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The good guy/bad guy myth (aeon.co)
154 points by anacleto on Jan 27, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 207 comments

I think people telling stories like Star Wars choose to make the antagonists Capital-E-Evil because modern audiences are much less happy to root for people who are fighting a war if they aren't shown that the war is thoroughly justifiable.

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.

I think it's the inverse. Good-vs-evil narratives are not some progression, rather the inverse.

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 think the main change over the last hundred years or so is that most people will no longer accept "we should go to war because war is in itself glorious and we will win", or "to be a warrior is the ideal way for a man to live a flourishing life."

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.

We've transferred the motivation from war to political strife.

"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.

Isn't that just simplification of past politics influenced by contemporary pop culture? Wars were complicated and each had element of "we will win and it is glorious" element, but that was not the only argument in play and they had opposition. Plus, we still keep claiming we will win easily.

Is the good-vs-evil narrative always a regression?

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?

If you portray evil as being done only by people who have pure-evil motivations, that gives your audience the impression that they can't do evil. After all, _they_ don't have evil 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".

Your average Nazis and German society in general, sure. But the ones who architected the final solution and world war? That's a different matter. Sociopaths exist, as do people with deep hatred for certain groups, and a desire for power and glory no matter the human cost.

A better way to frame the matter is what sort of conditions in a society lead to dangerous people being in charge.

Just to be clear, the "ones who architected the final solution" attempted other solutions first (e.g. having Europe's Jews emigrate from Europe to somewhere else; they were stymied by other countries not being willing to accept them). I'm not saying this was a _nice_ thing to try to do, but even they did not start with cackling evil laughter and wanting to wantonly slaughter people. Something that often gets left out of histories of WWII.

And I'm sure serial killers start out with fantasies and stalking instead of melodramatic laughter. What matters is what people end up doing. The Nazis did very bad things.

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.

> What matters is what people end up doing.

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.

The difficulty with this question is that progress is relative to goals, goals depend on values, and values are usually considered subjective. So progress is subjective.

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.

"Why Opposing Racist White Guy actually has some kind of point" is a popular genre of mainstream news opinion columns.

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.

You're setting up a false dilemma. American History X and Breaking Bad each do good jobs of showing evil without making evil behavior one dimensional.

The first and last, yes. The Joker is literally a cartoon character; the story needs him to be an incomprehensible psychopath.

Do you think serial killers are generally comprehensible? People who do really bad things do exist.

I think, when you have the time, it is always worthwhile to dig into the nuance of a particular issue. whether you have time to dig deep into the intricacies of le sophisticated gentlesir's stunning new devil's advocate argument about racism is ultimately a personal decision.

> to refuse the enemy its humanity and justify total war

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...

> Good-vs-evil narratives are not some progression, rather the inverse.

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.

> And even civilian casualties don't matter much when you're fighting "evil" (e.g. Dresden, Hiroshima, modern Middle East, etc).

Are you implying that these events are not extremely controversial because of their civilian death toll?

No, the quote is saying that if you dehumanize your enemy by portraying them as evil, you can get people to commit atrocities against them. That is, the chain of causality is "portrayal as evil" => "commit atrocity", not "civilian death toll" => "not controversial". In fact I don't even see how you could read that into the quote.

> 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).

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.

> A good kind of story arc i've seen recently

That sounds intruiging, indeed. May I ask for some example(s)?

I don't have very good memory, so sadly i can give only two examples. A shorter one is Little Witch Academia. A longer one (it'll take a month at least to get to the impactful parts) is the main story quest line of Final Fantasy 14. I think Steins;Gate also went in that direction, and out of these three would be the most HN-mainstream-compatible i expect.

Thank you!

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.

Thanks for the recommendation. You mean the movie from 2004?

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.

That's the one!

If I may add, I think that Mr. Robot definitely matches the narrative you describe.

Yes, thank you!!!

The interesting thing, to me, is that the original Star Wars stick out to me as not being pointedly good guy versus bad guy. There is villainy, but the main arch that sticks out is not Luke versus the villain, but Luke versus the way of the villain. He does not defeat the emperor and the "not Jedi." Instead, he finds the Jedi path and acts as an example that redeems his father.

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.

On the other hand, the bad guys were murderous tyrannical dictators for whom any failure was one- or two-strike death penalty, hell bent on ruling the entire Galaxy by blowing up inhabited planets... and one of them only switched sides while literally watching his son being tortured to death.

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).

> at basically no point does he do anything really morally reprehensible

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.

