True grit

11th November 2005 at 00:00
Heroism is lauded by society, but says Victoria Neumark, what people have hailed as heroic has changed dramatically over time

What does it mean to be a hero? Perhaps we all feel we know: exceptional bravery and fortitude - rescuing comrades under enemy fire, like Private Johnson Beharry, most recent recipient of the Victoria Cross (see next page) - or making one's own body into a human bridge to save others, like Andrew Parker, who got the George Cross for gallantry after the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge in 1987. Extraordinary acts, indeed.

Strangely, though, over the centuries and in different times and places, what people have called heroic has varied greatly, and continues to do so.

Being a hero, in contrast to acting courageously, requires social recognition, an audience. The founding father of sociology, mile Durkheim (1858-1917), suggested in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) that societies celebrate heroes who embody the myths that are essential to keep them together - for instance, the dead fighters of the Second World War, honoured inBritain on the 60th anniversary of the end of the conflict.

Durkheim's views are controversial, but the fact that those recent celebrations were accompanied by a new controversy, over what and how much tribute should be paid to women who served on the front and behind the lines, points to how shifting attitudes determine who is declared a hero. It is not bravery that is in question, but the selection of those defined as heroic. Londoners have recently acclaimed the dogged efforts of those in the emergency services who helped those trapped in the carnage of the July 7 bombs, while, on the internet, many Islamist groups proclaim the heroism of those "martyred" as suicide bombers.

In last year's US presidential election, opponents of Senator John Kerry, who earned Silver and Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts in the war against Vietnam, of which he later became an ardent critic, flooded the airwaves, denouncing "What war hero?"; Kerry's failure to respond robustly to these tactics may have cost him the election (search on

OJSimpson, on the other hand, beat a murder rap for which there was abundant evidence by playing the "black sports hero" defence. Guilt apart, his lawyers implied, his status demanded protection. In stark contrast, Andrew Parker said: "I had no thoughts of heroism at all."

Modesty, altruism, self-sacrifice: these are qualities which British society sometimes admires (personified by individuals such as Mother Teresa and Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement), and in other cases disregards (for instance, carers of chronically ill or disabled people). Are they key elements of heroism?

"Always do what you are afraid to do," suggested Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay "On Heroism" (1841), identifying unusual persistence, good humour, hilarity and courage as qualities of the hero. "A quality of spirit which enables one to face danger or pain without showing fear", is the more sober definition in one online dictionary. Is hilarity associated with Dame Cicely Saunders, or with Colonel "H" Jones, who was awarded a posthumous VC after leading a charge at Goose Green in the Falklands war?

The Greeks and pathos

It was the ancient Greeks who coined the word (heros is a singular noun meaning, originally, "aristocratic man"; Hero was a girl's name). For the Greeks, heroes were more than brave, and they were rarely altruistic.

Modesty would have affronted their notions of heroism. A hero was a great man, a leader. They venerated the heroism of Alexander the Great, an autocrat who conquered half the known world with a small troop of soldiers, and, in his own propaganda, at least, was said to be half-divine. Heroism for the Greeks arose out of "pathos" - virtuous struggle leading to success. One prototype was the semi-divine Hercules, who had been bamboozled by the goddess Hera into killing his entire family. In expiation, at the behest of Apollo, he had to serve 12 years, and perform 12 impossible labours. Helped by the deities Hermes and Athena, he killed monsters, cleaned filthy stables, stole magical apples and ended up immortal (www.perseus.tufts.eduHerakleslabors.html).

Defeat was a disqualification for classical heroes, however brave they were. Dunkirk would not have been a triumph to the Greeks. In the dog-eat-dog ancient world, strong leaders were essential to protect communities against marauding neighbours. Modesty could mean enslavement.

The Greek hero cult, which intensified during the 8th century bc, worshipped named heroes at special shrines (https:tspace.library.utoronto.cacitdholtorf7.8.html). Hero worship was a bit like following football - it bound communities together. Tragic heroes in classical literature offered examples and warnings.

According to the philosopher Aristotle, a tragic hero is someone morally good or socially elevated, who yet, by some terrible flaw or mistake, falls into cataclysmic misery and loss. From this, he (and the audience) attains a deeper self-knowledge. Extolling "the golden mean" of "nothing in excess", the Greeks urged: "know yourself". A hero found wisdom, or balance, through suffering.

For example, Oedipus, a prince of Corinth, trying to escape the prophecy which tells he will kill his father and marry his mother, journeys to Thebes, and kills a stranger (Laius) with whom he quarrels at a crossroads.

By solving the riddle of the Sphinx, he is granted the hand of Jocasta, recently widowed queen of Thebes. They have four children, all unknowing what fate awaits. A plague falls on Thebes; the oracle is consulted and informs Oedipus's jealous brother-in-law, Creon, that the cause is a wicked king who has killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus proclaims his innocence, and, when news comes that the king of Corinth is dead, he refuses to return to Corinth lest he should somehow marry his mother, whereupon the messenger reveals that Oedipus had actually been adopted when a baby and is, in fact, the son of Jocasta and Laius, whom he had killed at the crossroads. Jocasta hangs herself. Oedipus, revealed as a patricide, blinds himself and is exiled with his children to muse on bitter fate. He tried to be good, but his fatal flaw of anger brought him low. The moral: learn by this example to be virtuous and control your own weaknesses.

