Politics & Policy

The Heart of a Hero

Firefighter’s helmet the National September 11 Memorial. (Spencer Platt/Getty)
Seeing them in the world today.

A New Jersey cop, Jesus Christ, mother — these are some of the heroes Tod Lindberg writes about in his new book, The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern.

“In a very profound way, heroes tell us who we are — or who we aspire to be,” Lindberg tells me in an interview. “In our classically liberal society, we believe in our right to ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ but our political and social order offer only minimal guidance on how to pursue it.”

We know we shouldn’t pursue happiness “at the expense of the rights of others,” he says, but much is left open.

“‘How should I live?’ is an old question,” Lindberg says. “Our political and social order doesn’t provide an answer, but our heroes do.”

We talk about more about heroes below. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is greatness? Do we know it when we see it?

Tod Lindberg: I think in the modern world, greatness is linked to generosity and sacrifice on behalf of others. In the ancient world, taking action that demonstrated your superiority over others was often enough. Think of Achilles. In the modern, democratic world, where the spirit of equality has taken hold (as Tocqueville observed), greatness needs something else: acting for the good of others. I think we do see this, for example, in the extreme case of the 9/11 firefighters or the three Americans on the train to Paris who took on a heavily armed jihadist and saved maybe hundreds of lives. True heroes.

Lopez: Are there surefire recipes for greatness? Reliable handbooks for raising heroes for parents?

I would stack our military up against any in history on the basis of its ability to deal violent death to our enemies.

Lindberg: Surefire? No. I think the most important thing parents can do for their children is to persuade them, against the grain of much of the culture around them, that there is such a thing as great goodness — and for that matter, great evil. Too many kids grow up under the influence of the view that to be successful and a good person is somehow not in their control, that it’s all pre-baked into the cake due to genetics, accident of birth, and vast impersonal social forces, and that everything is relative anyway. Parents have it within their power to teach their kids otherwise and to show through their own behavior what a good life looks like. In ordinary circumstances, little kids see their parents as great figures (though this will change at least temporarily during middle school). Make the most of those years by showing what right action and generosity toward others look like. It’s a start.

Lopez: Can we individually live without them?

Lindberg: Only in a spiritually impoverished way, I’d say. What would it be like to go through life thinking that nothing was especially valuable, or that no one especially exemplified the higher possibilities of being human? Sad, I think.

Lopez: Why does the slaying hero have no place in the modern world? Are we better off without him?

Lindberg: First, a note on the American warrior: I would stack our military up against any in history on the basis of its ability to deal violent death to our enemies. We have some genuine heroes there, and we should readily acknowledge that — and generally do: In opinion polls, the military is consistently the most trusted institution in the United States by a huge margin, and rightly so.

The slaying hero I say we have no place for is Achilles and his type: those acting solely in demonstration of their own sense of superiority, greatness, or ambition. Our military people achieve their measure of greatness not in service to themselves but for us — our country and our way of life, which they cherish as much as we do, and also for their comrades in arms. A country with that kind of heroism has no need of Achilles.

Lopez: Why would a hero ever want to demonstrate that death has no power over him?

Lindberg: Because there’s something a hero values more highly than his or her life. In the ancient world, it was fidelity to a sense of inner greatness (such as Julius Caesar) or virtue (such as Lucretia). In the modern world, it’s often about responding to others in desperate need.

Lopez: How has the adjudication of heroism been democratized and “wikified”?

Lindberg: Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth and refusing to honor the gods. In the old days, political authorities enforced their ideas about who the heroes and gods were. You disagreed at your peril. In an open, pluralistic society like ours, people can decide for themselves who counts as a hero, and they will often disagree (especially when politics enters the picture). Mass media are no longer the gatekeepers they once were. If you have 36,000 followers on Twitter, as you personally do, that’s an impressive affinity group that has voluntarily gathered around you. I do think this free-wheeling wikiculture makes it all the more remarkable that there is a near-perfect consensus figure of heroism in our society: the 9/11 firefighter, someone who puts it all on the line to try to save the lives of strangers.

Lopez: Are there any heroes in politics?

Lindberg: Yes, I think there have been some genuine political heroes, including in recent memory. Vaclav Havel, for example. John Paul II with his message, “Be not afraid.” Ronald Reagan. I’ll stop there. But because politics is about disagreement, not one of them is a figure of consensus like the 9/11 firefighter is.

Lopez: Is democracy a laboratory for heroism?

Lindberg: Yes, and this is a critical question. Suppose that some of the worst things that some of the deepest thinkers have said about democracy are true: that all people care about is comfort and convenience, that mediocrity would be ubiquitous, that the highest reaches of human achievement are no longer attainable, etc. (Consult Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil for more along these lines. Martin Heidegger is also illuminating. Likewise Hitler and bin Laden.) How confident could we be that such a political and social order could long endure? I think democracy was a laboratory out of which emerged a kind of heroism superior to the old, ego-centered, slaying heroism. It’s the life-risking, life-saving form of heroism. It’s heroism grounded in generosity toward others.

Lopez: Did Tocqueville see heroism in America?

Lindberg: He was the great chronicler of the rise of the spirit of equality and the sunset of the aristocratic order and its virtues. That would be good enough for me. But he also noted the willingness of Americans to roll up their sleeves and get things done. I don’t think he would be the least surprised to learn that we have an all-volunteer military now; I don’t know if he would necessarily have expected it to be as good at its job as ours is. Meanwhile, he also noted the generosity toward which people can incline when they regard their countrymen as “like themselves.” Not bad for a French tourist.

Lopez: Where does Jesus fit into all of this?

Some people would probably say that calling your mother a hero is a dumbing-down of the term. I don’t think so.

Lindberg: Quite simply, as the most famous “saving hero” of all time. Achilles and Jesus — the antipodes of heroism, one for the ancient world, the other for the modern world.

Lopez: Why was your mother a hero?

Lindberg: For bearing adversity with bottomless goodwill, good cheer, and love. First came the rheumatoid arthritis that painfully deformed the joints in her hands and feet from an early age. Last came the stomach cancer that claimed her when I was about 13.

Some people would probably say that calling your mother a hero is a dumbing-down of the term. I don’t think so. I think it represents a broadening of our understanding of how heroism works in the modern world. Our heroism begins with generosity above and beyond the call of duty, as my mother exhibited not only toward me but also toward the kids she taught at a school for special-needs children. It ascends by degrees up a staircase of increasing adversity and danger to a modern Valhalla — where we find, among many others, the 354 New York City firefighters who died on 9/11.

Lopez: What hero were you most grateful to write about? (Well, besides your mom?)

Lindberg: My wife’s uncle, David Robins, an Ocean Township, N.J., police officer, now retired. One night about 20 years ago, he crawled his way under thick smoke in a house that had gone up in flames to pull an unconscious kid out to safety. It got me thinking about who our real heroes are. I dedicated The Heroic Heart to him.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. Sign up for her weekly newsletter here.

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