None of that is presented though... people cheer, teddy bear aliens cheer, and have a fireworks display. The enemy is literally a mass of faceless clones in the sway of an evil wizard cough err, Jedi. The bad guys are twisted by the power they serve, to the point of physical decay. Heroes become force ghosts.

You can think about the implications of anything, but it wasn’t in the narrative.

Are you perhaps forgetting the part in the first movie where they blow up a planet full of people as a demonstration?

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."

>Are you perhaps forgetting the part in the first movie where they blow up a planet full of people as a demonstration?

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.

Nuking Japan probably saved tens of millions of lives. Mainland invasion alone would have killed millions on both sides. Japanese civilians were throwing themselves off cliffs rather than being captured.


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.

Nuking Japan was a highly experimental move to find out what would happen if the US deployed it's newest weapon in a war. The results were so horrific that it has only been done twice in a war setting.

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 results were so horrific that it has only been done twice in a war setting.

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.

>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.

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 term “dehousing “ (used by the British to describe their bombers targeting the houses of German workers) is one of the most chilling and inhumane words I know. The official story is they were just trying to deny shelter to German civilians in order to reduce their morale.


The death star destroying alderman is not like the U.S. Nuking Japan, it's like the U.S. nuking Georgia during the Civil War (if the Civil War happened because 20 years earlier the president had dissolved the union in lieu of a dictatorship).

>Nuking Japan probably saved tens of millions of lives.

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).

>the soviet union was preparing to invade Japan and building up troops in the balkans.

Balkans are in Europe.

What was the reason for having to invade Japan to force the leaders to unconditionally surrender? Their airforce and navy had been destroyed. Their military had been beaten back to Japan. Why not just leave them be or arrange a conditional surrender they could save face with?

The Empire wasn't saying, "Well, if Alderaan doesn't cut it out, we'll have deaths that add up to ten Alderaans." It's not an apples to apples comparison.

Though now that I say that, A New Hope would have been better if they had Tarkin thinking along those lines.

>The Empire wasn't saying, "Well, if Alderaan doesn't cut it out, we'll have deaths that add up to ten Alderaans."

They didn't say that at the time either. That's just an excuse sold to the public, good enough for government sanctioned history.

How did what I say preclude that? There is a villain. But the story started to shine when it was about Luke's journey. Not a confrontation between him and a villain. Indeed, he loses his confrontations in the next two movies. Vader beats him, and then the emperor was killing him.

The first movie ends with them blowing up the big bad superweapon. The trilogy ends with the death of the leader of the bad guys and blowing up their replacement superweapon.

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.

Again, I didn't contradict that. I merely commented that the strength and interesting part of the story was elsewhere. Apologies if it read like I was denying the rest of the story. I do feel it would be stronger without those elements, but I do not deny they are there.

That's fair, it just sounded like you were entirely discounting the main story when describing what it is and not just your what you found interesting. Star wars is pretty in-your-face about this with the main plot though, so I wanted to know where you were coming from. :)

In many ancient societies - and not few contemporary ones - tribalism was thoroughly accepted, as were tribal wars. I would say that having to justify the morality of a war, however many lies this brings about, is still a step forward.

I think the format matters. Old folk stories would be told by a village elder to a handful of children, and if the children had questions -- Why did he do that? Is he a bad person? -- the storyteller could provide the necessary explanation at the time.

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.

I think it is opposite. I read old tales (north european, German, French and easter european) and all had much less good-vs-evil-good-always-win kind of morality then contemporary one. Even three musketeers were transformed into good-vs-bad in our culture and they were not like that in original.

They also tended to care waaay more about ordinary person whereas current interpretation treats non heroes non rules as cannon fodders.

It's fun recasting Star Wars as a fight between a duly-elected government and a bunch of misfits led by a clueless teenager, a smuggler, and a "princess" with daddy issues who becomes an exotic dancer for a crime boss who she later murders.


I racked my brain in disagreement at first with her claim (I took a fair amount of ancient literature classes in college and continue to read ancient literature when I can), only to find I couldn’t come up with many examples that contradict her. In fact I even began to think on the Bible, the one document I’m sure we would all think of as being moralizing, but even it contains passages that don’t assume the good guy/bad guy trope:

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).

> 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.

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.

> Haiti, the second republic in the Americas, elected people who had been slaves.

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.

The earlier statement was that the US is "the only society in history to elect a member of, what was very recently, a slave class to its highest political office".

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?

Civil war killed 25÷ of males between 18-45 in South. It thoroughly destroyed their way of life (as it was trully slave society). Internal reform is a bit understatement. There were many disagreements and figths over former slaves after, including violence and terrorism and laws to limit their rights (meaning they went from elected to unable to participate in politics). It was not straight line.

