Heroes and Hero Worship: An Interview with Dr. Andrew Bernstein

Dr. Andrew Bernstein has taught Philosophy at numerous New York-area universities. In 2016-17, he taught Business Ethics at the American University in Bulgaria as a Visiting Professor. He is the author of The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic, and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire, and Objectivism in One Lesson: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. His new book, Heroes and Hero Worship, is an investigation into the nature of what makes someone a hero, how we can rationally understand the phenomenon, and what selfish hero worship really means.

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What, or whom inspired you to write this book, on this particular subject?

From my earliest memories, I have been a hero worshiper. Growing up in a crazy family, in a world often plagued by villains—irrational persons perpetrating heinous atrocities—I inspired myself with tales of life-enhancing heroes, whether real-life or, especially, fictitious. For example, as a child, I delighted in reading about George Washington’s successful struggle to carry to fruition the American War of Independence; similarly regarding the intellectual battle of the great French chemist, Louis Pasteur, to convince the hostile medical establishment that the germ theory of disease was true; and of Jack Schaefer’s fictitious gunfighter, Shane, a man of superb prowess and matchless integrity, who risked his life to save the family he loved. Such stories, and numerous others, showed me, in action, the human potential for good, and inspired me to become the best I could be. A lifelong fascination with heroism inspired me to write this book.

The ‘hero’ label has been used very liberally throughout history. In the book you establish the rational meaning of what a hero is. With an example or two from the book, could you give us an outline of your rational definition of what a hero is?

A hero, first of all, is a good guy. Couched in more philosophic terms, a hero takes positive action in promotion of human life. Whether he/she cures disease or advances agricultural science, empowering human beings to grow more food, or writes a great novel or effectively defends the innocent against murderous brutes or performs one of many similar deeds, a hero advances human life rather than harms or expunges it.

Second, in unremitting dedication to the good, a hero faces daunting obstacles and/or dangers. Socrates, for example, in pioneering the nascent field of moral philosophy, by living in accordance with his principles, and by refusing to subordinate those principles to the edicts of arbitrary authority, faced execution as a result.  This shows great moral courage, the most salient characteristic of heroism.

Third, a hero possesses and deploys prowess—be it intellectual, bodily, or both—substantially greater than that of everyman at his best. For example, it took Michelangelo’s genius to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; the rest of us could not do it.

Fourth, a hero, in his/her quest for life-promoting values, achieves victory in some form, certainly morally—even if not in a practical sense. Cyrano, for example, because of unbreached devotion to noble ideals, is a towering hero, although his love for Roxane remains unconsummated, his plays are not produced, and he is murdered by craven, perfidious foes.

In the book, I put these characteristics together to arrive at a rigorous, reality-based definition of the concept “hero.”

When many people think of heroes, they think of comic-book style heroes. Is it good that popular culture gives us so many examples of heroes to emulate or is it watering down the definition of heroism?  

Many characters presented in popular culture—for example, spies, detectives, super heroes, and so forth—embody legitimate characteristics of heroism. For example, they are supremely courageous, they often exhibit great prowess, generally bodily but at times intellectual, they protect the freedom and/or lives of honest persons, and, in some form, they generally triumph. They keep alive in our culture and in our souls the human hunger for the sight of moral stature.

From Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Captain America, and Wonder Woman it is, admittedly, a big intellectual step to Howard Roark and Dagny Taggart. But spiritually (that is, morally) it is not such a big step. It is sad that many hero worshipers in society who admire the heroes of popular culture might not be willing to read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. That is certainly unfortunate, and we can continue to reach out to them—our spiritual brethren—urging them to read these monumental stories of intellectual heroes. For their souls are already there; they merely need to be willing to stretch their minds.

In the book, you mention Jack Schaefer’s novel, Shane, in which the young boy, Bobby, has two role models: his peaceful father and the mysterious stranger who is later revealed as a gunfighter. Is there a contradiction at work here or is it good that he has a balance of two types of heroes in his life?

Clearly, Shane does not want Bobby to grow up to be a gunfighter, no matter how virtuous. He wants the boy to be a peaceful and immensely productive man, like his father. Since both Shane and Joe Starrett are legitimate heroes, there is no contradiction here.

