There is a basic conflict common to all life; and that is the conflict between risk-aversion — also known as “harm avoidance,” or the self-preservation instinct — and novelty-seeking. These are psychological terms, of course, but this conflict exists in animals as well as, on a micro-scale, in plants and even single-celled organisms. All living things attempt to assure their continued existence, and all living things also “seek” and explore their environments in “search” of food and favorable living conditions.
Exploration, of course, is dangerous. The world is much bigger than ourselves and is home to many threats and hostile forces — predators, poisons, parasites and illnesses, harsh weather conditions, famine, competition for resources, and natural disasters, just to name a few.
But the world beyond us also offers us immense opportunity. Exploration can lead us into greater harmony with our environment, as we adapt to new challenges and develop resilience to a broader spectrum of threats. It can also lead us to new and better food sources, more hospitable territories, or put us in contact with new allies or symbiotes.
Most animals prioritize survival in this equation. If they have everything they need, they have little incentive to leave their comfort zone. They explore mainly in the interest of securing comfort and safety, and once that is assured, they are generally content to simply exist.
But humans are special. Survival is not enough for us. Neither is comfort. We seek something more, something beyond our physical reality and spurred by our imagination.
We imagine abstract, transcendent ideals which imbue our experiences of the world with meaning beyond mere physical pleasure and survival. We tell ourselves stories about things that matter more than food, comfort and pleasure: stories about gods and spirits, about transcendent worlds and universes, about true love, about experience for the sake of experience, about adventure and achievement, courage and revenge, brotherhood and camaraderie and the search for truth.
“I think there’s something in the human spirit — the human mind, our human nature, if you like — that will never be content with residing within fixed parameters,” says English philosopher John Cottingham, whose work focuses on the nature of transcendence.
“For any other animal, if you give it the right environment — food, nutrition, exercise — then it will flourish within those limits. But in the human case, no matter how comfortable, no matter how much our wants and needs are catered for, we have that human hunger to reach out for more, to reach beyond the boundaries.”
We still don’t know when, how, or exactly why this drive evolved. But not only does it push us to seek beyond our mere survival; it also allows humans to do something else no other animal does: to consciously devalue our self-preservation instinct and elevate, in its place, a higher value, transcendent principle, or spiritual ideal. Armed with this ability, we can choose to take risks and even face the possibility of death, and we often even feel compelled to do so.
This is the essence of the heroic archetype, and the root of human excellence. It has allowed humans to do what no other animal has done: create complex, enduring art and culture; explore to the farthest reaches of the globe, and even set foot on the moon; discover the inner workings of nature; engage in communication, discovery and creation. And a great many of these accomplishments, while conferring no real survival benefit on the individual or society, provide enormous intangible value and could not have been managed without risk.
“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra. By this he meant: man has a choice. He can choose to prioritize his survival instinct, and regress to the status of the animals from which he evolved; or, he can select transcendence, embracing the heroic archetype — what he called the “Superman” — and fulfilling his highest potential.
Nietzsche saw the “Superman” as a remedy to hyper-rationalist materialism, which, in the late 1800s, was already eroding traditional values and creating a spiritual vacuum. He predicted that man, losing his faith in the transcendent principle, would have no motivation to push himself to greatness. This would cause him to regress to his animal instincts, and give rise to what he called “the last man.”
“The last man” would reject transcendence altogether in favor of the materialistic, animal impulses: safety, comfort, routine, stability, security, practicality, conformity and pleasure. He would no longer seek beyond himself, no longer take risks or strive for achievement, no longer be willing to die in his quest for meaning. In so doing, he would lose the spark that makes humanity special.
Ever since Nietzsche predicted the rise of “the last man,” his values have been slowly gaining traction. But in 2020 the Covid crisis propelled them into the driver’s seat of the body politic, where they gripped the wheel with an iron stranglehold and proceeded to assume near-total control.
The Covid crisis inverted the heroic archetype and assaulted the very root of what makes us human. The philosophy that justified unprecedented restrictions on human freedom was the philosophy of Nietzsche’s “last man.” We were told that heroes “stay home” rather than venturing out into the unknown; “stay safe” rather than take risks; “save lives” rather than transcend the survival instinct.
We were asked to approach even the most mundane aspects of our lives with neurotic levels of risk-aversion: we were, for example, advised to wash our groceries after purchasing them; told to avoid singing in church or at parties; and forced to move through stores and restaurants in a single predetermined direction.
