An Introduction to Heroism

Let’s begin with one single, very important, question: What is good? The most common perspective on goodness is the one that has been supplied to us by our conventional moral wisdom, which, although far from an easily identifiable set of uniform guidelines, generally conceives of the good as what’s in the best interests of society as a whole, or at the very least, the individual as a social being. Goodness, in this case, is something that maintains amiable relations between people and tends to promote a general state of peace, happiness, and wellbeing for all living things. This sort of conventional moral goodness we will call the social definition of good, as its ultimate aim is coexistence and cooperation within the supposedly greater society. 

Of course, man yearns for more than just solidarity, and although we are undeniably social beings, our own individual needs are the ones that are most readily apparent to each one of us. Although it is far less common to see goodness defined as such in theory, in practice, at least, each of us tends to acknowledge the “goodness” of those things which will ultimately contribute to our own survival, and we are very appreciative of those assets that benefit each of us personally during our all too inevitable competitions or conflicts with each other. Reputation, physical attractiveness, strength, wits, cunning, foresight, and an unshakable resolve are each virtues, to be sure, but they are not quite as readily appraised as such within the social definition of good as are, say, compassion and honesty. The aforementioned, purely competitive, virtues, which can be recognized most easily within what we shall henceforth call the individual’s definition of good, are grudgingly acknowledged within a social definition of goodness in only one instance: the heroic context, where those often dangerous talents of a lone man or woman can be selflessly turned to the benefit of others.

If not for the glorious popularity of the mighty hero, most of us would have no window through which to approvingly view this other side of goodness, a conception of good which ultimately is not to be contrasted merely against evil, as the social definition of goodness would have it, but also against the inadequate, the undistinguished, the unfit, the low, or, perhaps, as Nietzsche put it most simply, the bad. Unlike our saints, paragons of social goodness due primarily to their generous acts of self sacrifice, our heroes are far more worldly and contentious; “fighting the good fight” perhaps, but none the less assuming the socially prohibited right to fight, a prerogative which, it would seem, is one which has been reserved for the powerful alone.

It is for this reason that I believe heroes are unique, as they are the only ones who are ever actually considered good within both of the aforementioned definitions of that word, not only in its more common social sense, wherein their very presence is a boon to mankind, but in the purely individual context as well. Heroes must possess some manner of personal excellence which allows them to be efficacious and successful in their struggles, in addition to and beyond their obviously gregarious natures. The hero is therefore defined not only by the mere possession of goodwill, as is the moral saint, but by the presence of another sort of will as well, the indomitable and daring kind that can only become apparent, and grow stronger, through opposition. In stark contrast to the saints, every hero must know how to be dangerous, if only to the villainous.

Although those who can only understand the conventional moral outlook seem eager enough to accept the concept of heroism uncritically, the fact is that every hero exists at the cross-roads between the villain and the saint. The hero partakes in equal measures of those qualities which make each of these two contrasting figures “great” in their own right, and so is, simultaneously, a figure who is to be loved, for what they do, and feared, for what they might. While this moral paradox is overlooked easily enough when the masses are in need or are otherwise powerless to do anything about it, the hero, in fact, has much more to fear from those who need saving than from any possible villain they might struggle against openly. Should the threats that these heroes face for the common man subside for even one moment, the masses will inevitably move as one to neutralize and or eliminate their heroes as well. As the philosopher Nietzsche warned, “… most of all, they hate those who fly.”

It is this unspoken yet primary mandate of conventional moral goodness, to humble each individual for the sake of the greater society, which has washed nearly every trace of actual heroism from our modern age. Many of those who might have grown into the strong forces for goodness we so desperately need have been philosophically “lead to the cross,” or in other words, spiritually executed, by the conventional moral proscriptions of our age. The few pale shadows of the heroic which the masses have been left have almost all been relegated to the realms of pure fantasy, vain religious promise and, most hypocritically, state authority. Those would be heroes who fall out side of these three socially approved areas, such as actual freedom fighters, vigilantes, effective activists, survivalists, and other such “dangerous radicals,” have been so thoroughly demonized in our modern culture that few people today can conceive of any possible good that such self possessed and potent individuals as these might accomplish.

Our culture has thrust the image of the martyr up before us as the very apex of moral aspiration, but what then becomes of the promised savior who's return has for so many thousands of years been shunted off into the near future? How long will the bulk of mankind continue to wait, and who, but the wicked, ultimately profits from our all too pious patience? We need not forget the generous beauty of the saintly act; indeed, as we shall soon see, saintliness may even be essential to the very concept of heroism itself, but it is high time that more of us gather the strength and the courage that we need to be able to remember, and to honor, the heroic as well.

In essence, what I’m arguing for here is the awaking and return of a rare breed of human, one who can not only preserve his or her own moral integrity but can also boldly assert power against the cruelest and most sadistic individuals and organizations that currently plague mankind. Simply put, the hero is one who faces that which others, for whatever reason, cannot face, performing bold, and often dangerous, actions for the good of the whole.