In reality, heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Those who create the intellectual and or material wealth necessary for human life, and who often face great hardship in doing so, are heroes. But so are those who protect such benefactors from the brutes that would plunder and/or murder them. It is good that mankind has so often recognized as heroes the virtuous warriors who protect creators from dangerous antagonists. But the life-giving creators themselves, some of whom become wealthy, are regularly denounced as greedy and exploitative. This is a travesty: For, in fact, those who create wealth make life possible and are mankind’s fundamental heroes. Virtuous warriors are heroes because they protect the creators. There is no virtue or heroism in warfare itself; it is destruction. The heroism derives from protecting the creators.

What does it mean to “worship” a hero and how can one do this meaningfully?

Rationally, the term “worship” means to pay homage to human beings at their life-advancing best. It is an earthly concept, denoting no belief in a transcendent world or supernatural god. Hero worshipers properly do two things: They offer heroes the most profound admiration and respect a human being can generate, thereby ennobling their own lives with such exalted feelings; and, in action, they emulate the hero, not necessarily in terms of the hero’s specific actions or career, but by exhibiting an unstinting courage in pursuit of their own life-affirming values. One thing rational hero worshipers do not do is to offer the hero blind obedience.

You identify action as a necessary part of what makes someone a hero; overcoming fear holds many people back from acting on their vision. What advice would you have for someone struggling with fear?

Fear is an emotion, and, as with all emotion, a vital form of experiencing life in all of its heartbreak and its glory. It is not a considered intellectual judgment. The pursuit of values often requires courage. So, for example, I would not venture into shark-infested waters but, if such were the only way to save my daughter’s life, I would. The prize must be worth the game. The value to be gained must be worth the risk involved. The emotion does not tell us this. This requires a rational assessment of both the value’s relative worth in our lives and of the gravity of the danger.

If a person is rationally convinced he should perform action x but is overcome by fear, then he/she must will himself to perform the action. I hear people object, “I don’t have any will.” They need to understand that will is not something we have; it is something we do. Here is where the sight of heroes taking substantial risks in pursuit of positive values has immense inspirational power. I know a woman, for example, stricken with cancer, who motivated herself by the realization that if Ernest Shackleton could face and overcome the enormous hardships/dangers he did, then she could face cancer treatment and battle for her life. Joyously, she won her battle.

Society holds up many historical and fictitious figures as heroes because they sacrificed something, even their lives, for someone else. Does self-sacrifice factor into your description of what it means to be heroic?

Self-sacrifice involves the surrender of a higher value for a lesser value or a non-value. A hero always acts in support of life-sustaining values, and never surrenders them. He/she may give up a great deal but what he pursues is always of greater worth to him. For example, a freedom fighter might lose his home, his property, and every scintilla of his wealth—but freedom, to him, is of vastly greater importance. This extends even to life itself. Samuel Sharpe, for example, a heroic black revolutionary against slavery in Jamaica, said as the British prepared to hang him, “I would rather die on yonder gallows than live in slavery.” He understood.

This is a complex issue that is discussed at great length in the book.

When we use the term hero, we usually have a certain kind of person in mind. Can someone who is a plumber, or a businessman, or a traffic officer be considered a hero? If so, how?

A hero is someone who demonstrates significant courage in the quest for life-affirming values. Everyman and Everywoman can certainly do this. A plumber, for example, working arduously long hours to support his family, might nevertheless choose to go to night school, enhance his education, and earn a college degree. As mentioned above, some persons often face serious, even terminal illness with sublime courage. Everyman might lack the prowess—the genius, the robust bodily toughness, and so forth—of an epic hero; but, within the scale of his/her concerns and abilities, can certainly act heroically. For example, a poor black woman, a sharecropper in the Jim Crow US South, terribly persecuted, might with substantial courage stand up to the authorities and procure, for her children, an education and opportunities otherwise deemed impossible. Taking such risks in pursuit of a profound human value—education—is indubitably the act of a hero.

When we specify the respect in which one is a hero, and have a rough estimate of the degree of heroism involved, it becomes clear that Everyman and Everywoman can indeed attain the status of hero.

Again, this is a complex issue discussed at length in the book.

Dr. Bernstein’s book is not yet available for purchase, but interested readers can check www.andrewbernstein.net for updates.

Creative commons licensed image courtesy of Flickr user Jörg Schubert.

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