Heroism For a More Civilized Age

The world is full of people who really, sincerely want to be heroes.  This is important.


It’s hard for me to explain exactly what I mean by “hero” here.  Heroism is a big messy memeplex, with lots of constituent parts, some of which directly contradict each other.  Doesn’t matter.  I’m trying to gesture at the whole goddamn thing.  We know it when we see it.

There are a lot of people who want to cultivate their virtues, and attain individual excellence.  Who want to save the day.  Who want to struggle against great obstacles, and contend with worthy opponents.  Who want to live out exciting, dramatic stories that seem worth the telling.  Who want to feel that they are worthy of being compared with the fictions that they most idolize.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a good and gladdening thing.  Heroism is admirable.  The world is a better place, in a terminal-values-being-fulfilled kind of way, when people cultivate their virtues and become excellent.  The world is more beautiful when people seek to live out beautiful narratives.  It’s even true that, by dint of their heroism, heroes occasionally manage to do some concrete good for people other than themselves.


Yet the dream usually goes unfulfilled.  It is hard, in this world that we have built, to live as a hero.

In many ways, of course, it has to be hard.  If you want to be excellent, there’s really no way around the fact that this means being meaningfully better than other people in some way, which requires both talent and back-breaking work.  If you want to take on great obstacles and worthy opponents, well, a lot of the time they’re going to beat the crap out of you.  If you want to live out a gripping story, you’re going to experience the sorrows and the terrors inherent in that.  These things can’t be faked, not without reducing them to meaninglessness.

But we make it a lot harder than it has to be.  We maintain social norms that equate the aspiration-to-heroism with pretension; we mock anyone who tries to construct his life as being narratively special.  We focus obsessively on the very highest levels of fame and accomplishment in every field, such that everything outside that little elite circle feels unreal and unworthy.  We tear down each other’s heroic ideals, waging culture-war on those who are seeking to build themselves up according to models that are different from our own.

Most importantly of all: we espouse cultural models in which heroism requires crisis.  As a rule, outside the context of certain super-high-level competitions, we are willing to place the hero’s crown only upon the brow of someone who has conquered a genuine external threat.  It doesn’t count unless the world forces you into your heroism, right?  Otherwise it’s just vainglory and self-aggrandizement.  Pretty much every hero in our cultural canon takes up his station out of necessity, in reaction to some grave threat.

This is a very bad thing.

It causes loads and loads of narcissistic injury.  People want to be heroes, but the circumstances don’t seem to allow for it — they see nothing heroic for themselves to do, no way to properly employ any virtues that they might cultivate — so they give up on their desired self-images in despair, and become depressed or cynical or small-souled.  (They also give up on cultivating their virtues, so in addition to everything else they make the world worse by failing to achieve their potential.)

Worse yet, it drives people to perpetuate crises where they don’t need to exist.  The nationalist conservative demands that the foreign enemy be an existentialist threat; how else could we demonstrate our heroism in war?  The social-justice liberal demands that identitarian oppression be an pervasive, all-encompassing menace; how else could be demonstrate our heroism in discourse?  The fundamentalist Christian wants the poor to be with us always, so that we can be heroically charitable.  The bomb-throwing anarchist wants the state not to implement useful policies, so that we can be heroically revolutionary.  (Batman ensures that the villainously insane will always escape from Arkham Asylum, so that he can be heroically superheroic.)  Even the ordinary workingman stands opposed to basic income, or anything similar, because he fears to lose the small shreds of heroism that he can wring from the struggle to provide for his family.  Those who are desperate to be heroes develop a symbiotic relationship with their favorite crises, and thus the crises come to serve a valuable psychological function, which makes them vastly harder to solve.


It doesn’t have to be that way.  Heroism doesn’t have to grow out of crisis, it doesn’t have to be a reluctant reaction to some Tremendous External Danger, not if we choose to recognize it in other contexts.  Nor does it have to require the kind of achievement that remakes the whole world.  All it requires is virtue, and personal excellence, and struggle, and a willingness to recognize glory in those things.  If someone is in fact possessed of great ability and great quality of character, if he has done interestingly difficult things and made interestingly difficult choices, then I for one see no incongruity in treating him like any hero of legend.  Even if the world has not conspired to push him onto center stage.

There is no reason that a group of people who are willing to cultivate themselves, and to contend with one another, cannot attain a true and meaningful heroism through their own voluntarily-undertaken interactions.

Or, put another way: if you’re willing to work hard at it, you can LARP your way into being a hero, and still have it be real.


I am considering writing a book.

