Duke University Alumni Magazine

A Model For Modern Times
by Robert J. Bliwise

Homeric, historic, or pop-oriented, heroes are born, made, and then remade to satisfy our yearning for exemplars.

Iliad icon: Achilles in battle regalia
historical picture archive / corbis

ike some phenomenon out of quantum physics, today's heroes exist everywhere and nowhere. To a newspaper editor in North Dakota, the victims of a rampaging flood are heroes for rebuilding their lives. To HBO, the boxing promoter Don King gets the "hero" label in a movie about his life. To a defense lawyer, Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski has emerged as "a pop hero, a rebel who was protesting the encroaching oppression of technology." To Time magazine, medical innovators merit a special issue--an issue that heralds "Heroes of Medicine."

As political expediency encourages the devaluing, distorting, and dumbing-down of discourse, the word "hero" takes on so many meanings as to take on no meaning at all. And as we enshrine egalitarian values that make us suspicious of merit, we seem awfully eager to cut down our larger-than-life (and better-than-us) heroes. It's also Time, of course, that gives cover treatment to the "Debunking Kennedy" theme, and so gives renewed attention to a hero-president's presumed extramarital affairs and dealings with mobsters.

At least for Western culture, the essential heroic epic is the Homeric epic. But what draws the reader to a figure like Achilles, says Duke classical studies professor Gregson Davis, isn't his "superhuman" qualities as a warrior. "What makes him interesting and archetypal is his humanity."

The arch of The Iliad, according to Davis (who teaches "Culture Heroes Across Cultures"), takes Achilles from vengeance-seeking warrior to a chastened human being who shows empathy for a rival leader. "Achilles cannot be allowed to have Hector's body simply rot. That goes against all civilized values. So in coming to terms with his humanity, he is accepting his role in society and realizing that he has to compromise on his personal feelings."

When Odysseus makes his return in The Odyssey, "Penelope subjects him to a certain kind of testing of his humanity," says Davis, "and he has to stop being the cool, calculating Odysseus. What you need to become a father again and to become a head of household again is very different from what might be required in beating the Cyclops."

So the hero suffers, struggles, contests authority--and learns. Heroic tales, then, are in their essence tales of maturation. "The hero has something in common with the divine, but the other part of him is equally important. Achilles is faced with the problem that he is going to die. Part of what the hero does is to go through a phase of almost euphoric display of power. But what comes to the fore is his mortal side."

As they define the qualities of a hero, such tales also define a culture's self-image. The Iliad and The Odyssey celebrate the warrior values of glory-seeking and advantage through strength; they also celebrate such qualities of mind as cunning and wisdom. After all, Troy falls ultimately not through the exercise of military prowess, but by means of a wooden horse--a trick.

"Odysseus is a great example of the Greek ideas about cleverness and survival and the ability to be rational about everything," Davis says, "in the ways in which he is able not exactly to manipulate the world, but to reason himself out of situations and keep his emotions in check. But even reason, even cleverness, have a side which has to be kept in check. Odysseus is very clever, and there are times when he is too clever. This ties in very well with the Greek notion of excess--that you have to observe the natural limits, so that even success should be limited, that things should not go too well for you all the time."

Byron: A martyr for freedom, he took the reading public by storm
Hulton-Deutsch collection / Corbis

he modern concept of the hero in literature, and of the author as hero, flows from Lord Byron. Byron's most romantic creation was Byron himself--the English aristocrat who earned fame in his time for his poetry, who was notorious for his debauchery, who after his death was worshipped for devoting himself to the cause of Greek freedom from Turkish rule. As one of his biographers, Stephen Coote, describes his career, "Schoolgirls sighed over him, poets imitated him, painters illustrated him, musicians were inspired by him, while liberal politicians found him a powerful spokesman for their cause."

"He always protested that the public had a penchant for identifying him personally with the heroes in his poetry," says English professor Robert Gleckner, who teaches the Romantics at Duke. "But I think that secretly he relished that kind of identification, because in many ways it was true. The central figure in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is a dissolute young man who flees England; Byron is in effect replaying his dalliances in England. Much of Byron was, if not straight autobiographical, certainly quasi-autobiographical. He is very much in his own characters."

