Is the hero the extraordinary individual? Many would say so. Is it identified as genius? Does physical strength apply to all heroes? Artists have portrayed the hero in verse, in statuary, and in word and theater. Today we have heroes of finance, politics, science, philosophy, the arts, and the newspaper.
The excerpts below deal with the hero over time. The hero is always the marvelous except in one case. That case is plainly stated by Soren Kierkegaard.
About Phocaia in Ionia it happened thus, and nearly the same thing also was done by the men of Teos: for as soon as Harpagos took their wall with a mound, they embarked in their ships and sailed straightway for Thrace; and there they founded the city of Abdera, which before them Timesios of Clazomenai founded and had no profit therefrom, but was driven out by the Thracians; and now he is honoured as a hero by the Teïans in Abdera.
The History of Herodotus — Volume 1
Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, oh daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.
When she had thus spoken, she flew away in the form of an eagle, and all marvelled as they beheld it. Nestor was astonished, and took Telemachus by the hand. “My friend,” said he, “I see that you are going to be a great hero some day, since the gods wait upon you thus while you are still so young. This can have been none other of those who dwell in heaven than Jove’s redoubtable daughter, the Trito-born, who shewed such favour towards your brave father among the Argives.”
Homer, The Odyssey Book One, Book Three
Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begot us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent in their instructions: such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing: rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations: all these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times.
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-7 Catholic Bible
These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
Hebrews 11 The Bible
XIII. When the conquest of the East had flattered Alexander of Macedon into believing himself to be more than man, the people of Corinth sent an embassy to congratulate him, and presented him with the franchise of their city. When Alexander smiled at this form of courtesy, one of the ambassadors said, “We have never enrolled any stranger among our citizens except Hercules and yourself.”
Alexander willingly accepted the proffered honour, invited the ambassadors to his table, and showed them other courtesies. He did not think of who offered the citizenship, but to whom they had granted it; and being altogether the slave of glory, though he knew neither its true nature or its limits, had followed in the footsteps of Hercules and Bacchus, and had not even stayed his march where they ceased; so that he glanced aside from the givers of this honour to him with whom he shared it, and fancied that the heaven to which his vanity aspired was indeed opening before him when he was made equal to Hercules.
In what indeed did that frantic youth, whose only merit was his lucky audacity, resemble Hercules? Hercules conquered nothing for himself; he travelled throughout the world, not coveting for himself but liberating the countries which he conquered, an enemy to bad men, a defender of the good, a peacemaker both by sea and land; whereas the other was from his boyhood a brigand and desolator of nations, a pest to his friends and enemies alike, whose greatest joy was to be the terror of all mankind, forgetting that men fear not only the fiercest but also the most cowardly animals, because of their evil and venomous nature.
Lucilius Annaeus Seneca on Benefits
I am well aware that in these days Hero-worship, the thing I call Hero-worship, professes to have gone out, and finally ceased. This, for reasons which it will be worth while some time to inquire into, is an age that as it were denies the existence of great men; denies the desirableness of great men. Show our critics a great man, a Luther for example, they begin to what they call “account” for him; not to worship him, but take the dimensions of him,—and bring him out to be a little kind of man!
He was the “creature of the Time,” they say; the Time called him forth, the Time did everything, he nothing—but what we the little critic could have done too! This seems to me but melancholy work. The Time call forth? Alas, we have known Times call loudly enough for their great man; but not find him when they called! He was not there; Providence had not sent him; the Time, calling its loudest, had to go down to confusion and wreck because he would not come when called.
For if we will think of it, no Time need have gone to ruin, could it have found a man great enough, a man wise and good enough: wisdom to discern truly what the Time wanted, valor to lead it on the right road thither; these are the salvation of any Time. But I liken common languid Times, with their unbelief, distress, perplexity, with their languid doubting characters and embarrassed circumstances, impotently crumbling down into ever worse distress towards final ruin;—all this I liken to dry dead fuel, waiting for the lightning out of Heaven that shall kindle it. The great man, with his free force direct out of God’s own hand, is the lightning. His word is the wise healing word which all can believe in. All blazes round him now, when he has once struck on it, into fire like his own. The dry mouldering sticks are thought to have called him forth. They did want him greatly; but as to calling him forth—!
Those are critics of small vision, I think, who cry: “See, is it not the sticks that made the fire?” No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men. There is no sadder symptom of a generation than such general blindness to the spiritual lightning, with faith only in the heap of barren dead fuel. It is the last consummation of unbelief. In all epochs of the world’s history, we shall find the Great Man to have been the indispensable savior of his epoch;—the lightning, without which the fuel never would have burnt. The History of the World, I said already, was the Biography of Great Men.
