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More Americans Should Live Heroic Lives of Virtue (Review Essay)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 26, 2011: The ancient Greeks were fortunate enough to have the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Unfortunately for us, we Americans today have no comparable cultural heritage. Unfortunately for us, we live in the Age of the Anti-Hero in serious literature and in the trickle-down stuff on television. Nevertheless, more Americans today should strive to live heroic lives of virtue because living a heroic life of virtue is satisfying. Virtue is its own reward. As a result, the pursuit of happiness is best understood to be the pursuit of the heroic life of virtue.

 

People who pursue heroic lives of virtue to the best of their abilities may reasonably disagree with one another regarding certain practical decisions to be made about practical matters and which course(s) of action to take. However, if you think that the current crop of elected representatives in the United States Congress have been pursuing heroic lives of virtue during their adult lives, then I think you should think again about that. I think that those guys have not been pursuing heroic lives of virtue because they are anti-heroes. By definition, anti-heroes are not heroic. Unfortunately for us, most Americans are culturally conditioned to be anti-heroes, instead of striving to live heroic lives of virtue. However, I would argue that the American experiment in representative democracy depends on American citizens who are themselves striving to live heroic lives of virtue. How else could we possibly hope to raise up candidates for political office who are themselves virtuous enough to be worthy of the honor of holding elective office?

 

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As is well known, the interlocutors in Plato's dialogue known as the Republic engage in seemingly never-ending dialogue trying to construct their idea of a good polis, a city-state. They famously decide not to allow poets of the sort who sang the Homeric epics, because the interlocutors thought they were envisioning a better political system than could typically be found enshrined in heroic oral poetry in their day. But I have suggested above that the ancient Greeks were fortunate, compared to us Americans today, to have the Homeric epics. So I am thereby engaging in a form of dialogue with the interlocutors in Plato's Republic and taking a position contrary to theirs regarding ancient Greek poets and poetry. I would suggest that Plato himself constructed all his clever dialogues to prompt us to learn how to think for ourselves, even though we might then think to disagree with the interlocutors in the dialogues about certain points.

 

I think that it is unfortunate for us Americans today that we live in the Age of the Anti-Hero in serious literature and in the trickle-down versions on television, but I would not go so far as the interlocutors in Plato's Republic go and suggest that we should ban poets from the United States. But I would suggest that we Americans today who do want to strive to live heroic lives of virtue should learn how to find examples of real-life persons, as distinct from characters in works of imagination, who did strive to live heroic lives of virtue. To find such examples, we might turn to reading autobiographies and biographies. However, if we are really fortunate, we may have the good fortune of knowing real-life people who are obviously striving to live heroic lives of virtue.

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As is well known, Paul the Apostle scared the living daylights out of people that he got to convert to striving to live heroic lives of virtue before the end of the world came. Even though he had made it sound like they should expect the end of the world to come momentarily, it did not come momentarily. Nevertheless, he never tired of telling them to expect its coming momentarily. In the meantime, he told them that they were doing a good job of living heroic lives of virtue but that they should strive to do an even better job than they were already doing.

 

From the example of Paul the Apostle's exhortations to do better, in the true heroic spirit, we can understand that the pursuit of heroic lives of virtue may set us on a course of life in which we keep challenging ourselves to grow further and to do more. For example, Robert Moore, the Jungian theorist at the Chicago Theological Seminary, which is across the street from the University of Chicago where he received his Ph.D. years ago, tells us that there are eight optimal forms of the eight archetypes of maturity in the archetypal level of our psyches. So when we have at long last learned how to access one optimal form, we still have seven more optimal forms that we should learn how to access.

 

To jump start people in their possible undertaking of the pursuit of the heroic life of virtue, I have compiled a list of suggested readings, annotating certain ones. Of the books I've listed, Mortimer J. Adler's is the most accessible. The one article by Walter J. Ong is also very accessible.

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Adler, Mortimer J. Desires Right & Wrong: The Ethics of Enough. New York, Toronto, Oxford: Macmillan, 1991.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell
Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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