From a heroic point of view, we live exciting times. Everywhere, heroes are hailed for their exploits and support, while superheroes have been flooding our screens in tides of action flicks and TV shows for years. It feels that heroism is becoming too skinny a concept for those who wear it. To call someone a hero seems muffled and diluted. While this may be the case, our understanding of what makes someone a hero has shifted significantly since the word, and the first heroes, made their appearance in epic literature.
The modern hero is in many ways, I think, the opposite of the hero of the ancient world. The modern hero has abilities which place him or her above all others. When their heroic abilities and powers leave the realm of nature and humanity, we call them superheroes. Rambo and the indefatigable firemen of 9/11 are heroes. Superman and Spiderman are superheroes. The difference is one of degree. We should expect the uberhero to supersede the superhero at some point.
On the other hand, the difference between the ancient hero and the modern one is one of substance. The ancient hero is not someone whose physical or mental powers make him or her stand out from the crowd. Instead, it’s the hero’s capacity to embrace the fulness of humanity which is, for the ancients, the whole gamut of human experience – the highest and the lowest, the victory at Troy and the misery of the return, the power to kill any living creature and the capacity to be paralysed by the death of your loved one, the promise of a glorious outcome in the wretched face of evidence. Thus, the ancient heroes become heroic insofar as they collect all possible experience points, which distill into an archetype of humanity, a walking typology, capable of not just withstanding whatever the universe throws at them, but also allowing themselves to become figures of tragedy. In every ancient hero, there is a burden of tragedy which the hero has to carry with him or her and which gives the measure of their heroism. As far as I can tell, hardly any modern hero or superhero fits this description.