Hero or Saint?

"Aristotle sought to inspire his readers to be heroes. The virtues he commends are noble ones, and the lives he advocates are ones of effort and attention. His followers will, if faithful, be capable of making decisive interventions that swing the course of a battle, or a debate, or a long cultural struggle. Without them, all might be lost. They are formed in the virtues required to negotiate an awesome role: they are prepared to be the center of the story. They stand out from the crowd; they form friendships only with others of similar stature. They are self-sufficient and resilient amid setbacks. The definitive icon of virtue is the soldier, who is prepared to risk death for the sake of a higher good. The noblest death is death in battle, for battle offers the greatest danger, thus requiring the greatest courage.

Today’s readers tend to have difficulty reading Aristotle. But they find him difficult not because he places the hero at the center of the story: they take for granted that the story is about them. Neither do they particularly balk at the underlying assumption of violence—the emblematic role of the soldier: for they assume that in a world of limited goods, there is bound to be conflict at some stage so that good may prevail. No, what today’s readers find most difficult about Aristotle is his assumption that, though everyone would want to be a hero, very few people will be, and that so being requires a Herculean effort of discipline and will. Today’s readers object to such elitism. Democracy flattens out such distinctions. It dictates that everyone has the ‘right’ to be a hero, and it shouldn’t be restricted to those with aptitude, effort, and skill. Because everyone can be a hero, the most mundane of activities and commitments and achievements may be regarded as heroic. The exception is the hero that makes a beautiful gesture abstracted from story—who forms a human bridge to help passengers escape a sinking ship, or rescues a child from the flames. Anyone can be a hero by making a spontaneous gesture. The point is not that these activities are highly regarded, but that everyone must have the right to be regarded as the center of his or her own story.

Aquinas did not seek to inspire his readers to be heroes. The virtues he commends are not those that enable his readers to make decisive interventions in the heart of battle or the height of controversy. The virtues he proposes are those that enable Christians to follow Christ. They are not called to be heroes. They are called to be saints. The word ‘hero’ does not appear in the New Testament. The word ‘saint’ occurs sixty-four times."

Sam Wells, "Theology as Narrative"


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