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).
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.