a kind of special person with qualities and capacities that are beyond the normal.
All this produces the classical hero narrative, which is found in cultures around the world. The hero typically has a mysterious or unusual birth; they do not know who their father is and are brought up unaware of this until a specific point in their life when they become aware of it; they have special abilities and capacities that mark them out from the ordinary, and they have a destiny or purpose that only they can fulfill; when they discover the secret of their parentage and identity, they start upon the fulfilment of that destiny.
The account of the hero’s life in which they realize their destiny and (metaphorically or literally) save the world typically involves a number of tropes or narrative devices such as a quest or journey, a descent into a dark place or the underworld, the slaying of some kind of monster or enemy, and often a war or conflict. The critical point for our purpose though is that in these accounts, the hero or heroine is a special person, marked or chosen from birth, and with a special purpose or destiny that only they can realize.
In the absence of the hero, the odd end cannot be realized and the dark side will triumph. There are variations on this theme such as the story of the flawed or tragic hero who ultimately fails or the antihero (such as Milton’s Satan), who has many of the features of the hero and the same kind of story but is serving the dark cause rather than the good. These share the underlying narrative, however. This narrative can take a number of literary forms, but the commonest is that of the epic.
Narratives of this kind are found in all human cultures (hence the belief that they reflect or derive from inescapable aspects of the human experience or from a kind of shared or collective feature of the human mind). At first sight, there is an obvious affinity with individualism, and indeed people do speak of heroic individuals and heroic individualism. In this way of thinking, there are certain people with special qualities who perform or do extraordinary and admirable things. The question though is whether such people are different from the common herd — are they unusual or distinctive?
There is a kind of individualism that would argue that, yes, indeed there are some people in all societies who have special qualities and are somehow better than others and what is needed is to allow those people to find expression for their special qualities, not least because this will bring benefits to everyone. This is the view in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, for example, where the argument is made that the living standards and life of ordinary people are effectively a gift from the heroic Promethean figures such as Hank Rearden.
This also leads to a view of history that sees it as shaped (at crucial moments at least) by outstanding individuals, whether for good or bad depending on whether it is a hero or antihero who is in the right place at the right time. In economics, it leads to a focus on heroic inventors or entrepreneurs who again are often seen retrospectively as having had a destiny — you can see this frequently in popular biographies of people like Henry Ford, for example.
There is enough truth in this for it to have considerable resonance, not least because it works through the deep narrative described above. However, it is not the only way of thinking. There is a different conception of the heroic that we may describe as the domestic or bourgeois concept of heroism and the heroic. In this way of thinking, heroism is indeed the performance of extraordinary deeds, but the hero is not thought to be someone exceptional or marked for a unique destiny. Instead heroism, the performance of the heroic, is something of which all are potentially capable. The focus, in other words, is on the heroism of ordinary people.
This leads to a different kind of narrative in which the hero is an ordinary person who, when confronted by a test or challenge, responds in a particular way, one that has the quality of the heroic. This does not, however, make them a different or special kind of person, nor does it mean that they have had a special destiny. Rather they have responded to a calling.
Moreover, in this kind of narrative the emphasis is not upon the elevated or grand, nor is it upon the preservation and saving of high institutions. Instead it is on the quotidian and mundane, above all the domestic, the life and circumstances of ordinary people and the virtues they reflect. This is what the hero defends and acts for. The narrative here is different, not epic but domestic.
We can see this form of the heroic in many narratives, particularly fictional ones written in the modern world. It is, for example, one of the themes of George Elliot’s Middlemarch, captured very powerfully in the closing sentence of that work.
Another, now-classic exposition is in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In that work, Tolkien (who was of course a professional scholar of the mythical) gave Aragorn all of the features of the hero that are described earlier. The narrative of Aragorn’s life as told in the book conforms very closely to the traditional heroic epic.
However, it is of course not the central narrative of the work but a subordinate one; in fact we do not find key details in the main part but have to get them from an appendix.
One of the central messages of the work is the limitations of the conventionally epic and heroic. The main story is that of how an ordinary (and in some ways quintessentially bourgeois) person is presented with a challenge and in rising to it achieves the quality of the heroic. In addition, the ultimate opposition in the work is not between the kingly and elevated world of the Numenoreans and Elves on the one side and the Dark Lord on the other.
Rather it is between the world of Sauron, an impious attempt to remake the world, and the cosy and above all domestic world of the Shire. That is why the book finishes not with the fall of Sauron and the return of the king but with Sam Gamgee returning to his home, where his wife puts his baby girl in his lap and he says with a great sigh, “Well, I’m back.” It is the domestic and ordinary that both produces heroism and is saved by it.
This alternative way of thinking of the heroic that sees it as a feature of ordinary people and as deriving from and happening in the everyday world, even if under extreme and often terrible circumstances, is also found in actual history. We might think of the large number of ordinary people who put their own lives at risk of death or torture to hide and save Jews during the Holocaust or the similarly ordinary people who helped and hid runaway slaves in the United States.
On a less elevated level, we can think of how many kinds of political and social reform have resulted from the heroism, even if only small scale, on the part of ordinary people who have experienced social opprobrium or worse to stand up for what they believed. In economics the alternative narrative to the one that looks at heroic inventors is the one that emphasizes the importance of interactions and the exchange of ideas between huge numbers of mostly forgotten people.
There are three points we should take from this. The first is that history and human progress are driven far more by ordinary people doing sometimes extraordinary things than by special people with a unique destiny. Secondly, and very importantly, we should be very wary of stories and ways of thinking that suggest that we, the mass of people, can only be saved or elevated by special chosen ones, heroic figures who will slay the dragons and lead the people to the promised land. This is potentially a very dangerous and risky way of thinking and it misunderstands why things actually do get better.
Finally, we should recall that the end of endeavor is the preservation and improvement of everyday and ordinary life and that this is achieved not only by the heroic, the unusual or elevated actions that people both ordinary and unusual may perform, but by the performance of simple quotidian tasks and everyday duties as well as private and personal acts of kindness and compassion.
The final sentence of Middlemarch, mentioned above, is perhaps the place to end: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”