Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wannabe Hero

(This is the first part of the series on heroism that I intend to cover from my reading of "The Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker.)

Human beings have an urge for heroism. They seek to be heroes and are often inspired by others’ acts of heroism. They enact their heroics in the theater of the world and seek recognition of their heroism from the social world they identify with or care most about. Their social world can be large, for example, such as an individual leading an army to war or a doctor fighting global poverty and hunger. Or the social world might even be as small as their own self in which case the heroism becomes very personal and private.

Both, acts of heroism and their recognition are symbolic in nature. As per Becker, each society – nation, religion, etc – can be understood as a hero-system, a set of beliefs and values about what constitutes a hero.
“The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system. What the anthropologists call “cultural relativity” is thus really the relativity of hero-systems the world over. But each cultural system is a dramatization of earthly heroics; each system cuts out roles for performances of various degrees of heroism …” [5].
A hero-system could thus differentiate societies. Also, this implies that heroism is performed in different roles – warriors, athletes, philanthropists, scientists - and to various degrees - national or local hero, personal loss or martyrdom. Also, as per Becker, “it does not matter whether the cultural hero-system is magical-religious-primitive or secular-scientific-civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value …” [5]

Heroism can therefore be best understood when examined at both macro and micro level. At the macro (i.e., social) level, we would need to understand how these hero-systems are formed and how they  are sustained/changed over time. At micro (i.e., psychological) level, we would need to understand how  hero-systems influence individual behavior.

At the reflective, self-analytic, psychological level, as per Becker, “the question that becomes then the most important one that man can put to himself is simply this: how conscious is he of what he is doing to earn his feeling of heroism?

Ernest Becker. 1973. The Denial of Death. The Free Press

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