We were told that we must do whatever we can, that even if there was only a small chance of reducing viral spread or saving lives, it was worth it. And those who refused to participate in the absurd micromanagement of their lives were vilified as “irresponsible” and “selfish.”
There was no higher purpose allowed here. Love, spirituality, religion, camaraderie, learning, adventure, connection to the natural world, and the experience of living life itself were all jettisoned, deemed suddenly unimportant. We were commanded to come together to worship instead at the altar of the collective self-preservation instinct.
You could be fooled into thinking this Covidian safetyism was perhaps synonymous with heroic selflessness. After all, we recognize heroes not only as adventurers, explorers or martyrs for a transcendental cause. Our concept of heroism is also deeply tied up with the ideal of the selfless sacrifice.
In the Christian tradition Jesus Christ, for example, died on the cross to save the world; local heroes like firefighters go into burning buildings to save the lives of trapped civilians. The Covidian philosophy asks people to sacrifice only their livelihoods and lifestyles (at least in theory), by shutting their businesses, putting aside their social engagements, postponing their vacations or taking school and church online. In exchange, it promises increased protection for everyone. On the surface, it sounds simple and perhaps appealing.
But while the hero may, indeed, occasionally sacrifice his life for the sake of someone else’s survival, the focus on the collective ideal of saving lives inverts the heroic archetype altogether. The journey of the hero is really about transcendence of the animalistic self-preservation instinct, both on an individual and on a larger, collective level. It is a symbolic model guiding us as a community across the “bridge” that Nietzsche spoke of, from the lower consciousness of the animal to the higher consciousness of the Superman.
What Makes a Hero?
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, mytho-philosopher Joseph Campbell described the archetypal journey of the hero:
“The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation — initiation — return.”
The hero leaves the realm of routine, comfort and safety to venture forth into the unknown. There he encounters tantalizing possibilities as well as enormous risks and dangers. He must overcome a series of obstacles or trials, and perhaps even faces death. But if he rises to the occasion he is reborn. He returns to the world of routine a changed man, gifted with spiritual wisdom or a supernatural boon, which he can share with his community and use to help restore the world.
Campbell called the hero’s journey the “monomyth,” or the story at the heart of all stories. It may recount physical events or masquerade as biography or history, but it is ultimately a metaphorical guide for the transformation of human consciousness. Campbell writes:
“Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible […] It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and “unreal”: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs.”
The goal of the monomyth is to help us embrace life in its totality, by giving us the psychological tools we need to face risk, suffering and death. Though the hero may win wealth, land, or other earthly goods, the hero’s story is really about transcendence.
It is the story of the conflict we face as fragile, finite beings in a world much bigger and more powerful than ourselves, full of inevitable risks and dangers. It invites us to let go of our egos, let go of the comfortable illusions we use to insulate ourselves from life’s natural rhythms, and throw ourselves into the affirmation of the experience of life itself.
Through doing so, we come into greater harmony with, and a greater understanding of, the world outside ourselves, and in the process, we achieve a higher level of maturity. We learn to cast off our illusions and connect with reality, thus integrating ourselves more fully into the universe.
If we refuse this invitation, Campbell tells us:
“Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or ‘culture,’ the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless […] Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death […] The myths and folktales of the whole world make clear that the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest. The future is regarded not in terms of an unremitting series of deaths and births, but as though one’s present system of ideals, virtues, goals, and advantages were to be fixed and made secure […] and we have seen with what calamitous effect.”
The heroic monomyth is a blueprint for overcoming our childish resistance to life’s natural cycles, which include pain and suffering as well as pleasure and beauty. If we can put aside our ego and its desire to crystallize its own interests, we can participate in the experience instead of rejecting it or trying to dominate it.
But if we instead cling to comfort, security and the illusion of safety, we end up with very similar results to those of the Covid lockdowns — the world stops; everything freezes over and dries up; we may be alive, but we are not living, and our growth process stagnates. We begin to psychologically rot.
The hero’s journey is not merely a blueprint for the individual, however. It is meant to be a cycle. The hero himself represents the rare individual who is brave enough to answer the invitation first. But he does not do it only for himself. His task upon his return is to reintegrate into his community and share what he has learned. He can then lead or inspire others to embark on the cycle themselves, raising humanity as a whole to a higher level of being.