On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle (May 1840)
When you are sitting in a theater, intoxicated with esthetic pleasure, then you have the courage to require of the poet that he let the esthetic win out over all wretchedness. It is the only consolation that remains, and, what is even more unmanly, it is the consolation that you take, you to whom life has not provided the occasion to test your strength. You, then, are impoverished and unhappy, just like the hero and the heroine in the play, but you also have pathos, courage, a round mouth from which eloquence gushes, and a vigorous arm. You and your kind conquer, you applaud the actor, and the actor is yourselves and the applause from the pit is for you, for you are indeed the hero and the actor. In dreams, in the nebulous world of esthetics, there you are heroes.
I do not care very much for the theater, and as far as I am concerned you and your kind can mock as much as you like. Just let the histrionic heroes succumb or let them be victorious, sink through the floor or vanish through the ceiling-I am not greatly moved. But if it is true, as you teach and declaim to life, that it takes far fewer adversities to make a person a slave so that he walks with his head hanging down and forgets that he, too, is created in God’s image, then may it be your just punishment. God grant, that all playwrights compose nothing but tearjerking plays, full of all possible anxiety and horror that would not allow your flabbiness to rest on the cushioned theater seats and let you be perfumed with supranatural power but would horrify you until in the world of actuality you learn to believe in that which you want to believe in only in poetry.
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or II 1843 p. 122 Hong
I see each person according to his own beauty. However insignificant he may be, however humble, I see him according to his beauty, for I see him as this individual human being who nevertheless is also the universal human being. I see him as one who has this concrete task for his life; even if he is the lowliest hired waiter, he does not exist for the sake of any other person. He has his teleology within himself, he actualizes his task, he is victorious-that I do see, for the courageous person does not see ghosts but sees heroes instead; the coward does not see heroes, but only ghosts. (…) By this faith, I see the beauty of life, and the beauty I see does not have the sadness and gloominess that are inseparable from the beauty of all nature and art, inseparable even from the eternal youth of the Greek gods. The beauty I see is joyous and triumphant and stronger than the whole world. And this beauty I see everywhere, also there where your eyes see nothing.
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or II 1843 p. 275-276 Hong
Please recall that our hero had no money, that the callous esthete had none to give him, and that you, too, did not have so much to spare that you could secure his future. (…) the reason we so often hear that strident, contemptible talk about money being everything is partly that those who must work lack the ethical vigor to acknowledge the meaning of working, lack the ethical conviction of its meaning. It is not the seducers who do harm to marriage, but cowardly married men. So also here. Contemptible talk such as that does no harm, but the ones who harm the good cause are those who, forced to work for a living, at one moment want to be recognized for the merit that is in it when they compare their lives with the loafers and the next moment complain and sigh and say: But still the most beautiful thing is to be independent.
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or II 1843 p. 281Hong
Would that God would preserve me from the cares about the necessities of life; there is nothing that smothers the higher life in a person as they do. On the occasion of such comments, it has often struck me that there is nothing as deceitful as the human heart, and my own life has also afforded me the occasion to experience the truth of this. We think that we have courage to venture out into the most perilous struggles, but we do not wish to struggle with cares about the necessities of life, and yet at the same time we want it to be greater to win that battle than this one. Now, that is easy enough; we choose an easier struggle, which nevertheless to most people seems much more dangerous. We fancy that this is the truth; we are victorious and so we are heroes, and heroes quite different from what we would be if we were victorious in that other wretched struggle unworthy of a human being. Indeed, when in addition to cares about the necessities of life we also have to fight a hidden enemy such as this within ourselves, it is no wonder that we wish to be free of that struggle.
At least we still ought to be honest enough with ourselves to admit that the reason we shunned this battle was that it is much harder than all other trials; but if that is the case, then the victory is also much more beautiful, insofar as we ourselves are not tested in this struggle, we owe it to every struggler to confess that his struggle is the most dangerous; we owe it to him to give him this recognition. If a person regards cares about the necessities of life in this way, as a struggle for one’s honor in an even stricter sense than any other struggle, then he will already have gone somewhat further.
Here as everywhere the point is to be rightly situated, not to waste time in wishing, but to take hold of one’s task. If it seems to be a lowly and insignificant, petty and discouraging task, then one knows that it only makes the struggle more difficult and the victory more beautiful. There are men on whom a title bestows honor, and there are men who bestows honor on a title. Let a person apply this to himself, he who, although he feels the energy and the urge to venture into glorious battles, must be content with the sorriest of all, struggling with the cares and the necessities of life.
