A few hundred years ago you could happily put a character in a saga and have them go off on viking raids and kill any number of people whose only crime is living near the coast, and still put them forward as morally admirable.
Nowadays if you want to have your protagonists shooting at their enemies or hitting them with sharp bits of metal you basically have to choose between a good-vs-evil narrative or having only anti-heroes rather than plain heroes (and both choices are now common).
So I think this bit is pretty much backwards: «
Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations.
What modern Good-vs-Evil narratives are collectively yelling at us is the idea that _only_ outright visible evil justifies making war.
Whereas ancient peoples and older eras saw war as a necessary evil in some cases, and could see the enemy as regular people that they just had to fight (even down to the Iliad, the most heroic figure, Hector, is on the enemy side), the Good-vs-Evil narrative doesn't come to prevent war (except in dire circumstances), but to refuse the enemy its humanity and justify total war.
Good-vs-evil was used to justify the pillaging and goring of the colonial era, to the Nazi's extinction of the Jews, and so on.
That's the route of modern diplomatic terminology ("axis of evil" and so on), and behind the dehumanizing of the enemy. And even civilian casualties don't matter much when you're fighting "evil" (e.g. Dresden, Hiroshima, modern Middle East, etc).
Another such trick is to promote (with articles, movies, etc) the "inner conflict" of your side (how they fear they're fighting an unjust war, the pain they get from the killings they had to do, PTSI, etc), thus humanize them more into good guys, while still painting the other side as caricatures. This faux-critique of war is an excellent way to say "we might do bad, but we're ultimately the good guys, the ones who actually do question what we do".
I agree entirely that if a country's leaders manage to persuade their people that they should go to war against their neighbour because they are Evil then the result is likely to be worse than if they just have a war because they think that marching an army in to take over a couple of counties is a legitimate thing to do.
But nonetheless I think that getting the latter generally seen as illegitimate is Progress with a capital P.
"I should hate other voters because they have it coming, history is on my side, and we will win!"
Generally, there's less physical violence, so I guess it's an improvement on those merits. Assuming this doesn't end in Civil War II.
Caricature-painting is a basic tool of modern morality tales. Is it so universally regressive? Would we be better off if we portrayed Pol Pot, Heath Ledger's Joker, or Opposing Racist White Guy as trying to balance conflicting motivations?
I think it is in fact important to show that conflicting motivations can lead to evil. Heck, even _good_ motivations can. That way people might actually stop and think about whether what they're doing is in fact evil.
Or to put it in Godwin's Law terms, your typical Nazi was trying to balance conflicting motivations. The right lesson to be learned is not "Nazis were evil, so they did evil things" but "we better watch out for conditions that cause people to behave like that".
A better way to frame the matter is what sort of conditions in a society lead to dangerous people being in charge.
And I've heard Eichman's rationalizations for keeping the trains running on time. He was doing his duty, it was lawful, nobody around him opposed the policy, etc. It's all BS to excuse his moral choices and anti-semitism.
And yeah, we need to understand how groups of people come to justify genocide and other terrible practice, but keep in mind not everyone went along with it in WW2. Bulgaria refused to hand it's Jews over. There were German police and army who refused to cooperate with the SS. It was possible to resist participating in genocide, and sometimes without consequence.
Sure, I agree. My point is that we need to get people to notice that they're on a slippery slope to doing bad things and stop. And that this is easier if they admit to themselves the possibility that they might end up doing bad things.
As you note, during WWII there were people who noticed and stopped. I just wish more had.
If you value winning a political conflict above all else, then the good-vs-evil propaganda may well be progressive, to your allies. If you value understanding human beings, it’s probably regressive for that purpose.
Superhero stories vary on an an axis from pure pantomime villains to giving the villain considerable space to explain why he's actually in the right. Part of the reason that Heath Ledger's performance is so acclaimed that his Joker isn't simply one-dimensionally evil.
Humanism was invented in late middle ages. Before that, everybody was “refused its humanity” simply because there was no such thing.
Also, in ancient times, total wars and genocide were normal state of things. I recommend this book about the subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Natur...
This Good-vs-evil narrative also tends to infantilize whole mediums—say Film or Comics, but the same is true with Journalism. There is no way this is a progression when nothing could be further from real life experience. A good story should respect the audience's intelligence more. Don't assume your audience is stupid, but always paint a more subtle picture with facts. Let them decide afterward, with more than one point of view, what is right and what is wrong. Or perhaps there is no need to root for one side but rather understand why things happened and encourage some form of empathy.
Are you implying that these events are not extremely controversial because of their civilian death toll?
Or you need story-telling that capitalizes on information deficit differences.
A good kind of story arc i've seen recently is having the protagonist do things in what looks like a basic good/evil conflict, then learn that the situation was different than it looked like (ranging from "the 'evil guys' were misguided but good-at-heart" to "protagonist was wrong and unwittingly fucking everything up"), then focus on how that aftermath is handled as the actual primary story.
And depending on how much "screen time" you have available, you can also keep expanding this and go through various twists and turns and kinds of information deficits without ever having to delve into actual thought-less "they're good/evil" stuff as you zoom out in scope.
That sounds intruiging, indeed. May I ask for some example(s)?
