Heroism represents the pinnacle of human behavior. The most noble act that a human being can perform is a heroic act, and the most distinguished life that a human being can lead is a heroic life. More than the pinnacle, heroism occupies a central place in human experience. Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1841) opined that “society is founded on hero worship” (p. 19). William James (1899) observed quiet heroism among the entire working class, noticing “the great fields of heroism lying round about” him (p. 2). Modern treatments of heroism emphasize that heroes serve fundamental human needs (Allison & Goethals, 2014; Kinsella, Ritchie, & Igou, 2015a), and that all of humanity-not just a select group of moral elite-is capable of heroism (Franco, Blau, & Zimbardo, 2011). Heroes are “fascinating to people in everyday life,” (Kinsella, Richie, & Igou, Chapter 1, this volume), “literally commanding our attention” (Franco et al., 2011, p. 99). So central to our humanity is heroism that it may even be imprinted into our DNA (Efthimiou, 2015; Chapter 8, this volume). Yet this centrality of heroism to our lives remains a well-kept secret. All of us may harbor the
potential for heroism, but we tend to reserve the label of “hero” for the best of humanity. Perhaps we relish occupying the role of spectator; it leaves us clean, unharmed, and able to savor the feelings of elevation that sweep over us upon witnessing others’ heroic acts (Csikszentmihalyi, Condren, & Lebuda, Chapter 13, this volume). For Carlyle (1841), “no nobler or blessed feeling dwells in man’s heart” than the feeling of hero worship. The veneration of heroes serves as the catalyst for self-enrichment, as “every true man” feels that “he is himself made higher by doing reverence to what is really above him” (p. 23). Each human being, according to Carlyle, “in some sense or other, worships heroes; that all of us reverence and must ever reverence Great Men” (p. 24). The allure of heroism taps into a deeply rooted archetype of god-like individuals who are “the creators” and “the soul of the whole world’s history” (p. 6). Hero worship, from Carlyle’s perspective, is:
the deepest root of all; the tap-root, from which in a great degree all the rest were nourished and grown … Worship of a hero is transcendent admiration of a Great Man … No nobler feeling than this of admiration for one higher than himself dwells in the breast of men.