Women and children died too.

Nobody went around after the Civil War deliberately killing every single man, woman, and child on the losing side, and forming an entirely new country.

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 degree to which post-war Haiti could be called a "republic", except nominally, is somewhat questionable as well."

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)
The 1804 massacre of most of the white population was under Dessalines and the First Empire of Haiti. The republic came later. Faustin Soulouque, who I mentioned earlier, was elected to be the President of the Republic of Haiti in 1847.

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.

Sorry I should have defined my terms. When I said Universalism I wasn’t referring to religion, more the modernist concept that there are a universal set of values the objectively exist (i.e. my morality is good and yours is bad). Certainly I think this concept sprang out of religion, but it has certainly taken on a life of its own outside of religion, as most people think of it anyway.

Thank you for the explanation. I'm still having a hard time understanding the timing.

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 ).

I consider universalism to be an enlightenment principle. The principle of: “if it’s true here than it’s true everywhere” is actually a relatively new concept in human thought. It contributes to thinking that ideology can unite us (i.e. universal principles like freedom, etc).

Okay, then in the context of the US history, are you referring to natural law?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_universalism refers to "all similarly situated individuals",[1] 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.

Not so much that it ever existed, though I think the aspiration has been, but just the myth of the Universalism itself (i.e. city on a hill, the first republic). I had a friend say once that the founders were arrogant, because they thought they could architect us into a perfect system, but the fact that they thought that actually lead to a pretty good system. I’m willing to criticize the US for its sins as much as anyone else, they are numerous, but as the most diverse society on the planet it is impressive how much reconciliation and almost no reprisals have occurred.

What you describe sounds much more like justifications for American exceptionalism than an accurate description of history.

"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?

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

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).

I definitely didn’t mean that in a statist way, as in enforced morality. I just meant that societies that don’t use kinship bonds inevitably use something else to maintain cohesion in society, religion has been used, founding myths (American republicanism, etc), and now it seems there’s a backlash against it all. My only point was that maintaining social cohesion in a pluralist society is no mean feat.

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.

Note that you can read the current fight between the more enthusiastic members of right vs. left as a struggle over which sets of foundational myths take precedence.

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.

I think ethnicity is overrated for these purposes and familiarity is much more important. This is key to the motivation of soldiers and military training - fighting for the person beside you - but we've lost it in day to day life. For how this applies to the rural crowd, we distrust those we don't interact with daily and demographics and history let that easily be turned into racial or religious hatred, but I think the arrow of causality is reversed.

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.”)

> You could also describe this as "everybody has an evil side" instead of "everybody has a good side."

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.

I think that’s a fair point, but this is the first society in which the people you are most familiar with aren’t necessarily in your ethnic group (though even in the US it’s not so much the case).

I haven't done the primary research myself, but my understanding from other readings is that we're less unique there than we think. Before multicultural Western cities there was a fair bit of live-and-let-live multiculturalism in Roman society, depending on where you were, but especially e.g. with Greeks identifying as citizens of Rome and such. But much like today, on the more mono-cultural outskirts, such as Judea, things were much more ethnicity-centered, polarized and prone to violence.

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.

That ignores Jews in Europe.

> before they sack Jericho Joshua sees an angel and asks which side he is on, and the angel replies, “neither” (Joshua 5).

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 [0]. 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.


Agreed. This "good guys" and "bad guys" thing is not religious in origin; all world religions are older than it and have a much richer and more nuanced lesson on morality.

A few years ago I grabbed a free ebook of Grimm stories from Project Gutenberg for light bedtime reading. There are several there, based on different translations and containing different subsets of the stories. This one seems to be the most complete: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5314

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".

In the first tale the king is a minor character but seems to be a "good guy".

The protagonist does do something nasty and go on to live happily ever after with the victim though.

When I was a kid, one thing I loved about Japanese manga was that the bad guy was often somewhat admirable. I couldn't stand the USA tradition of exaggerated and simplistic evil bad guys. I couldn't stand the lack of nuance in 99% of anything produced by Disney. But Japanese manga often had antagonists who had purposes and motives that were at least understandable, and sometimes as morally justified as the protagonists. In the cartoon show Starblazers, the villain of the first season end most shows by sending compliments to the brave crew of the Argonaught, because their courage and cleverness allows them to continue forward despite all the odds. If I ever had children, I'd want to expose them to that kind sportsmanship, rather than the good-versus-evil attitude of most USA created children's shows.

