To whom do we refer as a hero? Undoubtedly Achilles was one, Heracles one or two generations before him as well. Also Siegfried, who was not only the hero of the Nibelungenlied, which was brought into its literary form in the 12th century CE, presumably in the sweep of the Babenberg dukes, but also a hero according to the pattern devised by Fitzroy Richard Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan. At the last congress on Donaldistic Studies, Patrick Bahners, the scholar and feuilletonist of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, gave a lecture using Lord Raglan’s schema to investigate whether or not Donald Duck could be regarded as a hero. He cannot, of course, matching only five or six of the features listed below:
Mother a royal virgin
Father a king
Father often a close relative to mother
Hero reputed to be son of god
Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather
Hero spirited away as a child
Reared by foster parents in a far-away country
No details of childhood
Returns or goes to future kingdom
Victor over a king, a giant, a dragon, or a wild beast
Marries a princess (often predecessor’s daughter)
Reigns uneventfully for a time
Later loses favor of gods or subjects
Driven from throne and city
Meets with mysterious death
Often at the top of a hill
His children, if any, do not succeed him
His body is not buried
Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs
But this pattern, as can clearly be seen, derives from the ancient world of the Greek and Romans, and we have to ask ourselves how long it might be or might have been valid. In any case, the heroes, thus described, were fighters, military leaders, and reigning sovereigns of noble, sometimes godly descent. If we leap more than two thousand years ahead we will not find this divine lineage anymore, but still an aristocratic one. I’d like to present as a fitting example the prince Eugene of Savoy. Let alone the unusual conception and numinous birth, there's quite a correspondence to the first eight characteristics, at least vaguely. His mother was no royal virgin, but a mistress of the French king and a niece of Cardinal Mazarin; that is, a certain connection with God might be accounted for. His father was no king but a relative of the duke of Savoy. There's no reported attempt of trying to kill the infant, but he was reared by foster parents. His foreseen career had been with the church, which might easily pass as „spiriting away“.
He went to his future destination in a realm, though none of his own. It was the archduchy of Austria, and as it usually happens in the European high nobility, Eugene was a remote relative of the house of Habsburg. His grandfather was a grandson of Philipp II of Spain. So he wasn’t a sovereign in Austria, but had became its ruler anyway, as president of the Court’s War Council and of the Secret Conference, both instances responsible for policy-making in Austria and the Holy Roman Empire; he also became General-Lieutenant of the Austrian Netherlands. And before that, he was the victor over the Ottoman sultan. And though his government wasn’t uneventful, he prescribed laws. In Vienna, for example, he had a second fortification wall built that also became an interior tolls border.
He nevertheless lost the emperor’s confidence, although he wasn’t removed from his positions. His death was mysterious insofar as his favourite pet, a tame lion, reportedly roared out loud in the nocturnal hour of his dying breath. And his residence, a palace called Belvedere, where he died, lay on a hill outside the fortified capital. His children, in this case a niece, didn’t succeed him after his death. There are two tombs, one in Vienna and one in Turin, where his heart is buried, and that fits the last distinction of Lord Raglan’s pattern.
Nevertheless I argue that Eugene of Savoy was one of the last of a species to be extinguished. They all were lone fighters, famous for their personal virtues and giftedness, and there’s one more trait to be mentioned that doesn’t show up in our cited catalogue. That’s honour. All those heroes guarded their honour vainly and jealously, and all the conflicts and fights we read about in myths and legends have to do with the question of violated reverence. The plots of the Iliad and of the Song of the Nibelungs are about this one topic only. An aftermath of that hurt honour can be found in the life of Prince Eugene, when he secretly left the royal French court because his plans to become a soldier and military commander were not being respected. Yet another feature of heroes and their lives can be found in Eugene of Savoy. He was sung about, like Siegfried, El Cid or Achilles, in a song well known at least in German speaking countries. As far as I know, he was the last fighter upon whom that kind of honour was bestowed, although Prinz Eugenius, der edle Ritter („Prince Eugenius, the noble knight“) is by far not as sumptuous as the olden ballads, sagas and epics.
Let’s now leap forward again, this time over less than two hundred years. Suddenly we find monuments not to the famous military leader, but to the unknown soldiers. The number of monuments in churchyards or main squares of villages and small towns where the names of fallen soldiers are listed isn’t too small either. A most prominent example is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Evidently the unknown (and the known) soldier doesn’t conform with Lord Raglan’s roster. Why weren’t they memorialized in former days, neither the fallen nor the veterans? What has happened?
Of course there are still gifted and famous generals and officers, but all of a sudden the army itself, that means mainly the infantry, is the hero of the battles. But what does this hero look like now? He, the private, is stripped of all personal features and qualities which the bygone heroes of the ancient and mediaeval world were so eager to display and defend. Fancy clothing and attire, attributes of strength reflected in weapons and coats of arms, personal courage and power, displayed in the readiness for single combat: all that vanishes behind the drill of uniformed men who had to give up whatever personal attitudes they held when they joined the army.