Byron was also very much his own heroic image-maker. At one point, he donned an exotic Albanian costume as he sat for his portrait--the author of the extravagant Childe Harold becoming Childe Harold. "He was a showman," Gleckner says. "He knew how to call attention to himself on the world stage. It is not coincidental that among literary societies around the world, the Byron Society is enormously international. There are Byron societies in the most peculiar places; even Albania has a Byron society. In England, there are local Byron societies of little old ladies who sit down and gossip about Byron as if he were still alive." Researching the files of Byron's publishing house, one of Gleckner's doctoral students discovered a large cache of letters written on the subject of Byron. "That's really quite spectacular fame. It's almost as if Byron redefined what real fame is."

But it was more than costumes and cosmetic gestures that propelled Byron into a figure of heroic proportions. Although he was a peer in the House of Lords, and although he admired Napoleon, Byron was a genuine champion of the oppressed. "All of his heroes are similar; they are cut out of that mold, battling against superhuman odds. That's the way he saw himself, and that's why he went to Greece." In Greece, he was prepared to wage war against the Turks with his own troupe of soldiers. Before he could issue his first rallying cry, he died--not as a casualty of battle, but as a victim of fever. Greece is filled with monuments to Byron; for the heroic reputation, what's significant is the valiant struggle, even if the struggle, at least in the hero's lifetime, produces failure.

As dashing a figure as he was, as inspiring a political thinker as he was, Byron wouldn't have achieved exalted status were it not for Britain's literary culture. "The publishing business was really thriving and the literacy rate had increased enormously in the latter part of the eighteenth century," says Gleckner. "There were all kinds of relatively cheap editions available. Lending libraries were widespread. This was really the beginning of the age of the best-seller, and Byron was one of the best sellers. He took the reading public by storm, and not merely in England; he was read almost as widely on the continent."

And in no small way, Byron's heroic standing was a reflection of a Romantic age--an age still hypnotized by the flames that brought down the French monarchy and that seemingly heralded rule by popular will. The post-French Revolution years "certainly fostered the idea of the individual, and not just individual as unique, but also the individual as potentially a world figure and an exemplar," Gleckner says. "It was an age that in many ways fostered new thinking, new kinds of poetry, and new conceptions about the utility of poetry--the possibility that it would have a literary effect upon the reading audience and steer them in some direction."

Byron's example suggests that heroism hinges on a connection with people that is broad and deep; heroism is conferred on the basis of the hero's own story and not from creative achievement alone. "The public stage was not one on which anybody stood like Byron. He was, in the sense, unique," observes Gleckner. "Wordsworth never went out giving speeches. Shelley early in his life thought himself a sort of radical reformer, but he backed off of that and simply incorporated his political and social principles into his poetry. Most of the other poets labored rather quietly and not publicly."

Mother Teresa: dutiful in the face of secular opposition
Eye ubiquitous / Corbis

f most Romantic-era poets labored apart from public acclaim, that was hardly the case with a musical hero of that time and for all time since--Beethoven. Much in the model of Byron, Beethoven by his late twenties was already the subject of painters and sculptors.

"There are two aspects to Beethoven and the hero," says Alexander Silbiger, professor of music, who offers an advanced seminar on Beethoven. "One is what you find in his music, and the other is in his person." While his heroic music--notably the Third Symphony, the Eroica--was just a small part of his output, for many people it is the essential Beethoven. "His works were not the first to have military sounds with trumpets and drums and fanfare, but they were the first where this was used in the service of a kind of heroic narrative," Silbiger says. "There was a feeling evoked in the music of a struggle against adversity and of triumph."

It had been Beethoven's plan to dedicate the Eroica to Napoleon. To Beethoven, Napoleon was a legitimate hero, the liberator of Europe. Then Napoleon had himself proclaimed emperor. Disenchanted, Beethoven erased the "Bonaparte" reference, and re-dedicated the composition as a work "to celebrate the memory of a great man."

"During the Second World War, it's perhaps not too surprising that the Germans exploited Beethoven for their propaganda," says Silbiger. "But so did the Allies. The BBC used the theme of the Fifth Symphony in their broadcasts. It has been interpreted, I think with some justification, as portraying man's struggle against fate. There is no greater song of triumph: Suddenly, out of despair, the light breaks through. Of course, his Ninth Symphony, with Schiller's 'Ode to Joy' in the last movement, became an emblem of brotherhood. It is the music that was performed after the Berlin Wall came down. So the music really transcends the individual struggle, and it becomes a message for mankind in general."

