“A vital person vitalizes. The world is a wasteland.”
— Joseph Campbell
I. On Heroics
Since reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces last winter, I have been thinking a lot about myth, narrative, and the philosophy of heroic action (or as I like to think of it, “heroics”). Near as I can tell, “heroics” describes a type of complexity-preserving world-historical action, in which the actions of the “hero” preserves or create a liberating complexity which would not have occurred absent their action. Seen another way, if the natural tendency is towards disorder — chaos, entropy — then “heroics” is the force which puts things together. Another term for this could be “world building”.
Let’s consider the two parts of the definition in turn:
The term “complexity” here should be read to mean a state of affairs in which participants in a system are able to take many types of possible actions, and one in which there are many types of possible outcomes, and where the paths from action to outcome are not random, and are in fact as clear as possible. The addition of “liberating” introduces the sense that the complexity should be energy-efficient, as in the transformations of action to outcome should preserve as much as possible the energy and intention of the actor — an alternative term could have been “enabling” or “life-preserving” — allowing them to do more with less. As a point of contrast, a bloated bureaucracy, while “complex”, is not liberating, as it serves to limit and control the actors more than to enable and empower them — it is “life-destroying” — and does less with more.
It is also important to note that “liberating complexity” here is taken as a “good” — and so the notion of complexity can be seen as the basis for a secular morality. This view of “complexity as secular morality” is not new — it is, for instance, the attitude of Khaderbhai, a fictional Mumbai kingpin in the book Shantaram, who delivers a lengthy (and worthwhile) monologue on the issue. As secular society matures, the need for solutions to moral questions which are not grounded in religious values or divine law becomes increasingly important — and so a philosophy of “heroics” becomes useful.
The term “world-historical” here simply means that the heroic action has consequences which persist beyond the hero themselves — the actions permanently influence the larger environment and thus become a “part of history”. For example, while a personal insight is not world-historical, sharing insights in such a way to impact others is. Another way to think of world-historicity is narrative potency — does the action shape the story?
A key requirement is that the action must originate from within the hero — otherwise, the hero is simply a part of the environment and cannot be meaningfully said to be acting upon it. Millions of actions occur every day, but very few of them are world-historical, in that most of them proceed unoriginally from the actions which came before. It is the ability to perform novel actions which separates the figure from the ground.
This requirements of impact and novelty are a part of what makes heroic action noteworthy — as Spinoza observed, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” It is not easy to have these types of effects, and doing so requires skill, energy, insight, and conviction — much of Campbell’s work outlines a process by which individuals develop these attributes, and thus quite literally become heroes.
With this definition in hand, we can consider some examples.
First are the classic Greek myths, which few would contest describe heroic action. In these, protagonists are frequently confronted with powerful obstacles which threaten to undermine the existing social order (complexity), such as traditions of human sacrifice (see: Theseus, Perseus) with undermine the family. The hero’s personal qualities allow them to break these traditions and preserve complexity (here by leaving family structures intact).
We can also consider more recent examples in science and politics. Off the top of my head, the work of Charles Darwin can be seen as heroic for the way in which it created a more efficient structure of thought, reducing the “mental energy” required to develop and test theories pertaining to life on earth. In an important sense, theory-building can be seen as a type of liberating heroic action, replacing an inefficient, energy-destroying complexity with an efficient one. In politics, we can look to Abraham Lincoln as a complexity-preserver: someone who, through great effort, managed to sustain a complex organization on the verge of dissolution (entropy), while simultaneously creating complexity by literally liberating millions.
II. Back to the Future
With the preliminaries out of the way, we can turn to a notable example of heroics in action: Back to the Future. A classic 1985 time-travel comedy starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future tells the story of 1985-era teenager Marty McFly (Fox) who is inadvertently sent back in time by his mad scientist friend Dr. Emmett Brown (Lloyd), and must navigate 1950’s America in an attempt to return “home”.
Much of the film’s narrative centers around two conflicts: first, after inadvertently catching the eye of his (then-teenage) mother, Marty must convince his parents to marry, and second, to repair the time machine (a modified DeLorean DMC-12) and travel “back to the future”. Unsurprisingly, each of these conflicts is resolved by heroic action.
