In A Call to Heroism, Peter Gibbon argues that the heroes we honor are the embodiment of the ideals that America was founded on: liberty, justice, and tolerance chief among them. Because the very concept of heroism has come under threat in our cynical media age, Gibbon believes that we must forge a new understanding of what it means to be a hero to fortify our ideals as we engage our present challenges and face those that lay ahead. Gibbon examines the types of heroes that we have celebrated throughout our history, and along the way, he contemplates the meanings of seven monuments and artworks dedicated to heroes to examine what these places and things say about the America of their timeand what they mean for Americans today.
Full of insight and inspiration, A Call to Heroism is a provocative look at a timeless subject that has never been more important.
Chapter One What Is A Hero?
A look at the essence of heroism, and how we perceive it today
Interchapter: Hall of Fame for Great Americans
A contemplation of the Hall monument, built in New York City at the end of the 19th century by architecht Stanford White, and left to decay in the 1970s. Gibbon
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A Call to Heroism
Renewing America's Vision of Greatness
By Peter H. Gibbon
Grove Atlantic, Inc.
Copyright © 2002
Peter H. Gibbon
All right reserved.
What is a Hero?
Let me tell you they are out there-those of confounding
selflessness and seeming immunity to fear.... They have
eluded concise definition since the beginning of recorded
-Admiral James Stockdale, 1991
"On Heroes and Heroism"
It's a tricky word. It should not be thrown around easily, hero
-Lance Armstrong, 2001
Union Square, New York City
Twentieth-century philosopher Joseph Campbell believed that
all heroes take journeys, confront the unknown, endure trials,
and return home transformed-as did Buddha, Muhammad, and
Jesus. Christians believe heroes are humble and turn the other
cheek. Friedrich Nietzsche believed heroes were proud and
forceful. Who is a hero? "He who conquers his evil
inclinations," according to the Talmud. "He who hangs on for
one minute more," says a Russian proverb.
Hero is a difficult word. Is John Wayne a hero because he
portrayed brave men? Is Babe Ruth a hero because he hit home
runs? Can we look up to Charles Lindbergh after he accepted a
medal from the Nazis, or to suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
knowing she feared that immigrants would change American
culture? Is General Dwight Eisenhower a hero even though he
never risked his life? Can we admire Robert E. Lee when he
fought to preserve slavery?
Nobody wants to be called a hero. After being widely acclaimed
for his leadership in the Gulf War, General Norman
Schwarzkopf called his book It Doesn't Take a Hero and
passed along the glory to the men who served under him. When
President Reagan saluted Mother Hale as "a true American
hero" for taking babies with aids into her home, she replied,
"I'm not an American hero. I'm simply a person who loves
children." John F. Kennedy turned aside praise of his war
exploits by saying, "My boat sank."
To many of today's intellectuals, the word hero is antique. They
appreciate epic heroes like Achilles and Beowulf, mythological
heroes like Hercules, tragic heroes like Antigone. But human
heroes belong to a credulous prescientific age. Intellectuals
don't have heroes; they have people they admire-some of the
Too male, too military, say feminists. Hero often means
oppressor. In a patriarchal society, heroes have been warriors,
cowboys, explorers. Our definition of hero reflects a "male
model," poetry critic Helen Vendler told me in an interview. "I
often wondered what happened to the children when the hero
went away to war."
Deconstructionists find the word hero meaningless. In their
view, no one is selfless or noble. Behind every altruistic act is
self-interest. Social scientists tell us that human beings are not
autonomous but conditioned by genes and environment, that we
do what we are bred and trained to do, not what we believe is
right. To some Americans today, the concept of a hero seems
elitist and out of place in a democracy where all are equal.
"A hero is usually smug," Ned Rorem told me in his home on
Nantucket. Rorem, a composer, won a Pulitzer Prize for his
music in 1976 and had recently been named president of the
American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City.
Rorem doesn't accept the word hero and has never had one. "I
Don't know what noble or lofty means." Mother Teresa "is a
fraud," he added; "she is in the hero business.... Abortion and
birth control would help India."
It's hard to have confidence in the word hero when reputations
rise and fall. At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago
in 1893, visitors could stroll through a full-scale reproduction of
the monastery where Christopher Columbus stayed in Spain
before peetitioning Queen Isabella forfunding to sail to America.
Life-size replicas of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria floated
across a man-made lagoon. On display were seventy-one
portraits of Columbus and facsimiles of his ships' logs. Leading
up to the 1893 exposition had been a year of parades and
ceremonies commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of
Columbus's first voyage. Almost one hundred years later, in
1992, demonstrators threw blood on the explorer's statue at
Columbus Circle in New York City to protest the impact of
colonization on Native Americans.