Beethoven's heroic personal struggle involved perseverance in the face of his progressive deafness. It was a perseverance, Silbiger points out, that grew from the composer's sense of his own creative capacities. In his famous testament, he talks about owing it to the world to deliver his gifts, even though death, in many ways, would have been welcome. "This would have been strange talk around this time, because most composers considered themselves really as craftsmen. A lot of them were in the employ of the nobility. They were regarded more or less as lackeys, as servants. With Beethoven, the whole power situation was reversed. He set the agenda; it was a privilege to be his patron, not the other way around. People everywhere were trying to get music from him. It was a marketable good."

Beethoven was surrounded by people who worshipped him, who saved every scrap of paper on which he scrawled something. His standing reflected the eighteenth-century idea that music could have a morally uplifting impact. Within that context, Beethoven saw himself as an educator or a preacher, perhaps even as a prophet. The music, as Silbiger puts it, "fills one with feelings of goodness and beauty. It was inspiring, and I think it continues to be inspiring. One feels that his message--and maybe this is an old-fashioned idea--is a message for everyone."

Composers like Brahms drove themselves to equal, if not to exceed, Beethoven; they wondered if music could progress beyond the Ninth. Today's young pianists-in-the-making still practice under the divine gaze of a bust of Beethoven. Silbiger notes that Beethoven-as-hero defies a now fashionable view of history--a view that looks to great social movements rather than to great figures of history. He says that with the appropriation of Beethoven, and especially Wagner, by Nazi Germany, the idea of the musical hero may seem objectionably elitist and anti-egalitarian. But in his view, Beethoven provides a dividing point of music history: It's a history that leads up to Beethoven, and then a history that follows from Beethoven.

he course of religious history hinges on saintly heroic figures. It may be that the saint is the purest hero. The hero-saint is more than a cultural icon, says religion professor Vincent Cornell, who teaches "Sainthood in Comparative Perspective." "A saint, from a historical perspective, is not a two-dimensional figure who is standing for one thing. A saint is a three- dimensional figure; it is always assumed that there is a life of exemplarity and virtue that stands behind the icon and gives the icon its force."

One signal of exemplarity and virtue is suffering. "Martyrdom was the fundamental initial paradigm for sainthood in Christianity," says Cornell. "After the period of martyrdom ended, people had to give of themselves in other ways. It's still not unusual within the Catholic church for saints to be considered martyrs in a metaphorical sense. Mother Teresa could be called a martyr for the sake of the poor."

Saints are not just virtuous persons; they are "people of power," Cornell says. "They exercise or mediate power in some way. They are mediators between the people and somebody else. That somebody else could be the political ruler of the time; that somebody else could be God. But they are almost channelers or conduits who can intercede and obtain something for people from a higher source. That is one of the most common types of miracles."

And that is why, says Cornell, modern society is less likely than earlier societies to produce hero-saints. "If you're a peasant in medieval Europe and you need something from the lord of the manor, you couldn't get it by going directly to the lord of the manor. You'd have to go through an intermediary who would present your case to the lord, and then the lord would answer the intermediary, and the answer would come back down to you. That's the same role that saints play in pre-modern societies. And to the extent that modern bureaucratic society has more direct channels of communication, there seems to be less of a need for a saintly figure as mediator."

Just as a heroic Achilles can tell us a lot about the self-image of the Greeks, a heroic saint signals the self-image of a particular faith. Just as Odysseus is an exemplar of courage, a heroic saint is a model for the integration of religious doctrine and practice in one's daily life. "A saint is always a saint for other people; one is never a saint for oneself. So to a certain extent, sainthood is always performance. There is always an audience."

In the Catholic church, Mother Teresa is probably on "a fast track to official sainthood," Cornell says. "She exemplified in her life the charitable aspects of what is called in Christianity the imitation of Christ. Every Christian saint is thought to imitate Christ in one way or another, in one's behavior and one's life and one's values. And Mother Teresa's particular imitation of Christ was in the imitation of charity and kindness and benevolence to other human beings. Of course, Mother Teresa also adhered to the official doctrines of the Catholic church. She continued to uphold, for example, Catholic church doctrines against abortion and against family planning. From the point of view of the church, that is an even greater proof of her sainthood--that she could maintain her Catholic duties in the face of secular opposition."

