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The Idea of a Hero: A Critique

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What Makes Them a Hero?

Superman, Iron Man, The Flash, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, all of these figures have been lauded as the ideal of a true hero for the better part of a century, but have we ever really stopped to think about what antiquates, depicts or defines a hero. There are certain qualities of a hero which transgress time: a hero has skills or talents greater than the normal person, overcomes the odds, and has qualities which raise the hopes of the common man. However, a hero also reflect societal norms, culture and technology. A hero in Greek times did not have, for example, the same superpowers of Superman because of the lack of technology. Superman had to fly because Twentieth Century man had airplanes. Other heroes are willing to be self-sacrificing because of the Western, Judeo-Christian concept of martyrdom. The nature of the abilities and functions of a hero, therefore, change as to nature and extent but do not change as to the underlying concepts. The concept of a hero reflects the norms for any society and the sociological make-up of a culture. The idea of what a hero is changes from person to person, culture to society, and even year to year. The idea of a hero changes over time. Each of us have our own opinions on what truly makes a hero. People that make that list could be named for one of a hundred or even a thousand different reasons, but what makes them heroes in the eyes of the people. In Greek times the idea of a hero meant something entirely different than it does now because of the differences in what we value. This is why we have so many different kinds of heroes: activists, war heroes, and civil servants among them.

When we spoke about heroism in class at the very beginning of the semester lots of different ideas were thrown around about what a hero was in our time. Things that were said seemed to reflect what we value most, as a society. They must be helpful, and be willing to sacrifice for the betterment of others. They must be brave and fight for freedom, give people hope, and save them when they are in trouble. If they have power they use it for “good”. These ideas are general and can be lead to go in one of a thousand different ways to give us the people that we each have as our own personal heroes and idols.

Heroes are symbols more than actual real people. Like the Greeks did with Achilles, Jason, Perseus, or Odysseus, we tote them around to show the world “Hey this is what we admire!” We often do it with little realization in the matter, we pick them based on the collective ideals of our society and upbringing. We recognize people for being good at what ever it is they do and elevate them to a higher status than us for it. But once someone is lifted to that higher status they become a kind of focal point for lots of society making them the objects of constant gossip, and in so doing making them become a kind of mythical figure.

Heroes have qualities that go above and beyond what the normal man can do. In Ancient Greece this was necessary because their heroes were “demi-gods” and would earn their glory and honor or “kleos” in battle or by performing challenging feats and going on quests. Achilles was “god-like”, in his abilities to fight. He was the best warrior of the Achaeans, half-god half-mortal, yet invincible (other than his Achilles heel). Achilles is the epitome of the traditional Greek mythical hero. The word hero itself coming from a word meaning“demi-god” in Greek. (Dictionary.com, The Definition of a Hero) So in a way heroes are always mythical figures. The modern and classical examples of heroism share mythology as a backing factor for any true hero. Both heroes need to be able to transcend the mediocre, and to reach things that we “mere mortals” can really only dream about in our beds at night. Greek heroes still influence our heroes today, such as Achilles does to Superman. (Classical Hero’s vs Contemporary Hero’s) But our heroes have adapted to our culture over time as we changed and the world around us changed. When technology changed the world, so did our ideas of heroics. If a man can fly way up in the sky in a piece of metal, then a hero would then need to be able to transverse the globe by flying around to save people. If a man can kill someone with a gun that averages a speed of 2,500 ft per second, then heroes would need to be able to go even faster.(Savage and Hyneman, Mythbusters Museum) Technology changed, and still is changing, what it means to be human, and therefore what it means to be a hero.

Every hero has something they need to overcome before they really become heroic, for the Greek classical hero it was always the hero’s greatest weakness, which often varied from hero to hero. Sometimes it was pride, or maybe even their own mortality as a half human. Part of overcoming the odds is overcoming these weaknesses, for Achilles this is his own mortality, for Superman it is Kryptonite, the only thing that can actually make him human. Both of these heroes saut to eradicate these weaknesses to no avail. Achilles’ mother dipping him in the Styx in an attempt to make him invincible, and Superman trying to locate and destroy all of the world’s kryptonite so it couldn’t be used against him, both of them failing, teaching us no one can be without humanity and some sort of weakness, even the greatest of heroes. Achilles dies due to a poison arrow to the heel and Superman dies because of kryptonite wielded by Lex Luthor. (Classical Hero’s vs Contemporary Hero’s) Today’s heroes still have something they must overcome, this is where the popular culture of underdogs comes from. We want to see those we would never expect to be heroes overcome the odds and win, it doesn’t matter to us that much what it is the underdog is overcoming in our culture we have this innate need to cheer on those who are less privileged. This is a newer idea to our culture as the Greeks picked privileged heroes. Their heroes were more often than not half-god, or at least favored by the gods. Greek heroes were also often of noble lineage whether the hero knew it or not (such as Oedipus). Weaknesses and this heroic idea of the underdog changed because of America, and its beloved dream, that if you work hard enough no matter where you come from or who your parents are you can be successful. We root for those underdogs, the ones with less because if they can succeed then it gives us hope for ourselves.

In Ancient Greece heroes were capable of something the average man was not, this is why the demi-god came to be, much like our modern day superhero. But they also wanted their heroes to achieve very human ideas that everyone in their society praised and striving to attain, this is why they were half-mortal as well as half-god. Glory and honor were some of the highest regarded and coveted traits for any Greek man. (Homer and Lombardo, 1-240) This is why glory and honor are ideas central to any Greek character, specifically Achilles, Hector, and Heracles. A hero is someone who shows us the qualities we aspire to have, but sadly are often missing. They show us the qualities that are needed for a certain kind of success. A hero rises out of situations caused by bad luck, or sometimes stupidity, to do outstanding things. It is determined by individual choices and behavior, and not by chance alone. Achilles fights for revenge for his family, glorifying Patroclus’s memory in battle, slaying those around him with vicious cruelty, and showing no mercy and exemplifying the traits that the Greeks admired.