Besides, say skeptics, a skillful publicist can make an ordinary
person great. Several patriots rode to Lexington on April 19,
1775, to warn Americans of the British attack, but Longfellow's
1861 poem "Paul Revere's Ride" made only one man a hero.
Until John Filson mythologized Daniel Boone in the eighteenth
century and Timothy Flint praised him in the most widely read
biography before the Civil War, Boone was an average explorer,
who in a moment of honesty confessed, "Many heroic actions
and chivalrous adventures are related of me which exist only in
the regions of fancy." Libby Custer wrote three best-sellers and
gave hundreds of lectures around the country to assure posterity
that in 1876 at the Battle of Little Big Horn her husband, George
A. Custer, died a hero.
Names and stories linger in our memories and make a difference.
Thomas Jackson became "Stonewall" Jackson during the Civil
War, after he stationed his men in a strong defensive line and
repulsed the Union troops at the Battle of Manassas in 1861. In
the 1870s, Ned Buntline's dime novels transformed William F.
Cody into Buffalo Bill.
Heroes can also be elevated by early death. Until the British
hanged him as a spy at the age of twenty-one, Nathan Hale was
an ordinary soldier in the Colonial army. Cartoonists mocked
Abraham Lincoln until the night he was shot. "This thing of
being a hero," said Will Rogers, "about the main thing to do is
to know when to die."
What a Hero Is Not
The word hero comes to us from the Greek, meaning demigod.
Offspring of a divine parent and a mortal parent, the heroes of
Greek mythology were less than gods but greater than ordinary
humans-and if their exploits in the mortal world brought honor
to the gods, they could join them on Mount Olympus for
eternity. Achilles, the quintessential classical warrior, who kills
Hector on the fields of Troy at the end of the Iliad, was a great
hero to the Greeks because he was courageous and handsome
and valued glory in battle more than life itself.
Later in their history, the Greeks applied the word hero to
human beings. The most renowned human hero in the ancient
world was the conqueror Alexander the Great, who marched
from Egypt to India and conquered the known world in nine
years before he died at the age of thirty-two. In the Sackler
Museum at Harvard University, there is a Greek coin that on one
side depicts Alexander the Great as a human being and on the
other side as a god. In Greece there were hero shrines where
citizens could worship. Heroes seemed more accessible than
gods. The bones of human heroes, the Greeks believed, had
magical powers. From the Greeks comes the notion of the hero
as extraordinary, superhuman, charismatic, godlike, as well as
the beliefs that heroes are above all physically brave and that the
crucible of courage is the battlefield, where decisions and
actions mean life or death.
For most of human history, hero has been synonymous with
warrior. Although we often link these words today, we do have
an expanded, more inclusive definition of hero than the one we
inherited from the Greeks. Modern dictionaries list three qualities
in common after the entry hero: extraordinary achievement,
courage, and the idea (variously expressed) that the hero serves
as a "model" or "example"-that heroism has a moral
Today, extraordinary achievement is no longer confined to valor
in combat. As well as military heroes, there are humanitarian
heroes, cultural heroes, political heroes. Thomas Edison lit up
the night. Harriet Tubman rescued slaves. Thomas Jefferson
wrote the Declaration of Independence. Beethoven is a hero of
music, Rembrandt of art, Einstein of science.
Likewise, courage means many things besides physical bravery:
taking an unpopular position, standing up for principle,
persevering, forging accomplishment out of adversity. After her
life was threatened, activist Ida B. Wells continued to condemn
lynching. Franklin Roosevelt battled polio. Helen Keller
transcended blindness and deafness.
The moral component of the meaning of heroism-and, I
believe, the most important one-is elusive. In French, héros is
associated with generosity and force of character. And in
Middle English, heroicus means noble. In dictionaries, heroic is
an adjective of praise: some of its synonyms are virtuous,
steadfast, magnanimous, intrepid. The Oxford English
Dictionary uses the phrase "greatness of soul." It's an
imprecise concept, like the word hero itself. There are many
different ways to describe it, but I believe greatness of soul to
be a mysterious blend of powerful qualities summarized by
Shakespeare in Macbeth (IV.iii.91-94), where he describes the
"king-becoming graces" as:
... justice, verity, temp'rance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.
