“Search for the hero? Apparently we should”
November 24, 2010 Leave a Comment
“Do we still need heroes?”
“Can we devise ideals of heroism that are adequate for the 21st century?”
“Are there different kinds of heroes?”
Reading these questions outlined in the announcement for the annual Tans lecture in honour of the founding father of Maastricht University Dr J Tans, I felt sure as a student of Art and Culture at Maastricht University in the middle of my studies on moral ethics that I would go home with some food for thought.
The guest speaker, Professor Susan Neiman, Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, was introduced as a moral philosopher, cultural commentator and essayist who would enlighten the audience on the necessity or not of still “seeking heroes”, at a time “so intimidatingly full of challenges”.
Professor Susan Neiman
Where have all the heroes gone?
Susan Neiman took to the stage and introduced the lecture, quite clearly and importantly, as a work in progress for the book which she is currently writing.
Stating that “humans are essentially moral beings” she looked at the figures of Odysseus and Achilles and discussed how necessary heroes were in antiquity as people learnt how to make moral judgements from the study of their actions. She suggested that the Enlightenment era opened civilisation up to a non-heroic period and claimed in a passionate tone that the world has mourned the loss of such classical figures ever since.
Head of Odysseus
A friend later argued however that in an age when we create images of ourselves to the world on an almost constant basis through websites like Facebook and Twitter, we may be becoming heroes of our own realities: are we not creating our own images of ideals and idols?
Pursuing this line of thought, Neiman’s suggestion that we have lost touch with heroism or entered a non-heroic period could even be seen as a sign that we have perhaps outgrown the need for such symbols. I felt like these were key questions that Neiman slightly overlooked during this part of her lecture.
What constitutes a hero?
Neiman next investigated what constitutes a hero and arrived at the familiar statement: “One person’s hero is another person’s terrorist.”
How do we begin to classify what constitutes figures like heroes and villains in our world of increasing globalisation and cultural pluralism? Whilst appearing to accept this difficulty and not clearly defining the terms further, Neiman proceeded with the lengthy case study of John Brown, a 19thcentury American abolitionist who campaigned tirelessly for an end to all slavery.
Abolitionist John Brown
Though interesting, I personally felt too much time was centred on this one example instead of contemplating the bigger questions. Brown’ story, which Neiman described as fascinating, clearly touched a chord with her, and almost brought her to tears as she read eulogies by his contemporaries.
The age of the victim
Neiman argued that what has prevailed is the symbol of the victim rising up and taking over that of the hero. She suggested that a victim is far easier to define because it does not have the same moral complexity and criteria as the hero and therefore appeals in an age where the concept of a hero “has been abused so many times that we appear to have lost faith in it”. To illustrate the point, Neiman took the example of the politician who says what is needed in order to gain his seat and then neglects those who voted for him.
Neiman suggested that now life appears to be not so much about what we as individuals do in the world but what the world does for us. In her view, we have become divorced from active virtue and see “victimhood as the currency of recognition”. This idea certainly bears considerable weight in an age obsessed with celebrity and reality television.
Where do we go from here?
Neiman concluded that we should view life as an endeavour and that we do need to strive for ideals. The concepts of heroes and idealism make us feel more alive because they remind us that life’s dimensions are larger than those certain people force us to respect.
In her eyes heroes demonstrate who we could be and help us become aware of the inner potential laying dormant within us all.
But still the questions seemed to remain, where should we look for these heroes, how can we begin to define what they should look like?
I found myself considering at a time when newspapers around the world are publishing articles containing statements like, “many citizens in the Netherlands are worried that the era of famous Dutch tolerance is coming to a close” (Time magazine online) and headlining others, “What happened to the Holland I knew?” (FT.com) that perhaps, now more than ever, these questions about ideals and heroes are becoming increasingly more relevant.
Dutch tolerance coming to a close?
Not just in the Netherlands but across the world there appear to be figures emerging, who stand for backward politics and in general a seemingly regressive attitude.
I believe we do need to strive again for something more. We need to revisit the concepts of ideals and heroes and bring them into the 21st century in order to combat the increasing popularity of the images of the victim and the villain.
But I still found myself in the same quandary: where are we supposed to look for these heroes? How can we define them?
Whilst grateful that Neiman had raised these questions I felt no more sure on leaving the lecture that I was any closer to a solution of how to go about doing so.
By Dani Older
Dani is a British student here for a three year course studying Art and Culture at Maastricht University.