In part one: The Princes Are In Peril, the author discusses the spiritual crisis in the West. We live longer, healthier lives and enjoy greater prosperity than ever before. Obviously material abundance is not enough since negatives like stress disorders and divorce are widespread. Many people are perpetually medicated. The missing element is purpose/meaning; people try to attain it by financial prosperity or other external means of recognition. It is also expressed vicariously through imagined heroes like celebrities in sport, music and film. The author claims that human beings have an inherent desire to be heroic. This book is about true heroism; what it is and how to pursue it. Genuine heroism is within reach of all and its attributes include doing what is good, living with dignity, helping others, controlling our passions and choosing to do the right rather than the popular thing.
The Good Book provides a model for two kinds of hero: Adam as public hero who is to dominate the earth and Adam as private hero who is commanded to nurture it. The Bible offers us the alternative to Homer's classical superhero in works like the Iliad and Odyssey. The biblical hero seeks righteousness rather than recognition, virtue instead of victory, and moral courage over mortal conquest. The classical hero uses force, subdues others, and seeks the adulation of the masses plus material rewards as well as glory and fame. These desires are all born of insecurity. It's a game of win and lose. The needs of the classical hero, unfortunately permeating today's celebrity culture, erode self-esteem. In contrast, the biblical hero does not seek personal glory and performs unsung acts of heroism. Examples are Moses and the firefighters of 9/11. This hero has a strong consciousness of the Godly nature. S/he knows that people are inherently valuable and worthy of love simply because we are made in the image of God.
Excellent insights emerge from the chapter on the Machiavellian view. Be very wary of the false perception that "nice guys finish last." At times it may appear to be thus, as also reflected in the saying "no good deed goes unpunished." Choosing right action does seem to harm us in some cases by creating circumstances in which people take advantage of us. But the author shows how Machiavelli missed the point. The most important things will always be God, family and friends. One's aim ought to be a struggle for goodness, not material success. Goodness is definitely not the opposite of material success anyway but a psychological necessity, not easy to achieve and demanding constant effort. It is a process of unceasing inspiration rather than a goal to be reached. A further point of vital importance is that personal imperfection is no impediment to making this choice! If one has a weakness, that is no excuse for an "anything goes" attitude; hypocrisy remains the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Fallibility makes our determination more inspiring; it is through the unending struggle to choose the good that heroism emerges. The fact that this kind of person, the biblical hero, often appears serene is because s/he has recognized and accepted this struggle as part of life.
But often it is hard to know what the right choice is in a given situation. In this regard, the author surveys various systems designed to show the way, including the promise of reward in an afterlife, the Ten Commandments, utilitarianism, natural selection, secular humanism and personal morality. Observing that religion itself is no guarantee against evil and sometimes even the carrier, he concludes that the blueprint for goodness is available in the Bible, in the example of Biblical heroes. Briefly defined, goodness is the act of conferring dignity upon others.
The second part is titled The Path to Biblical Heroism. The dictionary definition of hero is "a god, warrior or idol." Clearly this refers to the classical hero or celebrity. The biblical hero is quite different; s/he aims to preserve and enhance life and give it to others by granting them dignity, and is constantly monitoring his/her own behavior. The most important things are honoring one's parents, forgiving freely, serving a higher purpose, casting off egotism through self-restraint, and fighting evil.
Boteach points out that pacifism permits evil to flourish. Those who refuse to oppose monsters like Hitler, Stalin, Milosevic, Saddam, Arafat, Bin Laden, Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad are not good people. In some cases it may simply be ignorance, but pacifism is neither pious nor holy as it denies the concept of justice and even demonstrates contempt for it. Indifference in the presence of evil is wicked. We must rally our forces and do everything we can to combat it. This truth is of particular significance today as we witness the resurgence of antisemitism and a Zeitgeist turning ever more nihilistic. How many times must history repeat itself before people realize that they have a responsibility to oppose such evil, since neither they nor their children are immune to its destructive effects? As the old song goes: "What comes to one must come to us all."
The author has a talent for dressing common sense in refreshing new gear as he deals with the importance of relationships, gratitude, trust, telling the truth, and of choosing love over justice. Behaviors with lasting positive results include assisting others, mentoring someone, finding joy in the everyday, getting rid of the lust for glory and being a hero to your children rather than to the world. Ultimately biblical heroism gives us all the freedom we need, as well as the peace that comes with it. I was reading The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Adin Steinsaltz - a profoundly esoteric work - at the same time, and the synchronicities were truly remarkable. Steinsaltz writes on mysticism, a subject for which human language is notoriously inadequate, but time after time Boteach came to the rescue with his clear and commonsensical analyses of issues that encompass psychology, morals, ethics, relationships and spirituality. If I had a minister with the insight and communication skills of Rabbi Boteach I would certainly attend church regularly instead of just practicing my religion in private.