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  • Donald E. Hester

From Heroes to Icons: Using Exemplars to Remind Us of Virtues

I recently finished listening to a captivating Great Courses series entitled "Heroes and Legends, The Most Influential Characters of Literature" by Professor Thomas A. Shippey. The course delved into some of the most iconic characters in literature and explored why they have remained relevant and impactful throughout history. While listening to this course, I began to reflect on the importance of heroes and legends in our own lives, and how we can use them as reminders of the virtues and values we hold dear.

I keep a list of people that I would consider heroes. Although heroes may not be the right word for it and legends may not be the right word for it, I think the right word for it might be icons. I think of people who exemplify certain virtues or values as icons for those traits. To me, an icon represents something else, just like an icon for an application on a computer represents the application itself. In the same way, I see people as icons for certain values and virtues that I strive to embody in my own life.

In the past, the use of icons has been a topic of debate, particularly in the context of the Eastern and Western Churches. However, I believe that the debate misses the whole point of why we might want to use icons. For me, an icon is not something to be venerated but rather a tool to elicit a memory or represent something else. Icons can be incredibly powerful reminders of virtues, values, and other qualities that we may want to embody in our own lives. By using icons as reminders, we can help ourselves stay focused on what really matters and strive towards our own personal ideals.

"Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have found that keeping a list of virtues and values has been incredibly helpful in guiding my actions and decision-making. Over time, I began to add quotes that related to those virtues and values, and later on, I started adding people as exemplars of those virtues and values. Today, I also incorporate pictures and artwork that support or call to mind those virtues and values. For me, these items serve as icons that can help recall and remind me of those virtues and values when I need them most.

One of the things I've discovered is that people can be heroes or icons for specific values or virtues. For example, I see George Washington as a symbol of leadership and selfless government service. Interestingly, George Washington himself looked to Cincinnatus, the Roman statesman, as an inspiration.

I don't limit my list of inspirational individuals to those who are living or have actually existed. I also include fictional characters, like Spiderman, who represents the idea that "with great power comes great responsibility." By incorporating these heroes and icons into my daily life, I find that I am better able to embody the virtues and values that are important to me.

While I find it helpful to have a list of inspirational individuals, I want to make a disclaimer that I hesitate to call people "heroes" as nobody is perfect. Everyone has flaws and shortcomings, and it's important to acknowledge that. However, people can still represent a concept, virtue, or value, and this can be different for each individual person. What I find inspirational or exemplary may not be the same for someone else, and that's perfectly okay.

"Reading is an honor and a gift from a warrior or historian who—a decade or a thousand decades ago—set aside time to write. He distilled a lifetime of campaigning in order to have a “conversation” with you." - Jim Mattis, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

That said, I believe that using icons as reminders can be a powerful tool to help us stay focused on what is good and inspire us to do what is right. If this approach doesn't work for you, that's perfectly fine. Each person needs to find their own way to stay true to their values and aspirations. Ultimately, the goal is to be mindful of the virtues and values that we hold dear, and to strive to live our lives in accordance with those principles.

I strongly believe that adding icons or exemplars of virtues and values is an important practice because it helps tie the emotion to the concept. It's easy to forget the importance of certain virtues and values in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. However, by having tangible icons or exemplars that represent these virtues and values, we are better able to remember and internalize them.

Furthermore, these icons can serve as inspiration, reminding us of the potential we have to be better versions of ourselves. When we look to people who have embodied these virtues and values in their own lives, it can be a powerful motivator for us to strive to live up to those same standards. It's a way to keep ourselves accountable and focused on the things that truly matter.

In short, adding icons or exemplars of virtues and values to our daily lives is a way to keep us mindful of what is important and to inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves.

I have a number of statues in my library each one serves as a reminder of different virtues and values. I have a statue of King Leonidas that represents perseverance and never giving up, even in the face of insurmountable odds. I have a statue of Rodin's The Thinker that serves as a reminder to continuously challenge and nurture one's intellect. I have a statue of Jesus washing his disciples' feet that represents servant leadership, reminding us that true leadership comes from serving others. Finally, I have a statue of Michelangelo's David that symbolizes our ability to overcome great obstacles.

In conclusion, the course "Heroes and Legends, The Most Influential Characters of Literature" by Professor Thomas A. Shippey was not only an exploration of some of the most significant characters in literature but also an insight into the heroes and icons that the professor may have for himself. It was fascinating to learn about the different virtues and values represented by these characters and how they have inspired individuals throughout history. For me, the course served as a reminder to keep adding to my list of icons and exemplars, whether fictional or real-life individuals, as they serve as powerful reminders of the virtues and values we strive to embody. Overall, the course was a worthwhile journey that helped me to better understand and appreciate the impact of literature on our lives.

What heroes and icons inspire you to embody the virtues and values you admire?


The Great Courses, Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature by Thomas A. Shippey

Amazon Description

Odysseus. Robinson Crusoe. Harry Potter. What do these memorable characters have in common? Why do we turn to certain stories again and again? And what impact have they made on world history? These 24 eye-opening lectures give fresh insight into some of the greatest heroes in world literature, from warriors such as Beowulf and Odysseus to unexpected heroes such as Uncle Tom and Sancho Panza.

Professor Shippey gives you an inside glimpse into the writer's process. Learn how authors "write into the gap" to flesh out-or, in some cases, reimagine altogether-old stories, making them new for new readerships with different values. By examining what makes these heroes such compelling characters, you'll see how they provide a window to better understand ourselves.

From the beginnings of world literature through today's bestsellers, look at what makes characters successful-and how they reflect our changing cultural mores. For instance, after the horrors of global war in the 20th century, the world was waiting for a hero like Frodo Baggins, J.R.R. Tolkien's meek hobbit hero, someone called to duty rather than born strong and fearless.

You'll also examine ways that great heroes have changed the course of history, defining nations and redefining our sense of self and our relationships. From the mythical journey of Aeneas to Jane Austen's country dances, you'll survey a wealth of memorable stories and consider why such heroes were necessary-and how they continue to influence our lives today.

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