The Importance of Heroes

by Derrick G. Jeter

Who’er excels in what we prize, appears a hero in our eyes.

These words by Jonathan Swift capture the essence of what we mean by “hero.” Heroes possess qualities we either don’t enjoy, or don’t have in great quantity, but wished we did.

Recently, I asked a group of adults whether having heroes was important in life, or if it was only for childhood fantasies. Most readily agreed that, yes, heroes were important—at least in theory. When I asked who their heroes were these same adults grew silent and had the blank stare of wondering whether it was a rhetorical question. It wasn’t. Their silence couldn’t have been because heroes are in short supply. They aren’t. Since 9/11 every fireman and police officer, in every city and hamlet across America, has risen to the ranks of hero, not to mention the courageous men and women of our armed forces. The result of my little group’s reluctance to name their heroes, I suspect, was due to the fact that we no longer seem to think in terms of heroes. Like honor, bravery, and glory, heroes, both in word and deed, are from a bygone era.

This is sad and disconcerting.

Today, we think in terms of celebrity. The historian, Daniel Boorstin defined a celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” And any good publicist, given enough money, can turn virtually anyone into a celebrity. But perhaps this is a bit uncharitable. Some celebrities are known for real talent, talent that has come to the attention of those who can make them celebrities. However, in an age of “reality” television even talent has lost much of its luster, so maybe Boorstin’s definition isn’t uncharitable at all.

What our culture needs is a reminder that celebrities and heroes are not the same. This is not to say that celebrities can’t be heroes, or heroes celebrities. It’s only to point out that well-knownness doesn’t equate to hero status. Our insistence that the two are equivalent does not elevate celebrity; rather it degrades the heroic. This neither serves our culture well nor provides anything greater for our children to emulate than to merely be famous.

Cultural critic, Clive James summed up the maddening pursuit of fame nicely when he wrote, “A life without fame can be a good life, but fame without a life is no life at all.” Certainly we want more for ourselves and our children than that.

To do so we must recapture the idea of the heroic. But we must know what we’re talking about. If we take Swift’s definition and stop there then we must rank Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden as heroes, for surely many prize the evil they excelled in, and still do. Yet, most of us recoil at the thought of calling bin Laden a hero. So mere aspiration and emulation are not enough to mark a hero.

What is needed in the individuals we seek to emulate is a nobleness of character. So, unless we wish to aspire to villainy, nobility is required. This is important for at least three reasons. First, heroes embody the characteristics we value most. Without them how would we know what courage, sacrifice, or honor look like? Second, heroes imbue us with a purpose. They provide an example to follow. Third, heroes embolden us to persevere. They challenge us to strive to improve our character and adopt some of their own.

So, I’ll ask you: Are heroes important to your life? And if so, who are they, and why? Write and let me know, I’m interested.

Jonathan Swift quote: Jonathan Swift in David Keyes, True Heroism in a World of Celebrity Counterfeits (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1995), 13.

Daniel Boorstin quote: Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 57.

Clive James quote: Undocumented.