Blueberry, the movie, was very good in that department. At the end, the "good" guy does vanquish the "bad" guy (at least I think that is what happened), but it turns out that the "good" guy is far less pure good than the audience has been led to think, and likewise the "bad" guy might be ruthless, but he had an understandable reason to do what he did.
Also, i remembered another one: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22733729-the-long-way-to... Can't describe too much without spoilers, but it's lovely and unique.
I'd go so far as to say he even rejected the jedi teachings in the original story. They were teaching that Vader had to be defeated by him. And that his attachment to his friends was a bad thing. He manages to win, despite not following the directions of his teachers. Yoda literally disappeared right after telling him he has to confront and defeat Vader. Something Luke throws away his saber while doing.
The other side had cute robots and spunky pro-democracy rebels.
Even if Luke forgoes literal teaching, at basically no point does he do anything really morally reprehensible (except unwittingly taking a few steps towards incest).
not explicitly, no, but just consider the scale of the two death stars and how many people must have been on board at the time of their destruction. we can assume that it was military personnel only on the first one and therefore "fair game", but hundreds of thousands if not millions of people still died by Luke's hand.
the second death star had not yet finished construction at the time of the battle, so there were almost certainly construction workers still on board, and many of them may have been civilians. this time it was not directly Luke that killed them, but he seems to support his friends wholeheartedly in their plan.
I'm not trying to argue that the rebellion is actually the evil side here, but when you look past the surface it is hardly black and white.
You can think about the implications of anything, but it wasn’t in the narrative.
Luke's story arc may not focus on that exclusively, but it does focus on it some, and he's not the only major character. Each has their own arc, but the backdrop is always "let's overthrow these horrible evil people."
Well, some country did nuke two cities full of people (which on Earth terms is the same as blowing up a planet). And they still can paint themselves as the good guys that did what they had to do to end the war (and save lives from traditional warfare/etc). Humans have lots of ways of justifying all kinds of bad shit.
There's also the fact that the soviet union was preparing to invade Japan and building up troops in the balkans. The nuke was a show of force to end the war in Japan quickly and make the soviets think twice about pushing into Europe.
The US had a choice between letting millions of their men die or using a weapon that could end the war almost instantly. Nothing to celebrate but it was essentially the lesser of two evils.
That seems to be comparable to the death star. New superweapon intended to maintain order; deployed against the nearest target. Similar to what happened in Japan, the death star would also have prevented tens of millions of meaningless deaths had it not been blown up by a group who would probably be labeled terrorists if we didn't have front-row seats into their motivations and ideologies.
The impact of nuclear weapons on cultural consciousness is interesting. As many civilians died in the firebombing of Tokyo as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. And, of course, the firebombing of Tokyo was nothing special either: most Japanese cities were extensively bombed. One of the reasons that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen were because they were among the only relatively unscathed cities remaining.
And of course, to a larger point, slaughtering civilians throughout WWII was far from uncommon, on both sides, and was a deliberate strategy to clear out "living space", to destroy industrial capacity, etc.
Yet, for some reason, humans seem to find the nuclear bombings much more morally objectionable than the firebombing of Tokyo, maybe moreso than anything else other than the Rape of Nanjing and the Holocaust.
Of course, nuclear weapons were themselves fearful for another reason - a single bomb doing what before took many, but you wouldn't think that'd change the moral content of the actions in people's minds.
All of those are war crimes. Including the Dresden bombings, and so on.
The nuking is just more instant and concentrated horror. And a senseless display of power at a time when it wasn't needed at all (barely an actual part of a war effort), which makes it even more hideous.
I don't think people would talk so casually about fire bombings and nukes if they had real history behind them and their family.
The more established history in Europe (of course the US wouldn't admit to that, as Japan won't officially admit to it's China wrongdoing in WWII) is that Japan was done for and ready to surrender (and there were even unofficial negotiation attempts). In any case, it was a standing dead -- and even the "kamikazi" were employed exactly because of this desperation (besides a man's life, each of those cost a much more precious to the war airplane).
>There's also the fact that the soviet union was preparing to invade Japan and building up troops in the balkans. The nuke was a show of force to end the war in Japan quickly and make the soviets think twice about pushing into Europe.
Yes, that was exactly the thing. The "it was essentially the lesser of two evils" part was just the hypocritical justification sold to the public afterwards.
(Note that if the Germans had dropped a nuke in England or Russians one in Germany as "a choice between letting millions of their men die or using a weapon that could end the war almost instantly" -- it would be considered, justifiably so, as a gross war crime until eternity).
Balkans are in Europe.
Though now that I say that, A New Hope would have been better if they had Tarkin thinking along those lines.
They didn't say that at the time either. That's just an excuse sold to the public, good enough for government sanctioned history.
You may have identified with a particular characters arc and interpreted it in a specific way, but I think it's fairly clear the movie itself and the main story it tells (with multiple main characters) is clearly a good vs evil story.
Modern folk stories are created in publishing houses and movie studios and broadcast to hundreds of millions, with no opportunity for the reader or watcher to ask the storyteller for elaboration. So the stories have to be clear from the start; if there's no way to resolve ambiguity, you need to avoid having it to begin with.
They also tended to care waaay more about ordinary person whereas current interpretation treats non heroes non rules as cannon fodders.
