Everybody loves a hero. And we all would like to be heroes. Heroism is something we humans strive for. Other kinds of animals behave heroically, too, but among humans, it includes the motivation to rise above death and the fear of death.
We humans suffer lifelong anxiety about our mortality. While we spend much of our lives reaching for the stars, we never get away from the fact that we’re mortal animals, dust-to-dust, like all the other animals. But when we act heroically, for better or worse, we become identified with a cause or project that’s larger than ourselves.
The following is part of a discussion about our need to be part of a heroic enterprise as a way of giving ourselves a kind of immortality. The discussion took place in 1974 between anthropologist Ernest Becker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death and philosopher Sam Keen.
Heroic enterprises come in many forms: they can be positive and life-affirming (civil rights, animal protection, etc.); or hateful and destructive (e.g. Nazism, the Islamic State) in their attempt to prove their mastery over death.
Becker and Keen discuss why we humans feel the need to see ourselves as heroes and to embrace heroic causes. And after their discussion we consider how, in today’s world, animal protection efforts may be the highest form of heroic enterprise.
(Note: sentences in italics are my own additions and explanatory comments.)
Keen: In your writing you stress the need to believe that we are special. You say that we must all be heroes in order to be human.
Becker: That is true. But the important question is: How we are to be heroes? Man is an animal that has to do something about his ephemerality. He wants to overcome and be able to say, “You see, I’ve made a contribution to life. I’ve advanced life, I’ve beaten death, I’ve made the world pure.”
But this creates an illusion. Otto Rank put it very beautifully when he said that the dynamic of evil is the attempt to make the world other than it is, to make it what it cannot be, a place free from accident, a place free from impurity, a place free from death.
The popularity of cults like Nazism stems from the need for a heroic role. People never thrive as well as when they are bringing purity and goodness into the world and overcoming limitation and accident.
(The same would be true of groups like the Islamic State today, and very broadly of philosophies like capitalism.)
Keen: Do you think any of the present political crisis is due to our lack of heroic ideals? Whatever the reality of the Kennedy Administration, it did produce a sense of Camelot and a new heroic image. Nixon has given us lackluster and short haired plumbers. (Think, in our own time, of Donald Trump’s promise that he will “make America great again.”)
“The dynamic of evil is the attempt to make the world other than it is, to make it what it cannot be, a place free from accident, from impurity, free from death.”Becker: Well, America is very much looking for heroes, isn’t it? I think one of the tragedies of this country is that it hasn’t been able to express heroics. The last heroic war was World War II. There we were fighting evil and death. But Vietnam was clearly not a fight against evil. It is a terrible problem and I don’t pretend to solve it. (But it was certainly part of a “heroic” struggle against an “evil empire.”)
How does one live a heroic life? Society has to contrive some way to allow its citizens to feel heroic. This is one of the great challenges of the 20th century. Sometimes there is a glimpse of constructive heroics like … the civil rights campaigns. Those people felt that they were bringing a certain amount of purity and justice into the world. But how do you get people to feel that society is set up on a heroic order without grinding up some other society, or finding scapegoats the way the Nazis did?
Keen: In the terms of your understanding of society, it seems to be a Catch 22 problem. If the mass of people are encapsulated in character armor that prevents them from facing the horror of existence [that ends in death] and therefore seeing the necessity for a heroic life, then the mass heroic models must be, by definition, unconscious. Isn’t the idea of heroism an elite idea? In “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” Joseph Campbell says the hero’s journey is not taken by every man.
Becker: I am using the idea of heroism in a broader sense. To be a hero means to leave behind something that heightens life and testifies to the worthwhileness of existence. Making a beautiful cabinet can be heroic. For the average man, I think being a provider is heroic enough.
Keen: The hero as self-sufficient man.
“The most exalted type of heroism involves feeling that one has lived to some purpose that transcends oneself.”
Becker: Yes. But I don’t think one can be a hero in any really elevating sense without some transcendental referent like being a hero for God, or for the creative powers of the universe. The most exalted type of heroism involves feeling that one has lived to some purpose that transcends oneself. This is why religion gives the individual the validation that nothing else gives him.
(I’d suggest that for many of us in the animal protection movement, our campaign is a classically heroic endeavor for a cause – and one that reaches beyond ourselves and beyond our own species.)
Keen: I remember Hannah Arendt’s lovely statement that the Greek polis was formed by the warriors who carne back from the Trojan wars. They needed a place to tell their stories, because it was only in the story that they achieved immortality. Democracy was created to make the world safe for telling stories.
Becker: In primitive cultures the tribe was the heroic unit because its members and the ancestral spirits were an audience. The tribe secured and multiplied life and addressed itself to the dead ancestors and said, “You see how good we’re doing. We are observing the shrines and we are giving you food.” Among some Plains Indians, each person had a guardian spirit, a personal divine referent that helped him to be a hero on earth. I think this accounts for a good deal of the nobility and dignity in some of those Indian faces we see in photographs. They had a sense that they were contributing to cosmic life.
Keen: It may be much harder for modern man to be a hero. In tribal cultures, heroism had to do with repeating archetypal patterns, following in the footsteps of the original heroes. The hero was not supposed to do anything new. We have thrown away the past and disowned traditional models. So the terror of the modern hero is that he has to do something new, something that has never been done before. We are justified only by novelty. I think this is why modern men and women are anxious and continually dissatisfied. We are always trying to establish our uniqueness.
Becker: Yes, that’s very true. Tillich concluded that for modern man to be heroic, he has to take nonbeing (i.e. his mortality) into himself in the form of absurdity and negate it.
I’d just add that in today’s world, perhaps the highest form of heroic enterprise is working to protect our fellow animals and the Earth since it is not only life-affirming but devoted to a cause outside of our own species.
Certainly defending human life is admirable, but our modern civilization is all about us and about our own needs and wants. True heroism involves self-sacrifice, and at a time when we humans are bringing mass extinction on our fellow animals, and probably on ourselves, a true heroic enterprise has to involve doing whatever we can to relieve the suffering we have brought on all the OTHER living beings.
Only by turning toward the protection of the other animals do we embrace the cause of life itself, not just human life.
Note: If you’re interested in seeing the whole discussion between Becker and Keen, you can purchase it here.