American idol: Chris Evans in The First Avenger, the debut instalment of the new Captain sagas for the big screen. (Photo: Rex Features)
Show Hide image

An Aristotle who punches bad guys: the moral world of Captain America

The patriotic superhero has been resurrected on screen in the past few years. John Gray argues that Cap's appeal lies in timeless ethics dating back to ancient Greece. 

In a story from the early Eighties, Captain America uses his amazing powers to destroy a renegade American intelligence agency that is plotting an attack on the Soviet Union in order to make the United States the last remaining superpower. Confronting the plotters, the comic-book hero makes one of many declarations of faith that resound throughout his more than 70-year-long career as a fighter against evil: “I represent the American dream! A dream that has precious little to do with borders, boundaries, and the kind of blind hatred your ilk espouses!”

The authors of Captain America’s early adventures were liberals, and something of the universalistic spirit of American liberalism has infused the character they invented. Created as a contribution to the US struggle against the Axis powers that was already on the horizon, the Captain first appeared on the scene nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout the war years the comics were an enormous popular success, but the Captain failed to make the transition into the bleak peace that followed. His sterling qualities ill-suited to the grim intrigues of the cold war, he vanished from view, seeming at times to have been killed off.

The heroic fighter resurfaced in the Sixties and with occasional intermissions has been saving the world from darkness ever since. Selling hundreds of millions of comics in many countries, the character has spilled out into television and movies. A sequel to Captain America: the First Avenger (2011), in which Chris Evans played the superhero – Captain America: the Winter Soldier – has just been released, with Evans in the title role again and Scarlett Johansson as a former KGB agent who has defected to join the battle against evil. The action in these films is set in the present, and plans are afoot for further adventures. There is no sign of the Captain giving up his mission.

When he first appeared in March 1941, Captain America was the alter ego of Steve Rogers, a skinny art student from New York who had been transformed into a super-soldier by the US army. Trying to enlist, but rejected because of his scrawny physique, Rogers agrees to be used as a subject in a secret project. Injected with a special serum and exposed to a course of radiation with “Vita-Rays”, the scrawny young man acquires astonishing strength, resourcefulness and courage. Captain America isn’t a superman; he is an average human being whose powers have been enhanced to the nth degree. It may be the fact that he is so recognisably human that makes him the most modern of the comic superheroes.

As the writer who launched the superhero in his most recent incarnation in 2012 put it, the Captain “is a patriotic soldier, directed by a personal ethical compass, belief in the American dream and faith in his fellow man . . . He can punch bad people and jump through glass. He’s the person you wish you were.”

Appearing in the run-up to US entry into a world-shaking conflict, the Captain has always embodied the good in human beings. In his new book, The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero, Mark D White argues that there can be no better model of ethical behaviour today: “Cap’s ‘old-fashioned’ moral code is exactly what we need to restore civility and respect in the 21st century in both our personal lives and our political debates. He is what ancient philosophers – yes, more ancient than Cap – called a moral exemplar.”

For White, who teaches philosophy at City University of New York and who has published widely on ethics as well as written about other comic-book heroes, the Captain is loyal to “timeless principles of freedom, equality and justice”. These principles are distinctively American, White believes, but he is keen to dispel “any illusion that Captain America is a jingoist flag-waver . . . Instead he embodies an inclusive patriotism that balances idealism with clear-eyed pragmatism.” His principles are universal: as White puts it, he believes “American ideals apply to everyone – not just all Americans, but all people around the world”.

You might be wondering whether White is serious in making these large claims, but he means what he says – and says it with some style. Enjoyable and consistently stimulating, presenting complex arguments in ways that will be accessible to just about any reader, The Virtues of Captain America is popular philosophy of a high order. The trouble is that, because he takes Captain America so seriously, White doesn’t see any problem in treating the superhero’s American ideals as universal human values. Like the Captain himself, he thinks they are one and the same.

Captain America’s values, according to White, aren’t a product of America’s history as a modern country. They go all the way back to the Greeks: “I’m going to present Captain America’s personal morality in terms of virtue ethics, a type of moral theory originating with ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics . . . If we look at them this way, Cap’s values are old-fashioned, dating from about 2,500 years ago, but many philosophers (including myself) regard the work of the early virtue ethicists as timeless.”

Examining five basic virtues – courage, humility, righteous indignation, sacrifice and perseverance – White aims to show how they are vitally necessary today: “The lessons of the virtue ethicists are more important now than ever – and a ‘man out of time’ such as Captain America can see that better than anyone.”

Sadly, the suggestion that Captain America embodies Aristotelian virtues verges on the absurd. That Aristotle assumed his account of the human good could be realised only by middle-aged, property-owning males is well known. What is more important, from the standpoint of White’s argument, is the absence in Aristotle’s thinking of any of the modern liberal ideals that Captain America embodies. Consider an idea such as personal autonomy. Certainly Aristotle believed that individuals are responsible for their actions; but there is nothing in him of the idea that they are the authors of their lives. Even the favoured few, in Aristotle’s account, model themselves on the same conception of human excellence.

The modern belief that the good life comes in divergent forms, with each person’s containing something peculiar and unique, was unthinkable in ancient Greek times. If Aristotle could somehow have imagined the Captain’s mission of giving everyone freedom to live as they choose, he would undoubtedly have reacted with incredulous contempt.