I have to disagree with the assumptions here that there are no ancient good guy/bad guy narratives. David vs Goliath. Samson and the Philistines. Jesus against Death in Revelation. And that's just the Bible.

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.

I don't know the other stories well and Christianity is a big good-bad theme in itself with its hell and heaven but in David versus Goliath the giant never was the bad guy. He was just fighting for the other side and David killed him, that's it as far as I know.

> He was just fighting for the other side and David killed him, that's it as far as I know.

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.

Except that Israel did the same kind of conquering of its neighbors as its neighbors did do Israel. There was no "evil" in it; that was just the way of things. In fact, Yahweh encouraged Israel to conquer her neighbors. All he cared about was who gets the credit (him).

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.

The Bible describes the conquest of the Holy Land as being both a fulfillment of promises to Israel and a consequence for the behavior of the conquered. Earth and everything in it is God's so the authority of Israel wasn't in military power but fiat by the creator of the universe.

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.

While this is technically correct within the confines of the biblical narrative itself, I was referring to the parent poster's depiction of the Philistines as aggressors outside of any historical context. It was common for a conqueror to say that he had favor with his gods and/or the conquered were on his gods' hit list, which was more than sufficient justification for attacking a neighbor. Actually, the bar for attacking was much, much lower, but adding a spiritual purpose was always a nice touch.

>but in David versus Goliath the giant never was the bad guy. He was just fighting for the other side and David killed him, that's it as far as I know.

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.

I think that's a fair point. But otherwise, David is very much a "good guy" in virtually all of his stories.

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 “cut the baby in half” was Solomon. If you’re looking for stories in the Bible where David is the bad guy, check out 2 Samuel 11. It’s all about how David murders a dude so he can commit adultery with the dudes wife.

David wasn’t the king who proposed to slice the baby in half it was Solomon, and the whole point of that story is to illustrate how wise Solomon is not to belabor some point about an evil mother.

>David is very much a "good guy" in virtually all of his stories.

The whole Bathsheba incident portrays him in a very negative light.

He also comes across as a fairly bad father (his kids rape, murder, and commit treason). That goes all the way back to taking multiple wives against explicit instructions. 1 Chronicles 21 describes David as being responsible for the death of 70,000 of his people.

That was Solomon, not David.

Ugggh, so easy to get the various kings confused. Ah well.

None of those are good guy/bad guy narratives (and the last example is just silly). David vs Goliath and Samson vs the Philistines are both examples of warring nations, each gaining the upper hand at various times. The point of the Goliath story was that pitting David against him AND making him win was both a humiliation of the opposing army, and an affirmation of whose god was more powerful. The primary point of the Samson story was the preservation of one's vows. Good vs evil doesn't enter into it anywhere.

Okay so what qualifies in your opinion? How about David vs Saul? I mean, are you contending than any story that isn't purely one man against another man individually and without reference to nationalism or collective pursuit are the only narratives that count as dualistic? I'm lost as to why none of those count, but somehow Star Wars fits the bill?

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.

Star Wars (and pretty much all modern tales) splits good and evil along ideological lines, as in the "baddies" are all about oppression and rule by fear, whereas the "goodies" are all about the power of love. It's so universal and ingrained in modern society that nobody seems to recognize it anymore.

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.

This is a massive delay of a reply, but I liked this response so much, I felt I needed to respond.

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.

Looking a few things up:

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.

Cain was a human bad guy, right?

It's more subtle than that. According to the Bible, Cain was the first human born on Earth. It think that's meaningful, we are all human and all of us have Cain's nature in ourselves.

He murdered his brother out of raw jealousy. Aesthetically and poetically there's plenty to draw from, but I think it's hard to argue that Cain's behavior was in any sort of grey area.

But what happens next, after the murder, isn't what you see with comic book villains.

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.

Yes, but in the story God warned Cain not to give into sin, but Cain did anyway and killed his brother out of jealousy. So God cursed Cain. We would have tried him for premeditated murder.

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 is a well written thesis, and finds lots of evidence for his thesis. However, you are exactly right. Evidence that could contradict the thesis is unexplored, and leaves his/her rather sweeping claims unjustified.

> Not only do people in ancient stories not switch sides in fights but Achilles, say, would never win because his army was composed of the rejects from the Trojans’.

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.)

The increasing prevalence good guy bad guy dichotomy is probably driven by the conatraint of the shorter forms. There's a great videoessay on why star trek movies are awful (all of them except I and IV have a villain, and only II pulled it off well) while the series deep space nine pulled off an incredibly complex villain by virtue that they had 7 years to develop his story arc.