We often think of a hero as someone who saves the lives of others, but it’s interesting to note that not many classical, pre-modern myths make this the primary object of the hero’s quest. Spiritual heroes, like Jesus, who died on the cross to “save the world,” do not save physical lives so much as they save eternal souls.
The world-saving hero does not intend to prevent or stop the process of dying in the world; instead, he offers people a way to face it, by bringing them the possibility of resurrection or the gospel of life after death.
The Hero is What Makes Us Human
The heroic archetype is a sort of metaphorical Vitruvian Man for the human soul. The monomyth is not merely the hallucination of a philosopher, or an architecture for good storytelling; it is nothing less than a map of the human psyche itself.
The hero’s journey is even written into our biology; it reflects not just the macro-story of our lives, but on some level it governs the choice architecture of every decision we make, for we are constantly choosing between the stability of routine and the call of the unknown.
On some level, we are always debating between the stable and familiar or the unpredictable, weighing the possible risks and rewards, attempting to learn from the past and predict the future, and adapting to forces outside of our control as we try to achieve our goals.
Neurologically, we have dedicated brain pathways for responding to either routine or novel situations. Subconsciously, we are constantly evaluating whether we have seen something before (and thus know how to respond to it), or whether what we are facing is new and unpredictable.
On a conscious level, we continually make choices between returning to familiar experiences and seeking out new ones. Novel objects and situations can be threatening, but they can just as easily provide us with new opportunities; thus, we experience conflict between our desire to seek new possibilities and our self-protective aversion to risk.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes it is a uniquely human cognitive ability called mentalization, otherwise known as “theory of mind,” that allows us to turn this conflict into a transcendent story, leading us to adopt higher value systems and prioritize abstract ideals.
In his recent book How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures, he writes:
“Psychologists and philosophers have always viewed mentalizing as the ability to reflect on mindstates, whether your own or someone else’s. But if you think about it in terms of the brain’s computational demands (its ability to process information), what it actually involves is the ability to step back from the world as we directly experience it and imagine that there is another parallel world […] I have to be able to model that other world in my mind and predict its behaviour while at the same time managing the behaviour of the physical world right in front of me […] In effect, I have to be able to run two versions of reality simultaneously in my mind.”
Key to this ability is its recursive nature, also known as “levels of intentionality.” Reflecting on one’s own thoughts counts as “first-order intentionality.” At least second-order intentionality is needed in order to imagine the existence of other agents with their own independent thoughts — for example, a transcendental or spirit world. The more conscious agents you add into the equation, the more complex your stories get, and the more computationally expensive it is for the brain.
Religion, myth and storytelling all require at least third-order intentionality: the ability to imagine a transcendent consciousness, then to communicate this to someone else, then understand that they understood it; or, perhaps, the ability to imagine a transcendent consciousness, and then imagine that that transcendent consciousness is watching and thinking about your thoughts and experiences.
There is some debate over whether or not great apes have second-order intentionality, but only humans have third-order and higher. This is what has allowed us to create complex simulations of alternate realities, to imagine nuanced stories, and to form spiritualities and religions. The heroic myth cycle also requires at least third-order intentionality: it requires the ability to imagine a hero consciousness who has relationships to other consciousnesses in his world.
The implications of this are huge. We are the only animals that are capable of this. The hero is what makes us human. And it is curious to note that, once we developed this ability, it became a deep, integral part of our psyche. The search for transcendence is not a drive we can simply abandon; we may refuse its “call to adventure” (and many do), but ultimately, it takes priority over our will to live.
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and inventor of “logotherapy” (from Greek logos, or “meaning”), observed this on many occasions throughout his career. He found that, in Europe and America, people with comfortable lives and many prospects for success often destroyed themselves with drugs or contemplated suicide. In Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning he wrote:
“A study conducted at Idaho State University revealed that 51 of 60 students (85 percent) who had seriously attempted suicide reported as the reason that ‘life meant nothing’ to them. Of these 51 students, 48 (94 percent) were in excellent physical health, were actively engaged socially, were performing well academically, and were on good terms with their family groups.”
In other words, these students overrode their self-preservation instinct to try to kill themselves, despite the fact that they were healthy and had everything they needed to survive, because they lacked a transcendent purpose to pull them forward. Frankl realized that this transcendent impulse takes priority in man above the animal instincts; though we can deny it, it is actually our highest need:
“No doubt, our industrialized society is out to satisfy all human needs, and its companion, consumer society, is even out to create ever new needs to satisfy; but the most human need — the need to find and fulfill a sense of meaning in our lives — is frustrated by this society […] Understandably, it is in particular the young generation who is most affected by the resulting feeling of meaninglessness […] More specifically, such phenomena as addiction, aggression, and depression are, in the final analysis, due to a sense of futility.”