It’s not just modern liberal values that Aristotle lacks. There is also a striking absence in his thinking of ideas and beliefs that have shaped western thinking over the past 2,000 years. A struggle against evil is the pivot of every one of the Captain America stories. Yet there is no idea of evil in Aristotle’s ethics or anywhere else in ancient Greek thought. Yes, there are bad states of mind and character such as imprudence and cowardice. But the Greek exponents of virtue ethics had no belief in evil as an active force on the world. That is an inheritance from monotheism, and more particularly from the rather strange version of Christianity that America received from the Puritans.

According to White, the Captain embod­ies principles and virtues that are timeless and universal. In fact, the Captain is shaped by moral ideas and beliefs that are historically highly specific. The view that the world is torn between the forces of good and evil is the most obvious example. It is often described as Manichaean, though this risks doing a disservice to the Iranian prophet Mani (216-276), who seems to have believed the outcome of the cosmic struggle was uncertain. In contrast, the Captain never betrays the slightest doubt that good will triumph in the end.

In terms of the longer history of theism, the Captain’s view is distinctly unorthodox. At least since St Augustine – himself a convert from Manichaeism – the dominant
theist position has been that good and evil are not separate forces; they run through every human heart. The Captain could only have appeared in America, which, more than any other modern society, has been shaped by an aberrant strain of Christianity in which the moral universe is understood in starkly binary terms.

Why White should have failed to notice the formative influence of American religion on the Captain’s mission of fighting evil is an interesting question. Part of the explanation may be the professional deformation of academic philosophy. Especially in America, contemporary philosophy is obsessively secular; showing any unduly sympathetic interest in religion is a quick way of committing career suicide. Some of the popularity of virtue ethics may have come about for this reason. Many philosophers have recognised that utilitarianism and rights theory are impoverished ways of thinking about ethics. Few have cared to explore the Jewish and Christian traditions from which modern western ethics actually developed. Instead they look back to the Greeks. Lacking any sense of the ways in which moral ideas change – because contemporary Anglo-Saxon philosophy is also thoroughly unhistorical – they do not realise that the ancient exponents of virtue ethics lived in a world in many ways almost unimaginably remote from our own.

A striking feature of White’s account of the Captain’s virtues is its unblinking moral parochialism. White praises the Captain for his humility, and it is true that the Captain is not known for boasting about his extra­ordinary feats. In one story he even tells the president that he is reluctant to speak to the press about his feats because it will sound too much like bragging. (In the end the Captain complies with the order of his commander-in-chief.) But there is nothing Aristotelian in the Captain’s behaviour.

Never betraying any doubt as to his superior abilities and valuing others only to the extent that he can see something of himself in them, Aristotle’s conception of an ideal human being looks nowadays more like a model (always male) of arrogant pride. Alasdair MacIntyre – a contemporary philosopher who generally favours Aristotle’s way of thinking about ethics – described the Aristotelian ideal as being “almost an English gentleman”, and dismissed it as “appalling”. Whatever you think of the English gentleman, it is clear that humility isn’t a virtue Aristotle would have recognised.

The trouble with talk of timeless virtues is that not many virtues are timeless. It makes sense to think of prudence and courage as humanly universal – lacking these qualities entirely, no one can live well. But there have been many conceptions of what it means to live well, and they aren’t all compatible. The virtues of Homeric heroes aren’t just different from those of Jesus. For Hector, turning the other cheek would be mere cowardice. Again, Greco-Roman hedonist philosophers such as Epicurus and Lucretius wouldn’t have admired the all-embracing compassion of the Buddha; for them, such universal sympathy would have been an obstacle to peace of mind. The same kind of moral conflict breaks out today when believers (religious or secular) collide with sceptics. For sceptics, a capacity for doubt is a virtue. For believers, it looks more like a feeble refusal to make up one’s mind. What is virtuous in one moral outlook may be a vice in others.

There is not much sign of doubt in White’s account of human values. Along with most other English-speaking philosophers today, he writes as if every human being is born essentially a liberal and becomes anything else by accident or mistake. He tells us that the Captain embodies “the core ideals of the United States of America . . . Refocusing our attention on these ideals, remembering what we have in common while debating our differences, is the first step toward recovering a sense of national unity and restoring civility to our political life.” A little scepticism might have been useful here. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted more than a century and a half ago, America is the most sectarian of all modern societies. Its deep divisions are unlikely to be healed any time soon.

However much at odds with itself America may be, there can be no doubt that the Captain is a peculiarly American superhero. What then accounts for his undoubted
appeal beyond America’s shores? In one of his exchanges with the super-villain the Red Skull, the Captain indignantly rejects the idea that universal freedom and equality is a myth:

“A myth, is it? Then America herself is just a myth – as are liberty, and justice – and faith! Myths that free men everywhere are willing to die for! It’s tyranny which is the myth – and bigotry which is an abomination before the eyes of mankind! It’s you who are the fool! For humanity has come of age – and as long as love not hatred fills men’s hearts the day of the tyrant is ended!”

Maybe it is this simple-minded faith that accounts for the Captain’s wide and enduring popularity. Many will go to the film of his most recent exploits simply for the entertainment they provide – the fast-moving action scenes and powerful special effects. But there is also something soothing in the Captain’s adventures, and reassuring in the moral world he inhabits.

When Captain America first appeared on the scene, the world was faced by a threat that anybody halfway decent and not wilfully self-deluding had to see as extremely malign. Today there is no single threat to civilisation, just a morass of problems and conflicts that look more or less intractable. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that the Captain should make another appearance. The reason for his popularity isn’t that many people still believe in his black-and-white moral world. It’s that so many no longer can.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Penguin (£9.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.