In the Joshua narrative (a part of the Bible that troubles a lot of people for its wholesale slaughter of ethnic groups) before they sack Jericho Joshua sees an angel and asks which side he is on, and the angel replies, “neither” (Joshua 5). Similarly in Deuteronomy the existence of other deities is presumed in some passsages, but they are meant for “other nations” (Deuteronomy 4). And my favorite example, God tries to kill Moses after he commissions him (Exodus 4:18).
Here’s the thing though, when ethnicity and familial ties no longer are the thing binding a society together, the only thing left is ideology. If we want to live in a pluralist society we have no choice, but to embrace narratives that bind us together through morality and ideology. Universalism is a powerful tool, it can create a society like the US, which has many faults and sins to be sure, but is the only society in history to elect a member of, what was very recently, a slave class to its highest political office. Universal also has its dark side in things like the fascisms of the early 20tj century.
It seems like we might be migrating back (or around?) to a non-Universalist sentiment around the world in the current backlash against globalization. The impetus definitely has some nationalism and racism in it, but it feels different to me than a moralizing racism of the past that assumed racial superiority, and now seems to be rooted in a theory of primacy (it’s not that we’re better, but we come first, e.g. “America first”).
It makes sense to me that we are migrating away from Universalism. Our collective psyche cannot fathom the indirect violence that we are all wreaking on each other right now (and the immense catastrophes we are all about to suffer).
Haiti, the second republic in the Americas, elected people who had been slaves. For example, Faustin Soulouque, born into slavery in Petit-Goâve in 1782, elected President of Haiti in 1847 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faustin_Soulouque . He then became Emperor of Haiti.
What do you mean by "Universalism"? Is it "focused around ... the doctrine that every human soul will ultimately be reconciled to God because of divine love and mercy"? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universalism
Because I struggled and failed to see the connection between the German and Italian fascist movements movements and the American Universalism of the late 1700s.
Those fascist groups were driven be nationalism. You can see that in the names. Partito Nazionale Fascista, ("National Fascist Party") was rooted in Italian nationalism. Nationalsozialismus ("National Socialism" or "Nazi") was positioned as alternative to international socialism. In "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer", the "Volk" means ethnic Germans.
I think internationalism, expressed for example in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Internationale , is closer to what I think you might mean by Universalism than ethnic nationalism.
Haitians gained their freedom and formed their republic by genociding all the white colonialists - men, women, and children - and forming their own society.
The US had slaves, and then an internal reform (including a Civil War to put down a rebellion) freed them. The same society that once enslaved people later elected them. Ironically, the genocide of the Haitian Revolution was a justification by the pro-slavery elements who feared the same thing would happen as in Haiti.
The land by itself is not the country.
My argument is that Haiti is another example.
I think your objection is that "the same society" means it must still be a racially mixed society, and that an act of genocide makes a different country.
I can understand that objection. What then does it mean to be part of a "society"?
The society which elected Obama contained very few slaveholders or those who profited from domestic slavery, unlike the 1860s US. I'll focus on "to elect a member of". In the 1860s US, blacks, Native Americans, and women could not vote. Are we really the same society?
Why does genocide make a difference?
Consider the interactions between the US and Native Americans. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide_of_indigenous_peoples... helpfully lists numbers for the Trail of Tears (8,000 Cherokee died) and California Genocide (about 80,000 dead). The Haitian Massacre killed 3,000 to 5,000 whites.
I call these acts of genocide. Others will say "These actions were almost certainly in conformity with the laws of war accepted at the time." (quoting http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/7302 ). (To which I question: What were the laws of war at the time concerning a successful slave revolt?)
If what the US did were acts of genocide, then why are we the same society, but Haitians are not?
Women and children died too.
This is what happened in Haiti - a full on genocide after the French surrender. Remarking on the extraordinary feat of "electing" a former slave is a little bit strange when almost everyone who wasn't a slave was killed or fled the country. With a few specific exceptions, white people in Haiti became persona non grata who could not own land, etc.
The degree to which post-war Haiti could be called a "republic", except nominally, is somewhat questionable as well.
Additionally, slavery as a "way of life" destroyed in the South is generally exaggerated. The South was economically dependent on slavery, yes, but slavery was largely an institution of the wealthy planter class. As Grant wrote in his memoirs, most of the Southerners who fought in the Civil War were duped into fighting a war they had no real interest in; the best most of them had going for them was basically "sure, I'm dirt-poor sonofabitch, but at least I ain't a slave".
The young men who would have the fighting to do in case of war, believed all these statements, both in regard to the aggressiveness of the North and its cowardice. They, too, cried out for a separation from such people. The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children, even up to the point of reading and writing, were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre—what there was, if they had been capable of seeing it, was with the North; they too needed emancipation. Under the old regime they were looked down upon by those who controlled all the affairs in the interest of slave-owners, as poor white trash who were allowed the ballot so long as they cast it according to direction.
The definition of "republic" is quite general, and includes the Roman Republic and the German Democratic Republic, neither of which follow the Madison-derived definition described at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic#United_States .