At a time of a decline in the numbers of those entering Catholic monastic orders, Mother Teresa's order is expanding worldwide. So the image of a saintly figure can contribute directly to church aims. But the religious utility of sainthood can lead to some problematic choices. Cornell points to the example of Saint Stephen, the king who brought Christianity to Hungary. "He was a man who cemented his control over the throne by having some of his relatives put to death and having his brother blinded by pouring molten lead into his eyes. And yet because he turned a formerly pagan country into a Christian kingdom, that in itself was enough to make him the patron saint. That decision is as much political as anything else; it's obviously in the interest of the church to make Saint Stephen a great saint. And so you see his statue prominently in the squares of Budapest."

Einstein: symbol of the scientific genius--and of the delightful eccentric
UPI / Corbis-Bettmann

hile saints may fulfill institutional needs for religious faiths, other kinds of heroes may be right for the moment in the broadest sense. For the New Orleans school board, now is not the moment to honor "former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all." So in November, it stripped the name of George Washington off an elementary school.

Having popped up in animated cartoon shows and a Star Trek episode, Albert Einstein may be on more secure footing. Einstein's scientific status derives largely from his "miracle year" of 1905, when he challenged Newton's notion of absolute space and time, outlined the shape of a quantum universe, devised a proof for the existence of atoms, moved on to conceptualize Special Relativity, and linked energy and matter in the most famous relationship in history: E=mc2. He was a twenty-six-year-old patent examiner at the time. But Duke physicist Richard Palmer says Einstein's heroic standing in the popular culture can be traced to a later year, 1919. That was when an expedition to South America, sent to observe a solar eclipse, confirmed Special Relativity by measuring gravity's effect on bending light rays. "Einstein was an overnight sensation."

What created the sensation was that, in the wake of the First World War, a theory formulated by the German-born Einstein had been confirmed by an Englishman. Newspapers like The Times of London hailed the possibilities for cooperation among scientifically-minded nations. Einstein called such accounts amusing feats of imagination. Not prepared to back off its exuberance, The Times drew a wry association between the modest bearing of the scientist and his work on relativity: "We note in accordance with the general tenor of his theory, Dr. Einstein does not supply an absolute description of himself." As Palmer puts it, a world grown weary of war and desperate for the rule of rationality "needed such a person."

Einstein's image was helped by the fact that he was seen as having very human qualities--and amusing human faults. Aloof and inaccessible figures can't really be heroes; we want to be able to identify with our heroes. Palmer notes that Einstein became a scientist stereotype: the scientist as a bit unkempt and ill-dressed, an absent-minded thinker who was focused on ideas much more than on social conventions. "He was a striking figure, partly so because of the juxtaposition of his scientific genius and these weird personal attributes. There are people who are scientific geniuses, but our heroes are made from the geniuses who are colorful characters in everyday life." Basic to Einstein's own heroic struggle against adversity was the image of the bored student consigned to a dull career who, in effect, can later thumb his nose at his old teachers--a gesture sure to excite the popular imagination. As a schoolboy, he was thought to have a learning disability; he was even slow in learning how to talk.

And Einstein engaged conspicuously with the world. He gave speeches and wrote essays about politics, pacifism, and philosophy. An early exponent of Zionism, he was invited to be president of Israel.

With a huge Einstein poster above his desk, Palmer looks up to Einstein, quite literally. (He also keeps a life-size, cut-out cardboard Einstein.) For several years, he has taught an Einstein course in Duke's graduate Liberal Studies program. One of his assignments has students recover current images of Einstein. And they find him everywhere, particularly in advertising, the main currency of popular culture.

That heroic image isn't embraced by all scientists, according to Palmer. Most science proceeds by incremental advances, not by revolutionary breakthroughs. Scientists tend to believe that "there's an objective world out there, so they are just uncovering things and not asserting their individuality in that process. A lot of scientists take the attitude that hero worship is not appropriate." When the revolutionaries do come along, elevating them to heroic status can be dangerous; it can shut off the skepticism that helps fuel science. Newton's secure standing may have confined physics to a Newtonian universe for generations.

