POP culture

Premises Of Post-Objectivism


A discussion of the nature of heroism instigated by Andrew Bernstein's article

Copyright Thomas Gramstad

Full Context Vol. 10, No. 7 (March 1999)

Heroism is a crucial topic, both philosophically and artistically in Objectivism. From a sense-of-life point of view, heroism is indeed the essence of Objectivism. Yet this topic is not only underemphasized, but underdeveloped in Objectivism, with only a few scattered remarks here and there in the Randian corpus. The terms hero and heroism have not been defined explicitly, and there are no entries about them in the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

However, with Andrew Bernstein's article, The Philosophical Foundations of Heroism<1>, this has changed.

The following is an examination of and comment on Bernstein's article. In general, this is an excellent article. It brings various Objectivist insights and positions on heroism together, presenting and building a full-bodied explication of the Randian theory of heroism, in logical sequence, providing many examples. It identifies the key elements of heroism, explaining their relationships. Last, but far from least, the article also identifies and explains what courage is (a severely underemphasized virtue in the Objectivist corpus).

However, there are also some problems with the article.


The first problem is that here and there, the article reflects the personal attitudes and style of certain Objectivists (like ARI), rather than Objectivist philosophy. For example, Hillary Clinton is compared to Hitler (and Ellsworth Toohey and Iago) early in the article, without any justification, and without any motivation or relevance to the article. It might have been acceptable to compare the Clintons' statist policies with those of Nazists in a rhetorical piece about politics. But this is not such a piece; the aim and language of the article is scholarly, not polemical, and it is about heroism, not about politics. And no comparison is being made, it's just a juxtaposition of H. Clinton and Hitler in the same sentence. It serves no function, except alienating parts of the readership. More than a few women consider Hillary Clinton to be a successful and powerful female role model - a hero, as it were. That doesn't make her one, but the issue here is - not for the first time - certain Objectivists' ability to alienate readers without good reason.

Another example of odd, unexplained juxtaposition occurs later in the article, when Bill Clinton, the Pope, Mother Theresa, and Madonna are put in the same group, a sub-hero or anti-hero group, without explanation. Objectivists will understand that Clinton, the Pope and Mother Theresa are put together because of their altruism and collectivism. But this point would require explanation for any non-Objectivist reader. Why Madonna is included in the group is anyone's guess - maybe Bernstein felt a need to say something about his musical (dis)tastes. Another unmotivated element.

Bernstein's perfunctory dismissal of Hamlet as a "pathetic figure" who is a perfect literary expression of the mind-body dichotomy, a "brilliant philosopher-intellectual who excels in the theoretical realm but is helpless to deal with the practical", may reflect Rand's personal tastes or perhaps ARI's official policy. For most other people, Hamlet represents a moral hero of great stature, struggling to incorporate his principles and knowledge with a complex and difficult reality.


Bernstein quotes and harshly criticizes a dictionary definition of a hero:
    Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines "hero as: a)
    "a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent
    endowed with great strength or ability, b) an illustrious
    warrior, c) a man admired for his achievements and noble
    qualities, d) one that shows great courage."
According to Bernstein, this "attempt at" definition is "woefully inadequate". However, his "woefully inadequate"-comment is overstated. While he does indeed add clarity and philosophical depth to this definition, his own definition nevertheless leans heavily on the dictionary definition:

    A hero is ... an individual of elevated moral stature and
    superior ability who pursues his goals indefatigably in the face
    of powerful antagonist(s). Because of his unbreached devotion to
    the good, no matter the opposition, a hero attains spiritual
    grandeur, even in he fails to achieve practical victory. Notice
    then the four components of heroism: moral greatness, ability or
    prowess, action in the face of opposition, and triumph in at
    least a spiritual, if not a physical, form.
Both definitions identify the same four key components, but Bernstein's is the more philosophical, his definition is "essentialized" and therefore superior. Webster's definition can be seen as a pop version of a philosophical definition, so they are really closely related. Therefore the dictionary definition cannot be "woefully inadequate"; even though Bernstein's definition is a substantial improvement of it, the dictionary definition too is true and identify the four key elements.


Bernstein goes on to claim that the mind-body dichotomy, caused by Plato and Christianity, is the cause of what he considers an over-emphasis on action-heroes (rather than intellectual heroes) in Western culture:

    Such a mind-body split is the necessary application to the
    theory of human nature of the belief in two-world,
    metaphysical dualism.  As long as men are taught a religious
    metaphysics, they will hold that the spirit is a
    hyper-sensitive, hand-wringing weakling too fine for this
    world-and that only brute bodily means are efficacious and
    Therefore, as long as men retain sufficient rationality to
    value their own lives, they will necessarily celebrate the
    distinctively--physicalistic attributes of man despite paying
    lip service to religion.  If only physical prowess is
    efficacious, then their lives depend on it--and it is the
    body they will venerate.
I disagree. First, there are issues of symbolical action and symbolical-esthetical representations of the body to consider. To be a hero is to do something specific (action). And a highly functional body, a body with athletic strenght, agility and dexterity, is a universal, transcultural symbol of heroism. This leads to the second point, which is that Bernstein's claim is historically inaccurate or uninformed. The first heroes in history were warrior-heroes who protected their clan, community or city against invaders. This is the historical origin of the coupling of heroism with action<2>.