Haiti had multiple forms of government. Quoting from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_heads_of_state_of_Hait... :
1.1 Saint-Domingue (1791–1804)
1.2 First Empire of Haiti (1804–1806)
1.3 State of Haiti (1806–1811)
1.4 Kingdom of Haiti (1811–1820)
1.5 Republic of Haiti (1806–1822)
1.6 Republic of Haiti during the unification of Hispaniola (1822–1844)
1.7 Republic of Haiti (1844–1849)
1.8 Second Empire of Haiti (1849–1859)
1.9 Republic of Haiti (1859–present)
If you would like, feel free to ignore the "republic" part of my comment. My point holds that I think Haiti is an example where someone born a slave was elected president ... for some definition of the word 'elected.' I can't figure out who was able to vote in his election.
As a contributing factor to him coming from an underclass even in a society almost completely urged of white people, he was black in a culture where mulattos had held more political power. (Eg, quoting https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Louis_Pierrot "As President of Haiti, he was intended to be a figurehead for the mulatto ruling class.") He organized a massacre of mulattos while he was president, then as emperor he "installed black loyalists in administrative positions ... [and] created a black nobility".
BTW, Wikipedia's summaries aren't that detailed and I haven't found better. It's probably that I don't know where to go to look. My DDG search for Faustin Soulouque mostly came up with sites which use Wikipedia as the main source.
If there is a reason for why this example does not serve as a useful counter-example, then perhaps it's because there are enough qualifiers in the definition that the original statement "the only society in history to ..." is not actually that useful?
Add enough qualifiers and you can make anything sound special.
How did that modernist concept of moral universalism create or contribute to a society like the US in the late 1700s?
I thought you were talking about Christian Universalism because "Christian Universalism originated in the late 18th century with the Universalist Church of America" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Universalism ) and Christian Universalists consider Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration, as one of their founders (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Rush ).
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_universalism refers to "all similarly situated individuals", regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing feature."
While I can see it as encompassing natural law as a subset, the existence of slavery based on race/skin color and the lack of woman's suffrage in the late 1700s make me think that you are projecting an idealistic quality on US history which didn't exist.
"The first republic" .. well, as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic#United_States points out, the US created its own definition of "republic", so it got to be the first to meet that definition, and exclude earlier republics like the Roman Republic, The Messin Republic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Metz#The_Messin_Rep... ) and the Mahajanapadas republics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahajanapada ).
I've read too much Howard Zinn to believe the founders "thought they could architect us into a perfect system." Unless by "perfect" you mean one that would keep the powerful in power.
And "most diverse society"? How do you measure US diversity vs, say, the diversity in India, Indonesia, South Africa, the UK, or Canada?
The Jim Crow laws are some pretty big reprisals. During those decades there was what, one lynching each week on average for decades?
Does this not seem coercive and borderline orwellian to you? We have to embrace narratives sounds an awful lot like 'accept things which are not true'. It is hardly any different to a religion in this sense.
Abstract ethics class morality plays itself out in my opinion. It is a platonic ideal that can be used as a model for behaviour but not as some kind of absolute. It deconstructs ways of life and papers over real differences. It promises us a sterile world that noone actually wants to live in. We want progress, but we (in my opinion) manifestly don't want eventual the destination the 'end of history'. As such like the business cycle there may well be a morality cycle that we cannot banish.
There is a similarity with technology. What if we as a society demand and enjoy change, but our actual happiness is reduced in the long term (you can imagine modeling this as happiness a function positive in progress - rate of change, but negative in the overal level of enlightenment - or whatever progress accumulates as).
As a side note, short of making sure everyone gets a strong foundation in philosophy, I don’t see how you can maintain an agreed upon set of values in a pluralist society without some sort of myth. You call it “accepting things that aren’t true”, but myth goes beyond truth, IMO. Most values are untestable hypotheses, so they don’t really fall into a modern definition of knowledge or truth, at least as I learned them in my undergrad science courses. Humans are wired to think in narrative terms so inevitably the process of transmitting values across generations is going to generate some distracting cruft that is patently absurd, but that doesn’t mean the attempt at transmitting values is absurd.
The fight over political correctness (especially in academia) can be seen as the attempt to establish a new sacred narrative that is not allowed to be questioned, at the risk of an individual being cast out from the community.
This narrative is a replacement for the earlier understanding of the sacred rooted in Christianity, which no longer holds force with many people today in an age of technology and science.
To draw a comparison to another area of debate: religion doesn't create terrorists, religion is something that is used by terrorist leaders as a tool to keep their followers focused and in line. Racism isn't more inherent than terrorism, it's taught by those using it as a weapon. One that only works if you don't know a sufficient set of such people well enough to immediately call bullshit. Who we would call evil, but of course might be perfectly nice people in person to the people they know, with internal justifications for the evil they do, and that's where all our arguments and politics currently break down: the point where me shouting "stop listening to your evil racist pastor" isn't going to get through easily to someone who interacts with that pastor weekly, often in charity situations, and sees the good side much more than the evil side.
(You could also describe this as "everybody has an evil side" instead of "everybody has a good side." Terry Pratchett talks about this a lot in his novels, in a balanced sense in terms of the capacity for unbounded grace or for unbounded malice, often from the same person. But I lean a bit pessimistic, so I like how he has one of his characters put it: “I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are good people and bad people. You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.”)