Now there are other virtues to be regarded and praised, mainly comradeship and solidarity, and that, of course, goes hand in hand with new myths that were told after the wars. One of the first new myths was the one of Napoléon Bonaparte, who is said to have known all of his soldiers personally and by name. This is as believable as the paternity of Olympic gods, but it symbolically expresses the new order of a new society: not the noble general is to be praised, but the almost anonymous, everyday infantryman in his shabby uniform is to be remembered, even by his Christian and last name.
But of course the heroes of defection and desertion, those who denied uniform, rank, and order, are seldom named, more seldom praised and honoured, in most cases forgotten, if not despised, and mentioned only contemptuously, if remembered at all. And there are other heroic myths, like the so-called Dolchstoßlegende, the stab-in-the-back legend, in praise of the undefeated infantryman, the dutiful foot soldier, whose efforts were thwarted by politicians and jobsworths, a famous topos, widespread in politics and popular literature, ideologically dispersed and used in both cases.
Since the uniformed heroes were plentifully slain and left on the battlefields without the reward of legendary victories in single combat, their heroism, again not personal but simply common, transmogrified into a civil heroism, transferred from the battlefield to the homeland, and still bound to the uniforms. What exactly is the uniform? First of all it’s a symbol of suspending individual subjectivity, personal features and belongings. Even your clothes aren’t your own, to say nothing of your thoughts and feelings. The uniform is the hint that you have to obey and do nothing else apart from that.
It means not only that you are done acting on your own. It also means that fundamental civic rights are revoked: no right of free speech, no right of coalition, no freedom of opinion. It may be said that this revocation of all liberties isn’t only helpful but necessary when confronted with catastrophes. That of course reminds us of Carl Schmitt, who declared, theorizing the status of emergency, „Souverän ist, wer über den Ausnahmezustand entscheidet.“ (Sovereign is he who decides on the [state of] exception.)
Thus on one hand it seems quite understandable that policemen and firefighters wear uniforms and are referred to and praised as heroes. But on the other hand the uniform, symbolizing the lack of rights, isn’t only worn by the police or fire brigades, but also in hospitals and sometimes in schools, stressing the necessity of its bearers to obey and do whatever they’re told. The same is true for overalls and work gear, though its appeal to obedience is mitigated and hidden by the claims of voluntary corporate identity. But the core remains untouched and lets the state of exception appear as the normality of a self-defending society: do what you’re ordered to do.
It seems to me that a compensation for these men and women giving up their status of subjectivity and for their loss of rights and features is hailing them as a new sort of heroes. While medals and decorations on the battlefields are given to soldiers for brave behaviour in combat, civilian medals and decorations are bestowed upon those who fulfill their daily work and duty. Both don’t complain about their loss of civic rights. There seems to be a kind of heroic renouncement, a certain self-denial, and a voluntary subordination to the needs of society. And that is rewarded with transferring the notion of a hero to everyday men and women.
We find heroic deeds in hospitals, in the aftermath of earthquakes, in saving drowning children or the aged suffering heart attacks, we even learn about the Heroes of (former Socialist) Labour of the Russian Federation, in uniform too, be it the suit of the white-collar, be it the overall of the blue-collar worker. And let me digress to the popular culture of comic books. The superheroes, too, are uniformed in one way or the other: leggings, boots, muscle-shirts, capes, and often a helmet or a headdress, mask included, in the defense of their homelands.
There are, in popular art, novels or films, depictions of the old scheme of the lonesome heroic warrior. In military traditions this often relates to fighter pilots who, consequently, are called Knights of the Air and the like, and it might seem as if chivalrous single combat and its romantic glory are being resurrected. But let me make one objection. This fame derives from the early times, when flying machines were being developed, and can also be recognized in civil grounds. Look for example at the writings of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. But already in World War II fighter pilots lost their heroic reputation to the importance of strategic bombing.
In non-military and popular traditions and arts there are other examples of these loners and mavericks. But usually they don’t depend on physical strength and a jealous observance of honour and reverence. The basis of their acting is scientific, which explains the myth of the combat pilot. For his emergence, a new technology is necessary, an invention enabling him to rely not only on his fortitude, but to study and master the achievements of scientific evolution. As soon as this technology has become commonplace, its users lose their exceptional status and become role models of how men and women in the modern world can improve themselves.
So the character of, say, Sherlock Holmes, apart from his more sophisticated traits, appears as the ideal of the modern man, with no supernatural gifts and wits, but an urgent will to know and explore, using whatever tools modern science provides, using and adopting them with an insatiable inquisitiveness and an ineluctable logic of abstract deducing. He presents himself as self-reliant and autonomous, even observing Kant’s Categorical Imperative, when deciding on his own whether a murderer will get away with a deed on respectable grounds, and settles for the satisfaction of having solved the riddle.
Thus Sherlock Holmes can in no way be regarded as a hero. He leaves this designation to common men and women in their daily uniforms (in this specific case to Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard), and instead takes over the part of the prototype and paragon of modern individualism. At least until the trap of exception is sprung.
On how to raise wise and realistic citizens. But not.
On how to raise wise and realistic citizens. But not.