The Middle Ages

It's Christian culture that added altruism to our picture of a hero.

Instead of self-aggrandisement, the hero aimed to put his or her faith above personal considerations. From Roman times, Christian martyrs were plentiful. Like St Catherine, they might choose to be bound on a wheel of fire - or, like St Lawrence, toasted on a gridiron - rather than give up their virtue or belief.

Even for the secular medieval hero, humility and "courtesy" (a rigidly prescribed code of behaviour) were highly regarded. Medieval knights had to study chivalry as well as fighting - or that was the theory. Such benign injunctions as: "to protect the weak and defenceless; to give succour to widows and orphans" and "to refrain from the wanton giving of offence" are hard to reconcile with Charlemagne's 33 years of war against the pagan Saxons, which included such "giving of offence" as executing 4,500 prisoners in a single day (www.vanderbilt.eduBlairCoursesMUSL242 f98charles.htm).

Nonetheless, codes of conduct applied to all ranks. You didn't any longer have to be a demi-god or prince to become a hero. Courage and a calling could touch even the low-born with greatness, a constant theme in such chivalric romances as the 15th-century Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

Joan of Arc, peasant girl turned saviour of France, is one such medieval heroine; Stephen, who led the children's crusade (1212), another.

Modern times

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, the Church's influence declined, Western society became more egalitarian, and heroism became more political and more disputed. Was Charlotte Corday, who murdered the despotic French revolutionary Marat, a heroine, even though he was defenceless in his medicinal bath? Was President Lincoln heroic in upholding the cause of anti-slavery, or was he the tool of Yankee industrialists? Joseph Conrad's novels, such as Lord Jim (in which the protagonist longs to act heroically yet behaves like a coward when the opportunity presents itself), explore this 19th-century worry: does the desire to be seen as a hero taint real heroism? Such considerations do not enter other cultural contexts, as shown by the Chinese and Arab heroes later on this page.

The growth of mass media and mass literacy meant that the heroism of common people was more widely celebrated. Instead of being the subject of mournful folk ballads, heroic acts were written up in newspapers and taught in schools: Grace Darling who rowed out into a storm to rescue stranded sailors; Florence Nightingale or Mary Seacole (left), who nursed injured soldiers on the battlefield during the Crimean War. The Victorian artist GF Watts established Postman's Park in the City of London, installing plaques to commemorate ordinary people who died trying to save the lives of others ( uklondontilespparkindex. shtml).

During the First World War, courage on an unprecedented scale was shown by millions of young men who died for their country and were awarded medals posthumously. Heroism looked grittier and grimmer, and was honoured by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, first set up in Westminster Abbey in 1920 and replicated in other countries around the world.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, founded in 1824 by Sir William Hillary (1774 - 1847), has saved more than 137,000 people from drowning at sea. Apart from full-time mechanics, the crews and shore staff (numbering around 4,800, including 345 women) are all volunteers, who selflessly risk danger for no reward. Largely organised on a local basis, the RNLI is built on everyday heroism. Its website eschews any kind of mission statement, just giving the bald facts about saving others (

Chinese selflessness

Notions of heroism also emerged in other cultures. One of the most famous Chinese heroes, Yue Fei (1103-1142) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), was born poor. He joined the army at the age of 19, when the empire was under attack from the Jin Kingdom in the north. His mother tattooed four Chinese characters on his back: "Be loyal to your country". Fighting fearlessly, his army won numerous battles, defeating 500,000 troops with only 800 soldiers on the outskirts of today's Kaifeng. However, when the Jin captured two Song kings, the Emperor's Prime Minister Qin Hui sued for peace. He sent 12 consecutive edicts to recall Yue Fei; when he finally returned, Qin Hui imprisoned and executed him, on the flimsiest of pretexts. It was only later that Yue Fei entered popular mythology as the epitome of selfless bravery, upholding the nation above personal good.

A hero of Islam In the Arab world, displaying generosity and largeness of spirit was all-important. Sala ad-Din (1138-1193) was of Kurdish origin. Known as Saladin (his name means defender of the faith), he became vizier of Egypt in 1169, then ruler in 1171. He built the Citadel in Cairo on a model copied throughout the Arab world, and instituted the building of madrassehs or religious schools.

He went on to defeat all other Muslim rulers, uniting the faithful under one regime. In 1187, he took back Jerusalem, which is a holy place for Muslims as well as for Christians and Jews, from the Crusaders; though Richard the Lionheart's Third Crusade defeated him in several battles, they could not take back Jerusalem and an armistice was signed in 1192.

Saladin promulgated tolerance for all faiths and was widely venerated as a just and fair ruler. He and Richard admired each other's courage. A hero of Islam, he was also celebrated for his valour and generosity in Christian fables and poems. When he died, they found that there was not enough money for his funeral in his treasure chest: he had given it away in alms for the poor.

Saddam Hussein, who shared his birthplace, often portrayed himself as a latter-day Saladin. Who defines who is a hero?

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