03 Feb Everyday heroes: the real-world meaning of our most popular stories
Author: Zac Alstin
I’ve been writing fiction for the past year after several years of trying to work it out. It’s nothing literary or world-changing, just a middle-grade fantasy about a boy who discovers a magic world, suffers horribly, and saves everyone in the end. I’m currently working on a sequel while deciding how best to get it published.
But my background is in philosophy and as a writer non-fiction always seemed vastly superior to novels. After all, the real world doesn’t have to justify its existence as a fictional world might. Writing about the real world has immediate and obvious relevance. It’s harder to see how a make-believe reality is worth the effort to read, let alone to write. In other words, fiction was clearly a waste of time, escapist entertainment just marginally superior to watching cat videos on YouTube.
But deep down, I knew tat couldn’t be the case. Fiction was beguiling and valuable. As I struggled with my own novel, I discovered why.
It’s now obvious to me how important fiction can be. I found a way to approach writing fiction, and along the way I was continually surprised, even astounded, by the layers of significance – both personal and universal – that emerged in the creative process. In fact the boundary between “real” stories and make-believe ones is not as clear as I first thought. The boundary might not exist at all.
Stories can be real regardless of whether they are fictional or not. Our cultures and our own lives are steeped in the language and currency of stories, and their logic and significance run deep.
One way that stories inform our own lives is by guiding our choices. Even run-of-the-mill action movies, thrillers, and Marvel’s never-ending stream of superhero films contain significant portrayals of virtue and vice, moral choice, and heroism that inform and reflect our own experience.
Heroes and villains
Fictional villains often take advantage of the hero’s virtues, especially their honour, courage, and sense of justice.
Fictional heroes often take advantage of the villain’s vices, their greed, anger, the disloyalty of their followers, and their lack of honour, courage, or justice.
Not every hero is purely virtuous, and not every villain is purely vicious. But in each character there is a point at which their actions are determined by either vice or virtue and can therefore be predicted.
This dichotomy is a recurring theme in ancient cultures and philosophy.
In the Western tradition our Hellenic ancestors recognised that humanity is caught in a tension between two principles of action. At one extreme, people are drawn toward external objects of desire, dominated by passions, and ignorant of their true nature.
At the other extreme, people are dispassionate, their inner life is dominated by Reason (with transcendent, divine connotations) and they act according to higher principles and ideals that correspond with established virtues.
Most of us exist somewhere in the middle ground, perhaps pulled in both directions or tending more one way than the other.
Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics diverged on the nature of the human soul, and hence the precise cause of vice and virtue. But they agree on key themes, most significantly the intellectualist principle that “to know the good is to do the good”.
In these early stages of philosophical inquiry, the idea of free will was absent. Our contemporary notion of autonomous individuals freely and impartially weighing good and evil choices at every turn was yet to emerge.
Instead, in the Classical world vicious people were enslaved by vice – their ignorant desires or lower appetites. Meanwhile, virtuous people could no more depart from virtue than a knowledgeable person could choose to be ignorant of that which they already know.
In neither case was the individual “free” in the sense of being able to make any possible choice for any possible reason. Our choices are determined by our knowledge, the relative strength of our appetites or desires, or (for a Stoic) the individual characteristics of one’s false beliefs.
Let’s consider a very clichéd fictional scenario.
A villain takes innocent bystanders hostage to force the hero to surrender himself.
An Aristotelian or Platonic hero might feel fear and a desire for self-preservation. But a truly virtuous Aristotelian or Platonic hero will have cultivated his reason to such an extent that it overpowers his lower appetites, including the desire to save his own life regardless of the costs to others. He will try to defeat the villain and rescue the hostages, secure in the knowledge that he has followed reason to the end.
A Stoic hero won’t feel fear, because he knows that death is inevitable and to fear the inevitable is to be ignorant. There’s no point wasting energy by becoming emotionally overwrought about an inevitable outcome. The hero will reason that he can only do his best to defeat the villain and free the hostages. Anything else is not within his control.
In either case, the hero’s choice is obvious. The only thing that could cloud this obvious answer is the interference of a powerful appetite for self-preservation, or in the Stoic case, some prevailing ignorant beliefs.
But if the hero had overwhelming appetites or ignorant beliefs he would not be the hero.
In practice, modern fiction often shows the hero grappling with their appetites or ignorant beliefs. The hero struggles with his fears, or takes time to realise that running away is a deluded option. In effect, fiction shows us the protagonist becoming a true hero, developing the necessary virtue to bring the story to an end and defeat the villain.
And in fiction, the hero is rewarded for this display of virtue. Facing the villain with courage orknowledge typically brings about some kind of fortuitous coincidence or realisation that allows the hero to triumph.
Sometimes the hero dies in the process, but as Classical sources insist, Reason in its divinized, transcendent form does not die, and so the hero’s sacrifice becomes an act of perfect virtue.
How does fiction help us in coping with the challenges of everyday life? We all feel like the hero of our own story and the conflict between Reason and appetite, knowledge and ignorance, plays out in our own lives on every level.
But our sense of being free to make choices tends, with the benefit of hindsight, to tell a different story in which our choices are ruled either by Reason or desires. We may be theoretically free to do whatever we want, but like the characters in a story, our choices are determined by our temperament, our past formation, and our present circumstances.
The good news is that knowing this to be the case dispels some of our false beliefs and strengthens our Reason against our lower appetites. Whichever theory of the soul you subscribe to, knowing that you are enslaved by desires is vastly superior to ignorance of that fact, even if both fall far short of actual virtue.
When we read or watch fiction of the heroic genre, these lessons of vice and virtue are reinforced in us. The stories we imbibe on a weekly basis remind us that heroes must face their weaknesses and fears, that villains succumb to their desires and faults, and this is as true in the unspectacular circumstances of our daily lives as it is in the outlandish scenarios of books, film, and on TV.
We can even see the conflict between the hero and the villain as a symbolising the struggle between our own virtuous and vicious inclinations. On one level we can see ourselves in either the hero or the villain, but on a deeper level we already contain both villain and the hero in ourselves.
Fiction can lead us through this journey, this struggle, in a way that non-fiction cannot. Fiction is figurative where non-fiction is literal, obscure where non-fiction is clear, and imaginary where non-fiction is factual. But it is precisely these apparent deficiencies that allow fiction to go deeper than our literal, factual minds can follow.