THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

The Invention Of Moral Narrative

H/T Robin Hanson: Aeon’s The Good Guy / Bad Guy Myth. “Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?”

The article claims almost every modern epic – superhero movies, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc – shares a similar plot. There are some good guys. There are some bad guys. They fight. The good guys win. The end.

The good guys are usually scrappy amateurs; the bad guys usually well-organized professionals with typical fascist precision. The good guys usually demonstrate a respect for human life and the bonds of friendship; the bad guys betray their citizens and their underlings with equal abandon. They gain their good guy or bad guy status by either following the universal law, or breaking it.

This is not exactly a scintillatingly original observation, except that the article claims you’ll almost never find an example of this before 1700. Take the Iliad. Neither the Greeks nor Trojans are especially good nor villainous. The Trojans lose some points for kidnapping a woman, but the Greeks lose some points for killing and enslaving an entire city. Neither side is scrappier or more professional than the other. Neither seems to treat civilians better or demonstrate more loyalty. Exciting things happen, but telling the story of how Good triumphed over Evil was definitely not on Homer’s mind. Nor was it on the mind of the authors of Mahabharata, the Norse sagas, Jack and the Beanstalk, et cetera.

Where ancient works do have good-vs-evil overtones, it’s usually because we’re reading more modern adaptations. Robin Hood doesn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor until much later versions of the story; King Arthur’s knights don’t start out as especially good people and don’t really fight a unified team of evildoers; the virtuous-Arthur-vs-evil-Mordred theme doesn’t really dominate until Victorian retellings. Disney’s Hercules, which reimagines Hades from perfectly-reasonable-underworld-god to classic-cartoon-villain is a striking late-20th-century example (I forgot that it ended with Hercules punching Hades so hard that he falls into the River Styx and gets pulled under by his own damned souls, not the most Hellenic of conclusions).

The article concludes this is because of nationalism. Nation-states wanted their soldiers to imagine themselves as fighting on the side of good, against innately-evil cartoon-villain enemies. This was so compelling a vision that it shaped culture from then on:

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. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.

When I talked with Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps (2017), about the rise of the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, she told me: ‘Three inventions collided to make concentration camps possible: barbed wire, automatic weapons, and the belief that whole categories of people should be locked up.’ When we read, watch and tell stories of good guys warring against bad guys, we are essentially persuading ourselves that our opponents would not be fighting us, indeed they would not be on the other team at all, if they had any loyalty or valued human life. In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals. It is the Grimms’ and von Herder’s vision taken to its logical nationalist conclusion that implies that ‘categories of people should be locked up’.

Watching Wonder Woman at the end of the 2017 movie give a speech about preemptively forgiving ‘humanity’ for all the inevitable offences of the Second World War, I was reminded yet again that stories of good guys and bad guys actively make a virtue of letting the home team in a conflict get away with any expedient atrocity.

What are we to think of this?

A quick check of the article’s claims finds them kind of lacking. Robin Hood started stealing from the rich to give to the poor as early as the 1592 edition of his tale. And doesn’t the Bible contains lots of good vs. evil? The author sweeps this under the rug by saying that the Israelites don’t seem much more virtuous than the Canaanites, but one could argue that they’re just not more 2018-virtuous; maybe 1000 BC-virtue was worshipping God and smashing idols. What about Armageddon? Ragnarok? Zoroastrianism? The Mayan Hero Twins? The very existence of Crusades seems to point to “all the good people get together and fight all the bad people, in the name of Goodness” being a recognizable suggestion. [EDIT: @scholars_stage lists some more here].

Are there any differences between the way ancients and moderns looked at this? Maybe modern stories seem more likely to have two clear sides (eg made up of multiple different people) separated by moral character. Villains (as opposed to monsters, or beings that are evil by their very nature) seem more modern. So does the idea of heroes as necessarily scrappy, and villains as necessarily well-organized. And just eyeballing it, modern stories seem to use this plot a lot more, and to have less deviation from the formula.

But even if that’s true, the rise of nation-states seems like a uniquely bad explanation for the rise of these narratives. The past stories seem much more conducive to blind nationalism than our own. The amorality of the warriors in the Iliad manifested as total loyalty: Hector fought for Troy not because Troy was in the right, but because he was a Trojan. Achilles fought for Greece not because he believed in the Greek cause, but because that was his side and he was sticking to it. The whole point of the Mahabharata is the whole ‘theirs not to question why, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die’ philosophy that makes for effective nationalist soldiering. In Jack and the Beanstalk, we root for Jack because he’s human and we are Team Human. Jack can steal and kill whatever and whoever he wants and we’ll excuse him. What more could a nationalist want?

