SMOKERS’ CORNER: HEROES IN AN UNHEROIC AGE

Published April 7, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The German writer J Wolfgang Goethe once quipped, “Blessed is the nation that doesn’t need heroes.” As if to expand upon Goethe’s words, the British philosopher Herbert Spencer wrote, “Hero-worship is strongest where there is least regard for human freedom.”

There is every likelihood that Goethe was viewing societies as collectives, in which self-interest was the primary motivation but where the creation and worship of ‘heroes’ are acts to make people feel virtuous. 

Heroes can’t become heroes without an audience. A segment of the society exhibits an individual and explains his or her actions or traits as ‘heroic’. If these receive enough applause, a hero is created. But then no one is really interested in knowing the actual person who has been turned into a hero. Only his mythologised sides are to be viewed. 

The mythologising is done to quench a yearning in society — a yearning that cannot be fulfilled because it might be too impractical, utopian, irrational and, therefore, against self-interest. So, the mythologised individual becomes an alter ego of a society conscious of its inherent flaws. Great effort is thus invested in hiding the actual from the gaze of society, so that only the mythologised can be viewed. 

Societies across the globe and across time have always attempted to build mythologised images of their aspirational ‘heroes’, often ignoring their flaws in the process

One often comes across videos on social media of common everyday people doing virtuous deeds, such as helping an old person cross a busy road, or helping an animal. The helping hands in this regard are exhibited as ‘heroes’, even though they might not even be aware that they are being filmed.

What if they weren’t? What if they remain unaware about the applause that their ‘viral video’ has attracted? Will they stop being helpful without having an audience? They certainly won’t be hailed as heroes. They are often exhibited as heroes by those who want to use them to signal their own appreciative attitude towards ‘goodness’.

This is a harmless ploy. But since self-interest is rampant in almost every society, this can push some people to mould themselves as heroes. There have been cases in which men and women have actually staged certain ‘heroic’ acts, filmed them, and then put them out for all to view. The purpose is to generate praise and accolades for themselves and, when possible, even monetary gains. 

But it is also possible that they truly want to be seen as heroes in an unheroic age, despite displaying forged heroism. Then there are those who are so smitten by the romanticised notions of a ‘heroic age’ that they actually plunge into real-life scenarios to quench their intense yearning to be seen as heroes. 

For example, a person who voluntarily sticks his neck out for a cause that may lead to his arrest. He knows this. But he also knows that there will be many on social and electronic media who will begin to portray him as a hero. But the applauders often do this to signal their own disposition towards a ‘heroic’ cause. 

We apparently live in an unheroic age — an age that philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche or, for that matter, Muhammad Iqbal, detested. Each had their own understanding of a bygone heroic age.

To Nietzsche, the heroic age existed in some pre-modern period in history, when the Germanic people were fearless. To Iqbal, the heroic age was when early Muslims were powered by an unadulterated faith and passion to conquer the world. There are multiple periods in time that are referred to as ‘heroic ages’, depending on one’s favourite ideology or professed faith.

The yearning for heroes and the penchant for creating them to be revered — so that societies can feel better about themselves — is as old as when the first major civilisations began to appear, thousands of years ago. So when they spoke of heroic ages, what period of history were they reminiscing about — the Stone Age?   

Humans are naturally pragmatic. From hunter-gatherers, we became scavenger-survivalists. The image may be off-putting but the latter actually requires one to be more rational, clever and pragmatic. This is how we have survived and progressed.

That ancient yearning for a heroic age has remained, though. An age that never was — an age that was always an imagined one. That’s why we even mythologise known histories, because the actual in this regard can be awkward to deal with. But it is possible to unfold. 

America’s ‘founding fathers’ were revered for over two centuries as untainted heroes, until some historians decided to demystify them by exploring their lives outside their mythologised imaginings. Many of these heroes turned out to be slave-owners and not very pleasant people. 

Mahatma Gandhi, revered as a symbol of tolerance, turned out to also be a man who disliked black South Africans. The founder of Pakistan MA Jinnah is mythologised as a man who supposedly strived to create an ‘Islamic state’, yet the fact is that he was a declared liberal and loved his wine. Martin Luther King Jr, the revered black rights activist, was also a prolific philanderer.

When freed from mythology, the heroes become human — still important men and women, but with various flaws. This is when they become real and more relatable. They become ‘anti-heroes.’ 

But there is always an urgency in societies to keep the flaws hidden. The flaws can damage the emotions that are invested in revering ‘heroes’, both dead and living. The act of revering provides an opportunity to feel bigger than a scavenger-survivor, even if this requires forged memories and heavily mythologised men and women. 

Therefore, hero-worship can also make one blurt out even the most absurd things to keep a popular but distorted memory of a perceived hero intact. For example, this is exactly what one populist former Pakistani prime minister did when he declared that the terrorist Osama bin Laden was a martyr. 

By doing this, the former PM was signalling his own ‘heroism’ as well — that of a proud fool who saw greatness in a mass murderer to signal his own ‘greatness’ in an unheroic age.

The French philosopher Voltaire viewed this tendency as a chain that one has fallen in love with. Voltaire wrote, “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 7th, 2024

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