Emerson's Essay On Heroism

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 12th grade February 2002

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The first and most important implicit question in this statement is by what standards Emerson is judging a hero---and whether it even matters, as he seems to be saying that a hero is a hero despite anything else. This assertion is false, however, because there is inevitably, not only in the actions of heroes but also in those of antiheroes, an element of situation and circumstance that either augments or diminishes their capacity for good.

In 1984 by George Orwell, protagonist Winston Smith is, from what the reader can tell, the only individual (with the exception of his compatriot Julia) in his Big Brother society who sees anything wrong with the tactics employed by the government and, subsequently, who attempts to do anything to protest. This alone could constitute a reasonable definition of a hero: in an evil culture, he is the only one fighting for good, but he continues nonetheless.

For the majority of the novel, Winston is certainly a hero as he fights the system; at the end, however, he is defeated, brainwashed and convinced that he "loves Big Brother." Is he any less of a hero because a hopelessly corrupt and evil institution managed to break his spirit? The answer may not necessarily be yes, but the point is that it is a point of debate, and casts enough doubt upon the validity of the original statement to warrant further examination.

The idea of a hero can encompass so many characteristics, and to avoid playing the semantics game one must assign only a few, perhaps the possession of morality or of great leadership. History is full of persons, however, which could have been heroes under different circumstances but simply drew the short end of the stick or inadvertently used their talents for malevolence. It is an old axiom that no villain thinks of himself as a villain, and this is proved by the actions of Hitler and Mussolini, Axis leaders during World War II. Both were skilled politicians, leaders, and propagandists, and in these respects were no different than Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the Allied directors who are customarily acknowledged as heroes by the general public. Conversely, everyone knows people who are intrinsically good but are not recognized as heroes, simply because they have yet to encounter a situation to bring out their morality and goodness.

The vague abstractions of the term "hero'" and the fact that Emerson does not include a definition with his claim, makes its disproving an easy task; perhaps if he had been more explicit it would be not only more difficult to contradict him but also more simple to identify who is a hero in our society and who is not.