In contrast, the whole point of modern good-vs-evil is that you should choose sides based on principle rather than loyalty. The article gets this exactly right in pointing out the literary motif of virtuous betrayal. We are expected to celebrate Darth Vader or Severus Snape virtuously betraying their dark overlords to help the good guys. In Avatar, the main character decides his entire species is wrong and joins weird aliens to try to kill them, and this is good. Compare to ancient myths, where Hector defecting to Greece because the abduction of Helen was morally wrong is just totally unthinkable. This is a super-anti-nationalist way of thinking.

I suppose nationalists could make the very dangerous bargain of telling their soldiers to always fight for the good guys, then get really good propaganda to make sure they look like the good guys. And maybe this would make them fight harder than if they were just doing the old fight-for-your-own-side thing? But honestly, Achilles seems to have been fighting really hard. Is this whole convoluted process really easier than just telling people from the start to fight for their own side and not betray it?

Also do we really want to claim that concentration camps worked because the Nazis believed you should take principled positions based on moral values, instead of unquestioningly supporting your in-group? Really?

If nationalism didn’t drive the (possibly) increasing prevalence of good-vs-evil stories, what did?

One theory: the broad democratization process marked by the shift from sword-based aristocratic armies to gun-based popular armies. Old stories celebrated warrior virtues – strength, loyalty, bravery. The new stories celebrate populist virtue – compassion, altruism, protecting Democracy. The new nation-states would have liked to maintain the warrior virtues, it just wasn’t an option for them in the face of having to suddenly win the loyalty of a bunch of people they hadn’t cared about before.

A second theory: this is just part of widening moral circles of concern. Pre-1700s, people were still at the point where slavery seemed like an okay idea. Maybe we didn’t have the whole Care/Harm foundation down all that well. Once we got that, through whatever process of moral progress we got it from, having heroes who shared it started seeming more compelling.

A third theory: properly-written good-vs-evil stories are just better, in a memetic sense, but it took a long time to get the formula right. Coca-Cola is better than yak’s milk, but you’ve got to invent it before you can enjoy it – and just having a vague cola-ish mix of spices in water doesn’t count. But once you invent it, it spreads everywhere, and people throw out whatever they were doing before.

I realize this is pretty unsophisticated-sounding, but I’m basing this off of my continuing confusion over the rise of Christianity. Christianity came out of nowhere and had spread to 10% – 20% of the Roman population by the time Constantine made it official. And then it spread to Germany, England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Armenia, and Russia, mostly peacefully. Missionaries would come to the tribe of Hrothvalg The Bloody, they would politely ask him to ditch the War God and the Death God and so on in favor of Jesus and meekness, and as often as not he would just say yes. This is pretty astonishing even if you use colonialism as an excuse to dismiss the Christianization of the Americas, half of Africa, and a good bit of East Asia.

I’ve looked around for anyone who has a decent explanation of this, and as far as I can tell Christianity was just really appealing. People worshipped Thor or Zeus or whoever because that was what people in their ethnic group did, plus Thor/Zeus would smite them if they didn’t. Faced with the idea of a God who was actually good, and could promise them eternity in Heaven, and who was against bad things, and never raped anybody and turned them into animals, everyone just agreed this was a better deal. I know this is a horrendously naive-sounding theory, but it’s the only one I’ve got.

And there seems to be a deep connection between Greek paganism and the narrative structure of the Iliad, and a deep connection between Christianity and the narrative structure of (eg) Harry Potter. Achilles fights for Greece because he’s Greek, and the pagan worships Zeus because he (the pagan) is Greek, and that’s all there is to it. But Harry Potter fights for Dumbledore and against Voldemort because the one is good and the other evil, and the Christian worships God and resists the Devil because the one is good and the other evil. Achilles and Hector wear their impressiveness on their sleeves, much like Zeus. Harry Potter is a seemingly ordinary and really quite weak guy who just happens to be fated to save everything through destiny, parentage, and the power of love/sacrifice, much like Jesus.

(this isn’t a joke – one could describe Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins the same way)

Maybe this good-vs-evil thing is just really attractive, and naturally replaces whatever was there before – but it’s just really hard to get exactly right. There was a 1500 year lag time between when people got the magic formula for religion (Zoroastrianism wasn’t good enough!) and when they got the magic formula for stories. Wasn’t the high-grade Colombian ultra-purified version of the good-vs-evil fantasy plot invented by Tolkien and CS Lewis sitting around in Oxford specifically trying to figure out how to translate Christianity into narrative form? Maybe this was more of an innovation than it seemed. Maybe they actually did the same thing that St. Paul or whoever did and created a totally new memetic species capable of overwhelming everything that came before.

