Why We Need Heroes, After All

A society without heroes is one that produces small, selfish characters preoccupied with comfort and security, advancement, promotion and self-interest, and who will not live or die for something greater than themselves.

To some Israelis, it may come as a surprise to learn that many people of my generation - growing up after the late 1960s - did not hold "heroes" in high esteem. The American Jewish philosopher Susan Neiman, who has offered the most penetrating study of heroes I know, writes: "Friends and colleagues told me that the concept of heroism was so tainted with the stench of blood and soil that the very word was better avoided altogether."

This is indeed an opinion more likely to be found among Europeans or Americans than among Israelis, because Europe has been ravaged by two major wars, by the folly of leaders who did not think much of the lives of the people they sent to their deaths, and by the public cult of heroes fostered by dark political regimes. Historically, the hero has been an essentially military figure. (Achilles in the Iliad is the first great example. )

Heroes are those who die on the battlefield, or at least risk their lives on it, and a pacified Europe would have little use for them. There is another reason why heroes do not stir much enthusiasm in Europe - because much of the secular West has learned to cast doubt on beliefs that seem absolute and definitive.

Many people today pride themselves on their intelligence, and modern intelligence is defined as inseparable from skepticism. Skepticism cannot produce heroism because it implies that most beliefs are not absolute or permanent, and if they are not, they are not worth dying for.

Certainly the nation, in an era of globalization and European Union, would seem a far more tenuous ideal than it did at the beginning of the 20th century, when great numbers of men died useless deaths just because their nations seemed the highest value they could defend.

And yet, as Neiman points out, don't we lose something crucial in doing away with heroes? (This is perhaps the question that most preoccupied Nietzsche ). A society without a sense of the heroic is likely to be full of those creatures the 19th century European thinkers dreaded. Max Weber called them "sensualists without a heart, specialists without spirit." He meant a special brand of people who had no larger horizon than petty office politics, hedonists with no sense of purpose, scientists with mechanic formulas instead of knowledge, bureaucrats of the mind and soul.

A society without heroes is one that produces small, selfish characters preoccupied with comfort and security, advancement, promotion and self-interest, and who will not live or die for something greater than themselves. What is lost in a society without heroes is a sense of greatness. Heroes provide that sense of greatness and can thus serve as a compass for us. They show what we could be if we managed to rise above the smallness of our desires and frustrations.

My two heroes, for example, are Rosa Luxemburg (a Jewish socialist and internationalist pacifist ) and Milena Jesenska (a non-Jew who resisted the Nazis, risked her life for helping Jews, went to Ravensbruck and died there, loved by her inmates and admired even by the Nazi soldiers of the camp ). But my personal heroes are hardly relevant here. Heroes cannot be entirely personal. Their function is to inspire groups and collectives.

In Israel, the quintessential hero is Josef Trumpeldor. Although he was an unusual character, nothing in the circumstances in which he died were out of the ordinary for a military man (in the complex colonial politics of the 1910s, the small group of men he led got into a clash with a large group of Shiites who had taken over the Jewish village of Tel Hai. ) What turned Trumpeldor into a hero were the words he pronounced in dying (their veracity seems to have been confirmed ): "It is good to die for our country." In other words, what made Trumpeldor into a hero was not some unusual circumstance, but the fact that he willingly embraced his own death for his country-to-be.

Neiman asks what it is that we admire in heroes. Her answer is that we admire their freedom, defined as Immanuel Kant would have defined it, that is, by the capacity to die for a self-chosen higher principle. Neiman is right, but her theory does not apply well to military heroes. In fact, I think military heroes are mostly admired for the fact that they reduce to a minimum the tension between the freedom of the individual and the demands of the group.

The military hero is the one who displays the least his freedom, because he espouses most closely the interests and values of his group. The Wikipedia site under Josef Trumpeldor suggests an interesting fact: In 1902 he volunteered for the Russian army and participated in the Russo-Japanese war. He was wounded by shrapnel, lost his arm, and after an extensive stay at the hospital, expressed a strong wish to go back to fight. He was advised not to. He insisted on it and is reported to have answered: "I still have another arm to give to the motherland."

He was no doubt a remarkably fearless soldier. In fact he became the most highly decorated Jewish soldier in Russian history and received a medal of honor in the presence of the Tsarina herself. Trumpeldor's military heroism in two different contexts suggests he may have been a serial nation-lover; he loved nationhood so much that he could gladly sacrifice himself for two different histories, two different languages, two different peoples.

Trumpeldor's very eagerness for self- sacrifice arouses suspicion, not admiration. Today we are more moved by the sacrifice of those who did not want to die than of those who eagerly espouse the imperative that they must die. However, there is an element in Trumpeldor's biography which should elicit our admiration: At the apex of his career in Russia, when he was honored and admired, when he could have enjoyed the great life of a Russian man of status and power, when he could have belonged, he chose to leave and forego honors, belonging, and comfort to create a socialist commune in a faraway, unlikely land in highly unlikely circumstances.

Like many early socialist Zionist revolutionaries, he chose to live for an idea rather than the bourgeois order offered to him in Europe. This choice contains three admirable elements: the capacity to willingly give up what others seek - status, honor, money, comfort, membership - for a moral idea and principle (for him the self-determination of the Jews, for Rosa Luxemburg it would have been international socialism ); that this self-sacrifice was done to bring into existence the new socialist utopia - that is, new forms of life, not sacrifices of life; and finally, that in this act he displayed a courage as great as his courage in battle: the courage to leave the past, to transcend a well-known community and its norms.

Heroes, then, are those who show us how to extend and stretch the boundaries of our group. That is precisely how he or she affirms his or her freedom.