Although it’s the uneasy relationship between power and morality that ultimately makes the hero so complex and intriguing, there are additional hurdles that must be overcome if one wishes to live a truly heroic life. Allow me to illustrate one such troubling area with a short anecdote of my own.

One of my earliest “heroic” memories, aside from even earlier dreams, of which we will speak later, occurred in fourth grade, the day that I stepped in and turned the tables on a third grader who was picking on a second grader that I knew. In hindsight, I imagine that the intoxicating rush of power that I felt at that moment was not unlike the one that was being experienced by the third grade bully right before I stole it from him. Many people would argue that there’s a fundamental difference between these two states of mind, but I believe that the distinction, although it is perhaps an important one to make, is entirely circumstantial. Yes, the hero is still to be applauded, and the villain is rightfully disdained, yet their experiences of a well satisfied will to power, the feelings of elation which stir in the blood of both, are, in fact, the very same heady rush.

Which brings us to our first important issue that we must address with “heroism:” What, if anything, separates heroism from simply a thinly veiled pretense for the enjoyment of violence and dominion? One thing that I have come to understand now, which I could not have known then, is that everyone hungers for a sense of power, yet some people are simply better at preserving a veneer of civility while they attempt to indulge this primitive lust for victory, often exclusively over others. To such people as this, the concept of “heroism” becomes little more than a socially acceptable means by which they can imbibe the intoxicating brew of dominion and control. Does it not seem that such so-called heroes as these are but another breed of monster, albeit ones in white robes?

Why, you may ask, should we be so critical of our saviors? Who cares what drives them from within as long as they are at least fighting the good fight on the outside? The problem with heroes such as these, who merely play a shallow role so as to feed an insatiable predatory urge, is that they simply cannot be trusted to only fight the “good fight.” Such mock heroes care nothing for those whom they are supposed to be helping, and care even less, if at all, about the person or the persons who get cast as the villains. Their mock heroic efforts can produce nothing but a pale melodrama that these “heroes” must participate in if they wish to exercise their purely destructive powers and maintain their respectable veneers. Malignantly narcissistic, they have yet to reach a point in their personal growth where other people have any value to them beyond mere instrumentality. Yet, in so far as I believe that it is possible to sincerely care about others regardless of their potential benefit to you, I do not see such mockeries as these as the only sort of heroes that this world can produce. In other words, sometimes the civility that you see on a hero’s surface will be far more than a mere veneer, and these are the truly heroic.

Yet regardless of anyone’s capacity for sincere goodwill, there is another important issue that should be faced when one considers heroism, which is one of long-term results. Regardless of their true motives, are any heroes, even the most sincere, really the positive forces that they may on the surface appear to be?

When I was very young, I often suffered from terrible nightmares, made all the worse once I came to understand that my mother alone was no match for the sleek predator figures who regularly plagued my dreams. After I came to this awful realization, that there was no one there to save me from the terrible nocturnal monsters in my head, I had to adapt myself to the imminent danger that I felt in the darkness all around me, or, at the very least, reconcile myself to the impending doom I was certain awaited me once I shut my eyes. Essentially, I had to grow more courageous, if only to get some sleep.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that after many nights of steeling myself to my grim fate, I began to have dreams of fighting back against the werewolves and phantoms that plagued these earliest of dreams. My chronic nightmares, before evaporating almost completely, soon became exciting adventures that I avidly looked forward to, perhaps, in some part, due to that natural taste for power which I mentioned above.

This was perhaps the very first of countless “medicinal detriments” that I have benefited from in my life, difficult experiences that have made me stronger and brought me to the unfortunate conclusion that many of our saviors, despite their possibly good intentions, may simply make us all the weaker for their troubles. What can our heroes do to assure that their noble efforts do not merely enable and preserve the helplessness of those whom they would see helped?

The common man likes to believe that he lives in a world where protection is abundant, where a benevolent God and a principled Government watch over all people from on high. Such faith as this, in the strength and the goodness of our sworn protectors, is so increasingly important these days that it has become, for most of us, the entirety of our spiritual and political life. Religious faith and an enduring patriotism serve as our “comfort in the storm,” and yet, one could argue, these also make us overly complacent and uncritically compliant with those whom we then must depend upon to preserve our desperate illusions of safety. Once we are lead beyond merely desiring the salvation which is offered from above to desperately requiring it, all of those obligatorily saved have ironically become the most truly damned. Such a relentlessly inflicted “help” as this can only make us all the more helpless.

Although we can still take on a select few adult responsibilities, such as earning a wage and caring for our actual children, most of us today are compelled to remain as children ourselves, the means to truly grow up kept just out of our reach, or even out of our awareness. Who among us can see the line between being merely aided and actually being owned? Who would really even want to, especially if you found out that you had crossed over that line long ago? What if your vaulted social contract was in fact nothing but your bill of sale?

