Greek terracotta relief heroes

Terracotta relief, late third–early second century BCE. Image credit: Met Open Access Collection

The ideal of the heroic life can be inspiring. It is especially attractive to the young, for whom the promise of great achievement is motivating. Indeed, politicians and political activists around the world use the power of the heroic ideal to recruit youth to their armies and movements. Heroic lives have been and can be led in times of war and revolution. 

However, this current heroic view of participation in conflict seriously misrepresents the gravity of its destructive reality and consequences, above all for our humanity. Reflecting on war, in an 1854 oration, Chief Seattle expressed concern that the young men of his tribe might be tempted to take arms against settlers and respond to violence with avenging violence: “Revenge by young men is considered gain, even at the cost of their own lives, but old men who stay at home in times of war, and mothers who have sons to lose, know better.” (Chief Seattle does not say what it is that the old men and mothers know, he simply says that they know better.) 

My grandparents, like those of many who grew up in Norway in the 1970s, were young adults during World War II. I do not recall when I first noticed, but I often wondered why they did not want to talk about the war and why, when they did, my grandfather would inevitably cry, and my grandmother would become absolutely silent. The only story I ever was able to make my grandmother tell me (a few times) was about a young Nazi soldier who became very moved and sad while looking at her sleeping infant daughter (my mother) in her trolley outside the local store. My grandmother told me how she felt sorry for him; how she found herself thinking that he must have an infant daughter of his own at home. 

All of this was very puzzling to me because they had unquestionably been on the right side of history, resisting and giving aid to those who fought against the Nazi invasion. My grandfather, a police officer, had issued false passports to resistance fighters and would lie about whether or not someone was Jewish, and they both, of course, lied to protect his activities. And when these activities became too dangerous, he hid—in the dirt basement underneath his mother-in-law’s house—for two years, until the war ended. For a long time, his whereabouts were unknown even to my grandmother, for her own and their newborn child’s protection.

Given their courage, why did they not want to talk about the war, why the deep silence, and why did my grandfather always cry? And the story about the Nazi soldier bewildered and sometimes annoyed me; why did she tell me this story (several times)? With time, I learned that it was very difficult for them to live life fully after the war. This puzzled me too: should it not have been easier, not harder, for them to move on after it was all over? After all, they had not yielded to the pressure, but courageously done the heroic things when everything was at stake.

With even more time, I learned that my grandparents’ postwar experiences were common among Nazi resistors, and indeed among those who have fought against violent wrongdoing more broadly, and that these were characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I have heard stories with the same serious, complicated undertones from families whose histories involve their ancestors surviving unbearable, violent wrongdoing—often permitted or even organized through state apparatuses—including from descendants of people who experienced such horrors as the residential school systems for Indigenous children in parts of northern Europe and the Americas, Black slavery in the United States, and the Nazi concentration camps. 

In all of these cases, we tend to find serious intergenerational trauma within the families of heroes. And all families also need to take on the challenge confronting both Chief Seattle and my grandparents: how to relate to the events in all their complexity after the fact, when justice no longer can be done without losing sight of either the gravity of the wrongdoing that had been committed or the horrendous suffering it involved? And how do we tell the story truthfully without filling our loved ones—children, grandchildren, et cetera—with desires for all-destructive revenge and without them losing sight of hope and our shared humanity? 

Socrates, Plato tells us in Gorgias, once said that it is worse to do wrong than to suffer wrong. This sounds counterintuitive; after all, the one who is subjected to the wrongdoing clearly experiences more pain and more suffering. So what on earth could Socrates have meant? 

Although the wrongdoer is seemingly better off in a practical, material sense—especially if they get away with it—they are not better off morally and ethically, Socrates argues, because, in doing wrong, they have lost their self-respect. Consequently, doing something wrong and not morally owning it has the consequence that we can no longer truthfully deliberate with ourselves about how we are going about our lives.