Humans can have everything necessary for their survival, but without some higher purpose or motivation, they will feel so miserable that they will try to kill themselves. By contrast, we can happily embrace horrific trials and even death as long as we can connect to some transcendent ideal. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl tells the story of a woman he met during his time in a concentration camp:
“This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’”
The transcendent impulse may ultimately be a higher human need than any of our animalistic drives. But we still must choose between the two, and the choice is not usually an easy one. When people are desperate, tired, hungry, or afraid, the animal instincts hold stronger sway. They demand that we satisfy them, even at the sacrifice of our humanity.
Frankl recounts how, for many, the stress of life in the camps stripped away the entire human experience, leaving behind only raw self-preservation instinct. Those who succumbed to their animal nature experienced a feeling of having lost their individuality, their theory of mind, their spark of humanity (emphasis mine):
“I mentioned earlier how everything that was not connected with the immediate task of keeping oneself and one’s closest friends alive lost its value. Everything was sacrificed to this end […] If the man in the concentration camp did not struggle against this in a last effort to save his self-respect, he lost the feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom and personal value. He thought of himself then as only a part of an enormous mass of people; his existence descended to the level of animal life.”
Not everyone rises to the occasion. In difficult situations, the transcendent impulse clashes with our self-preservation instinct, often violently and viscerally. Sometimes we have to sacrifice one instinct in service to another. We have to make a choice. Our choices determine who we become, both as individuals and as a society. Do we want to rise to the level of the transcendent hero or the “Superman?” Or do we want to regress to the level of the animals from whom we evolved?
Frankl writes soberingly (emphasis mine):
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man to make use of or forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
In general, we don’t wish pain, suffering or death on anyone. It would be great if we could seek the hero’s journey and save lives, follow our transcendent ideals and survive, embrace meaning and self-interest. But when faced with the difficult choice between one or the other, it should be obvious which one we should sacrifice. Whether the choice is an individual or a collective one doesn’t matter.
In theory at least, the Covid crisis presented us with just such a choice: collectively face the death, suffering and pain thrust on us by a novel respiratory virus, or collectively jettison all of our transcendent, human values in a futile and childish quest to “save lives.”
That death, suffering and pain should not be dismissed or minimized. Real people were and would have been affected by the cruelties of life, regardless of which choice we made. But as humans, we have a unique ability that makes us great, that helps us to process these kinds of difficult situations. We have the ability to mentalize, to tell stories of transcendence, and to imbue our reality with a sense of higher purpose and meaning. We have the archetypal journey of the hero.
It is the heroic archetype that makes us human. Without it, we are no different from animals, and as Viktor Frankl suggested, we are not worthy of our suffering.
The secret, and the lesson that the myth of the hero teaches us, is that suffering is a part of life. Death is a part of life. Pain is a part of life. They are inevitable, and our futile attempts at avoiding them amount only to a comfortable illusion.
Lockdowns, restrictions and mandates at best only delay the circulation of respiratory viruses. They cannot ultimately protect us from, or eradicate, them.
The myth of the hero helps us to accept these realities, so that we can cope with them, and in the meantime, continue being human. It teaches us that if we want to fully participate in life and affirm the experience of living, we have to accept that experience in its totality, not just choose the parts we enjoy and deny the rest. It teaches us that in order to enjoy life’s miracles — poetry and beauty, love and pleasure, comfort and happiness — we also have to accept its challenges and darknesses.
In an interview with Bill Moyers entitled The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell addresses the motif, common in myths, of the woman as responsible for the fall of man. He says:
“Of course [woman led to the downfall of man]. I mean, they represent life. Man doesn’t enter life except by woman. And so, it is woman who brings us into the world of polarities, and the pair of opposites, and suffering and all.”
Then he adds:
“But I think it’s a really childish attitude to say no to life, with all its pain, you know? To say, ‘This is something that should not have been’.”
The myth of the hero does not teach us to eradicate life’s pains and risks in pursuit of only comfort and safety. That is the doctrine of the animal. Rather, the myth of the hero shows us that it is necessary to embrace suffering and risk in order to experience life’s miracle; and that, for such a transcendent reward — for such excellence — that is a price worth paying.