If this is so, maybe the next question is whether there’s anything else waiting to be good-vs-evil-ified, what form that will take, and what will happen afterwards.

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600 Responses to The Invention Of Moral Narrative

  1. drethelin says:

    I blame the Manicheans.

    • James Green says:

      One of the largest religions to ever become extinct? Those Manichaeans?

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        Yes, the Manicheans who divided the world into all good and all evil, and who gave us our indispensible term “Manichean” to describe a juvenile belief in nuance-free black-and-white narratives about the world.

    • temujin9 says:

      I blame the Zurvanists, who were in power during the Hebrew Babylonian exile. It was their magi that become the three wise men in the Bible, and their dualism that infected early Christian thought. Mani didn’t show up until centuries later.

  2. Schmendrick says:

    Completely unfounded speculation, but sophistry doesn’t really do much within the framework of “blood and soil” loyalty. What, are you going to somehow convince the whole Skubite clan that yes, you know that the Antiskub tribe who live over in the next valley have been locked in a blood feud with you for generations, and that yesterday they just killed Frank and Tom, but that if you look at things from a certain angle, they’re the real children of Skubania, and so everyone should just pick up sticks, give up being Skubite, and convert? No, that just doesn’t work. Whereas, sophism works much better when loyalty is to ideas. People can be argued out of ideas (even if it’s not as easy as we’d like to hope). People, as a general rule, can’t be argued out of place and birth. As a result, it seems highly convenient that good/evil replaces us/them at roughly the same time as the rise of mass literacy and the popularization of the written word…and the corresponding explosion in the availability and utility of sophistry.

    • broblawsky says:

      Sophistry was plenty effective in ancient city-states pre-printing: look at the way Athens was roped into the Ionian Revolt.

    • tmk says:

      I’d say there is plenty of space for sophistry to control which identity you fight for. Are you Village A fighting neighbor village B, or are you both county C fighting county D, or are you all nation E? Or are you defined by race, religion, or a cast system?

      • Doug S. says:

        Indeed. The Greeks fought with each other all the time, but when the Persians invaded, they all got together and threw them out… and then went back to fighting each other.

        • Anon. says:

          but when the Persians invaded, they all got together and threw them out

          That’s a massive oversimplification imo. Even DURING the battle that decided the entire war, Plataea, the Greeks were still fighting between each other, not following agreements, whining about who commands whom, etc. It’s a miracle they still managed to win.

          • Nornagest says:

            Even before that, a lot of culturally Greek polities were on the Persian side — including Halicarnassus, where Herodotus was from.

          • Rob K says:

            The key Persian innovation (pre-Alexander) was that financing various Greek factions to keep them fighting each other was a way better deal than fighting the Greeks, and seems to have allowed them to retake most of the mainland territory they’d lost.

  3. Shion Arita says:

    I think a lot of the explanation of the time lag is that current stories serve the same function of the ancient times’ religion: I think Harry Potter serves the same role in our society that tales of Zeus did for the Greeks. It’s a bit like the Star Trek episode Darmok (and yes I am being deliberately meta here), where part of the way people communicate is through references to shared context, and fictional narratives are a way of constructing that shared context.

    I think that such tales (of good and evil in that particular sense) started to emerge only recently because christian societies often discouraged secular works, or at the very least they were held off to the side and not considered to be important (I think part of the reason for it it is in the thou shall not worship false gods) . So it’s only in recent times that we are getting a large number secular works that are held to high importance and truly wide regard that are also coming from a society that has a christian context.

    • tjohnson314 says:

      This could explain why people get upset if you haven’t read the popular books or listened to popular music. It’s not just that you have different taste; it’s that you’re willfully rejecting the shared context underlying the culture.

      So they’re basically accusing you of the modern version of impiety.

      • Darwin says:

        Or of negatively impacting the shared commons of communal references and contexts needed for efficient and effective communication.

        Getting mad at people for using bad grammar and getting mad at people for not reading Harry Potter could have the same underlying motivation – punishing defectors from our shared body of communication tools.

        • MugaSofer says:

          Do people actually get mad at you for not having read Harry Potter?

          • Futhington says:

            Only if you’re participating in a culture where they expect you to have done so.

            There’s a tendency to be really down on this kind of thing as “gatekeeping X out of Y”, but I think the explanation of it as an attempt to preserve a fragile commons fits better than just “You’re mad because group X has entered Y”.

      • JohnBuridan says:

        I was going to object. But now I actually really like this idea!

    • tanagrabeast says:

      I approve this message.