Following Socrates, Hannah Arendt argues that much evil is banal in that it is done by people who fail to realize themselves as morally responsible persons; they live as “nobodies” instead of “somebodies.” To use her famous example of the Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann, she argues that one reason why Eichmann was horrifically scary was that he refused to use his reason to truthfully reflect on how he was going about his life and what he had done. He refused, she says, to be “two-in-one,” to learn to be with himself and to deliberate on his own actions, so as to hold himself accountable for what he had done. Instead of learning to do this—which all people who assume moral responsibility for their actions and lives must—Eichmann’s mind was an endless, obsessive self-deceived stream-of-consciousness that told the same, utterly implausible story about his own greatness and innocence. In this self-deceived way, he lived life as a nobody; he was banal. 

The philosophy of Immanuel Kant—who also inspired Arendt—allows us to probe still deeper. With Kant, we can argue that Eichmann refused not only to be two-in-one but to be three-in-one: he refused both to deliberate with himself about how he was going about his life (two-in-one) and to learn how to integrate his thinking with feeling fully as an emotionally grounded human being (three-in-one). The moral deliberation was replaced by a crazy story about his own intensely law-abiding character and clean conscience; instead of learning how to feel, he attacked and numbed his emotional register. Eichmann became incapable of coherent, moral reflection and emotionally flat; there was neither two- nor three-dimensionality to his being.

Kant’s theory of conscience helps to explain how our cognitive powers enable us to live in morally responsible ways. Kant argues that our conscience is a tremendous resource. It is enabled by our own practical reasoning powers, which allow us to evaluate whether our actions are morally justifiable. For Kant, to be justifiable, our actions must be consistent with a standard of human dignity, understood as not treating anyone as a mere means to an end but always as an end in themselves. 

Are my actions respectful of my humanity and that of others in this sense? Are they consistent with respecting human dignity? If they are not, and if I morally own what I have done, then I experience a bad conscience and feel ashamed of myself. In this way, as Arendt emphasizes, Kant agrees with Socrates: only those who have been wronged can truthfully deliberate and own what they are all about. Only the wronged have their moral integrity in place after the incident; wrongdoers do not.

So why are moral heroes—who find themselves in extremely difficult situations and go beyond normal virtue to try to stop wrongdoing—not harmoniously whole? 

Kant’s (in)famous example of lying to the murderer at the door offers some insight. Imagine that you have granted refuge to someone in your house and a potential murderer comes to your door asking if anyone is hiding at home. Are you morally (legally or ethically) authorized to lie in this situation—and indeed, is there a duty to lie if you imagine that you cannot simply ask the potential murderer to go away? Now imagine that the murderer is a Nazi officer, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, or a public official looking for Indigenous children to send to a residential school, et cetera. Can or should you lie?

Kant’s answer is that lying is always wrong. 

But most Kantians argue that Kant is mistaken in this; they argue that the more defensible position involves an exception to the general prohibition against lying. It is usually wrong to lie, they argue, but this case is a special circumstance. I disagree with them and agree with Kant. In my view, although Kant’s presentation of his theory was not very good, his theory is.

Kant’s theory can explain why we—as embodied, social, morally responsible beings—can find ourselves in situations in which there are no morally good ways out. In these situations, whatever we do, we will do wrong in some way. 

This is the reason why it is difficult for us to live with having had to treat others as if they do not have dignity, which is exactly what true heroes find it necessary to do. They need to risk their own or their loved ones’ lives to save somebody else or they may even need to kill someone to stop them from doing wrong. And we cannot experience ourselves as morally authorized to do this; after all, this involves treating ourselves and others as a means to an end, and this is inconsistent with dignity (always treating people as an end in themselves).

It follows from the above that the same moral character that leads heroes to stand up against evil—like my grandparents did—makes it difficult to live with having done so. Their moral conscience will not permit them to say, simply, that they just did what was right. 

Heroes can neither be fully two-in-one nor three-in-one; they have to learn to live with the fact that they can never, through no fault of their own, experience life as fully harmonious; indeed, they feel this way because they did something heroic. When we give ourselves license to do something wrong, we always lose something—and the hero’s forfeiture is an inner sense of complete moral integrity.  

