According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a hero is "a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage or outstanding achievements, the chief male character in a book, play, or film, or (in mythology and folklore) a person of superhuman qualities. According to author John Ayto in his book Dictionary of Word Origins, the word hero was applied in ancient times to men of superhuman ability or courage. The definition and connotations of the label have changed over the centuries. There is no longer a need for super powers to be considered a hero. My personal definition of the word requires that the person who is labeled a hero, not acquire the honor accidentally.
This writer defines the word hero as a person who, through intent, goes beyond consideration for him or herself to further the cause of another, whether this cause is noble or dishonorable, in so much as to place another's welfare before his own. The action does not have to be remarkable, nor the achievement outstanding. Ordinary acts can be heroic and ordinary people can be heroes.
I have included the dishonorable as well as the noble because I believe heroism to be subjective. One man's hero is another man's rogue.
The word hero has a range of meanings. The qualities of a hero were attributed to Gods and demigods, according to Ayto. Greek mythology is replete with the fantastic achievements of heroes such as Jason, Hercules, Odysseus and Perseus. Each overcomes impossible odds to complete the task to which he has set himself. The obstacles are often set by the Gods to help their character prove himself. To be a hero was to be more than the denotative meaning of the word, it was to be a triumphant pawn of the Gods. For a hero to succeed meant that he had to have superhuman attributes. The implied meaning of hero was not extended to the more general sense of a "brave or otherwise admirable man" until the late 16th century, according to Ayto. The connotation of the word hero became much less fantastic when the Gods were removed from the scene.
By the late 17th century, the "hero" became the chief character in a story. The expectation of the hero by the reader was to resolve the storyline. Those characteristics, which made the main character most important, were his extraordinary efforts to achieve success toward his goal. Forrest Gump is a hero. He is born with physical and mental disabilities to overcome. He applies his entire being to becoming more than a cripple. He is selfless in the face of death when he carries his friend in the fields of Viet Nam. He honors his promises and against all odds, raises himself and those around him to a higher plane.
It is interesting to note that Ayto also applies the word's usage to a person who has taken the drug heroin, and who therefore acts in a state of delusion. With this additional connotation, the label hero takes on a radically new meaning. Perhaps superheroes are ordinary men in the grip of drug-enhanced perceptions of their capabilities. If they actually succeed in their quest then they are truly heroes.
If they fail, well, they were never heroes in the first place. They were simply victims of their own delusions.
Author Stephen Gould suggests that a hero is one who triumphs against a personal "waterloo." He elaborates by saying that "detractors can argue forever about the general tenor of your life and works, but they can never erase a great event." While this might be true, I do not consider a one act wonder to be a hero. I would more likely recognize the person as having done an heroic act. Under Gould's definition, an alcoholic who defeats his illness is a hero. Certainly, each bottle represents a personal "waterloo" and victory is defined by the battle.
This writer does not agree with Gould's definition. Is a person who digs himself a hole and then finds a way out really a hero? Is a hero defined by a single event, or must his heroism be defined by the sum of his life. Perhaps there a more kinds of heroes than first meet the eye.
One must understand that the word hero denotes a man of extraordinary qualities who is admired for their courage, and at the same time, allow for the connotation of the word to be much grander. In my definition, the hero must be selfless. He must have qualities that allow him to ignore his basic human frailties such as greed, self-pity, fear, and selfishness in favor of another person or even an animal. He is the person who extends himself beyond expectation to further the cause. Military heroes always capture our imagination. Bin Laden is a true hero in the eyes of his followers. He sacrifices his wealth and life for the cause of Islam. He suffers hardship to free true believers around the world. Robert E. Lee was a hero, not only in how he conducted his battle, but also in how he conducted the peace. His selflessness in defeat allowed for both sides to retreat in honor. He did not become a martyr to safeguard his image. Jesus was and is admired for his radical heresy against the Jewish faith. He proclaimed himself the Messiah. He had superhuman qualities. He could heal the sick, and raise the dead. To many, he was a blasphemer. Yet, he had courage, faith and intent. One may question his heroism, however, because the circumstances of his birth gave him very few choices. His quest was heroic.
Who is a hero using this writer's definition? First, to be labeled a hero, a person must have intent. A firefighter who rushes into a burning building is doing the job he chooses to do.
He is aware of the dangers inherent in his actions. His desire is to perform his duties to the best of his abilities. For him to be a hero, he must intentionally extend his actions into a zone of danger not expected by the parameters of his job. Therefore, the firefighter who responds to a fire, follows all the safety precautions he has been taught, and succeeds at this task without extending himself past the parameters of his job is not a hero. If, during the course of the fire, he learns that there is a person in the building who is beyond reach, but ignores his fear and exceeds the expectations of his job by saving the victim, then he is a hero. He might also find himself the subject of a reprimand for going beyond the parameters of his job and putting himself at risk, when the probability of success was so slim. His commanding officer may not accept the label of hero in light of the risk.
Further, if there is no intent, then there is no hero. The example might be the case of a person, who finds him or herself on the deck of a sinking ship. In a panic, our "hero" chooses to go to the stern, while most of the others choose to go to the bow. In the end, the bow sinks and the stern stays afloat. The people who followed our "hero" are eventually saved, because they listened to our "hero." It is my contention that this person is not a hero, merely lucky. He did not want to die. He did not care if anyone followed him to the stern and he did not display intent in protecting anyone's safety over his own. According to my definition, the fact that he had no intent disqualifies himm from being a hero. It is my belief that the result of an act does not make a person a hero, it is the intent.
The label hero connotes more than just happenstance. Not everyone who rushed into the World Trade Center on September 11 was a hero. Many would have run out again if they had any idea that the building was going to pancake. Yet, in the eyes of the public, their choice of occupation made them all heroes. Hence, the second requirement of my definition; a hero is ultimately a subjective label. One person's hero is another person's opportunist.
E.B.White finds heroism in Will Strunk and his elucidation of the English language. He labels Strunk a hero because he equips the readers to "fight the good fight on behalf of the clear, the brief, the bold: and for the rest of their lives, all sentences they read and write will be measured against Will Strunk's enduring credo." This is a person whose intentions were clear. To E.B. White, he is a hero. One might question whether superhuman powers were needed or whether one might even consider courage involved. However, in the more modern denotation of the word, Strunk was a man of outstanding achievements. This alone qualifies…