  4. broblawsky says:

    I don’t really buy the “sword values vs gun values” theory. From the Crusades up until the Napoleonic Wars most armies were mostly at least quasi-professional; it wasn’t up until Napoleon that mass conscription began in earnest. However, a more general version of that theory might have more explanatory power: over time in Europe, people became less tethered to the land they were born on and whichever aristocrat owned it, often spending time in large cities like London and Paris. The timeframe when good-vs-evil stories become more popular is roughly the same as when people start moving from the countryside to the cities in large numbers. As people become more cosmopolitan, possibly they start to prefer different types of stories, which are less focused on local loyalties and more focused on broader ideals.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Popular armies emerged earlier in some countries than others, right? English longbowmen and Swiss pikemen were around while many European kingdoms still had aristocratic knights as the keystone of their militaries. Whereas the growth of cities happened around the same time in different countries. So if anyone can compare English and French literature to see when good-vs-evil narratives became more prominent in each, that could shed some light on this theory.

      • Lillian says:

        English longbowmen and Swiss pikemen are both examples of semi-professional soldiers, they were just drawn from the yeoman class rather than the noble class. You don’t get widespread use of popular armies until the French Revolution introduced the levée en masse, which was so effective that that several other European powers immediately adopted variants of it. Notably however Great Britain did not, choosing to maintain a professional volunteer army until the First World War finally forced them to join the mass conscription bandwagon. So a comparison of English and French literature may be enlightening, but the theory predicts the French to be the ones to have the earlier rise of good-vs-evil narratives.

    • po8crg says:

      The Napoleonic wars dwarfed everything that went before. Leipzig involved well over half a million soldiers; 200,000 was pretty routine for a battle. 200,000 had been the numbers for a rare large battle where both sides co-ordinated multiple forces in previous wars (Malplaquet is about that size, for example) – but that’s a good description of why Leipzig was 50% bigger than any other battle in the Napoleonic period.

      Outside of China, armies on that scale were just unheard of, and the transformation of society necessary to support armies that big could not fail to have enormous consqeuences.

      Of course, World War I dwarfs the Napoleonic Wars the way they dwarf pre-1800 warfare, and it would be surprising if WWI didn’t change, well, everything. Indeed, there’s a case that until WWI it was reasonable to fight for your own country, but that after that it was really hard to persuade people that mere nationalism was enough – they had to argue from more fundamental and persuasive values of good and evil.

      • azhdahak says:

        Things get interesting during WW1. On the one hand, the international socialist movement argued that WW1 was a “bourgeois war” and should therefore be opposed; on the other hand, international socialism took a lot of damage for that. Mussolini, for example, was a high-ranking Socialist Party propagandist until he split from the party over his support of WW1. And the WW1-era “national socialists” were… socialists who were pro-WW1.

        But I don’t think the “mere nationalism isn’t enough” thesis holds for WW2. It certainly doesn’t for the Axis. And for the Allies, on the one hand, many people even today have the bizarre notion that “we’d all be speaking German” if not for the war (which is partially true, not because the Nazis wanted to take over America but because many Americans did speak German before the war, and the government pressured them to “speak American”), and on the other hand, have you seen Allied propaganda about Japan?

        • bean says:

          Actually, the big push against German-speaking in America was during WWI, and was successful enough that it wasn’t a big deal the second time around.

          • Schmendrick says:

            Yup, and things got so crazy that we got a landmark Fourteenth Amendment Due Process case about it; Meyer v. Nebraska!

          • azhdahak says:

            But there was still a push against speaking German in America during WW2. And there were German (and Italian) internment camps in addition to the better-known Japanese ones, and plans for the mass deportation of Germans from at least certain parts of the East Coast.

    • azhdahak says:

      When precisely did good-vs.-evil stories become popular? And when precisely did tolerance for the absence of this Harry Potter Manichaeism die out? These are two different questions — popularity of good-vs.-evil stories doesn’t necessitate unpopularity of stories that aren’t about good vs. evil. Superhero movies are popular right now, but it doesn’t mean they’re the only thing being made.

      It wasn’t until a few years ago that people stopped being comfortable with the Homeric moral ambiguity of Robert E. Lee. Is it just a coincidence that that was when the generation who grew up during the War on Terror reached adulthood? Probably not.

      And the War on Terror made use of old tropes in American war propaganda. Remember the term “Islamofascism”? And, on the flip side of that, “Christofascism”? We weren’t agreed on who precisely was the modern-day avatar of Angra Mainyu, but we were agreed that there was a lineage of avatars of Angra Mainyu. The only question was where the lineage went after Hitler — Stalin and Osama, or McCarthy and Bush?

