Stone Age humans doubtless spent nights around their camp fires telling heroic tales about ancestors who triumphed over adversity through ingenuity, bravery and grit. Once writing was invented the oldest surviving stories also chronicle the adventures of great heroes like Gilgamesh of Sumeria (4000 years ago in modern day Iraq), Odysseus of ancient Greece (2700 years ago) and Mulan of ancient China (1600 years ago). These heroic tales not only provided entertainment, but also transmitted higher truths, ethics and rules for living to their listeners.
Good example is almost always easier to follow than good advice . This is one reason why heroic tales have been so valued throughout human history. As Benjamin Franklin wisely observed “well done is better than well said.” Studying the lives, actions and words of great men and women from the past can show us in turn how to live a more happy, meaningful and flourishing life ourselves. Perhaps even more importantly it can confirm that such a life is possible even under the most difficult of circumstances. During the dark days of World War II, Winston Churchill exhorted a fearful British nation to “take council of the past and draw wisdom and courage from the memory of great people who have gone before us.” In his own troubled times the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius also reminded himself to “have before you at all times the image of a great person who practiced virtue.” By focusing on the best of humankind we can become better people ourselves. Modern research has shown that focusing on our heroes or on the heroic actions of others can create feelings of elevation – leading to an increased sense of purpose, happiness and wellbeing. Clearly it is easier to plot your life’s course if you follow a path that was blazed by successful people before you.
It is equally important to draw inspiration from the best qualities of our family members, friends and co-workers. Those around us need not be perfect to provide us with good examples from some aspect of their lives that is worthy of respect and emulation. As the great German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed: “There are people who focus on the defects of their friends, but there is nothing to be gained by it. I have always paid attention to the merits of my opponents and found it very rewarding.”
Goethe also noted that “The great point is not to pull down but to build up; in this humanity finds pure joy.” However, today many people seem to delight in pointing out the flaws in historical characters, modern leaders and those around them without also fairly acknowledging their merits. This can be a self-defeating behavior because it may produce an emotional burden of pessimism, cynicism and low expectations. In the public sphere such thinking may also lead to programs that, instead of trying to raise everyone up through higher expectations and targeted support, attempt to reach equality of outcome (“equity”) by holding back the talented and hard-working.
It is clear that heroes are equally important in our public lives. They can unite a country and a people with universal ideals and a common historic narrative. A country which ignores, or worse, grows ashamed of its heroes is much less likely to inspire its citizens to work together for a promising future. The iconoclastic vandalism of 2020 reached its low point when protesters defaced statues of brave abolitionists and Northern Civil War heroes like Hans Christian Heg of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, who gave their lives to preserve the Union and to end slavery. This showed a worrying disregard for even the best people and moments of our shared past and is an ill omen for our country.
So, choose your heroes wisely, enjoy the inspiration they can provide and try to lead an active, noble life yourself. Do not to fall into the trap of cynicism, rejecting everything if an individual or institution is found deficient in anything. We can honor the accomplishments of great people from the past and present, while simultaneously acknowledging their imperfections. Before you judge, remember Teddy Roosevelt’s words “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”