2021-22 Gifford Lecture Series

Professor Susan Neiman, Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, delivers a series of six lectures titled 'Heroism for a time of victims'

Event Details

As yesterday’s heroes are toppled from pedestals, it is time to consider who tomorrow’s heroes should be.  One obstacle to that task is so deep and widespread that we have rarely perceived its importance: the object of history has undergone a radical shift in the past half-century.   Whether in history and literature, whether examining the works of peasants or princes, earlier writers sought heroes.  Today, heroes make us nervous. 

The desire to shift our focus to victims of history began in demands for justice.   Earlier accounts let victims die a double death:  once in the flesh, once again in memory.  To insist that victims' stories be part of historical record was just a matter of righting old wrongs.  If victims' stories have claims on our attention, they have claims on our sympathy, our systems of justice, our bank accounts.  As an alternative to older world-views in which victims are voiceless, it's a definite step towards progress. 

Yet something went wrong when we rewrote the place of the victim, and the impulse which began in generosity can turn downright perverse. Professor Neiman proposes we return to an older model, where your claims to legitimacy are focused on what you've done to the world, not what the world did to you.  This wouldn't return to the victims to the ash-heap of history, but it would bring the hero back to center stage.  One of the first heroic virtues is generosity, as well as a certain humility that recognizes the role contingency plays in our lives.  (There but for fortune could any of us go.)  These should allow us to honor caring for victims as a virtue - without suggesting that being a victim is one as well.

These lectures will expand on this theme both through argument and example, presenting case-studies of heroic models and arguments for each one.

Contributions to the discussion are welcome at the Gifford Lectures Blog.


The series of six lectures will be held 2-12 May, 5.30pm at Lecture Theatre A, 40 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9JX. Please register for the lectures online through Eventbrite.


Further Information

Further information about this lecture series and access to the recordings are available on the University of Edinburgh Website.

Gifford Lectures 2021-22