When Nelson Mandela received an honorary degree from
Harvard University in a special ceremony in September 1998,
the seniors sat in the front rows. My son, who was among them,
commented that there was an aura about Mandela, something
about being in his presence that evoked a surprisingly powerful
response. I believe the response he was describing is awe,
which washed over many people attending the ceremony that
afternoon and came from contemplating Mandela's
extraordinary achievement, his profound courage, and his
greatness of soul.
I find it significant that the heroes in American history with the
most staying power, like Abraham Lincoln and George
Washington, had this same greatness of soul. And I find it
encouraging that the three people Time magazine picked as the
most influential of the twentieth century-Albert Einstein,
Mohandas Gandhi, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt-each had
Heroes, of course, do not have extraordinary achievement,
courage, and the qualities that comprise greatness of soul in
equal abundance, but I argue that the more of them one has, the
higher one is in the pantheon. And if you take an antonym for
each of Shakespeare's "king-becoming graces," you come up
with a pretty good definition of what a hero is not: unjust,
untruthful, intemperate, unstable, stingy, wavering, vengeful,
arrogant, capricious, impatient, cowardly, and volatile.
The greatest burden the word hero carries today is the
expectation that a hero be perfect. In Greek mythology, even the
gods have flaws. They are not perfect but rather hot-tempered,
jealous, and fickle, taking sides in human events and feuding
The Roman historian Plutarch wrote some of the earliest
biographies of heroes: Lives of the Noble Grecians and
Romans. For hundreds of years these biographies were
enormously influential in European and American education.
Thomas Jefferson carried a copy of Lives in his knapsack.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays and notebooks are sprinkled
with quotations from Plutarch. For each of the biographies she
read, Jane Addams's father paid her fifty cents. Plutarch's
Lives was one of Harry Truman's favorite books, and it lingered
as one of the staples of an Anglo-American classical education
until the turn of the nineteenth century.
Plutarch's biographies were not hagiographies; in each he
reminds us that an exemplary life has never been a perfect life,
and we learn from his subjects' vices as well as their virtues. For
example, in his treatment of the Roman statesman Cato the Elder
(one of George Washington's heroes), Plutarch praises Cato for
his frugality and integrity, and for being a good father and
husband, but rebukes him for boasting about his achievements
and mistreating his slaves. Plutarch acknowledged the flaws of
the men he wrote about, but in the main he admired their many
In America today we have come to define the person by the
flaw: Thomas Jefferson is the president with the slave mistress,
Einstein the scientist who mistreated his wife, Mozart the
careless genius who liked to talk dirty. These definitions lodge in
our minds-especially if they relate to sex-and become the
first and sometimes the only thing we remember.
As a society, we need to explore a more subtle, complex
definition of the word hero, suitable for an information age, one
that acknowledges weaknesses as well as strengths, failures as
well as successes-but, at the same time, one that does not set
the bar too low. We need to portray our heroes as human beings
but let them remain heroic. Yes, Lincoln liked bawdy stories,
was politically calculating, and suffered from melancholy. But he
also exhibited astonishing political and moral courage, led our
nation through its greatest crisis, and always appealed to the
"better angels of our nature."
A realistic definition of hero does not mean we include in the
pantheon those who are evil. Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung
were two of the most powerful men of the twentieth century,
leading vast backward nations to global prominence while
destroying millions of lives in the process. Though some in
Russia or China still venerate them, few in America would call
them heroes today. In his book ranking the one hundred most
influential individuals in human history, Michael Hart observes,
"It is not a list of the noblest characters." Influential does not
mean heroic. Nor is leader-a word to which hero is
frequently linked-a synonym for hero. Adolf Hitler was a leader; Nelson
Mandela is a hero.
Among those who are not fond of the word hero was the
philosopher Sidney Hook, because throughout history we have
called so many leaders heroes who have been greedy and
wicked. Reflecting a recurring criticism of heroes, one that
becomes particularly pronounced after World War II, Hook
noted that "on the whole, heroes in history have carved out their
paths of greatness by wars, conquest, revolutions, and holy
crusades." In his 1943 book The Hero in History, Hook
suggested we take the word away from political leaders and
soliders and give it to teachers.
A Hero by Any Other Name?
As I travel around the country talking to students, I have been
asked many times, "Can't a celebrity be a hero?" A celebrity
can be a hero but, by definition, a celebrity is simply someone
who is famous. Are celebrities usually heroes? It is hard to
combine the qualities of heroism with the values of today's
Excerpted from A Call to Heroism
by Peter H. Gibbon
Copyright © 2002 by Peter H. Gibbon.
Excerpted by permission.
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