A hero is seen as someone willing to sacrifice something, maybe even their life to save another. They are selfless and put the greater good above their own life, this is where our culture of a semi Judeo-Christian society and modern concept of heroism and compassion as a heroic trait come into play were they didn’t play as big of a role in traditional Greek Myth. Heroes have a sense of compassion, this is one of the qualities that most people think of when asked about heroes. They put others first, this is why we praise our civil servants, and our soldiers, because they put us first and put themselves therefore in the “line of fire”. By putting someone else’s needs before your own with a conscious effort. This trait is sometimes shown in Classical heroics but is not a very popular one, it pops up in some stories, like that of Perseus and his rescue of the beautiful Andromeda, or in Dionysus finding a broken-hearted Areadne alone and crying and making her his immortal wife in Olympus. These ideas and traits of compassion lead a person to become something more in the eyes of people today by stepping up, putting the needs of others before their own, and that makes us admire them. They are selflessly doing something for the greater “good” possibility at great cost to them or their own life.

Courage is something no hero could ever live without. The courage to do something that possibly no one else has ever done. The courage to fight back against the system. The courage to do something greater. Courage was and is important for any hero, as it is the thing that forces them to face that which they are afraid of. A hero cannot be a hero without the courage to do something that scares them, they have to show bravery. All acts of heroism require some form or another of bravery. The courage exemplified by a soldier was the common idea of Greek courage and bravery. The same values that Homer espoused to which were central to the Greek way of life. A man was not a man without courage in the Greek world. We saw this in the Iliad in the way Agamemnon was treated, as bravery could only be shown during war and glory and honor won only when in battle. To the Greeks a soldier like Achilles a soldier bound to duty, was the perfect example of battlefield bravery and courage. A warrior fighting as part of the bigger picture that was the Trojan War. He won himself Glory, and he acted courageously. Not everything every hero does that is brave is heroic, but we elevate them in status because they exemplify all that we wish we could. Like Achilles and Odysseus did for the Greeks, so our heroes do for us today.

Any hero, Greek or modern, has wisdom, whether they were born with it in them, or it came from a flood of past mistakes and failures. They know what it is to do the right thing. They learn from the wisdom of those around them just as any of us do. Learning from other’s successes and failures as well as your own is often necessary to remain strong whenever the world decides to throw you for a loop. Even Plato considered wisdom to be a virtue of reason, as it gives you the knowledge to listen to what others have to say, and then act as you see fit. Wisdom gives people the capability to make sensible decisions based upon their own understanding. Wisdom is what made heroes know and understand the differences between right and wrong, one of the many reasons that we look to them when the world is failing is because they know and understand these differences. They guide us in the right direction when all seems darkest. Every society has troubles war, famine, disease, or drought. Heroes are constant reminders that good people do exist in the world, that despite all of the suffering all around us we always will have someone that we can count on to do the right thing.

Heroes come around when they are needed, they save us when we are in trouble, they give hope when all seems lost. They gives us the hope for a better tomorrow. Picking up the mantle of those fallen, charging forward to make the world a better place. Fighting now so they don’t have to fight again, and other battles can be won in the future to keep bettering the world. They keep going and moving forward to keep safe the lives of those most precious to them, and save and protect those who most need it. Like the image of the shield of Achilles, heroes fight and continue on to be a safeguard for hope, for vision of a brighter tomorrow. Heroes give us hope for our own lives when things seem darkest. Achilles goes to battle when the Trojans were decimating the Greek forces. He gives the Greek warriors back their hope, gives them a reason to fight, and to win the war. Now in times our world’s times of greatest challenge we look to our heroes, whoever they may be and they give us hope. Much like the demi-gods gave the Greeks. Hope is a powerful thing, men lay down their lives in the pursuit of a better tomorrow. Glory in war and honor in death fall into the hands of hope. Our modern heroes inspire us and give us hope to get back up and try again, even when we are at our worst.

Heroes have certain qualities which transcend time. The modern and classical examples of heroism share mythology as a backing influence. Heroes need to be able to go above and beyond the normal and achieve things that the average person only dreams about. Heroes rise out of situations of bad luck, or disaster to do outstanding things. They are human, but achieve greater than human ideas and feats, showing us things we try to emulate, but qualities we are often missing. Heroes must beat the odds, and overcome whatever it is holding them back. Whether it is attempting to conquer their own greatest weaknesses, or to push back against outside forces that are trying to tell them they can’t do it. There are so many things that can make people heroes, for one of any of a million reasons. In classical Greek times they valued the courage to face your fears in battle, for glory, and honor. Today’s heroes ought to be brave and courageous, selfless in nature willing to sacrifice for others when they are in trouble. They need to have courage to face that which scares them, the wisdom to know what is right, and preserve the optimism of people, these traits they raise the hopes of the common man. The idea of what a hero is changes from person to person, in different societies reflecting their values as well as their culture. Heroics adapt as culture does giving our heroes new traits and abilities, such as the ability to stop a speeding bullet or shoot heat rays from your eyes, that only make their underlying heroic personality traits shine through more, and power only amplifies that which is already there. A hero is a construct of the things our society values. But a hero is so much more then a list of traits that you can compile on a list they give hope for the future, they solve problems, save us when we are in trouble, and inspire us with their wisdom to do great and amazing things that we often never would have believed we could.

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