(An extended heroic narrative of some sort, anyway.  At the moment, I’m actually feeling pretty tempted to try and do it as an epic poem, although it sounds hellishly difficult. I’ve never worked in that particular medium before; it might be a fun challenge.  And many of our most fundamental ideas about heroism come from Homer and Virgil, so if I’m explicitly trying to explore what it means to be a hero, perhaps it would be fitting to try and follow in their footsteps.)

(In any case, poetry or prose, it seems likely to be self-consciously stylized and old-fashioned.  If prose, I may try to model it on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or maybe on something like a Viking saga.)

If it ever comes to exist, it will be the story of an age of heroes.  It will depict men and women performing great deeds, striving with one another in contests and duels, building and losing and winning empires.  They will speak passionately of the many different ideals that they espouse, of their conflicting theories of the world.  They will be joined by great loves and riven by great hatreds.  They will undertake great betrayals, and cleave to one another in acts of surpassing loyalty.  Their stories — if I can do them justice — will be as grand, as big and bright and glorious, as the stories of Arthur or Achilles or Alexander.

It will take place in some modern, or plausibly-modern-like, setting.

And all the action will arise from the characters’ voluntary participation in a culture of heroism.  There will be no Saving the World, no Lives of the Innocent at play, no fearsome outside danger to raise the stakes.  No metaphysical conspiracy to explain why these particular individuals, and their doings, get to matter.  Only extraordinary people, and people seeking to become extraordinary, who have decided to live their lives in a big and bright and glorious sort of way.  These heroes will struggle with one another because they choose to struggle; the stakes of their striving will be only those stakes that they themselves put up.  If the portrayal is good, if the poetry has enough power in it, that should be enough.


Culture-engineering, on any kind of broader scale, is incredibly hard.  Comparatively speaking, art is very easy.

If all you want to do is provide an example, to open up a different paradigm of identity, then art might be enough.

As my dream projects go, this one is very…attainable.

I welcome thoughts and insights here.  I am flailing in the dark.  If you think you have some idea for how such a project might be made to work better, to ring truer — if you think you see some thing that ought to exist within this Saga of the Self-Chosen Heroes, some phenomenon it ought to describe, some mode of presentation that it should embody — and if you think it better to pass that thought on to me, rather than keeping it close for your own purposes — then I should be grateful, and honored, to hear about it.

We build upon the world that we see before us, and it is always better when our field of vision expands.

Heroism For a More Civilized Age

4 thoughts on “Heroism For a More Civilized Age

  1. I wonder if it would be helpful to consider the differences between “heroism” and “nobility”?

    What you describe sounds more like nobility than heroism—although of course they can go together.

    I wrote a bit about nobility once:

    Nobility is the aspiration to manifest glory for the benefit of others. Nobility is using whatever abilities we have in service of others. Nobility is seeking to fulfill our in-born human potential, and to develop all our in-born human qualities.

    Because nobility is an intention, it is possible for everyone. Specialness tries to be better than ordinariness. It would only be possible to be special if most people were ordinary. Claims of specialness are based on uncommon qualities. It would not be possible for everyone to be special.

    Everyone could be noble—and at times all of us are noble. It is not an accomplishment; it is a stance. But nobility is not easy. It is not easy to hold the intention continuously. It is not easy to abandon our laziness. It is not easy to let go of hope that one day we will discover our “true life-mission,” given by the cosmic plan. To be noble is not special—but it is extraordinary.

    The idea of being “noble” may sound remote or ridiculous. However, it is actually possible—whereas it is not possible to be either ordinary or special. Nobility is actually available to all of us in every moment, simply by choosing it. It is frightening; but to me it seems infinitely worthwhile.


  2. Belatedly, two things:

    I find your various thoughts on identity personally interesting. I spent years basically trying to figure out the nature of what I considered the fixed, hard-wired thing that was my identity, and now find the idea of a constructed and aspirational identity both fascinating and disturbing–disturbing partly because, for reasons you cite (rescue fantasies are usually condescending BS, e.g.), I am deeply suspicious of viewing real life as narrative. Also, the types of pleasure I find most easily in narrative are possibly uncommonly evil and stupid.

    Second, I think your verse-novel plan is cool but hard to pull off. (This is my strong reaction to my own project as well and is not meant as discouragement.) My gut says that it will be best if combined with some more specific ideas that independently mean a lot to you, rather than being something constructed from the ground up to meet your specifications. However, I don’t know that much about your writing process (or, honestly, mine, yet, when it comes to projects as ambitious as these). My gut says also (probably obviously) that it will be very hard to avoid bathos or a sense of mock-epic–which is perhaps a symptom of the cultural resistance to heroic aspirations you describe but also an issue you’ll have to contend with if you seek to create a broadly resonant model of heroism in a modern age. (Also, maybe, a tendency you can exploit at some moments? Having a model of heroism that can sustain humor seems important)

    One more definite idea also–that might be nonsense–is incorporating fantasy settings or events as a different layer of narrative, serving as metaphors for or translations of what is actually happening (from one angle, that’s almost what I’m doing with my verse project).