The Bible is more nuanced about this than people tend to admit. I say "nuanced" because it has a particular frame of reference that establishes clear good and evil behavior. But that frame of reference isn't the "good people do good things and bad people do bad things" that sometimes gets attributed to it.
See: Romans 3:10. Psalm 139:14. Genesis 1:27. John 3:17. Matthew 5:46-48.
But either way, if we're the second or first, you're right that it doesn't seem to do us much good even if that is true, since they didn't find an answer that worked perfectly either... but, having a collapse of civilization is also hardly unique to diverse civilizations, so maybe the connection is just week overall - in which case what we need to focus on is just the reason for the acceptance of violent messages today. The "easy" left-leaning answer is "it's the economy/income inequality/poverty" but I'm only about 75% convinced, myself, that that's the only or primary thing.
I read this not as a contradiction to the good/evil narrative, because the conversation continues on chapter 6 and the Lord told Joshua he had given Jericho into his hands.
So when Joshua asked the commander of the Lord's armies if he was there for them or their adversaries, and he said neither, it reads like he was there as an emissary with a message (or purposefully a dual purpose). I believe Joshua's first question was actually "are you here to kill us or them?", The commanders response seems to make more sense when continuing to chapter 6.
As far as the concept of the Universal and our turning from it, theres an interesting theory called the Strauss-Howe generational theory .
Basically it divides history into 4 phases that are each around 80 years, and each part of the cycle springs from the previous generation. It's worth looking into :)
Also in regards to needing an ideological bind in absence of familial ones, I think it's been common throughout history about placing ideology above all others (for instance, when a man sleeps with his brother's wife, that ideology outweighs family loyalty).
I still have to disagree with the author on this one, as the trope she's discussing is an ancient one that's based on dualism, going back to the ancient Chinese.
I was surprised by how many of the stories fell under one of these templates:
• Main character in story is cruel and dishonest. This brings him wealth, power, love, and/or happiness.
• Main character in story is victimized by someone cruel and dishonest. Responds by finding someone weak and/or stupid that he can victimize in order to boost his wealth or position back to what they were originally.
It was very hard in most of the stories to find anyone who could be described as what we would call a "good guy".
The protagonist does do something nasty and go on to live happily ever after with the victim though.
People's stories going through history follow all sorts of narratives, some that are hero/villain, some that are proverbial, some where some virtue is being exemplified by one or more people, and some evil exemplified by people or elemental forces and nature.
There's nothing modern about it, it's just that you can make anything seem hazier or more opaque or you reduce it to a binary, depending on just how much you want to over analyze it.
The Philistines in the Bible were generally military aggressors. Goliath was at the head of that aggression. He provoked and tried to dishonor Israel. You could read everything he said about Israel as so much smack-talking, but the fact that he was there to conquer is hard to hand-wave around.
Furthermore, there is much dispute in what gets translated to Philistines, as the wording often referred to Israel's warring neighbors in general.
We often make the mistake of looking at these stories through a modern lens, and ascribing morality to them that simply didn't exist at the time.
Of course, most don't follow Biblical theology, which more or less amounts to "Trust God. He wouldn't have told them to take the Israel if it was unfair." The Philistines taking Israel simply because they want it, in contrast, would be sinful.
> We often make the mistake of looking at these stories through a modern lens, and ascribing morality to them that simply didn't exist at the time.
Right. The "everyone's just conquering stuff" morality isn't accurate either, though.
Remember the context in which this story exists, where it's written and for whom. Goliath is the "bad guy" for two simple reasons.
1) he was a Gentile, and, therefore, unclean in the sight of God,
2) he stood against God's chosen people, and by extension, the will of God.
King David's famous "Slice the baby in half, so that both 'mothers' can have half of it" is clearly a fight of good vs evil. The Evil mother doesn't care for the child, while the good mother cares deeply for the child. And that's how King David solved one child-custody problem... (not actually killing the baby, but by judging the reactions of the two 'mothers' to the potential act).
The story of "Sodom and Gomorrah" is implicitly about evil. The town faces divine punishment because 10 good people couldn't be found. Its perhaps not "good guy vs bad guy", bit the concepts of "bad guy" are definitely explored.
The whole Bathsheba incident portrays him in a very negative light.
Also, in Revelation, Death is personified, and if you don't believe that's good vs. evil, I'm not sure where we'll agree. Death seems to be pretty universally considered bad.
In modern story telling, you have the following major "good" and "evil" types:
- The pure good
- The good who is tempted by the dark side, but is eventually redeemed.
- The good who is tempted by the dark side and is forever corrupted.
- The rogue who does good by shady means so that the major characters can have a clear conscience.
- The evil who is redeemed by love and turns to the good side.
- The evil who is irredeemable.
You'll also notice over the past few decades how the "goodies" eventually stopped killing, and eventually even harming others, even in self defense (Remember the 80s, when Han shot first?). It's always the evil one hoisted on his own petard.
So in modern stories, the goodies live by a code of zen-like purity as a means to prove that goodness always defeats badness without sullying itself (except in side-stories about the rogue characters).
So what do you have in Saul vs David? A jealous and envious brother whose neuroses drive him to the edge. Is he evil? Does he revel in his evilness? Does he pat himself on the back for doing his share of evil this day like Darth Vader? No. He considers himself inherently good, but hard done by, and wants to even the scale.