Uniting the Parents
This primary subplot requires Marty to convince his parents, Lorraine and George, to marry (and thus give birth to him), complicated by the fact that Marty’s arrival interfered with the initial (random and very unlikely) event which brought them together the first time. Lorraine is a pretty and popular girl in school, while George is a socially awkward loner, and so much of the subplot involves Marty coaching George on how to be a charming suitor.
George repeatedly blunders through every scenario Marty constructs, unable to find within himself the masculine charm which Lorraine is looking for. Pointedly, even when George first succeeds in charming Lorraine, he does so entirely by accident — even then George remains incapable of heroic action, and despite his best efforts, Marty is unable to supply it for him, as heroic action must originate from the hero.
The conflict is finally resolved at the the end of the film when, once George and Lorraine are finally dancing (due to luck and Marty’s machinations), a random boy steals Lorraine away. George looks around helplessly, while both Lorraine and Marty anxiously look to George for action. Finally, after an entire film of bumbling passivity, George takes his first truly heroic action and pushes the boy to the floor, reuniting with Lorraine (and thus saving Marty’s life).
This moment is significant in that it is the first moment in which George acts with intention, and is not simply following Marty’s script. or blundering randomly. As such, it is the moment in which George takes his first complexity-preserving, world-historical action — saving his family and Marty’s life — and becomes a hero. The narrative required a display of heroics from George — something Marty could never provide for him — and was resolved only when that display was provided.
Back to the Future
The main plot requires Marty, in collaboration with Doc Brown, to fix the time machine and go home. The challenge is getting enough power: the flux capacitor famously requires 1.21 gigawatts to function — equivalent to a single nuclear power plant — no easy feat in 1955.
Fortunately, Marty managed to be sent back in time on the eve of a historical lightning strike — an event which, if properly planned for, can provide the necessary power. In order to harness that power, Marty and Doc Brown construct an elaborate scheme by which a cable is strung from the site of the lightning strike to a metal wire suspended over a nearby street. The plan is for Marty to start the car further up the road, accelerate to the requisite 88 miles per hour, and come into contact with the metal wire at the exact moment of the lightning strike.
Things, of course, do not go as planned. At the moment Marty must begin accelerating, the car doesn’t start. An unexpected accident causes the cable to detach, threatening to deprive the time machine of power. Despite the best of planning, fate is the final obstacle.
Yet, miraculously, the car starts. At great personal risk, Doc Brown manages to reconnect the power cable — and against all odds, Marty makes it home.
This narrative is potent, showing how despite best efforts, fate remains outside of our hands. Skill and effort does not guarantee success — although it does make it more likely. Especially poignant is Marty’s attempt to start the car: after all of his planning and preparation, his future comes down to a moment of cosmic chance (or divine providence?) — although note that he was prepared to make the most of it. There are forces at work upon us which we do not fully understand. How much of heroics is noticing and taking the opportunities given?
The last point to make regarding this film is how each of these two narratives hinges on a single, central moment, around which all other events are either preparations or consequences — a concept analogous to the somewhat-dated metaphor of a “watershed moment”.
For George, his story revolves around the moment at the dance, where he pushes the boy away. It is his moment of heroic action: the events prior all build up to that moment, and everything after is a consequence of that moment.
For Marty and Doc Brown, their story revolves around the scheme to send Marty home, and where Marty starts the car and Doc Brown fixes the cable. It is their moment of heroic action (and perhaps divine intervention): their scheming was all preparation for that moment, and everything after is denouement.
My guess is that every narrative has a central point around which all else revolves, although inasmuch as narratives consist of sub-narratives and narratives are part of meta-narratives, there are many centers at different levels of abstraction. For Darwin, this “center” was the publishing of On the Origin of Species, for Lincoln, the Civil War. For Theseus, the slaying of the Minotaur, for Perseus, the slaying of Medusa. All of these actions originated from within the hero; all of them transcended the normal “pool table” narrative dynamics of ricocheting cause-and-effect.
Ultimately, heroic action seems like a symphony which continues to intensify — early successes create the opportunity for undertaking greater challenges — and so the “center” is likely only clear in retrospect. Yet, it seems useful to reflect on our own lives and our own narratives and our own attempts at heroic action and to determine what these central points have been — and what they could yet be.