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or II 1843 p. 284-285 Hong
The aesthete says: Without work life finally becomes boring. “One’s work nevertheless ought not to be work in the strict sense but should be able to be continually defined as pleasure. A person discovers some aristocratic talent in himself that distinguishes him from the crowd. He does not develop this recklessly, because then he would soon be bored with it, but with all the esthetic earnestness possible. Life then has a new meaning for him, since he has his work, a work that nevertheless is really his pleasure. In his independence, he shelters it so that it can develop in all its luxuriance, undismayed by life. He does not, however, make this talent into a plank on which one manages to squeeze through life but into wings on which one soars over the world; he does not make it into a drudging hack but into a parade horse.”
But our hero has no such aristocratic talent; his is like most people. The aesthete knows no other way out for him than that “he has to resign himself to falling into the crowd’s hackneyed category of a person who works. Do not lose heart, this too, has its meaning, is decent and respectable; become a handy industrious fellow, a useful member of society. I already look forward to seeing you, for the more varied life is, the more interesting for the observer. That is why I and all esthetes abhor a national costume, for it would be so tiresome to see everyone going around dressed alike. Let every individual take up his occupation in life that way; the more beautiful it will be for me and my kind, who make a profession of observing life.” I hope that our hero will be somewhat impatient over such treatment and be indignant at the insolence of such a classification of people. Furthermore, independence played a role in this esthete’s consideration also, and independent he certainly is not.
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or II 1843 p. 290 Hong
It is your opinion that for someone to be called a hero it is required that he do something out of the ordinary. In that case you have really brilliant prospects. Now suppose that it takes great courage to do the ordinary, and the person who shows great courage is indeed a hero. In order for a person to be called a hero, one must consider not so much what he does as how he does it. Someone can conquer kingdoms and countries without being a hero; someone else can prove himself a hero by controlling his temper. Someone can display courage by doing the out-of-the-ordinary, another by doing the ordinary. The question is always-how does he do it?
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or II p. 298 Hong
You see, our hero is on a good path; he has lost faith in the callous common sense of the esthetes and in their superstitious belief in vague feelings that are supposed to be too delicate to be expressed as duty. He is content with the ethicist’s explanation that it is every person’s duty to marry, he has understood this correctly-namely, that the person who does not marry certainly does not sin, except insofar as he himself is responsible for it, because then he trespasses against the universally human, which is also assigned to him as a task to be fulfilled, but that the person who does marry fulfills the universal.
The ethicist can lead him no further, because the ethical, as stated previously is always abstract; it can only declare to him the universal. Thus, it can in no way tell him whom he should marry.
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or II 1843 p. 301-302 Hong
The heroes of the hour are relatively great: of a faster growth; or they are such, in whom, at the moment of success, a quality is ripe which is then in request. Other days will demand other qualities. Some rays escape the common observer, and want a finely adapted eye. Ask the great man if there be none greater. His companions are; and not the less great, but the more, that society cannot see them. Nature never sends a great man into the planet, without confiding the secret to another soul.
Plato, too, like every great man, consumed his own times. What is a great man, but one of great affinities, who takes up into himself all arts, sciences, all knowables, as his food? He can spare nothing; he can dispose of everything. What is not good for virtue is good for knowledge. Hence his contemporaries tax him with plagiarism. But the inventor only knows how to borrow; and society is glad to forget the innumerable laborers who ministered to this architect, and reserves all its gratitude for him.
Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. Their cousins can tell you nothing about them. They lived in their writings, and so their house and street life was trivial and commonplace.
The Same, the Same! friend and foe are of one stuff; the ploughman, the plough, and the furrow, are of one stuff; and the stuff is such, and so much, that the variations of forms are unimportant. “You are fit” (says the supreme Krishna to a sage) “to apprehend that you are not distinct from me. That which I am, thou art, and that also is this world, with its gods, and heroes, and mankind. Men contemplate distinctions, because they are stupefied with ignorance.”
Representative Men: Seven Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson 1850
Heroism works in contradiction to the voice of mankind and in contradiction, for a time, to the voice of the great and good. Heroism is an obedience to a secret impulse of an individual’s character. Now to no other man can its wisdom appear as it does to him, for every man must be supposed to see a little farther on his own proper path than any one else. Therefore just and wise men take umbrage at his act, until after some little time be past: then they see it to be in unison with their acts. All prudent men see that the action is clean contrary to a sensual prosperity; for every heroic act measures itself by its contempt of some external good. But it finds its own success at last, and then the prudent also extol.
Self-trust is the essence of heroism. It is the state of the soul at war, and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of falsehood and wrong, and the power to bear all that can be inflicted by evil agents. It speaks the truth and it is just, generous, hospitable, temperate, scornful of petty calculations and scornful of being scorned. It persists; it is of an undaunted boldness and of a fortitude not to be wearied out. Its jest is the littleness of common life. That false prudence which dotes on health and wealth is the butt and merriment of heroism.
Essays — First Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson (Heroism)