‘Heroism’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Are we all heroes just waiting for that moment in time when we jump into action? When you look into the mirror, do you see a Gilgamesh, an Odysseus, or a modern day hero? What characteristics determine the makeup of a hero? The 19th Century essay “Heroism” from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Emerson Essays and Lectures takes on the task of defining a hero. Emerson’s take on heroism mirrors that of mythological heroes and modern day heroes.
The hero must be willing to fight for his country and his beliefs. Emerson states, “Towards all this external evil, the man within the breast assumes a warlike attitude, and affirms his ability to cope single-handed with the infinite army of enemies.”(Page374) Heroism is the small voice inside us that urges us to do the right thing and not go against our conscience. Heroism is trusting in your own judgement. When your conscience argues with you about which path to take, trust your inner knowledge to follow the right path. Heroism is persistence. When you choose your path, stay on that path and do not try to reform yourself to fit in with your peers. “If you would serve you brother, because it is fit for you to serve him, do not take back your words when you find that prudent people do not commend you. Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age.” (Page379) So according to Emerson, a hero is willing to stand up and fight for his beliefs, listens to his conscience, trusts his own judgement, stays persistent and doesn’t veer from his chosen path, and pays no attention to what others may think of him.
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Gilgamesh and Odysseus display these same traits. They have a mission to complete. They are willing to fight for their beliefs. These heroes stay on the path they choose until the mission is complete.
Gilgamesh demonstrates his heroic character in several instances. He defeated the monster Humbaba. Gilgamesh travels to Mount Mashu where he climbs an extremely treacherous cliff. He shows honor by refusing to let Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, control his actions. Gilgamesh faces many trials on his journey to find the plant called “The Old Man Becomes a Young Man.”
Odysseus also shows heroic tendencies during his travels. He saves his crew from death at the hands of the Cyclops. He uses his intellect to trick cyclops into removing the stone from the cave door and then he and his crew hang on the Cyclops’ goats to escape the cave. He shows bravery when he returns to the island of Circe to retrieve the body of Elpenor so that he could have a proper burial. When Odysseus returns home, he challenges Penelope’s suitors and defeats them.
Modern day heroes do not sail the seas in search of monsters and gods of the realm or creatures of the underworld. Instead they are doctors, nurses, astronauts, and others who we readily consider as regular people, but there are some who go beyond what is normal. Mother Teresa: beyond the image describes Mother Teresa’s dedication to the sick, dying, and destitute. She is described as the embodiment of Christian kindness. The terrorist attacks in New York on 9/11 brought out the heroic tendencies in many people. Policemen, firemen, medical personnel, and just people off the street performed super human feats to save those injured on that day.
Living with Honor tells the stories of modern-day soldiers. The book describes the heroic acts of three of our soldiers. Sal Giunta faced a barrage of bullets to pull his fallen comrade to safety and the he regrouped and continued to fight until the insurgents retreated. Kyle Carpenter threw himself on a grenade to save his friend. Leroy Petry lost his arm while saving a fellow soldier. After being fitted with a prosthetic arm, he returned to the service. Heroes of long ago and heroes of today are similar, yet different. Heroes of today do not have super human powers bestowed on them by the gods. Heroes of all periods of time display courage, humility, and a respect for other human lives.
Emerson’s essay “Heroism” says that heroes put on a warlike attitude. The hero exhibits loyalty, obedience to one’s self, self-trust, and he never gives up. The hero is able to trust his own ability to make decisions. Emerson’s definition of heroism speaks to heroes of mythology as well as modern-day heroes.