Even Darth Vader, the example from the OP essay got complexity as the franchise spanned decades.

Good point. Good TV, shows like Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, and Mad Men use their longer format to take their time and develop more complex characters.

In a Song of Ice and Fire there are no good guys or bad guys. Each side has moral quandaries and a drive to survive. The only “Evil” characters are sadists, and there are quite a few. That is part of the reason the books are so engrossing.

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.

> In a Song of Ice and Fire there are no good guys or bad guys.

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.

Yes, there are plenty of gray characters in Game of Thrones, but has Jon Snow done anything evil? Has Ramsay done anything good?

Afaik the show follows the general story line as planned by Martin.

One of my biggest beefs with the Game of Thrones “there are no bad guys” assertion is the Wights. Seems to me they are George Martins Orcs.

I do not consider the Wights (or zombies in general) as evil since they do not have a free will. They are more like a force of nature like a stampede or a forest fire. The will behind the Wights are the white walkers and if they are evil is still open.

>I argue that is because the narrative has shifted to a war against the White Walkers, a clearly malevolent force

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.

Book Euron isn't evil? Show Ramsay and Joffrey? GRR Martin claims there are no good guys and bad guys. Doesn't mean he stayed true to that for the entire part of the story he's responsible for.

I noticed that too: Tolkien is about good-vs-evil; Game of Thrones is aristocrats being awful to each other. I would read Tolkien to my kids but not Martin. FWIW

If the writers are any good, the white walkers will also turn out not to be clearly bad.

They are kind of described as out-of-control biological weapons the Children of the Forest used against the First Men. So it's possible they are more like a weapon of mass destruction (zombie virus) unleashed for complex reasons (war, survival) and less like a people.

I think they're more a force of nature or weapon that got out of control. They're also similar to the Borg in ST or replicators from Stargate.

Maybe you don't consider those to be evil, but they're certainly bad, like cancer is bad to an organism.

This is an American filmic convention. Maybe it's a holdover from the Hays Code, which explicitly mandated a good guy/bad guy structure by regulation.[1] Japanese anime and Russian literature do not follow it.

[1] https://www.asu.edu/courses/fms200s/total-readings/MotionPic...

Darth Vader was not the one who wanted to blow up a planet. In fact, he dismissed the idea of such a weapon as futile and silly. The followup movies in the original trilogy added layers to the question of good and evil, and the most recent film in the series explicitly questioned the entire premise. So maybe opening with Star Wars is not the best example.

> ...the most recent film in the series explicitly questioned the entire premise.

Did it? The bad guys are still blowing up planets and murdering the people who love them.

Why is it a bad thing if the moral is usually that goodness triumphs? Seems better than arbitrary person triumphs.

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.

I think the point the author is trying to make is that there may be a connection between the "moral physics" (as she puts it) in modern folktales and the genocidal nature of war in the modern world. It seems like the intent of these stories is to nurture a sense of innate moral superiority in the audience, often for explicitly political purposes, as she mentions with the Robin Hood story. The protagonists in these stories never go to war except against people who are true villains and have no morals at all, so it's as if war draws a line between good and evil so clearly that it justifies wiping your enemies off of the face of the earth completely.

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.

You see, your whole worldview is based on good vs bad. Not with true nature's of people. What's true is that we want to survive, we want cheap convenience , we want it our way. You delusion yourself and your friends with good and bad to justify horrible actions.

True Honesty is more admirable even if you cause great harm, because we are just animals who have advanced tools.

Huh. Once upon a time, as a young boy, I had dreams of becoming a writer.

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.

This article is embarrassingly wrong. In every single interpretation of the monomyth, we have a hero that strives to be victorious over some form of evil -- often times at great cost. But Ms. Nichols is being disingenuous by cherry-picking The Iliad (which is politically complex) -- why not Beowulf, or The Odyssey -- where we have very clear cases of antagonists and protagonists. Also, the argument that moral face-offs are "a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism" is so unequivocally wrong, if you said it, you'd be laughed out of an undergraduate English class.

Morally relativist and historically revisionist BS.

Well, because _Beowulf_ is a Christianized retelling of earlier more pagan versions adding in moralizing (and of course involves a fair bit of nationalism/ethnicism although most people tend to ignore the allusions to the backstories and dynasties because it's hard to keep straight even if it's equally hard to miss that Beowulf dying is considered very ominous for the survivors), so it follows the same pattern as King Arthur discussed in OP: what was originally a relatively neutral set of stories about a warrior fighting monsters then becomes morally inflected - Grendel is not just a bandit or some monster, but he's a descendant of Cain, the first murderer and fratricide, inimitably evil and opposed to all mankind and core Anglo-Saxon moral values like hospitality and feasting which he cannibalistically perverts, and his dam can only be slain by a weapon from Genesis.

