The Heroic Heart
eBook - ePub

The Heroic Heart

Greatness Ancient and Modern

Tod Lindberg

  1. 240 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

The Heroic Heart

Greatness Ancient and Modern

Tod Lindberg

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About This Book

What does it mean to be a hero? In The Heroic Heart, Tod Lindberg traces the quality of heroic greatness from its most distant origin in human prehistory to the present day. The designation of "hero” once conjured mainly the prowess of conquerors and kings slaying their enemies on the battlefield. Heroes in the modern world come in many varieties, from teachers and mentors making a lasting impression on others by giving of themselves, to firefighters no less willing than their ancient counterparts to risk life and limb. They don’t do so to assert a claim of superiority over others, however. Rather, the modern heroic heart acts to serve others and save others. The spirit of modern heroism is generosity, what Lindberg calls "the caring will,” a primal human trait that has flourished alongside the spread of freedom and equality.Through its intimate portraits of historical and literary figures and its subtle depiction of the most difficult problems of politics, The Heroic Heart offers a startlingly original account of the passage from the ancient to the modern world and the part the heroic type has played in it. Lindberg deftly combines social criticism and moral philosophy in a work that ranks with such classics as Thomas Carlyle’s nineteenth-century On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History and Joseph Campbell’s twentieth-century The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

