As I was reading Paul Graham’s essay, “Some Heroes,” it struck me that I’ve never liked being asked who my heroes are. In his second and fourth paragraphs, Graham reflects on the question itself:

I’m not claiming this is a list of the n most admirable people. Who could make such a list, even if they wanted to?

When I thought about what it meant to call someone a hero, it meant I’d decide what to do by asking what they’d do in the same situation. That’s a stricter standard than admiration.

I had never thought of that criterion before, but perhaps it would unstick me. Then I thought of the statement from one of my former students that Paul Erdős is her hero. [Brief aside: it’s tough to get the correct diacritic over that o. The natural tendency is to try for an unlaut — Erdös — especially since umlauts are relatively easy in HTML. But in Hungarian the diacritic looks like a double acute accent rather than an umlaut, producing a character with Unicode ID 0151. Thus you want “&#” followed by “x0151;” in HTML. End of aside.] So I wondered whether Erdős would fit the description in Graham’s next paragraph:

After I made the list, I looked to see if there was a pattern, and there was, a very clear one. Everyone on the list had two qualities: they cared almost excessively about their work, and they were absolutely honest. By honest I don’t mean trustworthy so much as that they never pander: they never say or do something because that’s what the audience wants. They are all fundamentally subversive for this reason, though they conceal it to varying degrees.

More on Erdős after I watch the movie about him. But note that Graham’s characterization is not a definition of “hero”; it’s simply a comment on two of their properties. Graham’s twelve heroes are Jack Lambert, Kenneth Clark, Larry Mihalko, Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Morris, P.G. Wodehouse, Alexander Calder, Jane Austen, John McCarthy, the Spitfire, Steve Jobs, and Isaac Newton. Could I make a similar list (though surely not duplicating any of Graham’s)?

I don’t think so.

But it did make me think about the issue. Which people have influenced me to such an extent that I would consider them to be my heroes? Would I really “decide what to do by asking what they’d do in the same situation”? Would my list consist of people who “cared almost excessively about their work” and “were absolutely honest”?

I suppose Isaac Asimov, Socrates, Charles Darwin, and Bertrand Russell would come to mind first. And maybe Johann Sebastian Bach. And probably Martin Gardner and Noam Chomsky. And it’s a cliché to put one’s mother and father on such a list, but it’s a cliché for a reason, so I will do that as well. And shouldn’t Shakespeare and Ibsen be on the list? And perhaps James Joyce? Well, that’s twelve, but I’m not convinced. This bears more thought…

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