Isn't any form of "monster" just a cheap "this thing is evil" marker?

I don't think so. Are the monsters in _Shadow of the Colossus_ evil? Are Humbaba or the Bull of Heaven in Gilgamesh evil? After all, Humbaba may have been 'terrible' but that was his assignment from the gods. (Was Satan the tempter in the Book of Job Evil with a capital E?) They may be dangerous to humans and destructive, but they are merely doing their job or following their nature. It might be better to refer to them, Rowlingesque, as 'fantastic beasts' rather than 'monsters' to avoid the loaded connotations.

Are Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers just monsters? What about the monsters and demons on Supernatural that the Winchester brothers kill because they hurt people?

At what point is something a monster that does bad versus a bad guy that does bad?

Let me try again with an even more mundane example. Is a tiger an evil monster just because it may eat people? At what point is a tiger just an animal which does something people don't like vs a bad guy that does bad? How about a landslide? What would it take to make a landslide evil with a capital E?

In context of the article, it's the myth of good guys versus bad guys instead of gray characters. That means these characters have moral choices to make. A tiger doesn't understand morality, while Kylo Ren and does, but chooses to do join/stay on the dark side, which means causing a lot of people harm, which he's fully aware of.

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?
... fire of thine eyes ... dread hand... dread feet ... dread grasp ... deadly terrors, etc., etc.


Even if this were true (it isn't; the Norse had nine virtues), that's not the argument she makes. Jesus was born way before "modern nationalism."

Yes, it is. The moralized version is the retelling by later authors for other purposes, as part of the overall gradual transition, as OP exemplifies by King Arthur or the Brothers Grimm. Jesus was born way before King Arthur too. Beowulf would only be a counterexample if the retelling & famous version had deleted the moralizing, rather than rather hamhandedly and awkwardly jamming on the Christianizing and moralizing onto the poet's oral sources. Thus, Beowulf is an example of OP's claims, not a counterexample as you claim.

You're missing the forest for the trees. I don't care if you like or dislike Christian morality. The Norse themselves had their own moral standards (nine virtues, as I mention). If you were courageous, for example, you were "good" -- if you were a coward, you were "bad." That standard (the good/evil dichotomy) has always existed -- but don't take my word for it, read Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil.

Having standards doesn't mean a good/evil dichotomy. Do hunter-gatherers have fullblown Western moralizing because they like competent hunters & story-tellers better than incompetent ones?

> 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...

> Having standards doesn't mean a good/evil dichotomy.

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?

In Beowulf the antagonist is a monster, she at least gives a corollary in the Arthur legendarium. Also, who is portrayed as being evil in the Odyssey? The only two examples I can think of are the suitors and Polyphemus, but the text refers to Odysseus being cunning against these foes rather than “morally justified”. Odysseus even plays the suitors game, because in that culture their behavior is justified. Honestly I think Odysseus is one of the most morally ambiguous characters in all of literature, he’s practically the first anti-hero, to use him as a counter example seems like a huge stretch to me.

Wait, are you seriously saying that Grendel and his mother have no moral valence in the context of Beowulf? As far as the Odyssey is concerned, Athena (Odysseus' patroness and mentor) is literally the god of wisdom and justice. If that's not at least some indication that what he's doing is justified, I don't know what is.

Whatever "moral valence" they do have, you've put there in your reading of the text. Beowulf is just a story about a famous warrior who takes a group of his supporters to help a king with a monster problem.

Really? Why is Grendel characterized as "evil" and a "fiend in hell"? Why does Beowulf exemplify traits of courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice? Why is Beowulf already famous for his "good" and "glorious" deeds?

I was re-reading the intro, and ran into this gem[1]:

	the wretched creature      ruled for a time
        since him the Creator      had condemned
	with the kin of Cain;      that killing avenged
Totally forgot about this literal reference to Cain (of Cain and Abel fame). I mean, you're about as wrong as wrong gets.

[1] http://www.heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html

Because the story of Beowulf that we have is a Christianized version, rewritten by monks. We have no idea what the actual moral framework or symbolism of Grendel was, or wasn't, in the original story.

I know this. What's your point? My argument still easily defeats the original article.

My point is only that we can't really know whether Grendel is supposed to be some meaningless animal force or symbolic of something with a moral dimension because the original story and its context is lost to time.

