The play I am looking for today (November 2) ends with the tribute to a man, who is declared “the noblest Roman of them all”. Such a man must be a hero. But then, this declaration is uttered after he committed treason, had a literary hand and knife in the murder of his close friend, was run out of town, lost in battle against the Roman troops and committed suicide. The definition of the term hero clearly is a fickle business.
First used by Homer the word hero derives from Greek and means protector or defender. It has been proposed that the word’s origins are even pre-Greek. If you asked C.G. Jung he would tell you that hero isn’t so much a word but an archetype in our collective unconscious and thus a product of evolution. While archetypes form the foundation on which we build our experience of life they are empty, nebulous forms that take shape in images, symbols and behavioral patterns. They are stuck in our mind and want to break loose. The ‘how’ is what we make them to be.
To give an example: When WWI broke out 100 years ago the classics – the stories of Greek and Roman heroes like Achilles and Odysseus – though only a major part in elite education were well known in the whole of society. These characters and their counterparts in contemporary retellings of the stories were what the young soldiers turned to to fill the term of hero. We know this through writings and poems by the likes of Patrick Shaw-Steward who basically begged: “Stand in the trench, Achilles, flame-capped and shout for me,” before he entered the battle of Gallipoli.
Those heroes aren’t perfect. They are flawed characters with sometimes questionable motivation, no humility or compassion, who are lifted to the status of hero mainly because they are of use to the community. They might call up images and values that don’t fit into a civilized society and they might need the backdrop of war to display their prowess and courage. But they have their moments of reflection and introspection thus allowing room to stop and ask the necessary moral questions. And so, even though the stories tell us that they were put into their place by fate even they made information and knowledge based, conscious decisions that put them on their path to become heroes.
It is not the fighting or the dying of today’s main character either that turned him into a hero in the end – a tragic one. It was thinking through his choices and what it would mean to make them. It was placing his decisions on a foundation of moral principles and values. It was not taking the easy road and acting for glory or money or whatever, but fighting first and foremost a battle inside with himself and what he knew and cherished to be true, but that in that instant clashed.
No, a hero doesn’t need to die or even to fight in a war. A hero needs to think and needs to question. A hero needs always to be ready to discard believes when proof to the contrary surfaces, but needs to be steadfast to principles and values. It’s not the definition of a hero that is fickle, it’s the business of being a hero that is complicated – going beyond and above especially in the Why? department.
But the ultimate sacrifice is still death. And if it is that what it takes let it be for people, standing in line and in place for others – past, present and future – as a protector and defender. Standing in for all of those who fit the bill: RIP Clp. Nathan Cirillo.
[This is a hint for the Banksy for the Wimp: Shakespeare Edition – Play of the Day of November 2. You can take a look at the storyboards and red about how to play and win here.]