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The Heroes We Need

The heroes of today measure themselves according to the standards of God, not the standards of men.

Fall in the White Mountain National Forest
A farming family on the edge of the White Mountain National Forest begins to prepare for the winter soon to come, on October 5, 2022 in rural Chatham, New Hampshire. (Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

In times of conceptual war, the hero does not wear armor or carry a spear. While the idea of heroism has always changed, it has never been as diffuse as it is now.

The hero has always displayed exalted spiritual and bodily virtues. For the Greeks, the hero was more than a human, but less than a god. And this is so because in Greco-Roman mythology, the hero was someone like Aeneas, son of the goddess Aphrodite and Anchises, a prince. He was often recognized as such after his death, so that his fame spans centuries and cultures. Since ancient times, the term “hero” has been reserved for fearless warriors, capable of great deeds, and for characters who were able to protect their people against all odds.


When we trace the idea of the hero we are talking about an objective and commonly accepted heroism. Of course, everyone has their own personal meaning, too: for example, I do not find anyone more deserving of that title in our day than someone who is able to remember all their email account passwords.

When literature, the arts, and film began to shape culture, heroism abandoned its mythological roots and began to adhere to the warrior figure first, and then to that of the brave individual who performed great feats, whether warlike or not.

Without the aura of mythology, century after century, heroes have moved away from the supernatural and have become more human, until the point today, when what we find most interesting about them are their defects, sometimes acknowledged openly, like that famous protagonist of Wodehouse: "I am not always good and noble. I am the hero of this story, but I have my off moments."

Twentieth century cinema advanced a new role of the accidental hero; Dustin Hoffman's brilliant performance in Hero comes to mind. And, at the same time, war films have continued to remind us of great historical exploits, further mythologizing great warriors. But contemporary heroism shares more with Dustin Hoffman's Hero than with William Wallace. In a century without world wars, without major hand-to-hand combat, the hero is a label that the press almost arbitrarily gives to those who manage to embody some of the values that our elders once identified with heroism: those who save lives in a catastrophe, those who survive in dire conditions, those who try to help in the midst of an attack, or those who do not succumb to all kinds of pressures in a political conflict.

But undoubtedly, if medieval heroes raised their heads today, they would believe that ours is a century without heroism. And what is more, if medieval heroes were to rise from their graves, they would no doubt be reviled and imprisoned, to the silence of their old admirers and the applause of a civil society anesthetized by revisionist progressivism.


The dominant values have changed. A society freed from any Christian vestige, as was foreseeable, has not entailed a freer society, but a society more subject to nihilism, first, and then to wokeism. The corsets of reason, as in the Enlightenment, have turned out to be much tighter than those of religion and tradition. They no longer value honesty, coherence, and loyalty, but neither do they value the defense of the homeland, the exaltation of one's own culture, or faith.

Thus, the hero has also mutated in appearance and substance. Today, public opinion, poisoned by relativism, is not even capable of agreeing on the designation of its heroes. Relativism always generates disinterest, perhaps because of what Roger Scruton said: "A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is 'merely relative,' is asking you not to believe him. So don't." Be that as it may, all contemporary heroes must also pass the test of ideology before they can arouse widespread praise, so that everyone, before acknowledging an act of heroism, must ask of the protagonist, "But is the hero on my side?"

This trend affects not only the present but also the past. Yesterday's heroes are being judged with today's eyes, resulting in the demolition of statues of Columbus or Fray Junipero Serra, events that would have filled our ancestors with indignation.

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All this might lead one to believe that heroism has been outlawed, and that there is no longer any room for the values that once made Western civilization the beacon of the world. Yet there are today, more than ever perhaps, anonymous people behaving heroically in their daily lives, in environments that are completely hostile to their customs, traditions, and way of thinking.

Today's heroes are silent. They do not star in resounding exploits. They do not win bloody battles. They will almost certainly not appear in the newspaper (unless it is to be insulted). And they will probably receive recognition from only a few, or even no one. But the truth is that all this does not detract from their heroism.

Today's heroes are normal, ordinary people, more than ever a lone ranger. Because, at the end of the day, today's hero is Cardinal Sarah calling for a return to seclusion in the Catholic Church, the mother who confronts the school board refusing to allow her daughter to be indoctrinated by trans activists, the journalist who loses his job for upholding the truth, and the old-school liberal feminist who stands up to the dogmatic drift of the new left.

Today's heroes are those who make up a normal family, the married couples who achieve the feat of fidelity, the young people who renounce selling their intimacy, and the grandchildren who defend their right to listen calmly to their grandparent's old stories.

Today's hero is the student who questions the university teachings dominated by agents of the left and looks to classical authors for answers; it is the chemist who denounces the way wokeism is killing science, and the athlete who refuses to bend a knee before anyone but God.

In short, today's heroism is far from that primitive Greco-Roman heroism, and the courageous medieval warrior, or the adventurer who risked his life to discover the limits of the world in the Renaissance. Western heroism today often does not require bloodshed, but it does require losing our time’s most precious asset, which is digital social prestige; it will not find harassment in enemy prisons, but will be banned on social networks, expelled from work, and finally despised even in its closest circles. And it won't be just one who will change the course of history, but many. Remember when a still unknown Jordan Peterson stood up against the use of gender pronouns in college? In his wake have come many others. Therein lies the new heroism.

What Chesterton wrote is still true: "Every age is saved by a small handful of men who have the courage to be inaccurate." The hero today is closer to the martyr, the Christian who dies in difficult circumstances for his faith, leaving an incomprehensible legacy to human eyes, but an incalculable one in the eyes of God.

We Christians tend to see this heroism as a consequence of faith. Let's say we are familiar with persecution. Perhaps that's why those passionate words of Leon Bloy, always controversial, became famous: "Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig."

Those who want to defend their beliefs, those who are committed to safeguarding tradition, whether Christians or not, must assume that the hostility around them demands sacrifice: their anonymous heroism, for others, for future generations, to preserve the legacy we inherited from those who built the moral foundations of the West. In short, Russell Kirk's warning remains true: "Men cannot improve a society by setting fire to it: they must seek out its old virtues, and bring them back into the light."


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