You don't have a point. Ms. Nichols' argument is that moral face-offs are (and this is an exact quote) "a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism" -- Beowulf -- Christianized or not -- is a hard counter to that argument. Christ was born, and Beowulf was recorded, much earlier than modern nationalism.

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 problem.

A monster - literally evil personified in semi human form. You can't really get more good guys Vs bad guys than that.

No, a monster is just a beast, without any necessary moral qualities.

> Derived from the Latin monstrum, the word usually connotes something wrong or evil; a monster is generally morally objectionable, physically or psychologically hideous, or a freak of nature.

~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monster

I have to disagree. The word "monster" is used for things worse than beasts, "something wrong or evil".

I think you’ve made a straw man of her argument. She didn’t claim there was no morality in the ancient world or no moral perspective in the folklore, just that there are no good guy/bad guy tropes. I have yet to see you give a textual example, at least in the Odyssey, that contradicts her.

I didn't make a straw man, I literally quoted her. Moral face-offs are not a "modern invention" -- I can give very concrete examples: see Odysseus vs. the sirens, Odysseus vs. Polyphemus, Odysseus vs. Circe, Odysseus vs. Poseidon.

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.

It's a fine essay, right up to this point: "The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one."

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?

This comment breaks the HN guidelines against name-calling in arguments, and also against snarky dismissals—especially snarky dismissals of other people's work ("sorry professor... ok?"). It also breaks the guideline that asks: "Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize."

The internet comment genre makes this sort of thing nearly irresistible to post, but on HN we all need to resist it.


Name-calling point taken. Were I able to edit the post now, I would delete the last line.

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 drivel. The moral face-off between good and evil is core to a great many religions, most notably Christianity.

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.

It's hard to read those in quite the same way.

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.

Technically, Yahweh allowed Satan to test Job as part of a bet that Job was only faithful because Yahweh treated him so well.

That's pretty messed up, though, right? "I'm gonna put my relationship with this devil above my relationship with my devoted follower and ruin this poor guy's life and kill a bunch of other people just to win an argument"? It's blurry, at best.

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.

Sure, but I've read the point of the story was to combat the idea at the time that you only suffered bad things if you deserved it. IOW, it was showing that bad things do happen to good people. The part about Satan & Yahweh was just to provide a theological context for it.

The idea we aren't mere pawns in games of the Gods is a rather modern idea.

The idea that "good" and "evil" are embodied with comparable power is actually a heresy in Christianity (e.g. Manicheaism).

It's one that, in mainstream Christianity (be it Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox), is not particularly addressed, though. Not with results that believers would, for the most part, be satisfied with.

(A relative of Manichaeism still exists today as Mandaeism, though. I thought that was interesting when I found that out.)

I'm confused what you mean by that. Basic escatology (God and believers win at the end, Satan and sinners lose) is extremely well addressed.

If you treat the generally accepted Gospels as, well, gospel, then sure. But these are literary and ethical works, too, and that hangs on an "at the end" that is neither justified textually nor earned ethically. The god of the Abrahamic faiths has, what with the "omnipotent" label and all, no need to allow evil to exist, or to exist, at any point. Yet an omnipotent god can't make a burrito so hot that they can't eat it. So it goes with evil; the power to end evil must be circumscribed or there's no goddamn point to any of it.

"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.

In Abrahamic ethics, evil is the absence of good, you describe all of it negatively: lack of love, lack of respect for life, lack of belief, lack of generosity, etc. So from that perspective, God created evil but only in the sense that he created vacuum by putting matter next to it.

> "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.

What are the "God versus the devil" storylines you are referencing? Seems most of those are much more modern in origin.

The temptation of Christ. Revelations. The Garden of Eden. Job. There are plenty of teachings about how demons are evil and dangerous as well. 1 and 2 Peter, for instance.

Garden of Eden? At no point is that good versus evil, is it? They disobey and are cast out.

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."

> At no point is that good versus evil, is it?

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.

It's entirely possible that the "Satan" in Job is a different entity than the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and that neither is meant to also be Lucifer, the Devil.

If you go by what the Genesis account says, the serpent in the Garden of Eden is just a snake that can talk.

And if you go by A New Hope, Darth Vader murdered Luke's father. Context is important, too.

Context is important, but so is intent.

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.

> Garden of Eden? At no point is that good versus evil, is it?

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.

The knowledge of good and evil is a far cry from the confrontation between good and evil.