Now let's look at Death:
I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
So, Death is a heavenly being, given power (by Yahweh) to kill. Is he evil? He's there for a very specific purpose, and as far as I can remember from the texts, expresses no opinion, nor does the text ascribe any morality to him.
So, I think you've done a good job on listing modern narratives, but there are others, such as everything from the Sopranos and the Wire to Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy where those good/evil distinctions start to blur. You could possibly fit Walter White into the "good who is forever corrupted", but it's tough to say if he was ever good. He was already a somewhat petty, jealous man who was still bitter and jealous of his friends' success. And he was also the victim of some crap circumstances.
Or you can look at a movie like Crash (2004 one) at the characters there. How do you fit Matt Dillon's atrocious and racist cop into also being the same guy who can be an amazing hero to even those he victimized?
I mention that to say, depending on how you wish to view a narrative, modern or ancient, it can be either very binary or very nuanced.
Death, and Hades, are both judged and thrown in the lake of fire in Revelation 20:14, which seem to be the culmination of His punishments. I’m probably reading a lot into that, but it seems to be describing them as both concepts and individuals.
Ultimately, I would say that the binary definitions of good and evil go back into antiquity, but in some cases, I believe the haziness you see may be down to the ancient mind focusing on a different chunk of the spectrum of virtue than our modern minds. So perhaps, in the same way we emphasize compassion, love, kindness and bravery, etc. an ancient culture might have emphasized honor, fidelity, holiness, courage, etc.
But in those cases, I’d say it’s just as binary, but we can haze it up because we hear some violation of modern tropes that the ancients would have ignored.
Grendel from Beowulf apparently is a descendant of Cain (from the Bible), the first murderer.
Perhaps its not so much that "bad guys weren't in these ancient stories", its that "bad guys weren't human anymore". If you were a bad guy, you literally turn into a monster, or a demon, or a devil, or an Oni... or a troll.
Today, we have stories where humans can play the bad guy.
God says to Cain the farmer "If you till the ground, it shall no longer give you its produce." Cain replies "My punishment is too great to bear" and "Anyone may kill me at sight." God relents, assuring him "If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged seven times", and he becomes the ancestor of blacksmiths.
This is odd, Cain isn't even sent on a quest to make up for his deed, like Hercules and Orestes were.
There's nothing gray about killing someone out of jealousy. Sure, it's a human emotion, and we can all feel jealous at times. Doesn't make the act of murder a moral gray area.
It's not in the Iliad, but in the Aeneid one of the Greeks pretends to desert in order to sell the story of the Trojan horse, and the Trojans do kindly accept him.
(However, it turns out that that he was still really loyal to the Greeks and the Trojans made a mistake by believing him.)
Even Darth Vader, the example from the OP essay got complexity as the franchise spanned decades.
People have lamented the Game of Thrones show has gone down hill after passing the books. I argue that is because the narrative has shifted to a war against the White Walkers, a clearly malevolent force. Instead of a mutlifaceted story about amoral factions, it’s become Lord of the Rings. The story lost its spark and rejoined the common good versus evil narrative.
You say that, but then...
> The only “Evil” characters are sadists, and there are quite a few.
Sounds like bad guys to me.
> People have lamented the Game of Thrones show has gone down hill after passing the books. I argue that is because the narrative has shifted to a war against the White Walkers, a clearly malevolent force.
But it hasn't shifted. The story (in both the books and film) has always (from the first page of the first book and the first scene of the show) been about what people do in the face of that force, as its threat became more manifest.
Afaik the show follows the general story line as planned by Martin.
In the books they are described as otherworldly, almost beautiful and their motivations are unknown. The show writers got lazy and essentially made them snow zombies.
Maybe you don't consider those to be evil, but they're certainly bad, like cancer is bad to an organism.
Did it? The bad guys are still blowing up planets and murdering the people who love them.
Also, Macbeth is a story about one bad act dooming Lord and Lady Macbeth. So when is this shift meant to have taken place? In the Bible, the main guy goes around healing and feeding the sick and turning the other cheek. His life starts and ends with power hungry figures trying to kill him. Let's keep working backwards. Wasn't the Minotaur a pretty evil guy? Just sits there eating virgins until a hero selflessly, bravely, and cleverly manages to slay him.
I'm not convinced.
If the point of telling a story is to create a shared experience like a football game, where the audience roots for a certain side to win, then yes, it's better for the "good guys" to win. But why is that the point of stories? If we look at ancient folktales, it becomes harder and harder to root for the good guys, if there even are any. If there is a moral battle, it's between two individuals, not an army of good and an army of evil, like in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.
It's a pretty broad, sweeping claim to make, but I think she brought enough historical examples to make a strong case. We can't go back in time and ask the ancients themselves.
True Honesty is more admirable even if you cause great harm, because we are just animals who have advanced tools.
A couple of years ago I actually started writing what might have become a novel. But I remember that back then, it changed the way I watched movies and TV programs. And I started having on an almost regular basis these epiphanies of things about writing that people can learn in college in the USA. I do not remember what movie, series, scene or character triggered that one, but the "biggest" one I got was that in real life, Good and Evil exist only as approximations. Asymptotically, if you will. (Almost) Nobody is purely good or evil. And even the people we consider evil, tend to see themselves as good. And they consider us evil.
