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Definition of Heroism (in response to the Odyssey)

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‘Hero’ is a word used so loosely in popular culture that it almost seems to have lost all definition. In most movies and adolescent books, young people are taught that essentially any main character, in spite of existing faults, would automatically be classified as a hero, as would most characters on the established “good side.” It is because of these ideas, which promote a wide range of potential traits of heroism, that people struggle to define the word. In real life, there are no main characters; heroic acts are less frequently observed, and so finding genuine heroes who fight to improve society becomes much more of a challenge.

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Heroism is and should be much harder to achieve than it is in stories like Homer’s Odyssey. True heroism is great courage, selflessness, and the use of these qualities in skillful leadership towards a greater good, and the character Odysseus fails to properly display these heroic characteristics. Heroism requires that heroes put the best interests of others above their own.

Otherwise, a potential hero’s quest might simply be for greed, which would constitute the exact opposite of heroism. It is also essential that a hero possess the ability to lead, but it is even more important that the hero work for a noble cause within his leadership. To be more than just a figurehead, a heroic leader must have a guiding set of morals to act on. Leadership then relates to the necessity of bravery within heroism, which is a prominent aspect of heroism and the one I will describe first. Bravery is what separates the men from the boys and the heroes from everyday people.

Courage is often defined synonymously with heroism itself. The significance of courage is also the most commonly recognized aspect of heroism, and while Odysseus has a number of courageous moments, his own bravery throughout the story does not amount to what it should. As the story develops, Odysseus relies heavily on the assistance of the gods, and when Poseidon challenges him, he is quick to lose all hope. After the gods force Calypso to release Odysseus, he departs, and on his journey Poseidon gives him trouble. Odysseus cries that “Four times luckier than I / Were the Greeks who died on Troy’s wide plain! / If only I had gone down on that day” (5.308-310). He then receives assistance from the White Goddess, Athena, and the Riverlord in reaching Phaeacia (5.335, 5.385, 5.457).

In order to make his escape from Calypso, he requires the intervention of these numerous gods, without each of whom Odysseus could not have hoped to survive. Odysseus receives extensive assistance and direction from the gods throughout his journeys, and while he is often made out as a man who suffers alone, Athena is almost always by his side. Odysseus displays a dependence on this frequent divine intervention and draws his courage mainly from such instances. Odysseus despairs as soon as Poseidon stirs the seas, and prefers death to facing an anonymous and painful death at sea, which shows a significant lack of courage in this situation. Without immediate help from the gods, Odysseus has displayed cowardice.His actions, which might seem so courageous, in large part cannot be credited to him but to those gods who solve so many of his problems. True heroes must have the courage to solve such problems independently. Odysseus’ bravery was not great enough to qualify him for heroism, and Odysseus is still lacking in many other heroic qualities. Selflessness is another essential part of heroism that provides a moral guide for the hero, and Odysseus is selfish in the extreme. Heroism is largely based in the fight against evil, and for this heroism must include good moral judgment.

A person can only be classified as a hero if Morals can vary widely around the world, but they are always most liberal within individuals, and a true hero must put the interests of the masses ahead of his own so as to improve life on a larger scale. This is Odysseus’ greatest failure in relation to heroism, and it ties into his fatal flaw of hubris. His selfishness was the essential reason Odysseus was cursed by Poseidon as he and his crew were escaped from the Cyclopes. After he taunts the monster once, it threw a boulder in the direction of his voice, which terrifies the crew who then try to dissuade Odysseus from speaking again: “They tried, but didn’t persuade my hero’s heart… ‘Cyclops, if anyone, any mortal man, / Asks you how you got your eye put out, / Tell him that Odysseus the marauder did it’” (9.498-502). Ignoring pleas from his crew, Odysseus taunts the beast a second time, knowing full well he was putting everyone in immediate danger and risking the lives of his unwilling crew.

His boasting also earned Odysseus a curse from the god of the sea, ultimately dooming them all, and his decision showed a complete disregard for the safety of his others and of their wishes. To make it worse, all he accomplished was to tell the monster his name; he seemed to only want the Cyclops to spread rumors of him. Apparently, Odysseus endangered his crew for a popularity scheme of sorts; it was all simply for his own glory. His inconsiderate actions reflect on his selfish motivations and a failure of morality. Clearly he valued his own reputation over the safety of those who relied on his leadership, which in part also establishes his failure as a leader. The most basic quality of heroism is the ability to lead, and that the actions of a hero can direct those he leads. Leadership skills are a bare necessity for heroism, and Odysseus performed in this way to a certain extent, inspiring admiration among his men. A good leader, however, should hopefully be able to keep his or her men safe. Odysseus repeatedly led his crew to disaster, with handfuls of his crew being killed at almost every stop he makes. On his journey homewards Odysseus docks his crew at the lands of the Cyclopes, the Laestrygonians, and Circe.

