Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"What's a Hero?" THE PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS OF HEROISM by Andrew Bernstein

“A hero is related but is not identical to a moral man, to an achiever, to a role model. A moral man is one who possesses an unbreached commitment to reality and who never indulges whims. An achiever is a man who attains ends that are objectively life-promoting, one who fulfills reality-conforming purposes, whether to construct a home, complete an education or find a cure for cancer. A role model is a man who, as a rational achiever, is worthy of emulation. A hero is all of these things and more.”

         -Andrew Bernstein

 When Landon and I started SUPERHERO BABYLON, part of our goal was to clarify what we mean by the word “hero.” I started thinking about this as a result of Ayn Rand’s use of the term in her fiction. Rand went beyond any “slang” or loose meaning and painted a pretty specific picture. Yet she never defined it in a dictionary sense, the way she did with words like “selfish.” It doesn’t even appear as an entry in the AYN RAND LEXICON. 

(My own earlier, personal attempts to define her usage led me to the obvious: Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, etc.. "Obvious," given that her heroes are champions of selfishness; it was not surprising to find Jung equating the hero with the ego and self, even if they have different assessments. Her characters, indeed, do share some of the traits of the classical heroes, but with too many differences, which lead me to distance myself from my earlier work on the matter.) 

  But if one sticks closely to the dictionary definition, it becomes clear the problem is in the abstraction. My next step was to examine the etymology of the word “hero”, which translates to “defender” or “protector.” This, too, was not enough to explain what Rand was getting at, since her heroes were more than that; they were creators. Landon and I began to discuss the necessity of finding a new word to describe Rand’s “prime movers.” But it turns out there is no need, for Andrew Bernstein, in his essay THE PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS OF HEROISM, has clearly defined what Rand meant while correcting a flaw in the etymology.

 Bernstein asks:

  What, the first question must be, is the distinguishing essence of heroism? What characteristics must one possess to qualify as a hero? What is it that unites Achilles, Cyrano, Isaac Newton, John Galt and Ayn Rand? What is it that differentiates them from: both the folks next door, and from Iago, Ellsworth Toohey, Adolf Hitler, Hilary Clinton? In short, what is the rational meaning of the concept "heroism"?

 In his essay, Bernstein only mentions the dictionary definition:

  Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines "hero as: a) "a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability, b) an illustrious warrior, c) a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities, d) one that shows great courage.

 Bernstein claims that

  These attempts at defining the nature of a hero are woefully inadequate. Observe first the predominant emphasis on the physical, on great strength, courage and warlike prowess—second the absence of any mention of the mind or intellect—and third the attenuated reference to the criterion of a man's moral character ("noble qualities" is listed as one of the term's meanings). The American Heritage Dictionary, though endowed with such a promising name, provides a set of definitions essentially no different. Based on this definition, one might conclude that an Arnold Schwarzenegger character is a hero but that Howard Roark or Ayn Rand are not. Sadly, this is a common perception in our culture.

I agree with him here, which is why I go to the etymological root. But it could be argued that the etymological definition would possibly have the same result, and even more so, given that the concept has changed and expanded over thousands of years since the Greeks first used it (not to mention that they most likely didn’t have the concepts of self-guided destiny that we do today, relying more on luck or fate of the Gods.)

Bernstein’s solution, then, is to go beyond the definition and towards the philosophical roots of the definitions. His work leads him to the conclusion that the mind/body dichotomy is at the root of the concept of heroism as commonly accepted:

  The philosophical causes are instructive. The Platonic-Christian tradition in philosophy trumpets two claims: 1) that man is a being severed into two parts, that his body belongs to this dimension of reality and his consciousness to a higher, spiritual realm—and 2) the logical consequence of this mind-body split, the belief that this world is utterly material and carnal, that brute, bodily means are effectual, but that the intellect, since it belongs to another world, is helpless to deal with this one, that the mind is ivory-towered, inefficacious, helpless, that its constructs may be sound in theory but are futile in practice. Just as Jesus is the perfect moral expression of this view—the weak, pacifistic, cheek-turning "lamb" in this world, but the omnipotent deity ruling the next—so Hamlet is its perfect literary expression—the brilliant philosopher-intellectual who excels in the theoretical realm but is helpless to deal with the practical.

 He continues:

  Such a mind-body split is the necessary application to the theory of human nature of the belief in two-world, metaphysical dualism. As long as men are taught a religious metaphysics, they will hold that the spirit is a hyper-sensitive, hand-wringing weakling too fine for this world—and that only brute bodily means are efficacious and practical.

 (This last statement is, incidentally, why we have a Superman as a being of brute strength, and a Lex Luthor who is an “evil scientist/businessman” (both attributes of the mind instead of brawn.)

 Bernstein, via Objectivism, makes the case for a new definition of heroism:

  The concept of "heroism," like so many others, is a high-level abstraction—it is primarily a moral concept—and requires a rational philosophical system, including the principle of mind-body integration, as it proper base. Without such a basis the concept can be neither rigorously-defined nor adequately-understood.

 Now, the etymology of the word hero translates into “protector” or “defender.” Bernstein, however, decides to “redefine” heroism according to Objectivist philosophy, which does away with the mind-body split. Does his definition correlate with the original etymology?

  A hero is (this is my definition, not Webster's): an individual of elevated moral stature and superior ability who pursues his goals indefatigably in the face of powerful antagonist(s). Because of his unbreached devotion to the good, no matter the opposition, a hero attains spiritual grandeur, even in he fails to achieve practical victory. Notice then the four components of heroism: moral greatness, ability or prowess, action in the face of opposition, and triumph in at least a spiritual, if not a physical, form.

I submit that while Bernstein never addresses the etymological roots of the word “hero,” he nonetheless stays true to it, while expanding on what it means to be a “defender” or “protector” in a rational, WORDLY way.

 In the next part, we'll explore just how Bernstein does this, by examining the “four components.”

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