On heroic living

How to write about heroism without sounding like a pompous ass? I am not a hero, or a teacher of heroes or the bloody Pagan pope. For there can only be one … and it simply is not my style. My voice is not the voice of solemn authority, nor that of the satyr. But I do have voice and some things need saying.

A Pagan ethics must be an ethics of virtue, a striving for excellence. This does not mean we will all excel at living. Excellence is not a democratic concept. If some can be excellent, others must be mediocre. And being a fearful creature myself, suffering from performance anxiety, this is not a particularly pleasant notion. Being very intelligent and highly educated, and thus privileged in many ways, failure must be my own fault. This, above all else, is what holds my generation back from living a good life and I certainly do not wish to add on to this fear and paralysis. So why do I plead for heroic living?

I have been inspired by Drew Jacob, Rogue Priest, who in turn is inspired by heroic myth.  His religion is the heroic life. He seeks out challenge, tries to learns new skills at every opportunity and attempts to create a life-style that encourages heroic acts.

“I stopped thinking of stories about heroes as fantasies that reality can’t match. They’re not. Stories about heroes are based on our highest aspirations. (…)

Heroic myths are not meant to be stories, they’re meant to be instruction manuals.”

This is a heroism that I admire and can strive towards: striving for excellence as an internal need, not a working of a check-list handed to us. My generation should dream bigger dreams and care a bit less of what others may think. We need to think heroic and act heroic. And stories can help us take the first steps.

The concept of the hero is an interesting one, one that highlights the ambivalent relationship, the tension, between individual and the wider community. We can only live the heroic life by shacking of the may be manacles of societal expectations. To be excellent is not to answer to expectations, it is to transcend them. At the same time, heroic life choices may not always be conducive to the larger society. Antigone acted heroically, but needed to break human laws to do so. We admire her exactly for taking that risk, but it is not surprising that her reasons do not satisfy Creon who needs to maintain order and uphold the law (even if it is an imperfect law).

Drew Jacob defines heroism as doing acts of great service to others, but this has not always been its first characteristic. The heroic quest is foremost the quest of the individual, the quest for adventure and personal fame. The ancient heroes – most famously Achilles – defy authority, are rebellious and usually are not viewed as role models. The hero is unique and therefore impossible to imitate. Furthermore  from the perspective of the leaders, societies would not be better of if everyone aspired to be an Achilles. Throughout the Illias Achilles endangers the larger Greek cause, because of his need for personal glory and revenge (and a woman). Of course Agamemnon does not represent the best of Greek society, but he does represent the societal need for order, a practical reality Achilles discards. He recognizes Agamemnon to be a lesser man. Achilles was not a great hero due to his moral compass, nor because he lacks one, but foremost because of his beauty and strength (which were given to him, rather than acquired) and exactly because of his rebellious nature. He wanted to be an excellent warrior and all else had to give way. Heroes can have high moral standards, but these have never been necessary to their status. Heroes do not have to be altruistic, honest or even competent to be recognized as heroes. They must do great things (or appear to do them).

Minerva Restraining Achilles from Killing Agamemnon

Alcibiades is another good example of a hero who was hard to fit in a society. The Athenians relied on him greatly in times of war, but the man was a great danger in times of peace. This golden boy, Socrates pupil, enjoyed flirting with the Spartans, steeling other men’s wives, and he even wanted to abolish democracy. Yet, he was also a great hero to the Athenians and saved them on more than one occasion. Heroism is about the individual quest, but one can only be a hero if others recognize them to be so.

In her masterpiece Heroes Lucy Hughes-Hallett, argues that even though Antigone’s greatness and her choice of death moves us greatly, her sister’s Ismene’s choice for life is the harder of the two. Odysseus too desired to go home above all else. His desire for life was stronger that that of glory. And Achilles admitted to him, down in the Underworld, that death really wasn’t all that great. Perhaps it Odysseus that we should think off when we picture the ideal hero: the adventurer that returns home in the end, he who tries to balance excellence and prudence.

Naturally, Drew Jacob’s take on heroism is a more modern one. Moreover, his focus on Irish religion probably means he thinks more of Cú Chulainn, son of Lugh, or even Lugh himself. Yet if we are to view the heroic myths ass instructionals, we should consider closely which heroes we wish to emulate. For someone like me, who suffers from performance anxiety (and a whole bunch of other anxieties), breaking free like Achilles may be the healthy thing to do. But there is a necessary darker side to heroism, we should not forget. The classical hero always stands alone, breaks the ties that bind him to other individuals be sacrificed in order to achieve greatness, and perhaps sometimes the price will be to high. The heroic legends are not just instruction manuals for heroes, they also show outsider perspectives and how societal and individual virtues may come into conflict.

Hero stories should inspire us. And Drew Jacob gives us some excellent notions on how to do this (adventure, travel) and making it sounds like great fun as well. Living heroically is not the same as fitting in, living up to other people’s (high) expectations. It is living the best live that we possibly can. It is striving for excellence from an inner calling.  This will set us free and do the world a great deal of good.  The ancient stories and legends may serve as instruction manuals – though they do not provide a step-by-step program for us to follow – but they are more than that. They also show the individual greatness is sometimes at odds with other virtues. That is life, viewed tragically.

5 thoughts on “On heroic living

  1. Thanks for spotlighting my work, and for your kind comments. I appreciate it.

    I partly agree and partly disagree with your conclusions about heroes. First off, yes – the heroic life is definitively a journey for the self, a journey to excellence. I think that, often, people begin the quest of radical development or personal freedom with only self-interested goals; but the nature of the journey changes you, and you will end up putting others before yourself. The hero is not a hero at the beginning of the quest.