Einstein's legacy points to a process to which modern culture often subjects its heroes--a period of debunking. With a 1994 book, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein, two English journalists mined recently released correspondence and incorporated interviews with contemporaries to depict the scientist as a misogynist and a philanderer. Einstein's first marriage did end in divorce, and the child from that marriage was put up for adoption. But Palmer says Einstein remains firmly on his pedestal despite unseemly revelations about his personal life. Part of the reason reflects cultural expectations of the scientist: "A lot of scientists are very obsessive people." Heroes, too, of course, are obsessive people. And they're too busy saving the universe--or, like Einstein, redefining the universe--to have decent family standards or decent haircut standards.

But in a broad sense, the notion that people lead compartmentalized lives resonates in modern culture. That's among the chilling themes in studies of the perpetrators of the Holocaust--some murder in the morning, some Beethoven in the evening. And so the thought that the scientist might ignore family responsibilities in pursuit of an intellectual idea, while hardly something to be celebrated, isn't shocking.

Kennedy: debunked as a leader but not displaced
John F. Kennedy library / corbis

robably no recent hero has withstood so much debunking as John F. Kennedy. Seymour Hersh's The Dark Side of Camelot, as The New York Times' Frank Rich observes, makes Kennedy out to be an even "more reckless and less law-abiding president" than Richard Nixon, "the man who turned dirty tricks into a form of political science." But that doesn't especially matter, he argues. "In our Hollywood culture, star quality is everything. A handsome, charming, witty man who has a fling with a Marilyn Monroe is as close to a god as we have." Or as cultural critic Stephen Stark put it in a National Public Radio commentary, we want our political leaders to be "entertainers first and statesmen second."

According to American historian (and senior associate dean of Arts and Sciences) Gerald Wilson, we will always want heroes as exemplars for our own lives. What Hollywood culture has brought is what he calls the fragmentation of the hero--the hero of sports or entertainment or medicine. So we don't merely cut down our heroes; we also trivialize them by finding them in so many places.

The larger-than-life national hero, Wilson says, fed into an American self-image reflected in one of the great American myths: the myth of the American rags-to-riches success; the frontier myth and its suggestion of rebirth or regeneration in building a future by escaping the past; the agrarian myth, which enshrines the traditional virtues of honesty, hard work, and innocence; the foreign-devil myth, through which Americans define themselves as a people by defining who they are not; or the "City on the Hill" myth, which has shaped foreign policy by seeing America as a beacon to the world.

Beyond identifying themselves with these myths, the historical American hero combined opportunity and vision. (Wilson teaches "American Dreams and American Realities" and "Leadership in American History.") Heroic leaders typically arise out of cataclysmic events--the Civil War, the world wars, even the Cold War. And it may be hard to imagine a leader of heroic proportions at a time when fiscal constraints mandate a think-small agenda. Yet a true visionary, according to Wilson, breaks through the constraints. "Theodore Roosevelt created opportunities for greatness or perceived greatness, certainly with the Panama Canal. We stole it, but we stole it in a way that contributed to the image of a robust America."

Beethoven: adversity and triumph in life and in music

Often, says Wilson, heroes out of the past weren't heroes in their times. "Washington was hated when he left office; he was a Federalist, and he was guided very strongly by Alexander Hamilton, just as you're beginning to see the movement of the 'common man.' Lincoln was widely disliked; there was a memo in which he advised his Cabinet to cooperate with a presumed McClellan administration. He was hurt by the perception that the war was dragging on and on and that the North, which had been superior in so many things, should have been able to bring it to a successful conclusion. And basically he was a Whig who was seen as representing business interests."

Harry Truman also left office as a much-despised figure, with a 31 percent popularity rating. But we see, or invent, historical heroes to serve current needs. Now, Wilson notes, "We are having this love affair with Truman. Why? Because he represents virtues that we hunger for. He was a man who was decisive, a man of character. He was honest, and he took responsibility for his actions." Truman the independent thinker grows into heroic proportions as today's poll-propelled, self-serving politicians shrink in public esteem.

We may still need our heroes, and we can find them if we look hard enough. Wei Jingsheng spent eighteen years in prison challenging Chinese authoritarian rule. As The New York Times reported, he turned down the repeated urgings of family members to keep his head down and stay out of trouble. "Wei Jingsheng was a natural-born leader," a fellow activist told the newspaper. "The desire and impulse to accomplish great things burns in his veins."

Of course, no one knows if this hero of freedom can still be a hero as a free man, exiled to the United States in November. An age of instant image-making helps create the heroic Chinese dissident. Then it forgets him.

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