    Also, third–holy %#€* I just LARPed and, though it was scary and I didn’t know what I was doing, it was a worthwhile experience, and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity. I am told it gets easier.


  3. I hope this makes sense:

    Bolaño’s “By Night in Chile” is a (kind of) death-bed rant from a disgraced priest. He was a member of Opus Dei, important to the Pinochet regime, and now in post-Pinochet Chile must justify himself to… He is not a bad man – sometimes he even performs small acts of rebellion on the side. He is Arendtian evil, more or less, but in way that clearly aims at artists. The classic banality-of-evildoer is middle-management, a petty bureaucrat, the white picket fence bourgeoisie that people who read Arendt suspect and despise anyway; hence, there’s no danger to an intellectual reading her. The priest (Father Urrutia) is the opposite: all he does he does to preserve art, to maintain and cherish the intellectual and spiritual realms of the artist. Because Bolaño was not an idiot, this doesn’t mean classic ( or neo-classical) art; it includes abstract, post-modern, “dangerous leftwing” art. In a sense Urrutia is Heidegger. Involved for vague metaphysical reasons that no one else recognizes, occasionally “good” in some unclear way (Heidegger himself shielded Jewish students and colleagues, even while denouncing others for political reasons – how one reads that is a different question), but committed just enough (or, worse, cowardly enough) to let atrocity surround him.

    If you’ve read the book, I apologize for repeating the plot. I bring it up just to get at one particular passage which seems relevant, but without the ambiance of the novel loses much of its power. It comes right after another character mentions meeting Ernst Junger.

    Someone (unfortunately, I don’t recall who) tells a story about a shoemaker in Vienna under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He made famously wonderful shoes, to the point that he has audience with the emperor. He asks the emperor to help him with a project: he wants to make a “Hill of Heroes”. It will be a kind of sculpture garden of all the heroes of the empire (and, well, before and throughout time). He’s selected the spot, and he simply needs the capital. The emperor gladly agrees. The shoemaker-turned-hero-maker leaves Vienna and spends all his time building the hill. He bankrupts himself. During construction WWI happens, and thus there’s no emperor left to finance the project. He continues anyway, desperately, and then WWII happens. The Russians take the town and find him, in a coffin, atop a hill full of rusting, barely-recognizable forms of the great heroes of history. The hill is destroyed; his famous shoes outlast the hill.

    A common reading is “Bolaño is criticizing the way empires squander artistic talent.” I think this is wrong. Most of Bolaño’s work really centers around the figure of the hero, and the quest to find and/or create one: Savage Detectives has it, as does 2666. One of the things that makes him unique among contemporary writers is his, well, stubborn refusal to mock heroism, or to live in a world without it. (To live in a world where the shoes outlast the hill.) But, in stark contrast to the existentialists, he doesn’t think it comes from inside. That is to say, none of his characters are trying to “find” or “make” the heroes inside of themselves. It’s always a quest for a hero in the external world; after all, that’s where you have to live.

    It is interesting to note, though, that this makes most of his protagonists… well, heroic, in some extremely strange sense. The shoemaker absolutely is a hero (note his burial ground), and it’s an insult to read him as “wasted by the government.” Father Urrutia fails to recognize this – and fails at everything else – because he’s searching for a personal narrative, a kind of self-satisfaction. He’s turned inwards, as an existentialist would, rather than outwards, where the realms of heroes are. It’s notable that Bolaño himself tends to weave real characters into his books: he will not let his heroes be forgotten, even though they will be.

    One last interest, which few people remark on: in the Iliad, only one Greek plays the lyre and sings. This is, after all, the work for slaves and servants; it’s strange that any noble should have learned to do so. That hero is Achilles, and Homer explicitly describes him as singing the songs of earlier, now-dead, heroes.

    This got out of my hands, and it’s somewhat scattershot. I think the point to take from all this is: in a sense, the mark of heroes now may not be choosing to be one so much as choosing to believe that they exist. Perhaps, stronger: everyone wants to be great. The epic hero has *always* been the person who chooses to hallow the great, rather than simply to be great. Also, Bolaño is likely the one modern writer with similar interests. Possibly Mishima (although I’m unsure; the Sea of Fertility series comes to mind), but in a radically different way.


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