Sorry to pull a Godwin in the first round, but consider a prime example if ever there was one: Even Hitler did think of himself as basically good. He ordered unspeakable atrocities, but from his point of view, it all served the greater Good and was therefore justified.
The question of how somebody could arrive at such a fucked up value system will probably never be answered to anyone's satisfaction.
Or Captain Ahab. He has a twisted moral compass, but again, from his point of view, he is doing "the right thing"(tm). Or Major Weissmann, Dominus Blicero. And often enough it is just egotism, "I want to be super-duper rich", or "I want to rule the ENTIRE world!" And what a crap job that would be! Does nobody ever think of that? No wonder terrible villains fail to conquer the planet, they are idiots. But to get a villain with depth - or at least the illusion of it - we need somebody who has another goal than just petty materialistic things or power over people. OH!! Watchmen!!!
So that particular epiphany taught me that a good (meaning "halfway believable") "villain" never does anything "evil" for its own sake, but from their own perspective, the villain does what needs to be done, terrible as it may be, because it serves a higher purpose, whatever that may be. Although I wonder about Judge Holden, he was an awesome antagonist, but I think he would have considered "good" and "evil" irrelevant. Anton Chigurh, too. He is possibly the closest anyone has come to creating a character that is pure evil. Then again, neither of these two has depth.
Morally relativist and historically revisionist BS.
At what point is something a monster that does bad versus a bad guy that does bad?
We don't hold a tiger morally responsible, while most of the beings on the tv show Supernatural would be, since they're capable of making moral choices. Even the ST Borg understand morality, although they consider it irrelevant. But the Federation would probably hold them responsible, if they had the power to put the Borg Queen on trial, like they ended up doing with the Changeling lead female character from the Dominion.
Tiger Tiger. burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye.
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
> but don't take my word for it, read Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil.
I have, and I'm sure you can come up with a better source than that...
I guess we have a foundational disagreement. If you don't think that virtue/anti-virtue pairs, e.g., courage/cowardice or honesty/deception, are essentially good/evil dichotomies, then what are they?
I was re-reading the intro, and ran into this gem:
the wretched creature ruled for a time
since him the Creator had condemned
with the kin of Cain; that killing avenged
For what it's worth, I can even win the harder argument (considering Beowulf as a piece of non-Christianized Norse mythology), but that's beyond my scope. Margins too small, etc.
A monster - literally evil personified in semi human form. You can't really get more good guys Vs bad guys than that.
I have to disagree. The word "monster" is used for things worse than beasts, "something wrong or evil".
Obviously, we won't have a Christian morality in an ancient Greek text, but Odysseus, at every turn, exemplifies the Greek virtues. The virtues he probably most aligns with is justice and courage.
What utter drivel.
The moral face-off between good and evil is core to a great many religions, most notably Christianity. Concepts of right and wrong, and the clash between them, has formed the core of many strains of philosophical, religious, cultural and literary thought for 2,500 years, at least.
Such thought, particularly Christian thought, has influenced the literature of Western Europe for many centuries. It's hard to find a writer who was not at least aware of God-vs-the-devil story lines.
Sorry, professor, but western civilization has existed for much longer than you imagine. Not everything is political, ok?
The internet comment genre makes this sort of thing nearly irresistible to post, but on HN we all need to resist it.
I don't think it breaks the "strongest possible interpretation" rule, though. The specific quote I'm responding to isn't ambiguous. It's not taken out of context, either. The balance of article reinforces the argument made in the quote.
What utter naive sophomoric putdown. Christianity has much more nuance in its tenets than some crude "good and evil" battle.
It's only in modern-ish naive protestant readings when it reduces to that.
There's huge nuance in Christian theology, beginning with how evil is present in all of us, the "good guys". From the biblical Fall from Edem, to the Gospel's parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (and tons of other things besides), and onwards to two millenia of theological writings.
"Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone" is not about some naive Good vs Evil battle with clearly defined good and bad guys.
In fact people who did thought that Evil and Good are clear cut and embodied in people (a person could be evil etc) where thrown away from the church and considered heretics, because it was seen what harm their naive stance would do to society.
Jesus, of course, famously got in trouble for associating with "bad" people more than "good" people. Faith vs works is an age-old debate in Christianity. And the Old Testament God was angry and violent, and in many ways would qualify as a "bad guy." Look at what he did to poor Job, whose only crime was being faithful. Demanding obedience is somewhat different than demanding moral action.
However, to the point in the original article, a good-vs-evil interpretation of Christianity is something that goes back a while, and I haven't personally read enough pre-Enlightenment church doctrine to know when precisely it developed.
(A relative of Manichaeism still exists today as Mandaeism, though. I thought that was interesting when I found that out.)
"Well, we're gonna just wrap this up now but we could have at any point" is nutty; the only reasonable explanation that I've ever seen come down the pike--unless you invite ones that make the Abrahamic deity a real shithead, and I can't stop you from that--is that there is a can't somewhere in that causal chain, even if the authors who dreamed it up didn't want to circumscribe the powers of their deity.
