Mortal Complex: A Response to the ‘Hero Complex’

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Before I reply to the article, I am obliged to ensure I have not misrepresented. Tali observed, if I understand her, a tendency amongst human beings to imagine our that individual lives each have a narrative – often one in which we are the protagonists – and that the tale will inevitably climax in the usual fashion (a belief which for brevity I shall call ‘ego narratives’). This, she assured us, is plainly untrue, but it is a human trait to invent narratives and purpose for itself, and a common means of doing so is ‘The Hero System’, by which we may contrive our own significance, and give man ‘the cosmic specialness he deserves’.

Often I think these ego narratives are quite mistaken: at best they are wishful thinking, and at worst they are probably plain conceit. But this belief in a them grows from a desire for meaning significance. Tali and I are both agreed that this expression of it – the incorrigible wish to be indispensable, to be the centre of the universe, and the constant hero of one’s own play – is very undesirable. But her remedy serves to kill where I would seek to amend. She notes the beliefs in these narratives are false, but to correct this naivety she observed: ‘This is-of course-complete nonsense. Life is series of events and nothing more.’ I am not certain whether this is audacity or a mere inadvertence, for the implications of that sentence are rather grave for a University column. It signifies the abolition of objective meaning, and that is something with which the majority of history’s great luminaries, and almost all of common humanity, would strongly disagree. Quite possibly Tali did not intend any such implications, but anyone with a cursory knowledge of philosophy will not fail to see them. It would be more forgivable were it not for the two words ‘of course’, as if it were evident to all sensible people, and this is assuredly untrue.

Now, her cure for indulgent ego narratives succeeds in its object. If life is a mere succession of events, then it is sophistry to think that we each have a linear narrative in which we are the most important person, and in which we shall triumph inexorably. But her cure also serves, if it is fully administered, to kill the desire for meaning of which the ‘ego narratives’ are the excess or perversion; in short, it serves to kill meaning altogether. But I think the desire for meaning is a good thing; indeed, I believe it inseparable from our human dignity.

We are left then with a problem. On my hypothesis, the desire for meaning in life is a good thing, yet it very easily becomes exaggerated and inflamed into conceit, narcissism, and those very ‘ego narratives’ which Tali and I agree are misguided. Tali’s remedy would mortify the desire altogether, but I think the proper cure is to amend the desire, or find its true fruition. If the desire for meaning and narrative in life is illusory, then we have to account for the fact that it is so ubiquitous.

The Hero System does not much mend matters. A proper knowledge or it tells individuals that the meaning they desire-however excessively or deficiently – is nonsense and inherently unattainable; yet it conflates and encourages the tendency of ego narratives same ego narratives by telling them to invent significance for themselves, which is frequently very much greater or smaller than their actual significance.

The facts of the universe themselves help us very little. The cosmic insignificance of man (at least in mathematical terms) has been used to crush the ambition of humanity and also to call forth our defiance. The dreams are not dead which imagined humanity colonising other worlds, and by Scientific and humanitarian progress becoming the demigods of the Universe. The same Scientific facts recall us to the knowledge that we are but one occupant of an infinitesimal speck of matter, amongst the incalculable worlds and stars of the abyss of space; and thus, we are told, we are of no account.

The answer to this paradox is a very old one. Religion of all kinds have recognised the necessity and the danger of the desire for significance. I cannot venture to speak for all of them, but I may speak on behalf of my own faith, which is Christian. In my experience, Christianity crushes all hope of conceit and egotism from the outset: we are mortal, transient, corrupted and in many senses quite unimportant. Yet it never quenches our thirst for meaning: to be a child of God, with a purpose, with dignity and hope, is what is intended for every human being. It is a beautiful cure, for my part, and though many may disagree with it, let us not believe that ‘life is a series of events and nothing more’. For if so, there is the danger ‘aegrescit medendo’: the cure is worse than the disease.


  1. Hi Joseph,

    I’d like to open by saying how excited I was to open the paper this morning and see this piece. I love a good discussion and I think it’s cool that one has been created here (as opposed to just posting the article and whether or not people read it and how they responded is anyone’s guess). So thanks for opening this.

    Now for the discussion itself…
    One point that you make here is about the use of the phrase “of course” in stating my world view. Here I must say I agree with you. It didn’t occur to me when writing it but now, reading it again, you are quite right for calling that out.
    Another point, if I understand you correctly, is that that same sentence of mine holds severe implications of meaninglessness and that ‘my remedy’ just kills the desire for meaning while presenting no alternative. I’m not exactly sure which remedy you are referring to; I wasn’t attempting to provide a solution to the problem of meaninglessness, only to point to one human coping mechanism. And for a good reason, in my eyes: meaning cannot be bequeathed or copied, and knowing what fills my days with meaning would do very little to help others find meaning themselves.

    In the end of your article you arrive at the “beautiful cure”, religion. This is your way of finding meaning and it is a legitimate one indeed. However, this is where we disagree: as an atheist, I find the idea of belief as a cure for meaninglessness a sort of wishful thinking. Obviously you have many other reasons to believe and again please let it be clear that I’m not here to refute the idea of god or anyone’s belief. But as far as I’m concerned, a wish not to have life be “a series of events and nothing more” is not reason enough for faith. I, too, would rather live life knowing that I am a part of something bigger, bigger than me and bigger than humanity. But to the best of my knowledge there simply isn’t one and my wish does not make that any different.
    If my view of the world and of life seems bleak to you, it is because it really is so. You say the intellectual history of the world would disagree; another way to look at it is as development throughout the ages, one that led eventually to Sartre-like existentialism. Just because many thinkers (and indeed, quantitatively speaking, most thinkers) in history disagree doesn’t make the idea any less valid. Life is bleak but it is what science gradually came to. We are animals – albeit very developed ones – we live on a small speck in an endless universe, and quite possibly (no “of course” this time :)) death is simply the end for each individual, arriving after… a series of events.
    This does not mean that personal meaning is non-existent. On the contrary. For me, the understanding that all I have is my life here and it matters so little objectively, is a positive one. It means I am free to pursue what I’m interested in and to control my life, within the restrictions of chance and the wish not to harm others. A lack of real outside meaning shouldn’t stop us from finding internal meaning in learning, in friends and family, in hobbies, in giving back to the community etc. In living every event and not pretending it is just part of the narrative that will become major any minute now.
    I discussed Becker and the Hero System because I find it interesting that people find meaning in the attempt to be, as you say, indispensable. They (occasionally”we”) like to believe this narrative of self instead of going for a simpler truth: we have nothing to prove to anyone and it might well benefit our sense of self to simply stick to what makes us feel happy and complete on a daily basis.

    (By the way, it is highly likely that “sticking to what makes him feel complete” is exactly what the skydiver was doing. It was only an example.)


  2. I’m grateful you took the time to reply, Tali. I endeavoured to reply amicably, so I’m glad it was taken that way. I dare say after I’ve given your rejoined due thought I may have another of my own to contribute, and I’m very ready to concede wherever I’ve misunderstood or simply been wrong. Here’s to a fruitful discussion. Joseph


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