When I first started thinking about heroism, more than eight years ago, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
I had just published a book on human rights and I was curious about why some people cared a lot about other people—so much that they’d put their own lives at risk—while most other people didn’t. I was curious about what made these people heroes rather than bystanders and my early research led me to the impact of a particular sort of empathy: personal identification with those who are suffering. Someone who identified with another person in this way, either because they knew him or could identify with his situation, were more likely to act on behalf of the other person. And this idea, that personal identification was important to heroism, led me all the way back to classical Western concepts of heroism in the Iliad because Homer portrays Achilles, his great hero, as someone with this sort of empathy.
Once I saw the importance of personal identification to hero stories over time, it occurred to me that I might be able to contribute to the discussion of heroism by bringing political theory, my field of study, to bear. And as I worked on my book about classical heroism and how it impacts the way we think about heroism today, and as I spent time talking about heroism with Matt Langdon, I started thinking about characteristics or activities that led someone to act heroically. If this particular kind of empathy was one important item on the list that might lead to heroic behavior, what else might be? What we looked for were things that repeat over and over again in hero stories over time and in many different places; we found them in classic literature and in the real world as well.
Now, Matt and I are planning to take you through the list we’ve been compiling. These are concrete things that anyone can work toward and we think they’re the building blocks of heroic action. Over time at this blog, we’ll explain each item on our list, we’ll give lots of examples, and we’ll look for feedback from you. It should be an exciting discussion about an important topic, one that we hope will change or sharpen the way you think about your heroes and yourself.