> "Well, we're gonna just wrap this up now but we could have at any point" is nutty.
That's explained in 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." From that perspective, God has the motivation of a captain refusing to launch the last lifeboat until the last ensign is in it.
People construct ethics different than biblical ethics, sure. Biblical ethics is entirely about fidelity to God. Some people hate that ethical framework, but good literature is allowed to be divisive.
Job? Everything done to him is with God's will. If anything, this would sway the other way. Good literally willed the killing of his family, and he accepts that.
More to the point, where are the bad guys? There is a general sense of good, but evil is less present than "not good."
The serpent is the embodiment of the devil and talks humans into their first sin.
> Job? Everything done to him is with God's will.
God mostly pulls back and lets the devil have his way to prove the devil wrong. The devil had some philosophical argument about man's love for God being purely utilitarian... that Job loves God like a cat with a full food dish loves its master. The story was about evil putting good to an empirical test. So, in that sense, it's certainly about good vs. evil.
You're mostly arguing with the text's perception of good, which is common, but if the text is granted its own moral perspective, it's clearly about good vs. evil.
> More to the point, where are the bad guys?
In both cases the bad guy is literally Satan, which is why I chose those. There are plenty of other Biblical stories where the are evil characters and evil people groups, but I was responding to a question about the devil.
And the temptation of Christ is as literally God vs the devil as you can get.
If you go by what the Genesis account says, the serpent in the Garden of Eden is just a snake that can talk.
Darth Vader did murder Luke's father in A New Hope. George Lucas didn't decide he was Luke's father and that the murdering was of the abstract "from a certain point of view" variety until he was making Empire Strikes Back. Which context is the valid one, that of the story actually described by the film, or what Lucas decided, later on, that it should have been?
So, as with the Genesis account, I think it matters what the ancient Hebrews intended the serpent to symbolize. When people say the serpent represents "the devil," that concept tends to be overloaded with centuries of Christian history and Lucasian retconning to make what are disjoint parts seem like a coherent narrative.
The curse that God places on the serpent is that he will strike at humanity's heel, and humanity will crush its head. Is that meant to symbolize the eternal enmity between humanity's divine and profane nature? Is it a political message, with the snake being a debased version of a Babylonian deity? A just-so story about why snakes bite people? Maybe it is the devil - but it's not the Christian devil.
It's about eating the forbidden fruit which would give them knowledge of good and evil, similar to Pandora's box. Why the snake was in the garden and allowed to tempt them is not specified in the story.
Job isn't God vs. the Devil (well, not in the sense of hostile conflict, at any rate) and, while its a popular interpretation to associate the serpent in Eden with the Devil, that's actually not in the text.
The other two (especially Revelation) are valid points.
Maybe you were making a narrower claim that God and Satan never physically punched each other. That is certainly true but narrow enough to be uninteresting.
Well, Christianity is particularly familiar to modern Westerners, but really I'd point to Zoroastrianism, from which much the of the dualistic elements of Christian mythology are almost directly imported.
The one exception where there is a struggle against evil is perhaps Revelation, but that is a bit of an outlier in Christianity as it serves very little liturgical purpose and clearly speaks in images more than anything else.
> There is no power struggle.
This is an interesting but very different point. Are there implication in modern good vs. evil action films that violence is the answer and that the pursuit of power to conquer evil is good?
Those are arguably recent trends in film. Though, again, they're hardly new themes.
No, they aren't.
What's the "moral face-off" in Beowulf? He goes to help the King of the Danes defeat the monster Grendel. Then he returns home to become king and eventually dies fighting a dragon. Who is the "bad guy"? It's not a moral lesson about good and evil, but about virtues and qualities like bravery important to Anglo-Saxon society.
Same with the Odyssey. What's the "moral face-off"? Who's the bad guy? Odysseus has to wander because he had angered the god Poseidon, and goes through a series of adventures and ordeals as a result. It's not a moral struggle of good and evil, it's again a tale about important qualities like obedience to the gods.
Neither of those stories are "good guy vs. bad guy" stories in any way.
Beowulf is a tale of a brave warrior vanquishing monsters, not a struggle of good and evil, anymore than a story about someone hunting a wolf described as “monstrous” or “evil” is a moral tale.
It’s similar to what the author points out about the Arthurian stories. The original French tales were about brave knights fighting beasts and monsters to display their strength and bravery. It was only later versions that transformed them into moral paragons fighting representations of human weaknesses and evils.
I also note you conspicuously forgot the Odyssey in your response.
Beowulf is a story about Beowulf displaying favorable virtues by overcoming a bunch of challenges. The Odyssey is a story about Odysseus displaying favorable virtues by overcoming a bunch of challenges. These virtues include justice, honor, courage, honesty, prudence, and so on -- this is the GOOD. The challenges include monsters, hardships, annoyed gods, and so on -- this is the EVIL.
Your analysis is highly reductive. I guess the New Testament about a cool dude that made 12 friends.
Certainly the Greeks wanted to paint them as strong warriors, just as any sports team when they win will say how good of fight the opponent put up.
Illiad is very much good vs evil. That's not the totality of the story, but it's there.
If you seriously think the ancient Greek world was devoid of morality, you need to read Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.
(And, following up, Virgil's Aeneid continues this trend.)