My Top 5 Heroes

A few weeks ago someone I know asked everyone to name their heroes. It really got me thinking. What is a hero? Who qualifies? Why?

Picking a fictional character seemed like cheating, or at least a cop out. Fictional characters don’t have to engage with a complex world like we do. Plus, what then is the difference between a list of heroes — real heroes, which is what I took her to be asking — and just a list of your favorite characters?

It also seemed like cheating to include fictionalized versions of (probably) real people, and for the same reason — so no Robin Hood or Gilgamesh or Jesus. We no longer experience those people aspeople. They are living parables and what facts of their lives don’t fit the story are discarded (such as almost everything Jesus did for the vast majority of his life from birth until he started his ministry).

This is important because of what a hero is, or should be. It seems to me they should be someone you could reasonably imitate. (Other people will give a different definition and would have you striving for an ideal you can never reach.) But try as I might, I will never be able to heal by touch or shoot lasers out of my eyes.

That’s not to say fictional characters can’t inspire. Obviously they can, and do. But picking fictional or fictionalized people for this list seems like stitching a quilt of platitudes and calling it a philosophy.

“My philosophy is that we should love each other and be fair and kind and always do the right thing. My heroes are Superman and Captain America because that’s what they do.”

Great. Except what’s the right thing? Not in general. Right here. In this particular instance.

Everybody does what they think is the right thing. Even Hitler. Batman makes a choice Superman never would, the same choice that Lincoln made: in certain circumstances the right thing is to suspend the rule of law in order to save it.

People who disagree with you — your enemies, the political opposition, whatever — don’t believe what they believe because they think it’s wrong. They think it is just obviously the right thing, and that you are deluded and destined for harm. But the both of you will always say, “we should always do the right thing.”

So this was actually a very useful exercise for me. It helped to clarify my ideals and some gaps I’m currently living in. And I think that’s what heroes should do: live the ideal but stretch their hand to you across the gap. Here are my five:

1) The paragons of nonviolent resistance, those who appreciate that you do not make the world a better place by answering hate with hate or violence with violence, that there is a difference between outrage at a vile belief and outrage at the belief-holder, and that basic human respect must always be given even when it is not returned. For this I would pick Nelson Mandela, not because Gandhi or Dr. King (or anyone else) aren’t heroes, but because I’m naming only five, and because out of the lot, Mandela suffered so greatly and for so long.

2) Those who exemplify that character is an emergent property and more than a collection of virtues. Again, there are many people one could pick, but I will go with Abraham Lincoln. You can buy a book of his complete writings, including telegrams and military orders and short letters. Inside is no great and original philosophy, no breakthrough in maths or science, no work of art. Yet, even just perusing his polite correspondence, flipping the pages at random, one comes to understand character.

3) Those who don’t just create but revolutionize art — which includes music, film, poetry, fiction, and humor — and who do so spontaneously and authentically rather than as a concerted (and conceited) act of rebellion, like Joyce’s or Picasso’s. Here, if only because of my chosen profession, I would have to go with Lady Murasaki Shikibu for inventing the novel, and for doing so without being conscious of it. That is the essence of creativity.

4) Pioneers of thought rather than the noble accountants, like Maxwell or Newton (who often get the acclaim); those who stand on the threshold of the world and imagine non-fictional alternative realities. If I could pick only one — and there are many who qualify, both male and female — it would have to be Charles Darwin for exemplifying the inductive leap that distinguishes men from machines and science from math. Quite simply no act in the history science equals Darwin’s. Other discoveries have been (and will be) more important — in the long run, I expect Watson/Crick/Franklin’s discovery of the structure of DNA will lead to a complete re-architecting of what it means to be human, or meta-human. But nothing equals Darwin’s mix of unbounded imagination, elegance, and courage, and all without the use of math or complex machinery.

5) Those who demonstrate that, in any worthwhile relationship, you shouldn’t be afraid to be the one who loves more, and if you are, either the relationship isn’t worth it (and should be let go) or you aren’t, and that you should make sure you know which is which. Someone like my ex-great-grandmother-in-law, who never had any children of her own but who raised many others well, who was 17 and already married four years when the British left India.

Some runner ups: Zheng He, Bernard Williams, Rosalind Franklin, Joseph Campbell, whoever carved the Thinker of Cernavoda, Aphra Behn, Michael Faraday, CS Lewis.

So there you go. Name your five!


art by Rafael Silveira


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