what is a hero?

As I was struggling on the bike at the gym on Friday, I saw on television the story of the British plane that lost power and crashed. The pilot was being heralded as a hero (“The British pilot who made an emergency crash landing into London’s Heathrow airport is now being hailed as a hero,” ABC News) because he managed to crash-land the plane without seriously injuring any passengers. I turned to my gym-mate and asked, why is he a hero? why wasn’t this a case of him doing his job?

By asking these questions, I wasn’t meaning to demean his bravery or competence, or to state that any pilot could have done what he did. What I mean to ask, though, is what constitutes a hero (a very subject I think we had to take up in a high school English class, if I remember right)?

I’m reading Giovanna Borradori’s Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, and I’m struck by this exchange:

BORRADORI: One last question: What are your ideas on heroism?

HABERMAS: The courage, discipline, and selflessness demonstrated by the New York firemen who on September 11 spontaneously put their lives on the line to save others is admirable. But why do they need to be called “heroes”? Perhaps this word has different connotations in American English than it does in German. It seems to me that whenever “heroes” are honored the question arises as to who needs them and why. Even in this looser sense of the term on can understand Bertolt Brecht’s warning: “Pity the land that needs heroes.” (43)

Habermas seems to ask the right questions here, I think. Who needs these heroes and why? Perhaps this is the question that could inform us in the question of “what is a hero?”

I also found the use of “land” instead of “people” or “country” by Brecht (whose work I am unfamiliar with) as particularly interesting at this point. On Friday in the Post 9/11 theory course, we were discussing what constituted patriotism (as opposed to other, stronger loyalties that Zizek seems to privilege), and someone brought up the roots of patriotism: devotion to a land, rather than a state.

Is Brecht right that a land that needs heroes is something to pity?

This entry was posted in English 575 Post 9/11 Theory (Winter 2008), Ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to what is a hero?

  1. Dennis says:

    I think Brecht was right – needing a hero implies that the inhabitants of the aforementioned land are not able or willing to solve their problem without either a) outside help or b) a heroic individual.

    Go collective action!

  2. Matt Langdon says:

    I think Brecht speaks to the cynics in the world. Heroes help us deal with the challenges we face by providing examples. They educate us on character. Heroes spend their lives helping others.

  3. Michael says:

    Thanks, Dennis, and Matt for contributing. Matt’s comment that “Heroes spend their lives helping others” strikes me as a good starting point to explore this further. So, it seems that if a Hero (purposefully capitalized) spends their lives helping others, then what we often call a hero (the pilot I mentioned, the firefighters in the World Trade Center) are in fact not necessarily Heroes, because we only know about one deed, not the whole span of their lives. A heroic deed is laudable, but it does not make one a Hero.

    I wonder if Brecht in fact does “speak to the cynics in the world.” Perhaps his words do ring true to the cynical (or perhaps nihilist?). However, I wonder if his words don’t also ring true to the hopeful: those who believe in the power of people to make change and to be agents in the world, instead of passive admirers of heroic deeds (or now of celebrities).

    Or, we could view it this way: What is the rhetorical situation that arises where we turn to calling someone a hero? If we take some theorists’ approach to this, what is the cultural or personal privation(s) that lead to the “necessity” of a hero?

    Does having heroes lead to better characters by example? I’m not sure if I agree with this. Having role models probably can, but heroes? I am not certain.

  4. Dennis says:

    Let’s run with Matt’s definition of hero for a second:

    “Heroes help us deal with the challenges we face by providing examples. They educate us on character. Heroes spend their lives helping others.”

    I think this definition gets at why I don’t like the concept of ‘hero’ in the first place. I would apply Matt’s definition to most of my friends (and some folks I don’t get along with at all) at various points in my life. I think we learn from people around us in a similar way that we might learn from celebrities or “extraordinary” people, and I know *I* make a point of listening and learning to many of those immediately around me. If all of these people are ‘heroes,’ then what part of the definition remains useful?

    I also don’t think it’s a rhetorical good move to imply that people who help others are somehow extraordinary.

    Finally, I’m just going to reiterate that I think the concept of hero is disempowering to the majority.

  5. Sara Jameson says:

    What I like about all of this is that right now my students in WR 222 are being asked to define a term, and most find the notion a bit odd. I mean, we have dictionaries, right, so why puzzle over the meaning of a term? But the conversation here is exactly why dictionaries don’t satisfy – it isn’t just ambiguity but the real deep beliefs about life and action that are in question here. Thanks.

  6. Michael says:

    Thanks, Dennis and Sara. I agree that definitions are not as clear-cut as the dictionary. In fact, I find myself in actually conversation taking a moment to say, “well, how do you define that term?” or explaining how I define a term.

    My brother got really upset at me for doing so last time I was in Iowa because we were talking about Affirmative Action and he kept saying “reverse racism” and I asked him to define it and then talked about how I thought the “reverse” of racism couldn’t be discrimination, but rather the restoration of dignity of those who have been oppressed. He was very upset that rather than “discuss,” I was forcing us through various tangents (definitions), though I found them crucial to our mutual understanding.

  7. James says:

    The concept of the hero as disempowering to the majority is insane! The idea of the hero is that of the larger than life; the idea is that of the person of “good” moral character (possessing virtue, in the sense of the Greeks) who takes the high road and show the rest of us where that road is so that we may follow. The Hero (purposefully capitalized) is the guide for the masses. The idea here is that if you can emulate the Hero, you can become the Hero to the next generation.

  8. Michael says:

    I don’t think I agree with you, James, largely because of the hyperbolic description of a hero. “larger than life” makes a Hero like a God (which may be your implicit point: that we need a god). I am also not sure if the masses need a Hero (or a God, for that matter). Leaders and facilitators, perhaps, but a hero? Someone who “transcends” life, is not limited by life. It seems to me that what you’re actually claiming is that humanity needs myths, which may or may not be true, rather than specifically real human heroes.

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