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We Can't Be Heroes

Nils Quaetaert -

Ruolan Wang -

Our worldviews are still shaped by the concept of heroism. We construct our own little pantheon of exceptional individuals to help us make sense of life. But this oversimplified way of apprehending History might have some perverse effects on how we perceive and steer our existences…

Narration is one of the main ways that human beings use to make sense of the world. Stories help us organize events in ways that appear meaningful, and we often direct our lives using them as guides. This omnipresence of narration in our lives of course doesn’t spare History, and it is therefore not surprising that it is littered with heroes.

The figure of the hero is the most enduring of the many archetypes that populate our collective consciousness and has been at the center of many works in philosophy and psychology. In particular, the psychologist Carl Jung was very interested in the concept, calling it the oldest and the most powerful of the archetypes. He described the idea of the hero as a motif based on the process of individuation through the overcoming of obstacles. The hero is a fully realized individual.

Individualizing achievements

Defined as such, we often end up attaching the archetype of the hero to the historical figures that have entered the collective consciousness (the archetype of the villain being another one, but talking about villainy would be a whole other subject). Those are figures to whom we associate exceptional feats, that we hold responsible for paradigm shifts, that deserve to be remembered because of the mark they have left on our civilization. In the cases of art and philosophy, by using a biblical analogy, we even refer to those people and their work as being part of a canon.

However, this viewpoint is in the end but a construction, a story we tell ourselves to make sense of the past. History is generally in reality much messier, and deconstructing the ideals of heroism that we associate with it is valuable, because myths hold power and can have far reaching political and psychological repercussions.

The main phenomenon at play when we make heroes out of real-life people is an individualization of their achievements, meaning that we hold them wholly responsible for major breakthroughs or historical events. This way of considering things overlooks the fact that change is generally the result of collective action, and that the emergence of new ideas is often better explained by the cultural and social context of a time. This phenomenon of individualization can take place in one of two ways, giving rise to two sub-archetypes: the visionary and the genius.

All-encompassing visionaries

The visionary is generally more of a political or military figure. The main characteristic that we associate with them is a capacity to unite people under a single vision, and to lead them towards the realization of such a vision. In the myth of the visionary, the hero becomes an all-encompassing individual, as other people become objectified, becoming mere extensions of the figure's will.

The visionary imposes their individuality to the world using other beings as tools. They are a perfect manifestation of free-will, unfettered from all outside influences. Such a myth is of course necessarily reductive, undermining the contributions of countless people and misunderstanding the dynamics of power and influence. It stems from a hierarchical vision of the world, where being at the top of the chain means being the sole decision-maker, discrediting other people’s capacity to choose for themselves and to influence others.

The prototypical representation of the visionary in modern history can be observed in Napoleon Bonaparte. Though it may not be the case in the majority of the world, the famous general is still to this day an admired figure among the French, and his shadow is still looming over the political landscape of the country.

He is often painted as a great unifier after the chaos of the French Revolution, with the bases of modern French Society being cemented under his reign with legislations and institutions that are sometimes still part of the French system. Among those, the French civil code, often called the “Napoleonic code” is a good example of a creation that we attribute to a heroic figure (Napoleon in this case) who in reality did not contribute that much to it: it was redacted by four jurists that he had appointed.

The legacy of Napoleon can still be felt in modern politics, as it has cemented a heroic conception of political power. Indeed, many countries are organized such that power can be given to heroic figures, to people that are perceived as visionaries. Even if there are elections, power is ultimately given to a few people, and is often concentrated around one person (as it is the case in France, but also in the United States).

This conception of politics comes from a deep mistrust in democracy, a belief that common people shouldn’t govern and that we should be led by a heroic charismatic leader. This is what we call Bonapartism. In Bonapartism, we can see the marks of fascism, its more extreme and ultra-nationalistic counterpart. Modern politics is still littered with Napoleonic figures, the most obvious one being the current French president himself. Indeed, when Emmanuel Macron arrived on the political scene, he presented himself as a unifier, as someone who was above party divisions, and he now governs by denying any objection to his vision (be it through parliament or manifestations). 

