Nathan Hale and the Powerful Heroic Script

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– Scott Allison and George Goethals

6 Responses to “Nathan Hale and the Powerful Heroic Script”


  • Nathan Hale is definitely an American icon, and that quote is emblematic of the American spirit. You’ve also shown here what a powerful force words– and fiction– can be in inspiring people.

    The American Revolution produced a great many heroes– or, more exactly, was produced by a great many heroes. I hope we get to see some more of them here. :)

  • Scott and George: Nathan Hale’s life and death has ramifications that exist to this day. In his day, spies were despised by both sides. Even for Hale, his becoming Washington’s spy in NYC was looked upon with approbation even by officers and soldiers on both sides. I believe that he was ostracized by members of his own regiment(?) for turning his back on manly soldiering to become a spy. While operating in British-occupied almost totally burnt-out New York, he was unsupported with almost non-existent lines of communication. Despite this, to this day he is the Benchmark by which everyone of our secret operatives are measured and measure themselves. At CIA HQ, Langley, there is a Wall of Heroes honoring those members of the dark services who gave their lives in service to our Country, Hale’s name stands First and unfortunately far from the last. Great post, Scott & George.

  • Interesting piece. I confess I didn’t know much about the guy myself.

    I was watching the show ‘Lie to Me’ the other day when one of the characters quoted a statistic I found striking and perhaps relevant to your work on heroes. She said that the line-of-duty death rate of American firefighters is 8 times that of firefighters in countries where they are similarly trained and equipped, suggesting that Americans have a ‘hero complex.’ I don’t know whether this stat is accurate or not, but much of the other science they depict on the show is, so for the moment I’ll assume it to be true.

    Between that statistic and your comments in this blog post about ‘heroic scripts’ and cultural influences on the perception of heroes, I wondered if you guys have done any investigation into cross-cultural perceptions of heroism? Are there certain (more or less) universal themes of heroism? In countries where heroes are created and perceived differently than the U.S., what is it that makes the notion of heroism different? I think these would be really interesting questions to try to answer. Hint, hint. ;-)

  • Great comment, Jennifer. The hero complex, as you point out, can lead to deadly outcomes. Interestingly, some people claim that a hero complex among firefighters can be a good thing.

    I don’t know of any cross-cultural research on heroes, and you raise some good questions about the universality of the concept. We suspect that universal themes will be elusive to find. In our research on heroes here in the U.S., we find striking differences among individuals in their definitions of heroism. As with beauty, it appears to be in the eye of the beholder. Does a similar lack of consensus exist outside the U.S.? We would love to see some data.

  • I think that a major part of being a good spy is not getting caught. This seems like a story about a brave guy who failed at his job and subsequently failed to properly cite his source when he gave his last words. I think the real spy heroes are people that the public will never hear about. Hale was undoubtedly committed, but commitment without competency is irresponsible and dangerous. It might not seem fair to judge him so harshly but he ruined any chance of earning a hero’s redemption by dying early in his story.

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