The idea of heroism has become thoroughly muddled today. In contemporary society, any behavior that seems distinctly difficult or unusually impressive is classified as heroic: everyone from firefighters to foster fathers to freedom fighters are our heroes. But what motivates these people to act heroically and what prevents other people from being heroes? In our culture today, what makes one sort of hero appear more heroic than another sort?
In order to answer these questions, Ari Kohen turns to classical conceptions of the hero to explain the confusion and to highlight the ways in which distinct heroic categories can be useful at different times. Untangling Heroism argues for the existence of three categories of heroism that can be traced back to the earliest Western literature – the epic poetry of Homer and the dialogues of Plato – and that are complex enough to resonate with us and assist us in thinking about heroism today. Kohen carefully examines the Homeric heroes Achilles and Odysseus and Plato’s Socrates, and then compares the three to each other. He makes clear how and why it is that the other-regarding hero, Socrates, supplanted the battlefield hero, Achilles, and the suffering hero, Odysseus. Finally, he explores in detail four cases of contemporary heroism that highlight Plato’s success.
Kohen states that in a post-Socratic world, we have chosen to place a premium on heroes who make other-regarding choices over self-interested ones. He argues that when humans face the fact of their mortality, they are able to think most clearly about the sort of life they want to have lived, and only in doing that does heroic action become a possibility. Kohen’s careful analysis and rethinking of the heroism concept will be relevant to scholars across the disciplines of political science, philosophy, literature, and classics.
Table of Contents
1. Introduction: The Tangled Web of Heroism 2. Heroism in Homer’s Iliad: Violence, Mortality, and Difficult Choices 3. The Polytropic Hero: Suffering, Endurance, and Homecoming in Homer’s Odyssey 4. Plato’s Philosophic Vision: The Difficult Choices of the Socratic Life 5. Philosophy Against Poetry: The Distinct Heroics of Achilles and Socrates 6. Philosophy Against Poetry: The Complicated Relationship of Odysseus and Socrates 7. The Shifting Sands of Contemporary Heroism
Ari Kohen is Schlesinger Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. His first book, In Defense of Human Rights, was published by Routledge in 2007.
"Ari Kohen's book is a beautiful example of cutting-edge contemporary political theory. Kohen explores heroism as a procedurally determined category of concepts for personal identification that emerges as a timeless and universal social fact. He persuasively argues for a richer understanding of Socrates as the common man's hero par excellence and for Plato as the principle educator of the Greeks. Untangling Heroism links contemporary examples (Kerry, McCain, Korczak, and Munyeshyaka) to classical heroic archetypes in a way that celebrates both their heroic acts and their humanity. This book succeeds superbly as a work in cross-temporal political philosophy by illuminating not what heroism is and has been, but what a hero does and why."
—Robert L. Oprisko, Butler University
"Professor Kohen’s exploration of heroism, its meaning and purpose, effectively reconsiders those virtues requisite to the heroic life. By looking at heroism first within the conceptual framework of the ancient Greeks and then moving the discussion forward into more recent cases and situations, the author has successfully provided a relevant, working framework for further explorations of the enduring qualities of heroism. This book will help to reinvigorate our discussion of heroism and what heroic acts mean to us and provide for us, and what kind of commitment is still needed for our own heroes to emerge in our time."
—Scott Hammond, James Madison University