Union Square Publishing, Inc., 2020
180 pp. $14.95 (Paperback)
In his latest book, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters, Andrew Bernstein identifies the key traits of heroes, discusses their importance to human life, and examines prevalent ideas that are antithetical to heroism.
Zeroing in on the nature of heroism, Bernstein points out that people take a variety of approaches to life. Some are honest and productive, forging their own paths through life. Others are dishonest and parasitic, preying on the producers. Still others are purposeless, wandering through life without direction or meaning. But, he says, a few are larger than life; they achieve momentous, life-serving values—they are heroes.
According to Bernstein, a hero is, “A morally upright individual who, with ability and dauntlessness equal to the task, confronts the obstacles and/or dangers arising in pursuit of significant life-advancing goals, and who triumphs in at least the moral sense” (55).
This conception of a hero differs from popular notions, especially the idea that heroism requires self-sacrifice. For example, Bernstein considers “a soldier, in combat, throwing himself—to save his comrades—on a live grenade” (73). Whether this soldier is a hero is dependent on his context. If what he is fighting for is life-serving (e.g., political freedom) and of such high value that he would rather die fighting than live in a world without it (“Give me liberty or give me death!”), he is not sacrificing. Indeed, he is acting completely in accordance with his “personal value hierarchy,” an idea that Bernstein borrows from the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand. As Rand made clear, sacrificing consists of relinquishing higher values for the sake of lesser values or non-values. On this point, Bernstein concludes that “it is not necessarily a sacrifice to surrender one’s life. It is always a sacrifice to surrender the values that make one’s life meaningful” (99).
Heroes are important because they pursue—and often achieve—material and spiritual values that further human life. Bernstein’s examples include Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur, and Thomas Jefferson. And, Bernstein observes, one of the most profound spiritual values that heroes provide is their example. People gain immense value from recognizing and admiring their heroism. This recognition and admiration Bernstein refers to as hero worship. Although the word “worship” is widely regarded as having religious connotations, Bernstein uses it in a secular sense, quoting Rand’s explanation that “concepts [such] as ‘sacred,’ ‘reverence,’ ‘worship’—do name actual emotions, even though no supernatural dimension exists; and these emotions are experienced as uplifting and ennobling. . . . What, then, is their source or referent in reality? It is an entire emotional realm of man’s dedication to a moral ideal” (125).
Linking this back to heroism, Bernstein explains, “Heroes, by placing their prowess in service of life-sustaining values, and by unflinchingly facing substantial obstacles and/or dangers in so doing, pre-eminently exemplify ‘man’s dedication to a moral ideal.’” To contemplate heroism, “to revere it, fills one’s spiritual life with visions of the upright and the great, with an admiring love of the truly sacred” (126).
The book showcases many examples of “human beings at their noblest and life-giving best.” These include Maria Montessori, who struggled under Mussolini’s fascist regime, which was hostile to her educational method of developing her students’ ability to think independently; Ernest Shackleton, who, in his attempt to traverse the Antarctic landmass, fought the elements and, against all odds, saved every member of his crew after their ship sank in the middle of nowhere; and George Washington Carver, who overcame racism and poor health to get an education and make groundbreaking advances in agriculture.
Closely related to hero worship is hero emulation, which involves putting into practice the inspiration gained from a hero’s story and achievements. “A hero worshipper, when confronted by a daunting challenge, can ask himself/herself: What would Shackleton (or another champion) do in this instance? Presumably, a hero’s undeterred determination motivates such a hero worshipper to take amelioratory steps in his/her own life” (127–28).
Bernstein also discusses the pervasive antiheroism in modern art. As he points out, Wikipedia defines an antihero as “a leading character in a film, book, or play who lacks the traditional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, nobility, fortitude, [and] moral goodness” (101). Much modern art portrays man as pathetic and purposeless, trapped in a bleak world where his values are unobtainable. There certainly are hapless, incompetent, depressed individuals, but heroes such as the aforementioned Montessori and Shackleton show that man is not doomed to failure. Who, then, deserves more attention: those who overcome adversity and fuel us with the motivation to do the same, or those who decide to wallow in their misery and amount to nothing?
Heroes, Legends, Champions is a great resource for understanding and upholding true heroism. Bernstein does a fantastic job of making these ideas concrete by telling the stories of great champions, explaining what makes them heroes, and singing the praises they deserve.
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