Often heroes are seen as the harbingers of crucial change in societies. While heroes may have a profound impact on society, the converse is also possible: that society alters and shapes heroes in turn.
These changes may be larger than first realized, sometimes completely morphing a hero’s core ideals into something negative. Other times, heroes are created by society, transforming their core ideals for the better.
No one can be a hero without others thinking they are — it is a status granted to the hero by the collective, an acknowledgement of their good deeds or actions. According to the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, the very definition of a hero is “a person … who is admired for courage or noble qualities.” The word “admiration” indicates that society as a whole agrees about the hero’s status. For example, today we view firefighters, police officers, and emergency responders as heroes because they are courageous and selfless, qualities that we esteem. Courage has been an admirable characteristic throughout all of history.
There are certain qualities that make a person heroic which evolve over time, to fit the characteristics most admired by a particular culture at that moment in history. Christopher Columbus is an example of such a hero, specific to a particular culture and time, who has now has become a controversial historical figure. King Ferdinand, the Spanish monarch who funded Columbus’s explorations, viewed the venture as heroic. After his second voyage, when natives from the Caribbean Islands were transported to Spain as slaves, Columbus wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” This ideology of slavery was also lauded by many cultures, including some of those of Europe at that time. While many believed Columbus was heroic for what he did for the ‘good of the country,’ today the idea of slavery and oppression is scorned by most cultures and societies, making Columbus a more ambiguous heroic figure.
In order to be considered a hero a person must meet all the criteria, both timeless and specific, of his or her society. If the hero fails to meet society’s changing standards, they will fall from their former echelon of prestige and respect. A historical figure whose situation exemplifies this idea was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence and in his first presidential term, he was lauded for his purchase of the Louisiana territory, upholding the American doctrine of Manifest Destiny. However, when he failed to meet the public’s expectations, and as overseas political tensions grew worse, he fell out of favor with the public. More specifically, Jefferson wanted the United States to be a neutral party in the ongoing war between Great Britain and France, and to continue trade with both countries; both Britain and France thought trading with the other was an act of war and refused to acknowledge America as a neutral party. To ease these tensions, Jefferson proposed a commercial solution, ending trade with both countries. He hoped this would give the U.S. greater leverage because of the demand for American goods, and would force countries to allow the U.S. its neutral status. However, the Embargo Act of 1807 backfired instead, eroding the US economy while doing little to chasten Great Britain and France, and Jefferson lost his popular standing. Of course, while he lost prestige in the nineteenth century, he is remembered today as one of the Founding Fathers, a great man who was influential during the country’s nascence.
The Vietnam War, which began in 1955 and ended in 1975, demonstrates society’s fickleness about heroes on a much grander, sadder scale. While the courage of our soldiers was much admired in World War I and II, towards the later years of the Vietnam War, the public held a negative opinion of soldiers fighting that war. The public began to protest the high number of American casualties, the military draft, military abuses such as the massacre at My Lai in 1968, and the illegality of invasions by the U.S. government into neighboring countries. Vietnam veterans were shunned when they returned home — cast down from the heroic stature because of the war’s unpopularity. The admirable qualities of courage, selflessness, and patriotism were not bestowed upon the veterans of the Vietnam War until a decade later, when, in the 1980’s, the Vietnam Memorial was built to honor the fallen heroes of that war.
Sometimes a shift in societal ideals facilitates the rise of a hero, rather than causing the downfall of a current one. One example is Abraham Lincoln, whose actions drastically changed American history. Though remembered today as an abolitionist, he was not always against slavery — he refrained from supporting anti-slavery measures throughout his early life and even the beginning of his presidency. During his presidency, however, as popular views shifted and support for the Union army grew, Lincoln’s own abolitionist activity grew, until his enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, an act that elevated him even higher in his heroic status because it made the ending of slavery one of the central goals of the north in the Civil War.
Heroes who have a great impact on their society are still influenced, to a certain degree, by the populace and social conditions around them. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., is a hero we consider to have greatly influenced society rather than society having influenced him. Through his leadership in the civil rights movement and through his political protests, he forever altered American society. Dr. King was not immune to the influences of society around him, as he, and the civil rights movement he led, were affected by the racism and prejudice that was endemic in America at the time. He was educated at Morehouse College, during a period of separate but equal eduction and before schools were integrated in the south. Dr. King went on to study at Crozer Seminary and eventually earned a Ph.D. at Boston University in 1955. During his studies, King attended classes at other prestigious institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. The degree of pre-existing societal discrimination demonstrated in America, coupled with Dr. King’s education, helped facilitate his rise to the status of hero. His ability to motivate people to embrace the ideals he preached, and to transform society, was dictated and provided by the specific conditions of the society around him.
Heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln have had a great impact on culture and society. These are people we look up to and individuals whose values we admire. Yet, society simultaneously shapes and impacts their cause and their course. If an individual’s actions or beliefs coincide with, or exemplify, the values of a given time, society will champion that person as a hero. In this way, changes in social, political, and economic conditions, and a shift in societal views, such as those at the time of the Vietnam War, can facilitate the rise or downfall of a hero. Cultures and societies essentially determine what is heroic, and who is a hero, and thus have a profound impact on those they elevate to that status.