    I disagree with how you portray Achilles. It’s a common stance for today’s Pagans, and one that I think misses the point of a virtue-based ethics. Excellence is one of the moral virtues; it is just as saintly – to the ancient Greeks – as helping others. By pursuing excellence, Achilles was never at odds with morality; to the audience of the time, he exemplified it.

    I would also add that Achilles had the chance to pass on the whole deal. He was given the choice to live a long, happy life in obscurity, or to live a short life but achieve excellence and fame. He chose his fate.

    To a classical Greek audience, having a long life and a family was basically (pardon the phrase) the American Dream. Giving it up for greatness would be like someone today giving up millions of dollars in order to be kind to others.

    There is undoubtedly something anti-societal about heroes, because by definition they take action when no one else will. They leave the pack. But it’s unfair, I think, to construe the ancient heroes as immoral or at odds with morality – they were exemplars of their culture’s morality, just as admirable then as people like Gandhi are today.

    (That said, there were specific incidents that were horrifying even to an ancient Greek audience, such as the desecration of the corpse; Achilles was not without flaws in that sense.)

    I think the world would be a better place if everyone pursued their own excellence. In fact everyone can be excellent – there is no need for any individual to remain mediocre. To the extent that excellence is achieving one’s own individual potential, it is both a democratic and, ultimately, a pro-social virtue.

    1. The world would be a better place if everyone strove to be excellent. I should have included that in this article. I forgot my main point in the end.

      The only thing I really wish to warn about is to see the the stories too literally as instruction manuals. We should all strive for excellence, but not through copying the ancient stories to literally. And yes, maybe I am doing a disservice to Achilles. He is not a favourite of mine. I prefer Odysseus or Hector. But I do not really mean to say that Achilles was immoral, rather that morality is not what made heroes heroes. Yes, many of them were virtuous, but virtue according the Greeks could also lay in beauty or strength. Achilles was not a hero because he had high moral standards nor because they were low. The question of who is a hero was not defined by morality at all. So I am not arguing that Achilles was an immoral person, rather that heroism, and virtue for that matter, is not necessarily about morality. I understand that heroic ethics may be different from ours, but the hero alone does not represent all of ethics in heroic or classical age. Agamemnon or Odysseus are as much grounded in the heroic age as Achilles is. I prefer to read these stories not just as instruction manuals for heroes, but as a meta-reflection on varying and possibly clashing virtues. Heroism as a life-style does not need to be anti-social, but the tension between the individual and the societal is always present. I am not saying that submission to society should always be preferred, not at all. Actually, that is what getting a lot my generation in trouble right now. I should have made this clearer and I shall make some alterations in the text.

      I think heroic living IS something to strive towards, but there is a tension between the individual and societal. And what I love about hero stories is that they are not just instruction manuals for heroes, but show us these existential truths about life. It is not a tension that can be resolved easily and perhaps not at all. Just like the tragedies they teach us truths about the world in which these heroes operate as well.

      1. The only thing I really wish to warn about is to see the the stories too literally as instruction manuals. We should all strive for excellence, but not through copying the ancient stories to literally.

        I am definitely against interpreting them literally. I think a striking, if overused quote is fitting here:

        ““Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” (Matsuo Bashoo)

        I seek what Achilles sought.

        I understand that heroic ethics may be different from ours, but the hero alone does not represent all of ethics in heroic or classical age… I prefer to read these stories… as a meta-reflection on varying and possibly clashing virtues.

        Like Plato and Socrates, I see the virtues as essentially unified; yes, Achilles was more an exemplar of, say, Excellence than an exemplar of Honor or Truth; but he would be no exemplar at all if he lacked those other qualities.

        No one can fulfill one virtue while violating the others: that is like being a “good husband” by hiding your extramarital affairs.

        I think heroic living IS something to strive towards, but there is a tension between the individual and societal.

        That may be because the societal is often wrong.

      2. I agree with the latter, but disagree that virtues cannot oppose each other. Perhaps the Platonic Ideas cannot – if you accept that notion -, but we live in the world. If we harm others, because we not accept the realities of imperfect society …

        We must seek to unify virtues in ourselves, but in the world the duty to a friend and duty to truth may appear to oppose each other at the moment we have to make a choice of action.

        This position is not a Platonic one, it is Tragic one. And I am more an admirer of Aristotle anyway … and of Nüssbaum, are you familiar with her Fragility of Goodness?

        Here I write more from a (socio-)historical perspective – how heroism has been viewed throughout the ages – rather than a philosophical one though.

      3. Right, Plato’s “Ideas” or “Forms” can go eff themselves; I’m talking strictly about his ethics here.

        Part of virtue is learning how to live all the virtues, even when they seem to conflict. If you lie to a friend out of a sense of care for them, for example, you’re actually not being a loyal friend at all. If you are very honest about how you refuse to pursue excellence, there are some much deeper truths about yourself you’re ignoring.

        In the Irish tradition the ethics also are united – in the concept of Firinne or cosmic truth. All the virtues are faces of that, ways to express it through individual action. There is a similar concept in Vedic philosophy, though I’m sure there are dissenting schools (there are dissenting schools for just about every traditional position in that religion).

        I used Plato as an example because he directly writes about the issue and refutes examples of contradictory virtue; but my sense is this was a widespread view in Classical religion.

        Of course, you’re free to disagree with our forebears 🙂

        All that is theory though. What really matters in virtue is action; virtue is lived and expressed through choice and action. I think that, theoretical ethics aside, we recognize when someone acts with virtue. All I can do is strive to act in accord with all the virtues in everything I do. That is part of why I find adventure such a powerful practice: I am beholden first to my ideals, and only secondly to anything or anyone else.

        If I ever reach a place where I must choose one virtue over the other, I will assume I’m deceived – but if I must labor on in that deception, I know which virtue I’ll choose.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s