The best books to celebrate heroes and heroism

Andrew Bernstein Author Of Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters
By Andrew Bernstein

The Books I Picked & Why

Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction

By Lawrence W. Reed

Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction

Why this book?

My book is theoretical, on the nature of heroes. Reed’s book is the perfect complement to it. It provides brief bios for numerous heroes—many who are famous and many who are not but should be. One vivid example of the latter is Katharine Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl. Many people realize that Winston Churchill recognized early on the evil of Hitler and the need to oppose National Socialism. But few know that the diminutive Duchess realized it sooner, that she warned Churchill, that she had the full translated speeches of Hitler sent to him, that she stood up to Neville Chamberlain, head of her own party, and that, in defense of liberty, she fearlessly warned the West against the dangers of both the Soviets and the Nazis. Lawrence Reed’s book is replete with true stories of such little known heroes.


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A Call to Heroism: Renewing America's Vision of Greatness

By Peter H. Gibbon

A Call to Heroism: Renewing America's Vision of Greatness

Why this book?

Peter Gibbon has, at an emotional level, a magnificent capacity to admire heroes.  He provides snippets of many heroes’ lives and he savors their accomplishments. One of the most effective aspects of his book is his rejection of the modern anti-hero mentality that disparages heroes. “Biography today is rarely about greatness,” he writes. “At best, it displays a dispassionate balance. More often, it focuses on failure…and weakness and unveils the intimate life—slighting artistic accomplishment, scientific discovery, and political achievement. At worst, contemporary biographers self-righteously excoriate any hint of impurity, prejudice, sexism, or hypocrisy.” 

Unfortunately, a la many authors on the topic, he offers no rigorous definition of “hero” or “heroism.” He says: The definition of hero remains subjective. What is extraordinary can be debated. Courage is in the eye of the beholder. Greatness of soul is elusive.” Nevertheless, there is great value in his spirited accounts of numerous heroes.


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The Hero in History

By Sidney Hook

The Hero in History

Why this book?

Hook draws an interesting distinction in his book on heroes. He discusses two types of heroes: the eventful man and the event-making man. “The eventful man in history is any man whose actions influenced subsequent developments along a quite different course than would have been followed if those actions had not been taken. The event-making man is an eventful man whose actions are the consequence of outstanding capacities of intellect, will, and character rather than of accidents of position. This distinction tries to do justice to the general belief that a hero is great not merely in virtue of what he does but in virtue of what he is." 

This is an interesting distinction that we can profitably deliberate on. Hook was a philosophy professor for decades at NYU and he brings to the issue of heroes a grasp of the historical discussion of it.


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Heroes: Saviors, Traitors, and Supermen: A History of Hero Worship

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Heroes: Saviors, Traitors, and Supermen: A History of Hero Worship

Why this book?

This book does several things. First, it offers fascinating bios of eight heroes from history and mythology. Two legendary Homeric characters—Achilles and Odysseus—are joined by six giant figures from history: Alcibiades, Cato, El Cid, Wallenstein, Francis Drake, and Garibaldi. Morally, these men are often a mix of good and bad—but their stories are always robustly colorful. Hughes-Hallett draws a fascinating distinction between Achilles and Odysseus—one hero chose death and glory, the other lied, cheated, and stole to retain life. 

Hughes-Hallett points out the dangers of hero worshiping giants whose prowess might outstrip their character; the dangers of seeking guidance from “great men” that we would be better off providing ourselves.


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The Hero with a Thousand Faces

By Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Why this book?

Joseph Campbell is an expert on the mythologies of the world. Using this as background information, he famously chronicles, in various forms, the Hero’s Journey, “a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world’s mythic traditions.” Campbell describes the “monomyth” (one myth), his theory that all mythic tales are variations of a single integrated narrative. The hero’s journey is a quest to reach the divine beyond the travails of this world, and via intense suffering to touch the transcendent, to experience it, and to return with sublime gifts with which to transform society.  

This book is not for everyone. But for one who is interested in diverse mythologies, mythical heroes, and man’s search for the transcendent, this book is for them. As is well known, George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, was deeply influenced by Campbell’s writing.


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