      The Harry Potter series was very popular with the War on Terror generation, and both of the main villains were Hitler. All the minor ones, of course, turned out to be Nazis. And the Harry Potter series invited even more Manichaeism than WW2 itself — there’s no Rommel, no figure who we can at least respect despite that he’s on the objectively evil side. (Snape doesn’t count; the big reveal was that he wasn’t on the objectively evil side. And you still often see people arguing that he was evil.)

      • baconbits9 says:

        The Harry Potter series was very popular with the War on Terror generation, and both of the main villains were Hitler. All the minor ones, of course, turned out to be Nazis. And the Harry Potter series invited even more Manichaeism than WW2 itself — there’s no Rommel, no figure who we can at least respect despite that he’s on the objectively evil side. (Snape doesn’t count; the big reveal was that he wasn’t on the objectively evil side. And you still often see people arguing that he was evil.)

        The headmaster of Durmstrang is a former death eater, and the majority of DEs seem to be rich, powerful and well placed in society, they aren’t lumps. The major moral point of the series is that being smart/talented/hardworking doesn’t count if you do it in the service of Hitler/Voldemort. This also isn’t WW2 where you only find out full details and get to view things from the outside Hitler, this is WW3: Hitler’s Return! where the whole world has been exposed to the actual outcomes of Hitler’s reign and you don’t get to be just caught up in it without knowing that it is evil.

        • azhdahak says:

          It’s not about being rich; it’s about not being Hitler. It’s possible to have compelling stories that aren’t about wars between good and Hitler. But, for whatever reason, people don’t do that very much anymore.

          • baconbits9 says:

            The story isn’t WW2 and good vs Hitler, it is WW3 after Hitler is exiled to an island, escapes and launches another war. You don’t get a Rommel in that situation because it is evident that you don’t get to be ambiguous, just like you don’t get a Lee in Civil War 2 after slavery has been abolished. Snape wasn’t always on the good side, he is actually the one who tells Voldemort about Harry’s future and gets his parents killed. It isn’t until he realizes that there is something he values more than power that he turns good, and then he still treats Harry and all of Harry’s friends like dirt.

            No, the story doesn’t have much in moral ambiguity on the Death Eaters side, but there is a ton on the “good” side with Snape, Dumbledore, James, Sirius, and the treatment of Goblins and House Elves.

      • uncle stinky says:

        Let’s ask the jews of Benghazi how much we should respect Rommel. Oh wait, we can’t he had them deported and they’re dead. Don’t understand why everyone is so keen to give Rommel a pass. Rotten general and a thoroughgoing Nazi bastard.

        • dndnrsn says:

          They needed to pretend Rommel was a better general than he was – he was more than competent, but wasn’t one of the greatest generals of the war – because otherwise the British would have to admit that some of the guys they had in charge early on were less than competent.

          And because people mix up “practical” and “moral” virtues – you can’t say “man those bad guys sure were brave” or whatever – they had to pretend that Rommel wasn’t tight with Hitler, etc.

          • uncle stinky says:

            He was a competent tactician but a bad strategist. Informed opinion seems to think he was over-promoted. You can get away with tactics as a colonel but a general should be a far better planner than he was. Good generals don’t outrun their supply lines.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Certainly. In general, the Germans in North Africa were under-supplied; it was a wasteful dead end, seems to be the consensus of what I’ve read. He was popular with Hitler, though, and he was daring. The Germans in general were strongest tactically, somewhat weaker operationally, and strategically – depends where you think strategy starts. “Don’t start a war you’ve got at best a coinflip chance of winning” is probably good strategy. Of course, blaming everything on dead people was a hobby of German generals after the war.

            (Not that it was hard for the Germans to outrun their supply lines; logistics were not their strong suit)

          • Aapje says:

            Didn’t both sides outrun their supply lines a lot? This may actually be extremely hard to avoid if the other side pulls back quickly, which tends to happen in deserts where there are few natural defensive positions. Are you then just going to stop chasing the retreating enemy, giving them a chance to build up a defensive line? Are you going to give up the chance to defeat retreating units & capture equipment that works or needs minor repairs & capture supplies that they can’t take with them?

            Furthermore, there is a chance that the other side will never be able to establish a good defensive position and you can defeat them completely, even with low supplies.

            When Napoleon retreated from Russia, Kutuzov tried to hold back his army from too aggressively pursuing the French. Tolstoy argues in War and Peace that a commander can only command to the extent to what the army will accept and that the army wouldn’t accept anything but a fairly fast pursuit. If true, Kutuzov could only slow the pursuit a little, not stop the army to let the supplies catch up.

