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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. 

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

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)