The figure of the visionary also provides a justification for the current capitalistic system. As a matter of fact, CEOs and company owners are themselves raised to the rank of heroes. This phenomenon can be observed around figures such as Henry Ford or Elon Musk. The success of their company is their success, and thus they deserve to keep most of the benefits. In this light, the employee, who is a mere extension of the CEO's will, finds themself robbed from the fruits of their hard work, as it becomes the rightful property of the corporate visionary.

The myth of the visionary has even found its way in the realm of art. Indeed, with the rise of new artforms that require more and more people to create, we have felt the need to attribute authorship to a single person. In cinema for example, we generally associate the authorship of the film in its entirety to the director, often dismissing the work of the cinematographers, editors, art directors, etc. However, when it comes to art, the most enduring myth is still the figure of the genius.

Lone geniuses

While the visionary is often defined by their role as a guide for other people, the genius is characterized by their isolation. It is generally an intellectual hero, a man of science, art or philosophy. Those are the heroes that we see as having singlehandedly changed our conception of the world, by introducing new ideas or producing life-changing works of art. They are responsible for paradigm shifts. The figure of the genius is generally cut off from any social or cultural context, as if their work was a pure product of their unaltered minds.

The emergence of new ideas is attributed to exceptional individuals realizing their full potential. Once again, this is a very naive simplification of reality. This viewpoint ignores that the emergence of big new ideas is often the result of small incremental contributions, and that knowledge is built through exchange. The genius, in this case, is generally at the end of a long line of people that have contributed to the emergence of a new idea.

An example of the myth of the genius can be found in our understanding of the Copernican revolution, which generally designates the period spanning between the beginnings of the 16th and 17th century when the scientific community adopted the heliocentric model. Epistemologist Thomas Kuhn identified this period as a prime example of a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in the practices and concepts of science, which gave rise to several heroic figures: Galileo, Kepler, Newton and of course Copernicus who gave his name to the whole movement.

If we limit our discussion to Copernicus, he is generally the person credited with introducing the idea of heliocentrism, with his “Commentariolus” being the first explicit presentation of a heliocentric model in the Renaissance era. However, “explicit” is the key word here. Not only is there a rich history of astronomy stemming from Greek antiquity (Aristarchus of Samos) and developing during the medieval Islamic empire (Al-Tusi) that suggested a shift towards heliocentrism, but other Renaissance-era astronomers such as Regiomontanus (who was a teacher to Copernicus’s own teacher) are believed to have arrived at heliocentrism before him.

The emergence of heliocentrism in this context is better explained by a cultural context that helped the emergence of advancements in astronomy (with the development of universities at the end of the medieval era) than by the contribution of a genius mind.

For an example in the realm of the arts, we could look at the surrealist movement, which gave rise to heroic figures such as Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico or André Breton, credited with introducing the unconscious in the realm of art. However, many of the ideas of surrealism can be found in outsider art of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and especially in mediumistic arts.

André Breton was notably a collector of such artworks. This example is interesting because it also allows us to look at how historical heroism is instrumentalized to political ends. Indeed, raising some individuals to the status of heroes means erasing the contributions of other people from the picture, and this erasure concerns overwhelmingly minorities. In our example, summing up surrealist art and ideas to a few individuals participated in the erasure of women, who represented a large bulk of the mediumistic movement.

Heroism is an individualism

By populating History with heroes, be it visionaries or geniuses, we end up promoting an individualistic view of the world. We are encouraged to see glory and legacy as objects of pursuit, instead of values such as solidarity and empathy. This has an effect on our inner lives: behind this idea of glory, there lies a desire for eternal life. Going down in the history books becomes a way to symbolically triumph over death.

This outlook encourages us to give ourselves entirely to work, to discount our time on this earth for the chimera of a symbolic immortality. Life ceases to be about experiencing the world and becomes entirely about achievements. This is all the more foolish when you consider that success followed by any kind of canonization is generally more up to chance than we would like to admit.

While heroes are appealing by their very nature, it is time to revise our relationship to the archetype. Heroes are not real, they are but an idealized projection of an individual, and by going beyond heroism we might find a more nuanced approach to History and develop a richer way of life based on solidarity.

Publicerad: 2023-11-02

Ansvarig utgivare: Benjamin Javitz
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