            Still, in that case the pursuit did work. The French never were able to build up a defensive position and turn the tide.

          • dndnrsn says:

            All the powers on both sides outran their supplies from time to time – even the Americans, who simultaneously had the best logistics and generally strongest industry of the war – but it happened more to the Germans; they had less room for error.

      • Galle says:

        The thing is, tolerance for an absence of Harry Potter Manichaeism hasn’t died out. It’s just viewed through another lens. Modern stories do frequently depict people fighting for petty, tribalistic reasons, and they’re never treated as intrinsically evil, just selfish and foolish. Game of Thrones is a great example of this – there’s plenty of moral ambiguity and most of the characters fight for identities rather than causes, but this is ultimately treated as being a senseless waste of human life, especially compared to the battle between good and evil, which actually matters.

        • ArkyBeagle says:

          So the Star Wars epic – and I’d call Harry Potter variation on the Star Wars Epic – is one leg of a three-legged stool – the films themselves, the theme parkish part, and the toy part.

          As films themselves, they don’t even try to compete with say, “A Man of All Seasons”. So stuff like plot is designed to have a box office blitzkrieg in support of the other legs of the stool. The conflict is dumbed down.

          These aren’t good movies if you’re using your home DVD setup as a gauge or even if you’re just attending them in the theater. One of the fun parts about being old now is that I can tell people who grew up on Star Wars about David Lean or John Huston and it’s like they see a complete continent of possibility.

          With Scorcese’s “Personal Journey” in mind, Lean and to a lesser extent Huston both did well during the collapse of the studio system. What changed things was “JAWS”. That represents the blitzkrieg release cycle. A Star Wars or Harry Potter franchise represents structure in which a blitzkreig becomes financially viable – but only if the accoutrements are there to go with it.

          The craftsmanship of them is impeccable but there’s nothing of the insight into humanity that Lean or Huston offered. It’s almost as if people didn’t really want to be people any more. It’s peuerile and infantile. No adult (no, not *that* kind of “adult”) content.

          But it’s driven by big, big money and the pursuant loss of appetite for risk. The good news is that even David Lynch has prospered in this climate. I’d take Agent Cooper over Harry Potter any day, no matter how stilted.

    • Butlerian says:

      As people become more cosmopolitan, possibly they start to prefer different types of stories, which are less focused on local loyalties and more focused on broader ideals.

      I like this explanation: the stories follow the socioeconomics, rather the other way around. So the purpose of fictional narratives is as a rationalisation aid, and the popular ones are those which assuage people’s cognitive dissonance.
      If you’ve just moved from the hamlet in which your family has lived for 20 generations, and come to the Big City to work in one of Richard Arkwright’s factories, you don’t want your fiction hectoring you about the importance of patrimony. Rather you want your fiction to be all about virtuous betrayal of the overbearing master and plucky underdogs being proven right in the end. Because that’s what you are now. You’ll show those stuffy village elders!

  5. Tracy W says:

    Before 1700? How about Shakespeare? Hamlet, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, all have fairly clear good sides and bad sides. The evil characters are fairly complex, very complex in the case of Macbeth, but then Darth Vader is not without layers.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I thought about that, but there’s not really sides. Hamlet doesn’t have a team of scrappy sidekicks. No, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t count.

      • phoenixy says:

        King Lear definitely has good vs. evil sides. Lear, Cordelia, The Fool, Edgar, Gloucester and Kent on are the good side. Regan, Goneril, Edmund and Cornwall are on the evil side. The two sides even literally end up going to war with each other.

        Also, the bad guys have organized political power and betray each other, and the good guys are scrappy underdogs who spend most of the play running around like crazy people in a storm going blind and probably contracting pneumonia while exhibiting immense loyalty to each other (aside from Lear’s massive fuckup in Act I), with Edgar helping his father, Cordelia helping hers even though he betrayed her, and Kent staying loyal to Lear even though Lear banished him. Even Cordelia, who comes in with an army, is still an underdog — she can only help at the end because France took pity on her even though she was dirt poor.

        Of course, the good guys don’t exactly win.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Right, the bad guys are really bad in “King Lear.” “Lear” is a fairly Christian play by Shakespeare’s standards, even though (or because) it’s set in pre-Christian times.

        • Freddie deBoer says:

          But Lear himself – the moral and thematic center of the play – is not good or bad. To put him simplistically into the “good” slot does violence to the play’s basic meaning.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      None of those plays – not one – has clear good and bad sides, with the possible exception of Don John. You could hardly have picked worse examples.