In a world that constantly assures me that everything happens for good reasons and always works out for the very best, I often find that I wish there were more people who worried a bit less about preserving their comfort and much more about facing the coming storms. Yet it is our comfortable faith in the heroism of other agencies above us that allows our own heroic spirits to slumber as they so often do.

I believe that the two basic problems of heroism, its most common motive and its consequent effects, are ultimately related to each other, for each of them arises directly from the hero’s failure to find his or her roots within the nearly limitless compassion of the saint. The mock hero is perhaps then the very worst type of monster indeed, one who not only vaingloriously pursues conflict at the cost of more ecological outcomes, but who, in the end, cares nothing at all for the very real human beings whom they will “save” or destroy. They play a shallow and personal game that only they can ever really win, while the meek are merely preserved as the delicate objects over which these glorious battles can be waged another day. The wolf and the shepherd battle not over objects of intrinsic value, but rather so that they may each feed. The sheep may believe that they are witnessing the grand struggle between a hero and a villain, but each one of these two mighty figures sees only a resource to be exploited.

If we are oppressed, then it seems obvious that we should say that our oppressors are bad, and that our liberators are good, but what few of us want to acknowledge is our own responsibility for having been oppressed in the first place. No one wants to take personal responsibility for his or her own weaknesses, even though these are the only things that really made it possible for this “injustice” to have ever taken place.

            Does the victim bear any blame for the crime that is committed against him or her? To most people, the answer is an obvious “no,” but to those who may perhaps have a real chance at truly becoming free, not just from oppression, but from the possibility of oppression as well, the answer has to at least be a cautious “maybe,” or real power will always lie just beyond their reach. Perhaps this is what was really meant by Jesus when he gave us his often ignored advice, “Love thy enemies,” or by the Taoist sage that said, “Invest in loss.”

Power is an essential aspect of the hero’s existence, yet they must also be “good” by conventional moral standards as well. This is why sincere compassion towards others becomes an invaluable element for the preservation of a true heroism. Only its presence can assure that the exercise of heroic strength is not simply a vain and selfish display of ostentatious narcissism, but rather an intentional and sincere act of caring, perhaps even of love itself, and only such caring as this could prompt a true hero to do what he or she must to empower those whom he or she wishes to make truly safe, so that they might grow to not only protect themselves, but, perhaps, to one day help others as well.

I think it’s important to note here that when I use such words-- compassion, caring, love-- I do not merely mean the emotional sentiments themselves, but rather the benevolent actions that these sentiments commonly inspire and against which each of one’s actions can be judged. Such terms should not be taken as an actual reference to simple affections alone but rather to the generous acts that should, ideally, follow naturally from them and which have, therefore, become synonymous with the sentiments themselves.

Of course, there is one final thing to be said about compassion, and how it solves these so called “problems of heroism,” for I believe that it is only at the very apex of compassion that we stop selfishly wishing to be saved or selflessly submitting to our own poor circumstances, and instead grow stronger, so that we might then find the power to save both others and ourselves. True compassion should not be confused with the effeminate vice that seeks peace at all costs because the “compassionate” one simply lacks the strength to be able to risk making any enemies. Rather it is the principle driving force behind any and all heroic efforts, because one can not remain helpless if one has a burning and sincere desire to ever be able to help anyone in this world. In short, the only sure solution to these ultimately relative problems with heroism is to become a hero oneself.   

We cannot realistically expect much heroism to arise from the herd that waits haplessly for their salvation from above; although we must continue to encourage them to rise up if we should hope to see any of them truly “saved.” However, as we fail, and we often will, to get our most potent villains to recognize the error of their cruel ways, we must realize that our only other option is to attempt to inspire the saintly themselves to embrace the good fight, to put aside their quietist humility, and to serve the Good more courageously as conquering heroes instead of as the too often martyred saints that they believe they should be.

I have no real quarrel with the saintly; I simply feel that they stop too early in the expression of their so-called compassion for others. I believe that many of them fail to see how the suffering that a few can cause if unopposed will create far more harm than what these saints avoid by quietisticly abstaining from all conflict. In failing to contend with evil they may easily remain unoppressed, if only in their own minds, as well as unoppressing, yet oppression itself will continue all around them none the less. Who but the truly compassionate can be expected to address such wrongs as these, and to assume the even less glorious job of empowering others to do the same.

For many unfortunate reasons, a few of which we have touched upon above, heroism often runs an enormous risk when it is not exercised clandestinely.  However it’s very important to remember that a heroic act, once publicly revealed, can not only serve as a good example to the next generation of potential heroes, but may also ignite hope and encouragement within the hearts of the dejected and the oppressed for whom such nourishment is essential.

It is my sincere hope that those of you who train in Malakimae will find in it at least some of the necessary tools that you will need to become a heroes. Good luck.

 
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