Published:

Who are your heroes? Thatcher, Churchill, Disraeli, Blair?  Or perhaps you prefer Burke, or Mill, or Locke?  How good are you at understanding why those that are heroes to your seem like villains to others, or why some that seem mundane to you are heroes to others?  Do you understand what a hero really is?

Let us compare and contrast some archetypal heroes.  Who knows, we might even learn something interesting…


When we think of heroes, we ought really to think first of the Greeks – ἥρως is their word, after all. And the most basic archetype of the Greek hero is Heracles (Hercules).  In Heracles, as with the closely related (but more sophisticated) Achilles, we see two key aspects of the hero – excellence; and subjection to fate.  Heracles is a magnificent physical specimen, strong and valorous, mighty in his appetites.  But despite his excellence, he does not mould his own fate – he is subject repeatedly to the whims of the gods, driven to murder and set many tasks.

We comprehend the tragic hero, perhaps especially enthralled when both we and he understand that he is doomed.  His heroism is not defined by his triumph, but instead by his reaction to his doom.  Will he be like Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar who, once he grasps his doom, chooses to curse the gods and surrender to despair and suicide? Will he be like Somerset Maugham's Baghdad servant whose attempt to flee his fate is what brings it about? Or will he be like Théoden King, and embrace his fate, crying

Forth, and fear no darkness! Arise! Arise, Riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword day… a red day… ere the sun rises!   Ride now!… Ride now!… Ride! Ride to ruin and the world's ending! Death! Death! Death!

In 1981, the monetarists thought themselves doomed.  There was every chance the Conservative Party would eject them before the next Election, and if it did not the SDP would win an overwhelming majority.  They reacted by redoubling their efforts, seeking not to escape their fate but to make the most of it.  Does that seem heroic to you?  Perhaps you have a sneaking admiration for Denis Healey, cursed with an impossible Chancellorship, or even for George Osborne, trapped by the gods in a task he did not desire.

But though we all find it easy to understand and appreciate the tragic hero, those of us that especially admire this model should beware of failing to grasp that there are others.

The most famous transition in heroism is that from Heracles to Jason (as in Jason and the Argonauts).  In many versions of the tale, Heracles leaves the Argonauts before the task is complete, and though Heracles is mighty, Jason is clever – wit and resourcefulness have replaced physical magnificence and valour as the key defining aspects of the hero.  Jason does not overwhelm his opponents and tasks with brute force, but with intellect.  We see this transition in many forms – from Saul to David; from Achilles and Hector to Odysseus.  With guile, cunning, and cleverness, these heroes do more than react nobly to their fate – they mould it.  They are no longer creatures of fate, but of destiny.

Perhaps you admire the cunning political plotter, whose schemes mould the world – the Metternich, the Baldwin, the Lloyd George, the Peter Mandelson…the George Osborne (wearing another hat this time)?

Those that mould events are closely related to those that make their own rules, of whom the heroic archetype is Alcibiades, the central figure of the Second Peloponnesian War (and main character of the Steven Pressfield novel "Tides of War").  Alcibiades is the wonderful rogue – handsome and clever and brilliantly successful, but debauched and amoral.  We never tire of this character, surprising and shaming ourselves at the level of depravity we are tempted to forgive the truly coruscating and charming – how do you feel about Ralph Fiennes' astounding depiction of Amon Göth in Schindler's List?  What about Henry VIII, Oswald Mosley, Alan Clark…or Boris Johnson?

Perhaps you admire the cunning and educated strategist, who carries all before him – the Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Octavian, Temujin (Genghis Khan)?  Now are these disciples of Jason, or of Alcibiades?  And is the difference any more, really, than whether they win and whether history is then kind?  Tony Blair, anyone?

Of course, Jason and Alcibiades are still valourous – these heroes are still doers.  But another famous doer, though indeed valourous (as it happened – especially at the Battle of Delium) was not at all famous for that – our next heroic archetype: Socrates.  Socrates is heroic not simply for his persistence in asking his questions and his willingness to disagree with conventional wisdom and change that conventional wisdom to his own, but for living out his beliefs – standing up for judicial procedure against the mob demanding the joint trial of the Generals of Arginusae, refusing to participate in the unjust execution of Leon of Salamis, and refusing to escape from jail after he had been condemned to death.  Socrates is the model of the lived-out intellectual, unjustly slain by the oppressors and the mob.  Socrates is also the classic intellectual defender of the established order – refusing even to rebel against authority to the extent of avoiding his own death.

If your heroes are Enoch Powell or Edmund Burke, then Socrates is your model.

Closely related to Socrates, but importantly different, is the revolutionary intellectual: Martin Luther.  Luther is the achetype for those prepared to re-think from first principles, and then challenge and re-make the established order, confident enough in their own chain of reasoning to defy conventional wisdom.  Is Keith Joseph your hero, perhaps?

Luther was especially famous in his day for attending the Diet of Worms, despite the considerable personal risk, declaring (if he did – modern scholars doubt it): "Here I stand, I can do no other."  This leads us to another archetype: Boudica (Boadicea).  Boudica is the model hero for those that feel compelled to stand against oppression even if their own destruction seems inevitable.  Spartacus.  Granny Nanny of the Jamaican Maroons?  Nelson Mandela, perhaps?

Most of our models so far have been of rather noisy heroes.  But there are quiet heroes, also, those that get things done, and maintain peace and order under difficult circumstances.  Imhotep, Moses, Vespasian, Elizabeth I, Robert Walpole.  Is Kenneth Baker a hero of yours, perhaps, or Alistair Darling?  There's a lot to be said for the safe pair of hands that gets things done.

Perhaps the most famous model of the quiet hero is Mary, mother of Jesus, the archetype of doing one's duty without complaint, even if the consequence might be personal humiliation and the death of loved ones.  Mercifully few politicians in the UK are called upon to make the sacrifices of Mary, but perhaps your political hero might be An San Suu Kyi?

When we consider our political leaders, and sometimes wonder what others see in them that we do not, one place to start might be with the archetypes of heroism.  As we have seen, there are many different kinds of hero (and we have not listed them all by any means).  Are you content with your heroes?  And might in fact some candidates that you don't get initially turn out to be heroes in the end?  Might you be missing something by focusing purely on the form of heroism you happen to understand best?

Comments are closed.