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Killing Our Heroes

Writes Tadhg MacCionnaith

How we treat notable personalities, as individuals and as a society, has been a topic which has reared its head in 2020 time and time again. From stories surrounding politicians to influencers to statues, now is a good time to examine our relationship with fame and those we idolise. What is a hero? Why do we create them? And at what cost?

To answer the first question we’ll be having a euro-centric look back at what traditionally constitutes a hero, the concepts that underlie and form the basis of our modern relationship to those we put on pedestals. Firstly are the ideas of greatness and renown, or Arete and Kleos respectively as they were known to the Greeks. Arete, more accurately meaning potential, reflects who you are and what you are capable of, your defining characteristics.
Kleos, sometimes translated as glory, comes from the practical application of Arete; a hero can earn recognition through their achievements, their wider impact, the flaws they struggle with and circumstances they endure. Of course what is expected of “heroes” differs from Ancient Greece to now but the purpose behind them is arguably the same; to inspire us in a particular way with their stories of overcoming adversity and how they shaped the world in which we live. How real these heroes and their achievements are being besides the point.

For the Greeks who put this style of categorisation together the morality of the hero or the ethics of their actions weren’t really the most pressing concerns unless they somehow contravened the will of the gods. These heroes are meant to act as examples of ability and importance for a group more than anything else and crop up in national epics all over the place, including Ireland’s very own Ulster and Fianna cycles with the likes of Cú Chulainn and Fionn MacCumhaill.

The idea of heroes setting a virtuous example, one people are encouraged to expressly imitate, is embodied particularly well by the Christian idea of a saint. At its most basic a saint merely refers to someone who has guaranteedly gained admission to heaven when they die. The Church however has turned it into a much bigger deal simply by virtue of introducing criteria like saints having to perform miracles: which arguably demonstrates the Arete of having God’s favour and the Kleos of performing an otherwise impossible feat. Saints are also said to embody particular roles or approaches the faithful should have in situations. A notable criticism of Catholicism is the near deity-like status afforded to these individuals.

So what do the “heroes” get out of it? With both saints and the more traditional heroes I’d argue the answer is immortality. In some cases the interpretation is very literal, with apotheosis and eternal salvation being the fates of Heracles and St.Patrick respectively. Where it becomes less literal is where it becomes more relevant to us in modern times; but even in what is argued to be the myth of the first ever hero, Gilgamesh, we see Gilgamesh decide he will achieve his immortality in the minds of people and in the eyes of history. The same rings true for the likes of Cú Chulainn and Achilles. The same, I’d argue, rings true in modern times.

We all have potential to be realised, we all have acts which are worthy of praise. We all strive for recognition, it is arguably part of why credit for work is deemed so important and plagiarism is so taboo; you’re interfering with someone’s legacy. That legacy is their immortality so to speak, the record of their skill and achievements in the short time they are here. Legacies, however, are extremely dangerous in that they can be weaponized.

Icons are associated with ideas or themes; philanthropy, justice, vengeance, innovation, resistance, etc. Figures like Bill Gates offer very clear inspiration for many in the world today; think of Gates and you probably associate him with his philanthropy or how he helped get Microsoft off the ground rather than criticisms. To be somebody’s hero however is to be put on a pedestal; many of us can probably recall the regard we held our parents in when very young along with the ultimately meaningless schoolyard fights as to whose were better. Pedestals are what separate “heroes” from the rest of us, what makes up such a hero’s pedestal can be of their own creation or not. The statue commissioned by a town, the building named by a university, the foundation set up by the individual themselves; all of these serve to raise someone to a near unassailable level. It is this unassailability that is problematic.

The quest for legacy, along with the influence or power that accompanies it, isn’t necessarily selfish but it is deeply tied to the character of the individual themselves. Their personality, beliefs, other goals and accomplishments. We’re all human and nobody is perfect but a pedestal serves to remove this human element. You stop being a person, you are now an intangible goal or example. The idea that any one person could be responsible for leading a group to greatness is laughable, but even the appeal of it could render people blind to the issues they would usually find in such an individual; the current US Presidential election displays this very clearly. Another great example would be the likes of Winston Churchill, far more familiar to many as an indomitable statesman responsible for fending off the Nazis than as an aristocratic drunkard partially responsible for the Bengal Famine. The legacies of politicians, scientists, business-people, pop-culture names, are all susceptible to being twisted and presented in a particular way all while being pushed beyond reproach. While people can be very zealous in trying to hold such people to account, it is necessary that they do.

Simply put we need to re-examine how we relate to the famous and influential, acknowledging their fallibility and fundamental humanity as well as their achievements and ability. We must be more critical as a society of the media we consume knowing that spectacle is generated around these figures. We have to destroy the pedestals we put even the most benign figures on. This is what it means to kill your heroes and it isn’t a painless process; it would apply to even the fighters of 1916 and others we conventionally hold in high esteem. Rather than identifying wholesale with those whose lives and minds we can never truly know, let’s instead skip the middleman and associate more with the ideals these people supposedly embody.