Earlier this month, one of my childhood heroes passed away. In my mind John Glenn will always be the astronaut who rode the “Friendship 7” Mercury capsule into orbit around the Earth.
Earlier generations’ heroes were many, the brave service members who fought in the Two World Wars and in Korea. Of course there was “Lucky” Charles Lindbergh. These heroes had been immortalized in movies. In a world full of real-life heroes from my parents’ past, Glenn was a hero for my own generation. He was flesh and blood, not a make-believe character like Batman or Superman from comic books.
A hero is someone seemingly fated to be great. The hero has nobility, courage, virility, and a small amount of pride. There’s a measure of Nietzsche’s superman in each hero. People look up to the hero, not only because of the good deeds he (or she) has done for the people, but in admiration of fantastic, amazing accomplishments.
There are downsides to hero-worship. It is blatantly anti-democratic and elitist. The public comes to believe that the hero can rescue society from perceived ills and evils. Believing that, the people surrender much of their power. The hero must also be on guard regarding his admirers. There is the problem of inflated egoism. The hero also feels pressure to do greater and greater deeds. The hero feels the weight of the world on his shoulders.
We do not like to admit that our heroes are just human beings much like ourselves. Indeed, after prolonged exposure to the limelight, the faults and flaws of the hero are revealed. This overexposure dulls his public image so he seems much less heroic. If the hero believes in his own heroism, he risks becoming vain and tyrannical. Eventually, the public, who once placed the hero on a pedestal, discovers the hero is not infallible and turns him into an anti-hero.
There is much danger from those individuals whose goals are to purposely set out to garner public praise and become heroes. Think of Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and some of our contemporary leaders. Their worshippers placed great faith and had grand expectations of these figures. Those heroes led their nations to ruin. Their fates were infamy.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev condemned his predecessor, the self-styled hero, Joseph Stalin. “Comrads! The cult of the individual has acquired such monsterous size chiefly because of Stalin himself, using all conceivable methods, supported the glorification of his own person.” The boundless narcissism and egoism of Stalin created a deadly, terrorist state that lorded over the Russian people. Stalin’s name is synonymous with villainy.
Even though such men as Hitler were cruel and amoral, they have their modern day admirers. What the new, Hitler worshipping neo-Nazis fail to realize, is that Adolf Hitler would have hated them. Yet he would have cynically used them for his own diabolical ends.
We can carefully choose benevolent heroes to study. There are leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, or Martin Luther King, Junior. They told us, from the outset, that they were mere human beings and that they did not want anything to do with cults of personality around them. We know not to worship such people, but to think about how we can adopt their positive attributes as parts of our own lives. They encouraged us to view the world through our own eyes, not theirs.
There are the countless everyday people who perform acts of great heroism yet desire no public acclaim nor special treatment. These heroes are quite worthy of our admiration and gratitude, but it would be a grave mistake to worship them.
This is how it should be.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the psychiatrist philosopher Karl Jaspers. “It is part of the rational statesman’s makeup to reject hero-worship–not only because he knows he can be wrong but because such an attitude toward him on the people’s part would destroy the very point of his political activity, the expansion of freedom.”