What Makes a Hero?

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

What makes a Hero?

If you want to know the psychology of a culture seek to understand its heroes. From the Aztecs to the Greeks, from the Bhagavad Gita to modern day athletics, what a culture celebrates reveals what it values.

We have many heroes to choose from when selecting a role model at which to aspire, but to make our best selection we must know how to properly define the term.

So, What makes a hero?

I yield to the simple words of the late mythology expert Joseph Campbell,

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

Described extensively in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell discusses the Monomyth– the basic archetype that all hero’s journeys follow. Whether mythology, fairy tales, religion or modern cinema, the hero’s path is one of a separation, an initiation, and a return. The hero has a call to adventure, overcomes great trials and obstacles in pursuit of his aim, and returns to where the story began to share his boon with his fellow man.

The final aspect of this tripartite of the hero’s journey, the return, is the most important aspect of the whole ordeal. The hero’s struggle is only worthwhile when its fruits improve the lives of those around him. Be it Prometheus’ fire, Plato’s cave dwelling man’s discovery of the real world, or Simba’s defeat of Scar and rise to power from Disney’s The Lion King, the hero is only a hero when he improves the lives of others.

One can climb great mountains, fight bad guys and discover wonders previously unseen, but without sharing the fruits of his labor this man is not a hero. He is just some eccentric guy who has lead an interesting life. His culture, and history, will only consider him a hero when he uses his discoveries for the benefit of others.

So, What makes a hero?

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

In serving others you become a hero. Learning something of value and sharing it with the world makes you a hero. Single mothers are the heroes! Performing well in an athletic contest does not make you a hero, but using that platform as a means of evoking a necessary change within society is heroic.

One final thought:

It is worth noting that throughout these stories the hero rarely sets out to become a hero. Whether through civic duty, fate or necessity, the hero has his journey thrust upon him, and responds out of a deep sense of responsibility to a cause greater than himself.

If you seek to be a hero, odds are you are motivated by a sense of personal gain as opposed to selfless devotion. By Joseph Campbell’s (and my) definition, if you seek to be a hero that is the one thing you are not.

To be a hero is to be outer-directed. To be concerned with the effect your actions have on the lives of others rather than one’s self.

It is also worth noting that though there is much glory to be had as a hero there is also much suffering. We treasure these men and women for what they have overcome. The greater the struggle the more glorious the triumph. There is a direct proportion to the amount one has suffered, and the amount one is praised. This suffering is not martyrdom. This suffering is not aimless.

Only when one suffers for others does that suffering have meaning.


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