      • Alsadius says:

        I only know Hamlet and Macbeth well, but both of those seem pretty clear. The characters are complex and nuanced, but murdering the king because you want the throne is evil under almost every known moral system.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Not being able to wash the blood stains off is also pretty universal for guilt.

        • DM says:

          The plays could maybe be described as having clear baddies but not clear goodies, to put it bluntly and simplistically:

          Sure, Claudius is a shit (albeit one who does display some brief remorse), although Gertrude is much more ambiguous, but Hamlet: a) subject’s poor Ophelia to nasty, wounding ranting, b) kills his former love’s father without remorse or any concern for how it will effect her, sending Ophelia mad, c) takes the *deeply* unChristian attitude that he shouldn’t be revenged on Claudius at a time when he might die saved (Hamlet’s speech stating this was often cut in 19th century productions, I recall, precisely because the Victorians had a fairly positive conception of the character), d) sends two former friends to their deaths, apparently without remorse; yes they have agreed to watch him for Gertrude, but it’s unclear if this is really political surveillance or if he concern about his mental health is genuine, and they do effectively admit to this as soon as Hamlet presses them about it (by confessing they were sent for).

          The Tempest: Prospero is a victim, but he has also stolen the island from Caliban (unpleasant as the latter might be) and enslaved Ariel, he’s pretty arrogant, and I think most magic was considered a bit dodgy at the time. On the other hand, his brother and the King of Naples are, yes, unambiguously not nice, though the other characters aren’t exactly arranged into two opposed sides.

          Macbeth: Macbeth is a shit, but we don’t actually learn that much about the *moral* character of the other side. There is that weird scene no one quite understands the point of, where Malcolm pretends to be a libertine or something to test MacDuff’s loyalty. It’s more evil v. legitimate authority than evil v. good.

          The presence of unambiguously evil, though still complex characters, but few unambiguously good central characters probably explains why Shakespeare’s reputation did well under modernism (or rather, continued to do well), where a certain amount of underlying pessimism was considered a sign of seriousness and rigour.

          • Mary says:

            he has also stolen the island from Caliban (unpleasant as the latter might be

            By Caliban’s own admission, at the time when Prospero arrived at the island, Caliban was incapable of speech. Prospero’s response was suitable to such a childish person: to instruct him as he did his own child — until Caliban tried to rape Miranda.

            When you have an island with three people and one a violent criminal, the criminal is going to be subjugated or killed.

      • Tracy W says:

        In addition to Alsadius’s comments on Hamlet, I’ve seen Macbeth performed set in Stalinist Russia (with Patrick Stewart playing the lead.) It very clearly has sides. Macbeth not just kills his king but goes on a murderous spree, having McDuff’s wife and children killed, and there are other references to violent deaths.

        And Antonio and the King of Naples are pretty clearly bad, trying to kill Prospeno and his 3 year old daughter.

    • uncle stinky says:

      Marlowe’s Jew of Malta is fairly straight up bad. Whether Marlowe was playing around with that or just playing into early modern antisemitism is up for debate but there’s no getting away from the evil of Barabas.

  6. Alraune says:

    here’s my theory: good-vs-evil stories are just better, in a memetic sense, but it took a long time to discover them

    My own theory, based on having recently read the plot summary of every fantasy novel Wikipedia covers from the late 1800s to the start of the novel, is that the transition is not to caring about good vs. evil instead of… not… but from the ultimate possible stakes being the loss of honor and/or soul to the ultimate possible stakes being the destruction of the world. When pre-moderns did conceive of stories about the destruction of the world, as in Bunyan’s Holy War and Ragnarok, it was explicitly as a spiritual metaphor.

    This change in story focuses was probably a hugely underrated event in the secularization of society, and suggests to me a much more plausible mechanism for the just-so story of “after World War I everyone was just so depressed they stopped believing in an afterlife” you hear in intro to Phil: after photographs of the blasted hellscapes of No Man’s Land, it became conceivable to people that the entire world _could_ be at stake from a single war. Swiftly thereafter* stories were written where the entire world was at stake from one war, and memetic evolution from there worked to turn every piece of fiction you’ll ever see into Plucky Underdog Saves All Of Reality From Chaotic Evil Wizard.

    *(Robert E. Howard’s Hour of the Dragon in 1935 is the first straightforward example I know of, but I assume someone can one-up me there with minimal effort)

    • cmurdock says:

      [citation needed] for Ragnarok being “explicitly a spiritual metaphor”?

      • azhdahak says:

        I’m not convinced that Ragnarok demands a Manichaean interpretation. It was just a thing that was going to happen — it was ordained by the structure of the universe.