The "Pandora's Box" was the introduction of the first sin, the first human evil, which had far-reaching consequences that Ian Malcolm would snicker and rant about. The Christian narrative starts with this and climaxes with the crucifixion of God himself. I'm honestly confused how people can think the Bible, as a corpus, doesn't have good vs evil and God vs the devil all through it.

This doesn't seem to contradict my question. Unleashing evil as something we have to live with is not confronting evil.

The story is evil confronting good. It's a tragedy of evil ruining paradise. The knowledge of good and evil could have been supernaturally imparted, but it could just be describing the experience resulting from doing evil.

> The temptation of Christ. Revelations. The Garden of Eden. Job.

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.

God and Satan weren't punching each other in Job bur their conflict was the premise of the whole story. Even if you think the serpent was a proxy of Satan and not Satan himself, does it matter?

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.

> The moral face-off between good and evil is core to a great many religions, most notably Christianity.

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.

Christianity is about good and evil, but I don't think it's about good people vs bad people

It's not "about" good vs bad people, but it has a lot of them in the stories. But in that way, Star Wars isn't "about" aliens and robots.

There is no God-vs-the-devil story lines in Christianity. Not in the canonical sources.

Revelations isn't canonical?


Satan accuses Job of faithfulness merely as a means to an end, and dares God to let him wreak havoc on Job's life in order to prove it. God grants Satan's request, but Job remains faithful. The story of Job clearly shows Satan as being constrained by God. There's no good-vs-evil to the story beyond Job's struggle to remain faithful.

And the Garden of Eden?

Both examples are good examples that there are no omnipotent evil power in Christianity, and that there certainly is no facing off. Both of these stories serve to show the power of God. There is no power struggle.

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.

Why does it need to be an even match to make it a good vs. evil story? Tolkein is the classic example of high fantasy. Does Frodo square off against Sauron on equal footing?

> 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.

That same quote made me roll my eyes. You would literally be laughed out of an undergraduate English class if you made that claim. I guess Beowulf and The Odyssey weren't moral face-offs?

>I guess Beowulf and The Odyssey weren't moral face-offs?

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.

Really? Why is Grendel characterized as "evil" and a "fiend in hell"? Why does Beowulf exemplify traits of courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice? Why is Beowulf already famous for his "good" and "glorious" deeds?

I was re-reading the intro, and ran into this gem[1]:

	the wretched creature      ruled for a time
        since him the Creator      had condemned
	with the kin of Cain;      that killing avenged
Totally forgot about this literal reference to Cain (of Cain and Abel fame). I mean, you're about as wrong as wrong gets.

[1] http://www.heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html

Nope. You’re confusing “antagonist” with “bad guy”. I’m fact, much of your confusion, and the confusion in the other comments, stems from conflating “protagonist” and “antagonist” with “hero” and “villain”.

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 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.

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.

What morality was The Odyssey supporting?

Are you just trying to goad me or do you seriously not know? The famous Greek virtues: courage, justice, temperance, prudence.

So which antagonist embodies the negatives of all these traits?

The Trojans. They stole Menelaus's wife. They weren't the opposite, but were certainly (to any Greek hearing the tale) the bad guys.

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.

Um, by definition, all of them? I feel like I'm being trolled here.

I agree with ChrisSD. None of the antagonists acted out of evil. Their motivations ranged from unrequited love to annoyance over having their livestock eaten by shipwrecked men. They put obstacles in Odysseus's way, but not anywhere near the worst things they could have done. Odysseus was able to propitiate some with suitable offerings, once he understood the offence he had given. There's certainly no Darth Vader in it.

It's pretty obvious Poseidon was unjustly messing with Odysseus. It's pretty obvious Odysseus was justified in acting in self-defense against Polyphemus. It's pretty obvious Circe was taking advantage of Odysseus' lack of prudence.

If you seriously think the ancient Greek world was devoid of morality, you need to read Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

No, you’re imposing modern ideals on the ancient Greeks. Respect for, and obedience to, the gods was a cardinal virtue for them, such that many Ancient Greek tales seem cruel or arbitrary to us because they were about virtues we don’t venerate as much. Odysseus was punished for his lack of proper respect for the divine. You don’t have the slightest inkling of what you’re talking about.

I don't think anyone is claiming that "the ancient Greek world was devoid of morality". Only that it lacked an embodiment of evil as an antagonist.

If the point is that Hades isn't the basically-Satan from the Disney cartoon, fair enough. But some characters are atrocious. Like Minos. And Diomedes of Thrace.

Nor, for that matter, was the Iliad. The Trojans had differing goals, but they were not "evil" by even the Greeks' own metrics.

(And, following up, Virgil's Aeneid continues this trend.)

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