The other day I asked the students in my American history classes if any of them had ever heard the name Audie Murphy. Murphy was a WWII soldier who received every possible medal for valor. He stood atop a burning tank destroyer holding off an entire company of German soldiers, without regard for his own safety, so the rest of his men could withdraw from the battlefield with a chance to stay alive. He was one of the most celebrated American heroes of the mid-twentieth century.
I was prepared for no hands to go up, but to my surprise a few did. Students weren’t exactly familiar with him, but some recognized him as a decorated soldier from WWII and one even knew that he made movies when he came back after the war.
I was surprised because I know that the exploits of soldiers like Murphy aren’t usually covered in high school history classes. As far as historical knowledge goes, college students still come in knowing something about WWII — in high school they learn about the Holocaust and the American use of the atomic bombs, but often little else.
We live in a culture in which positive heroism is absent from our thoughts about history and what constitutes a suitable education.
In person, Murphy was modest and self-effacing, particularly when confronted with the unending insistence that he was a hero. While these are qualities in increasingly short supply today among celebrities, real heroes on the other hand do tend to be modest and unassuming, which requires us to do more of the work of remembering.
This is also part of the reason why celebrities are much easier to know about than real heroes.

The meaning of “hero”

Of all the words our culture tosses around these days without much thought given to their meanings, “hero” is one against whose overuse I react strongly. Despite our casual familiarity with the word, a real hero is a complicated notion.
Beyond the specific actions of an individual that brings the word into our conversation, the deeper significance of a hero is that he or she for a brief moment becomes the personification of a virtue. Virtues—ideas like courage, sacrifice, love, obligation, or patriotism—are complex notions that remain largely abstract, and therefore hard to imagine clearly, unless and until they’re given concrete form.

Go and do likewise

What does courage look like? What is sacrifice? Philosophers may ponder these concepts in detached ways, but we as flesh and blood don’t relate well to ideas. We are imitative: we learn best by seeing, believing, and then following. The Greeks knew this, and it’s why heroes were so important in their stories.
In general, people in our culture more often pay lip service to heroism than think of it as something after which we should pattern our own actions. The reason for that is because beyond the attention and praise, heroism ultimately shifts a burden onto us.
The implicit message of heroism is “go and do likewise,” the idea being that, having witnessed such virtuous behavior, we can more readily measure our own lives against it. Properly understood, heroism binds us together, for it reminds us of our duties to one another and our society even if we at all other times forget them. But in an increasingly individualistic culture heroism is ironically both more needed and, when justly understood, less welcome.

Free societies need heroes

Demonstrating virtue and consequently inspiring people to be virtuous is a fundamental and necessary component of a free society. Laws, police, and the justice system serve only as negative reinforcement for particular actions deemed undesirable by the state: declining to run a stop sign can hardly be described as virtuous.
Truly virtuous behavior cannot be compelled in a free society. The moment virtuous behavior (or thought) becomes mandated under the threat of force, it in fact ceases to be virtue at all, and the society becomes one of tyranny, not of freedom.
But because what we understand to be virtuous behavior is nonetheless needed in society, a society that seeks to remain free requires models of virtue to emulate. That’s where heroes come in. Heroes do something active and positive; they don’t simply obey the rules.
Novelist Salman Rushdie once commented that the cultural importance of art is that it tells us “things about ourselves that we hear from no other quarter.” Similarly, heroes demonstrate for us things we may see as clearly from no other source.
As the cliché has it, a picture is worth a 1,000 words, but how much more vivid are living actions that one can emulate. This is one of the reasons that I don’t scoff when I hear a child describe his father or his mother as a hero. Indeed, they often are. They always should be.
In exchanging heroes for celebrities — giving up the inspiration to act in a positive way in return for a coercion that simply keeps us in line — our culture is losing the best path toward civility and true community. It’s a poor trade.