In other words, the coupling of heroism with action existed long before Plato and Christianity, and it also exists in cultures without Plato and Christianity. It is still possible, of course, that the mind-body dichotomy (MBD) can influence the coupling in an unhealthy way, e.g., by causing an overemphasis on it. But the point is, contrary to Bernstein's claim, the MBD didn't cause or originate the coupling; the requirements of human survival in pre-industrial societies did. Therefore, the MBD cannot be used to discredit a strong connection between heroism and action. The connection was a historical existential necessity - and even today the connection is essential, because human survival requires the integration of thought and action. And the esthetical-symbolical issues related to heroism, inspiration and hero-worship have not changed. But how to express and present images of thought-action integration and heroic grandeur?

Heroism involves a moral character, and a moral character is integrated with its expression in action. A "theoretically good character", which is not expressed in action, is not heroic - and would not even be considered to be a good character. While the intellect, or "intellectual heroism", certainly is important, and certainly is underemphasized in the culture, it doesn't lend itself so easily to symbolical expression, by itself. First, because it is possible to have a great intellect without having a moral character. Secondly, because it is difficult to portray a thought process itself as heroic and exciting: someone sitting and concentrating on a chair, someone sitting and looking into the air in an office - these are not powerful images. But the end result of the thought process - the action that it leads to - lends itself easily to symbolic expression of heroism. Just as creation is an integration of intellect and action, so must heroism be. Bernstein knows this, he makes it one of his key points. But the actual degrees of intellect and action, mind and body, in the mix, and their style of expression, can vary greatly. While the culture underemphasizes the intellectual aspects of heroism, Bernstein errs in the opposite direction, he demotes the physical aspects of the symbolic expression of heroism too much. Such a demotion will also cause an attenuation of the esthetical aspects of heroism.


My last disagreement is with Bernstein's elitism:

    Heroism is a moral concept. By its nature it is reserved for the
    man set apart--for the select few who tower above the rest. It
    is a sparsely populated classification. To attain this status
    one must reach the zenith of human morality--an undeviating
    commitment to rational values, in action, in the teeth of
    opposition that would dismay a lesser man.  ...  It is from
    observation of these men that the concept "hero" is formed;
    it is for these men that the special designation of "hero" is
    reserved. ...  [T]here are a special few who take on all comers
    to achieve their ends. The designation "hero" is a moral
    approbation reserved for this elite.
Bernstein presents "hero" as a concept interchangeable with "moral genius". I do not question the existence of moral geniuses, or the value of recognizing and praising them. But I cannot accept this bereavement of heroism from humanity at large. Neither rational selfishness nor morality nor courage (the building blocks of heroism) are elitist concepts. Everyone can be an egoist, a moral person, or a courageous person. The degree can and will vary, as is the case with all forms of competence and achievement. I do not accept that the upper end of the scale shall be cut off and placed in a superhuman realm, inaccessible to and separate from humanity at large. Instead, I propose an unbreached, continuous scale of heroism.

Heroism, as it is depicted in art and literature, as well as in life, comes in a large continuous range of degrees and dimensions. Here I will focus on the two extreme ends of the scale. I call these the Everyday Hero and the Epic Hero.

The Everyday Hero is the more or less ordinary person who gets into trouble, probably not by his or her own choosing, and who rise to the occasion, actualizing the best of their slumbering and unknown potentials in the process. The Everyday Hero seems familiar and realistic in that s/he could have been one of the neighbors, and because we are told about her or his confusion, conflicts and development. An example of this would be Harrison Ford in one of his I'm-an-ordinary-and-decent-person-but-don't-push-me-movies.

The Everyday Hero is positive and inspiring through his familiarity and through the description of a gradual personal development that may provide one with clear ideas about steps to take in order to become heroic, to realize one's possibilities. The Everyday Hero is the role model.

The Epic Hero, by contrast, is out of this world, larger than life. An extraordinary person in extraordinary situations and difficulties, but handling it all apparently without any serious problems. The Epic Hero goes or rather flies through life with panache, grandeur and in big-time style.

The Epic Hero is positive and inspiring through the images and emotions being evoked, the impossible dream that suddenly becomes real and concrete. S/he is not really a role model, but rather a fertilizer that will prepare the ground so that role models may find a place to take root - an image that evokes the desire for heroic being.

The issue is a balance between, or rather an integration of, realism and symbolism. Realism is the vehicle you make that will carry you in the direction you want to go. Symbolism is the stars in the sky that can tell you the direction.

We need both; the symbolism and the realism, the Epic Hero and the Everyday Hero. We don't need both in each text or each work of art, but we need a diet that contains both, and we need to identify their fundamental connection, as constituents of the same structure, points on the same scale. Without the latter we will become escapists; and without the former we will become buried in the nitty-gritty of everyday life and lose the perspective and the emotional fuel that help us keep going.

The problems of Bernstein's article are more or less small in comparison to its virtues, but nevertheless annoying. Luckily they are easy to remove in one's mind, and they do not damage the case for the philosophical doctrines of Randian heroism. Bernstein identifies and explains the Objectivist theory on the nature of heroism. But heroism is a part of human nature, not the exclusive property of an elite<3>. Rand's legacy has the potential to aid everyone of us to reclaim and develop this part of our humanity - a part which is both common (species identity) and unique (individual identity) to all human individuals.


<1> Bernstein's article is available at http://www.mikementzer.com/heroism.html.

<2> I owe this point to Kirsti Minsaas, and to the discussion by Stephen Cox and David Kelley of different concepts of heroism in their The Fountainhead: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration pamphlet (1993), published by and available from The Objectivist Center.

<3> See also Will Thomas' analysis of and contrast of Richard Taylor's elitist conception of pride with the Randian conception of pride, A Humanist Ethics of Pride, in Navigator Vol. 2 No. 13 (October 1999) for a similar discussion.

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