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What is a Hero?

Updated on April 5, 2008

Heroes in the Modern World

Joseph Campbell, a famous scholar who spent his career creating a hero archetype from the mythology of many cultures, once said, “a hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary definition states: “a hero is a person held in esteem for superior qualities or deeds of any kind.” Unfortunately in recent years the word “hero” has lost much of its powerful meaning and is used to describe any person who does anything. A hero is a Good Samaritan, but a Good Samaritan is not necessarily a hero. The overuse of the word undermines the accomplishments of real heroes and the honor of being heroic is diminished. A hero by definition is an everyday person who acts beyond their duty to help or save others, often sacrificing him or her self in the process. The hero can be defined by current events, fictional heroes, and historical heroes in wars.

Anyone can be a hero, but in recent years many people who are called heroes turn out to be Good Samaritans or victims of disastrous circumstance. On September 11, 2001, about 3000 people died, since then all of them have been called heroes. All of the people who died in the terrorist attacks were victims, but only 400 of them, those police and firefighters who responded to the scene and died saving the lives of others, are true heroes. When President Bush addressed the country on the 5th memorial of the 9/11 attacks he was careful to state the definition, “ordinary citizens rising to the occasion, and responding with extraordinary acts of courage.” The President addresses the concept of heroism as an American value and uses the word to describe those who unite in the aid of others. The concept of who is a hero is delicate, everyone who dies in tragic events deserves to be recognized, mourned, and remembered; only the heroes deserve praise and the coveted title.

Unlike real world events, fiction uses the structure of the “Hero’s Journey” to identify a hero. One of the most recognizable, and famous, use of the hero’s journey is George Lucas’ Star Wars. In A New Hope Luke starts as a farmer, he gets “the call” when Obi Won asks for help and he leaves on an adventure with his mentor Obi Won. Luke’s mentor teaches him new skills he will need on his journey and then leaves him to pursue his destiny. The hero finally becomes aware of his goal, reaches the peak, using all of his experiences and is changed by the experience. He then returns home and brings change his society. The hero’s journey defines a hero as an ordinary person, who sets out on a journey, learns new skills, completes his task and is forever changed. The relevance of the hero fiction to the hero in reality is that anyone can be a hero, but those who step beyond their responsibilities and take action, will be changed for the better.

Fiction is inspired by history, so it is not surprising that many fictional heroes are war heroes. In times of war, especially early wars with close combat, people are forced to the extremes of their abilities and many go far beyond their duties to help their fellow troops and fight for their country. In the military, however, there are strict criteria for whom receives awards for heroic acts and what such an act entails. For the Medal of Honor a member of the armed forces must “conspicuously distinguish themselves by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their lives above and beyond the call of duty.” This strict guideline for the award is the same that should be used when using the word hero in any circumstance. Heroism is not an everyday occurrence, it is something special that should be recognized by criteria and treated with respect. The military’s use of medals rewards historic acts by classifying the acts using criteria, the exclusiveness of the awards keeps them from becoming commonplace.

The word hero has come to far into common usage and it has lost much of its validity because it is no longer exclusively used for those who truly participate in heroic acts. Heroes can be defined by current events, fictional references, and military policies. A hero should be defined as a person who goes above their responsibilities to help others, often at risk to their own safety. This definition should also imply that many current usages of the word are incorrect and should be reevaluated. Victims are not heroes; the people that save those victims at risk to are heroes. The media has a responsibility to the heroes it praises to use the word as it was intended and not to degrade its meaning to Good Samaritan.


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    • profile image

      jacob 5 years ago

      cookies are good!! :)

    • profile image

      michael meireles 5 years ago

      how does one go from being a real hero to a fictional hero

    • keithbradley profile image

      keithbradley 6 years ago from Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo)

      Thank you all for your responses, when I wrote this essay the feelings from 9/11 were fresh in my mind and it was difficult to argue the point clearly. Your feedback is helpful to better understand what this paper really meant to me.

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      l-j 6 years ago

      a lot a lot of writing!!

      good gob


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      Adaline 7 years ago

      Also, a Good Samaratin is more of a hero if they saved someone from danger than someone in the army or a fireman. Why? Because the Good Samaratin does not benefit at all from putting their life on the line. They don't get paid to save people.

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      Adaline 7 years ago

      I was with you up until you said that the 400 people that responded to the towers were heroes. Doing your job does not make you a hero. Now some of them are heroes if they decided to shirk orders from a captain to help others. But most fireman would never do half the things they do if they weren't getting paid for it.

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      chet 7 years ago

      He is a card. a card, what is that, that he is?

    • Kori Lee F.P. profile image

      Kori Lee F.P. 7 years ago from Northern Arizona

      I am a devotee of Joseph Campbell. A Hero With A Thousand Faces is the ultimate!!! So well done in writing a hub about the modern day hero. I made my seniors learn the stages of the hero's journey- seems to be so not related to their lives but it is!!! Separation, initiation and return- we are all doing it one way or another!! Follow your Bliss!!!

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      Christine 8 years ago

      I think the points you make are very valid. I really appreciate reading about your views of heroism, it helped me better to understand the term, and it's modern context.

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      anna mae 8 years ago

      A hero is someone who risks or indangers their life to save another. They put their life on the line to save someone elses

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      ancel 8 years ago


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      David 9 years ago from Sour Lake, Tx

      A hero is in the eye of the beholder. You may see someone that you feel could never be a hero to you, but others might believe them to be their champion.


    • C.S.Alexis profile image

      C.S.Alexis 9 years ago from NW Indiana


      Wisdom and Youth, You have a lot going for you. I pray you keep writing.C.S.Alexis