An alarming number of his men were then eaten. As Odysseus leads them towards Circe, one of the crew protests. Eurylochus says to the crew “Remember what the Cyclops did when our shipmates / Went into his lair? It was this reckless Odysseus / Who led them there. It was his fault they died” (10.457-459). He was greatly respected by his crew, who trusted in the leadership and direction of their “godlike Odysseus,” but Eurylochus was right; the deaths of his crew members were Odysseus’ fault, and they were because of his recklessness. He arrived unprepared each time, depending on the hope of hospitality. His decisions are made without caution or much consideration, and overconfidence in his own intelligence often endangers Odysseus’ crew. He failed to bring a single man back to Ithaca alive, and so there are certainly failures in his command of the crew. However, Odysseus fails further still; past the simple capability to lead, the importance of heroic leadership extends deeper. Heroism requires the guidance of a people towards an improved state of life, and so a hero must lead with righteous motivations, which Odysseus does not do.

One might possess leadership skills, but these in no way guarantee heroic leadership. Ideally, heroic leadership would combine both selflessness and courage. These are qualities, as previously stated, that Odysseus is lacking in. Truly heroic leaders must make responsible, moral, and selfless decisions on behalf of those they lead, and they must also have the audacity to do so in the first place. Odysseus often fails to lead in entirety. With the frequency of death among his men, the crew had grown intelligent enough to be wary of venturing inland to Aeaea, home of Circe. They protest when Odysseus demands that half of them go to scout the goddess’ house, but he
ignores their weeping, and so the group leaves: “Out jumped the lot of Eurylochus, brave heart, / And so off he went, with twenty-two men, / All in tears” (10.223-225). Odysseus is leader, but in this quote he transfers that duty to Eurylochus and forces someone else to be the brave man. In fact, he is not leading his men at all, but only causing them to suffer. He uses his authority to throw the burden of leadership onto an unprepared man. Odysseus shirks his responsibilities here, being both selfish and cowardly and failing to lead entirely. He is selfish by nature, and only ever seemed to think of his own return home rather than the safe return of the crew members.

Odysseus would rather risk the lives of his depressed and unwilling crew than his own life. With his many shortcomings, Odysseus’ displays of good leadership within the book are slim in number, and he could not hope to be called a heroic leader. Leadership as a part of heroism is hugely important to society; good leaders are necessary and the best leaders are heroic, and it is worth noting the qualities of heroic leaders that make them worthy of the title. I always hope for an intelligent hero; wisdom can be what separates successful heroism from simple foolishness. Odysseus is hailed as cunning throughout his epic tale; his abundant intelligence is often seen as his best quality, and this quality was a significant factor leading to his success on his journeys. It also appears to be the quality that wins him Athena’s confidence. However, wisdom is not necessary for heroism in such great measures and it is not enough; it only really helps to determine the outcome of the hero’s journey. If intelligence is not used to do good, then it is not really worth anything in relation to heroism. Depending on the situation, heroism may often require some foolishness, and the most important aspects of a real hero lie in his brave leadership. Odysseus relies almost solely on his own intelligence, using it to escape responsibility and a number of tough situations. It also earns him admiration and respect from the somewhat less intelligent society, and this is largely how he passes off as a hero through the book, but it is not what makes a hero in real life. Theoretically, the ideal hero should be a perfect, brave, and selfless leader, along with a dozen other traits I have not listed. However, I am aware that this is entirely impossible, and that no instance of heroism could ever be perfectly heroic. Instead, society will get some less than perfect heroes, and the degree of heroism is measured by these qualities.

People are recognized as heroes of society because they lead and have people who follow them. While a person might possess a degree of heroic characteristics, no one would ever call that person a hero unless those characteristics were witness. Odysseus was certainly marked as a hero by the standards of ancient Greece. It seems that in Greek literature the hero is usually someone chosen by the gods. It did not really matter how grave their mistakes may have been so long as the gods favored the chosen hero. A real hero, in real life, in the modern era, must ultimately lead those people who may follow him towards a good direction in the search of a noble goal and he must do so in a courageous and selfless manner. Human beings are the real judges of heroism, and heroes cannot simply sit back and whine and hope for things to go their way. A hero is a hero largely because he takes action on his own. This is why great courage is required, and why society needs heroes, because societies need courageous leaders to steer them in the right direction. People need someone to lead them and to make decisions on their behalf. People should have the ability to define heroism, so that they might be able to judge who is best equipped to lead the world to a better state.

Cite this Definition of Heroism (in response to the Odyssey)

Definition of Heroism (in response to the Odyssey). (2016, May 04). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/definition-of-heroism-in-response-to-the-odyssey/

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