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Year
2015
ISBN
9781594038242
CHAPTER 1
GODS AND HEROES
The origins of heroism. Immortals and mortals, the willingness to risk death, inner greatness.
The three biggest things human beings have in common are life, death, and the consciousness of both, including the ability to speak with each other about all three. Nonhuman animals may possess intelligence and self-awareness; the will to keep living or “survival instinct” may be as strong in them as in any person. But they can’t talk among themselves about what life and death mean. That conversation is the start of our story.
Who am I? How did I get here? Who are these others? What do they want? What do I want? What should I want? These are primal questions. We would do a grave injustice to our ancestors to presume that because we have more knowledge of biological and social processes than they, their grappling with exactly the same questions was any less profound than ours.
A phrase often attributed to Aristotle to describe human beings is zoon logon echon. The phrase is often translated as “rational animal,” following a detour from the ancient Greek to English by way of Latin. A more direct rendering is “the animal that talks.” That leaves us as heirs to and custodians of a set of questions about who we are and how we should live—something we do indeed have the capacity to talk about—without necessarily granting us the capacity to arrive at a final, “rational” answer we must all agree to.
“The animal that talks” takes us in the right direction: language is a shared understanding that enables, through interchange, further and deeper shared understanding. Of course language also allows for the expression of disagreement, and may at times even contribute to disagreement, as terms get confused and people harden their positions in opposition to each other—to say nothing of the possibility of lying. Disagreement is prior to language, even if language often expresses disagreement and leads to new disagreements. But language is also a means to bridge disagreement.
Where did language come from? The answer common to the ancient world was: from God, or the gods. Interestingly, the matter that seems most to have vexed our forebears, according to the texts and traditions that have come down to us, was the multiplicity of languages. In many accounts, all people originally spoke the same language—until a deity intervened, dividing tribe from tribe by means of language. The implication is that the ability to speak with one another was once a common property of all human beings. A world in which people are divided one from another by language therefore represents a falling away from a better prior condition.
In the ancient understanding, human beings are not only created in the image of God, as the Genesis account and many others hold. They also speak the language of God or the gods, an understanding that does not seem to have struck our forebears as especially noteworthy at the time. In the ancient world, there appears not to have been much additional curiosity about the initial human acquisition of language. The doings of the gods were explanation enough. There would have been no need, prior to Darwin, for an account of how human beings became the animals that talk. The stories about God (or the gods) giving speech to human beings, or simply talking to a comprehending human being, were sufficient explanation.
We, who do not accept as literally true the biblical or mythological accounts of creation and the speech that comes to human beings along with it, need a little more detail in the account of the origin of speech, and thus the dawn of the human. Yet we can have no direct access to the origin or invention of speech. Even stories about humans brought up without speech—say, the feral child of myth and story (Tarzan, Mowgli) and, alas, occasionally reality (Danielle Crockett, a seven-year-old girl found stashed away in a Florida basement in 2005)—take place in a world in which others can speak. There is no going back. Our only recourse is speculation.
At the origin of speech must have been a terrible struggle to say anything at all and make it understood. In the Genesis account (2:19–20), God puts the animals He has created before Adam to see what Adam will call them. Thus the animals get their names. A conventional interpretation here is that God thereby grants man the power to create language. That can’t be quite right, however, because God has already spoken to the man (2:16), telling him to feel free to eat the fruit of any tree but one. On the other hand, the imputation to man of the naming power does at least gesture toward a world in which things have no names—in which man is not yet but is about to become the animal who talks, by his own labor. And emphatically, the naming is associated with a grant of power: God has given man dominion over the plants and animals.
Yet in the absence of a benevolent god to speed the process along, it is hard to imagine the origin of language as anything but an epic struggle taking place in the context of a preverbal epic struggle—for simple survival for oneself and for the band of primate protohumans in which one found oneself, and for dominance within that band. Who knows what kind of force might (or must) have accompanied the first-ever assertion, “Mine!”? In the grunt of the caveman lies the origin of property and the demand for recognition, or justice. Perhaps we have cavewomen to thank for the first discourse unconnected to the sheer assertion of power.
With language comes a quantum leap in the power of imagination—envisioning the world around us as something different from what it is. Imagination is surely preverbal: perhaps cavepeople sometimes dreamt they could fly and remembered the dreams when they woke up. Surely such a dream would color one’s impression the next time one observed a bird in flight. But language offers a more comprehensive possibility for the imagination.
Behold the corpse of a member of your cave clan, alive yesterday, dead today. When there is no possibility of saying anything about this brute fact, it’s hard to see how the imaginative capacity could extend much beyond recalling the corpse as a living being and projecting that image forward in contrast to the dead thing at hand. This might produce sadness or grief at the loss (or, depending on one’s relations with the recently departed, it might produce memories of fear and a sense of relief). One might also look at the living and imagine them dead, with similar effects on one’s mood.
A preverbal curiosity about what exactly happened to the living element of the now-dead seems inescapable. And indeed, here we are but one step away from the birth of metaphysics. But it’s hard to see how such postulates as the immortality of the soul and the contours of the afterlife would come up in the absence of the ability to talk the problem over. The development of increasingly sophisticated language was certainly a useful tool in everyday life for the cave clan. But for the purpose of speculation about the meaning of life and death, it was absolutely essential. “In the beginning was the Word”: well, yes.
In accounting for the development and spread of language, we moderns, being of a generally utilitarian cast of mind, are probably inclined to emphasize the practical utility of language to the cave clan—its productivity-enhancing element in the cave. No doubt the efficiency of both hunting and gathering improved with the development of language.
But we should at least entertain the possibility that the bigger impetus to speech was the necessity of language to cave clan metaphysics. There were certain facts available to preverbal protohumans that really did call out for a deeper shared understanding, life and death first among them. Because language to grapple with these facts did not exist, it was necessary to invent it.
Speculative anthropology—including speculation about the anthropogenic moment, the point at which hominids became human—is a risky and necessarily inconclusive business. But it is likely fair to conclude that at some distant prehistoric point in the gazing of the living upon the newly dead, it first occurred to human beings to imagine beings somewhat like themselves but different in one decisive respect: they would not die. They would be immortal. And with this quality, these speculative beings would have a vast, inestimable superiority to the mortal beings speculating about them. The mortals would have to invent a new name to distinguish beings of this kind from themselves. They would have this need for a name quite apart from the question of whether such immortal beings actually exist or had made their existence manifest to mortals. “Gods” would do.
I take no position here on whether God created man in His image, or for that matter whether a superior and divine power called “God” or anything else was in fact responsible for the creation of human beings by whatever means. I would only note that prior to the anthropogenic moment and the human acquisition of language, any revelation by God or the gods of His or their existence would have fallen on, so to speak, deaf ears. There would have been no capacity to process the revelation, or to develop a shared understanding of it with others.
Of course, if God created man precisely in the manner described in Genesis, with language present at the creation, then God would have had no trouble making His presence known and significance understood. Speculative anthropology in that case would be pointless.
But it is not pointless. Another way of looking at the Genesis account is that in starting with a human being in possession of language, it begins where revelation of the existence of God would first be intelligible to man. To continue the quotation from John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The validity of this statement in anthropogenic terms is not dependent on its theological truth: With the language hominids acquired in the course of becoming human, they could for the first time imagine and exchange views on a type of being like them in possession of language, but different in not having to die. They would be driven to it by the experience of their own lives and the death of others. They would recognize this immortal being as superior to their own being, and because superior, possibly in possession of additional powers—up to and including the power to create and destroy them.
In their search for explanations for the workings of the world around them, some would perceive the influence of these additional, divine powers: the busyness of the gods in the rising of the sun, the flowing of a river, the change of the seasons, the variability of the weather. Some would long for and seek the intercession of the power of the superior being in pursuit of good things (say, a successful hunt) and to prevent bad things (say, a drought). Others might conclude that such a divine being was not real, but rather entirely imaginary—a point of view that, should it be expressed, might call forth the wrath of believers w...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Introduction
  7. CHAPTER 1: Gods and Heroes
  8. CHAPTER 2: The Danger of Heroes
  9. CHAPTER 3: The Hero-King
  10. CHAPTER 4: A Hero’s Bargain
  11. CHAPTER 5: Heroism and Democracy
  12. CHAPTER 6: The Backlash Against the Slaying Hero
  13. CHAPTER 7: Vestigial and Virtual Heroes
  14. CHAPTER 8: The Saving Hero
  15. CHAPTER 9: Sacrifice and Generosity
  16. CHAPTER 10: The Return of the Slaying Hero?
  17. Acknowledgments
  18. Sources and References
  19. Index