A Theoretical Model

 It is certainly possible to develop more elaborate theories of heroism. One approach is to classify different forms of heroism as combinations of three elements: the character of the person, his or her deeds, and the circumstances of the action. Abstractly, we could conceive of polar opposites of each of the three elements of heroism. These dualities, when combined in alternative ways, produce eight “ideal types.” In the interpretation of this book, the vital causal factor (in social science terms, the critical independent variable) is the crisis event, rather than the individual. Crisis then stimulates an appropriate institutional response to the situation from involved individuals.

In regard to the first element, personal qualities, the reputed hero might be an unusually gifted, or an ordinary, individual. The classical conception of heroes is of rare individuals, close to demigods, who do extraordinary deeds having exceptional impact - such as Achilles. Our archetype of Martyr parallels this model.

The second distinction concerns the nature of the deeds they performed. Did these heroic acts show extraordinary behavior by the individual, or did they reflect their customary behavior, their established or institutional roles? Third, we can also distinguish heroes by the events and circumstances in which they acted. Is their heroism evident in a social or political crisis, or does it occur at a commonplace time? Heroes during crises are more likely to have a long-term impact on society. Any individual might be rare or ordinary, their deeds may be extraordinary or customary, and the context may be crisis or commonplace events.

Theoretically, we can conceptualize other rare individuals who evidence heroism in the other combinations of deeds and events. There can be individuals of rare qualities who do extraordinary deeds that have no exceptional impact. The appropriate example might by Sisyphus, a renowned mythic individual who valiantly and endlessly, but vainly, rolls a rock almost to the mountain summit, only to see it fall, in commonplace fashion, to the valley below.

We can think of rare individuals who become known as heroes through their customary activities, rather than through glorious deeds. George Washington was an extraordinary individual, who won acclaim for his personal magnetism from his contemporaries even before his historical apotheosis. His impact on American and world history is obviously great. Yet Washington’s deeds were not extraordinary in themselves.  A reluctant general and president, he was notable for his dutiful and careful work, not for striking originality. He is properly remembered not for any individual deeds of valor, but for using his power “gently and self-effacingly.”[1] It is more difficult, but not impossible, to conceive of persons who fit the category of a rare individual who does only customary deeds in commonplace times [2]  We are particularly interested in persons characterized, sometimes deprecatingly, as “ordinary.” Sometimes they do extraordinary deeds, which have great impact at times of crisis. Illustrative is the solider who, briefly and atypically, embodies the oft-forgotten virtues of military duty in an unusual burst of courage. Such heroes earn the recognition of the Medal of Honor for “bravery beyond the call of duty.” Rescuers are the archetype of persons in this category.

There are other ordinary people who perform extraordinary deeds even if the these actions are commonplace and unrecognized, such as the nurses and doctors who do their daily rounds in emergency rooms. Such heroic archetypes include Champions of Adversity and skilled performers among Trailblazers.  Champions of Adversity are personally admirable, but they typically deal only with the crisis of their own lives, not with the broader society. Star actors or athletes may do extraordinary work in their professions, but they do this work regularly, without facing any crisis greater than an Oscar awards ceremony or an overtime period in football.

The most complete contrast to the literary conception among heroic types would be the archetype of the Nurturer and Breadwinner, an ordinary individual who does customary deeds in normal times, such as a classroom teacher. In her conclusion to Middlemarch, George Eliot provides a moving example. Summarizing the lifetime benevolence of Dorothea, the novel’s heroine, Eliot draws a great moral lesson, that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”[3]

This kind of heroism can be found even in the worst of modern times, the Holocaust. "In the ghettos, in the concentration camps, in the worst possible conditions, the musicians kept playing, the painters kept painting, and teachers kept teaching," remembered a Jewish school principal.[4]

The final category comprises people ordinary in their personal characteristics and their deeds, who yet have a considerable impact on the world, particularly in politics. Such service is exemplified by the archetypes of Guardians at the Gate and Activists.  This book emphasizes their work their customary deeds within established institutions, leading to the resolution of crisis. They are the true democratic heroes.


[1] James T.  Flexner, Washington : The Indispensable Man  (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), p. xvi.

[2]The type is difficult to discover in the real world. How can we know a person is truly rare when he or she does nothing extraordinary and lives in commonplace times? One such hero might be found in literature, in Shakespeare's great character, King Lear. Lear is a magnetic figure, invested not only with the inherent merit of monarchy, but  "every inch a king." He inspires others with the deepest emotions of love, hate, loyalty, pity, and benevolence. But Lear does no great deeds. His ambitions are modest, to maintain a small retinue of attendants while he travels aimlessly around the divided kingdom, in an "unburdened crawl toward death." His tragedy comes from his inept plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and his foolish insistence that his only faithful daughter, Cordelia, make a public avowal of her love. Cast aside by the other children, Lear becomes mad and suffers physically, but evades responsibility, crying that  "I am a man more sinned against than sinning." Ultimately, Lear is reunited with the forgiving Cordelia, but is unable to prevent her death. If there is a crisis in the play, the succession to the throne, it is one he has caused and one he does nothing to resolve. In contrast to the noble but futile king, the true heroes in King Lear may be "those who show compassion, the servants…who seek to protect and heal." The quotations from King Lear are from these acts, scenes, and lines: IV, 5, 108; 1, 1, 1,41, and II, 2, 59-60. See Phoebe A Spinard,  "Dramatic 'Pity' and the Death of Lear," Renascence, 43 (Summer 1991), p. 238.

[3] George Eliot, Middlemarch  (NY: Bantam Classics, 1985), p. 766.

[4] James Brooke, "BOOM! Suddenly, the Children See Life Starkly," The New York Times  (July 27, 1994), A4.

Return to home page