Of course, this is morally better than being a wrongdoer or failing to step up to the plate, but it is not easy to live with truthfully. This might be exactly why the old men and my grandparents refused to present avenging heroism as an ideal for the next generations—doing so is inconsistent with loving them—even though they also found it difficult to find good ways to make the next generations not yield to the temptations of avenging heroism. Loving one’s parents and grandparents does come with the desire to take revenge for the wrongdoing and suffering they have been subjected to, yet it is exactly what true heroes do not want their loved ones to do. And let us not forget that those of us who by great fortune never have the need to be heroic still find ourselves in situations in which we are easily tempted to exempt ourselves from what ordinary kindness asks of us.

At this point in the theory, Kant turns religious: he argues that to learn to live with the wrongs we do as heroes, we need to postulate that the world—or God—is good, despite all evidence to the contrary. We need to trust our moral conscience even though in this life we cannot experience ourselves as harmonious. 

For those wary of religion and metaphysics—if only because so much evil is allegedly justified by such appeals—we might simply say that we have to learn to rely on our ability to know what is morally right and wrong, even though it is impossible to prove. We have to learn to own what we’re all about, come what may.

Revisiting these old ideas seems truly important now, as the world is plunging into war and conflict of all kinds. Doing so is not to defend pacifism. Rather, it is simply to make sure that we describe heroism in times of violence correctly, that we neither romanticize it nor present it as the ideal way of life. 

After all, these old ideas tell us that regardless of which side one is on—the right one or the wrong one—life after an act of wrongdoing will be extremely difficult not only for the one who did the deed, but for their families and societies. For those who carry out violent actions against others, the kind of trauma created will depend on what the correct description of the situation is. For example: who was killing in self-defense, who was killing innocents, who was killing in revenge.

However, regardless of the actions we take, the trauma will live on. The difference is that the wrongdoers are on the wrong side of morality and history, while the heroes are on the right one. But both—and their loved ones and communities—will suffer trauma for generations to come. 

And as everyone who has experienced trauma knows, it can only be overcome, slowly, by truthfully describing and feeling and living with what actually happened. One first thing we must do now, then, is to stop describing war and even heroic killing as something it is not, as something that is simply morally virtuous and good to do. This is necessary to heal, but perhaps doing so can also help us stop the wars that are currently undermining our own and our descendants’ fighting chance at a better world. 

Our current ways are making it enormously more difficult for everyone, let alone those coming after us, to learn what it is that the old men and mothers know better than the angry, vengeful young men. If we look to the old men, as Chief Seattle advises us to do, we are reminded that violence is always morally compromising, even when it’s in the service of a “good” or justified aim. When the old Frederick Douglass accepts the invitation to visit his enslaver Thomas Auld on his deathbed, he reflects on this visit in the following way: 

Our courses had been determined for us, not by us. We had both been flung, by powers that did not ask our consent, upon a mighty current of life, which we could neither resist nor control. By this current he was a master, and I a slave; but now our lives were verging towards a point where differences disappear, where even the constancy of hate breaks down, where the clouds of pride, passion, and selfishness vanish before the brightness of infinite light. At such a time, and in such a place, when a man is about closing his eyes on this world and ready to step into the eternal unknown, no word of reproach or bitterness should reach him or fall from his lips; and on this occasion there was to this rule no transgression on either side. 

Both Douglass and Chief Seattle had reason to seek violent revenge—a revenge which, in light of what they had suffered, might be characterized as a heroic act. That they chose otherwise teaches us not that we must forbid heroism in violent times, but that we must take seriously the moral compromise that accompanies it. What about the women who know; what do they know that we have not yet listened to? In 1781, when the Cherokee leader Nanyehi met with John Sevier to discuss American settlements in Tennessee, she reportedly said that although women “are always looked upon as nothing,” women know that “we are your mothers; you are our sons. Our cry is all for peace; let it continue. This peace must last forever. Let your women’s sons be ours; our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words.” Hope for the future is only possible if we choose peace by stopping the killing and resist the temptation of avenging heroism. Instead, I hear my grandmother join Nanyehi in saying, we simply put all our efforts into learning to live together despite our difficult, unchosen starting points and histories; hope for a better future lies in our realizing, finally, our shared humanity. It is overdue that we listen and learn from old men and mothers.

Helga Varden is a Norwegian-American Professor of Philosophy, Gender and Women Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.