The fourteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this past Friday was a somber reminder to Americans of the first responders and their heroic sacrifice on that terrible morning. Three hundred and forty-three firefighters perished that day, as well as sixty police officers and eight paramedics, all rushing to the aid of others with a disregard for their own safety. That selfless service, says author Tod Lindberg, that willingness to put their own lives on the line for the lives of complete strangers, is precisely the quality that defines the modern hero—and distinguishes him or her from heroes past.
In his short but deeply considered new book The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern, Lindberg examines greatness from its most distant origins in human prehistory to the present. Through character studies of heroes both real and literary, he explains the conception of heroism in the ancient world, how it differs in our time, and the ways in which these heroic types have shaped the political realm and vice versa.
Whether ancient or modern, the distinctive characteristic of the heroic figure, Lindberg begins, “is the willingness to risk death.” A hero overcomes what Thomas Hobbes called our “continual fear of violent death” and is willing to embrace his fate “in accordance with an inner sense of greatness or exceptional virtue.”
The model hero in ancient times was of the conquering, killing sort, a warrior earning renown by slaying piles of enemies on the battlefield. Think of Homer’s Achilles, whom Lindberg examines at length: a self-centered, petulant demigod, perhaps, but a warrior of superhuman caliber. Or Julius Caesar, a man so determined to be the greatest man in Rome that he would destroy the Republic in a civil war rather than rein in his ambition.
But over the centuries, the slaying hero gradually fell out of fashion, thanks in large measure to the horrors of World War I and Vietnam, not to mention the rise of the literary antihero such as The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. Our ideal of the hero morphed instead into a courageous soul who is no less afraid of death but more focused on saving lives than taking them. Achilles’ modern counterpart acts not to kill and conquer, but to serve and save others. “From slaying to saving,” writes Lindberg, “from the highest, riskiest expression of self-regard to the highest, riskiest expression of generosity and the caring will.”
Lindberg uses the history of the Congressional Medal of Honor—the U.S. military’s highest decoration—to demonstrate this evolution of heroism. He reviewed the award from its creation during the Civil War to the present, and concluded that “the percentage of citations that include a saving narrative [as opposed to a killing narrative] has increased markedly” over time. The significance of this shift?
If the military itself . . . now designates its highest heroes not on the basis of their infliction of violent death on an enemy but on the saving of lives, then we have perhaps reached the point in the development of the modern world at which the modern, saving form of heroism has eclipsed the vestigial forms of classical heroism and their slaying ways for good.
The hero as slayer versus the hero as lifesaver: That is the crux of the difference between the classical and the modern form of heroism. Greatness versus equality. Ego versus generosity. “I am someone” versus “I can do something for someone.”
The modern hero sacrifices, as Lindberg puts it, “in service to a greater purpose. Their purpose has not been the classical hero’s purpose, namely, the actualization of their sense of inner greatness.” Instead, “the modern meaning of greatness is service to others.” (his emphasis)
Curiously, though, Lindberg points out that the spirit of modern heroism, the antithesis of the conquering hero, is most grandly embodied in the ancient figure of Jesus of Nazareth, the “Savior” God who died on the cross to redeem the human race. Today that spirit is personified in such heroes as the World Trade Center responders on 9/11, the medical personnel from Médecins sans Frontières, the three unarmed Americans who recently took down a heavily-armed jihadist aboard a French train. They and others like them constitute “the modern face of heroism.”
For Tod Lindberg, this evolution is a positive development—but we cannot be complacent. There is no guarantee that the more destructive form of hero—the conquering, slaying sort—won’t return, unless we prevent him. His chilling example of a modern slaying hero?
Osama bin Laden.