They hold rational, i.e., life-promoting values--and in the attempt to create and/or defend these values, they are willing to expend all their energy, engage in any struggle, take on every foe. The hero is one who holds rational values and fights for them, if necessary, against every conceivable form of opposition. Heroism is a moral concept.
This is why King Hrothgar is known as the "ring-giver." He behaves according to expectations of the duties of a lord when he lavishly rewards Beowulf and the other Geat warriors for ridding the Danes of Grendel's menace...
They were so good at it in fact, that their particular brand of hero gets called the "Romantic hero" or "Byronic hero" (after Lord Byron). Not too shabby.
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In short, what is the rational meaning of the concept "heroism"? Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines "hero as: a) "a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability, b) an illustrious warrior, c) a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities, d) one that shows great courage." These attempts at defining the nature of a hero are woefully inadequate.
A hero is a self-driven, value-intoxicated doer. Observe the principle involved: since man is an integration of mind and body, since his life requires both mental and physical effort, there is a continuum regarding a hero's nature: he must possess some quantity of both mental and physical prowess, but may do so in varying degrees.
Quotation Introduction: Many writers are tempted to start their essay with a quote. You should try to resist this temptation, as most quotes will look forced. Admissions officers will be turned off if it is apparent that you searched through a book of famous quotes and came up with a quote from some famous philosopher about whom you know nothing. The quotation introduction is most effective when the quote you choose is unusual, funny, or obscure, not too long, and from those to whom you are closest. Choose a quote with a meaning you plan to reveal to the reader as the essay progresses. The admissions committee is interested in how you respond to the quote and what that response says about you.
Watson, at the incomparable brain power of Sherlock's brother, one may appreciate the grand-scale, heroic proportion of this aspect of his nature, but ultimately one is forced to conclude that a man who abdicates all initiative--who takes no self-generated steps to pursue values, and who must be prodded by others to prevent the full squandering of his genius--can never be considered a hero.
An essay on the nature and conduct of the passions and affections: with illustrations on the moral sense / Francis Hutcheson; introduction by Aaron Garrett.
And it is why Peter Keating, from the first moment of compromise, has abandoned any and all hope of ever attaining such an exalted status. A hero's life is an unbroken and inviolable series of actions taken in accordance with his own principles in the teeth of any obstacle with which nature or other men confront him. Because man is an integrated sum of mind and body, because his life requires a smooth causal flow between thought and action, no wedge can be driven into a great man's nature; he cannot be sundered into mindless action hero versus purely theoretical, inactive mental giant.
The relevant principle is this: if one remains true in action--come hell or high water--to rational values, if one strives mightily against any and all antagonists, never yielding, never betraying one's soul, pursuing excellence relentlessly, if one embodies all this and never cries for mercy, then one is a hero even though one fails in practical terms. The essence of heroism is an unbreached and unbreachable allegiance to the good in the face of any possible form of opposition. Because he displays such virtue in action against concerted opposition, the hero embodies nobility of character, spiritual grandeur, the characteristic Aristotle deemed "greatness of soul." He may fail in his specific value quest, he may be shot in the back or die, but his principled, uncompromised devotion to the good represents victory in, at least, a moral sense.
But an important epistemological question needs to be raised as well, one regarding the means by which men come to form the concept "hero." What are the facts of reality which give rise to this concept?
When one can say this truthfully of a man, then one is in the presence of a hero. The essence of this point is simple: nothing is given to man on earth--struggle is built into the nature of life, and conflict is possible--the hero is the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen. Which brings us to the issue of triumph.