        The least bad modern-day analogue that I can think of is Homestuck, which is (intentionally, I suspect) somewhat premodern in its outlook. On the one hand, the fundamental narrative structure of every game-universe is the struggle of Good against Evil, which Good is destined to lose; on the other hand, despite that the forces of Derse are by definition Evil, does it make any sense to call them evil? Are we given any reason to believe that they are?

        And stepping back from the game-universe to the narrative of Homestuck itself, does it make sense to call the ‘villains’ evil when their every action is preordained by the structure of the universe? Aradia doesn’t think so, at least.

        (If you haven’t read Homestuck, you should — it’s a bit of a time commitment, but it’s the only recent story I know of with any moral complexity at all.)

        • Futhington says:

          Did Homestuck have much moral complexity? I seem to recall a large green demon trying to eat the universe. Perhaps reading it till I fell asleep multiple nights on the trot addled my brain a little though.

          I think Warhammer Fantasy (not 40k) could fit in the same mould as Ragnarok under your interpretation; you can’t win, it’s inevitable that Chaos will swallow the world some day. But it’s about the struggle to put that day off, centrally.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of Man comes crashing down… but it is not this day!

          • Nornagest says:

            Man, I still get shivers when I read that part of the Edda. It’s maybe the most metal thing ever written:

            Brothers will fight and kill each other,
            sisters’ children will defile kinship.
            It is harsh in the world,
            whoredom rife;
            An axe age, a sword age;
            shields sundered;
            a wind age, a wolf age;
            before the world falls.
            No man will have mercy on another.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Normagest: same. You have good taste, sir. 🙂
            (You know what’s super memorable about the Prose Edda that never gets mentioned in secondary sources? That weird first chapter with three Odins lecturing Glyfi.)

          • azhdahak says:

            Did Homestuck have much moral complexity? I seem to recall a large green demon trying to eat the universe.

            ARADIA: i dont necessarily share their point of view on the meaning of this endeavor though
            ARADIA: they consider this to be a great clash between good and evil
            ARADIA: but i prefer to look at the coming battle as a matter of housekeeping
            ARADIA: in the end all loops must be tidied up
            ARADIA: even his

        • DM says:

          I know this is rude, but: ‘it’s the only recent story I know of with any moral complexity at all’ does suggest that you *only* read stories featuring at least one dragon, robot, mage, or detective. There’s plenty moral complexity in other sorts of stories at the moment; you just need to read (some of) the kind of stuff that goes up for literary prizes rather than geek stuff.

          • The Nybbler says:

            you just need to read (some of) the kind of stuff that goes up for literary prizes rather than geek stuff.

            But that stuff is unreadable!

          • Aapje says:

            Yeah, it has all kinds of nonsense, like ‘feelings’ and ‘relationships.’

    • Nearly Takuan says:

      I previously thought the trend was that we like to alternate, e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy is a “plucky rebels save the world” plot, but Vol. 2 shifts the stakes so that nothing really is immediately on the line except the individual heroes’ lives/souls/whatever. To the point where the audience is expected to root for the guys who steal things / fill a forest with landmines / destroy an entire starship full of people (including regular crew who didn’t actively mutiny), just because the previous movie (and, well, 40 years of comic books) established that these characters are Team Superhero and we like Team Superhero. But anecdotes are easy, data is hard, and I might just be cherry-picking.

      • Fahundo says:

        But the bad guy in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was going to destroy the galaxy. Really, you could argue Quill was more selfless in the second one. His reasoning for saving the galaxy the first time was “because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!” The second time he could have been immortal and participated in the purge of everyone else, but chose not to.

    • Emby says:

      (Robert E. Howard’s Hour of the Dragon in 1935 is the first straightforward example I know of, but I assume someone can one-up me there with minimal effort)

      HG Wells, War of the Worlds

      Someone had to post it.

    • Riothamus says:

      Did you just describe Conan of Cimmeria, King of Aquilonia, as the plucky underdog? I am filled with such skepticism as would blast the soul of a bronze statue!

      • Mary says:

        He never appears in stories as king without being stripped of most of the powers of a king. For instance, he’s caught alone, without his guards, when attacked, or even deposed (and the people told he’s dead).

  7. sixo says:

    1. Related to democratization, widening moral circles… I’m not sure vague nationalist myths of wars where neither parties are good and one fights for the virtue of it and out of fear of ones gods… survives the process of becoming well-informed about the world. See Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts”… globalization and widespread literacy may be to credit.

    2. Years ago on SomethingAwful I got a good part of an undergraduate English education from a goon who had written a phd thesis about famine in shakespeare I think, and later started and then abandoned this blog. I recall that writer mentioning that shakespeare had cribbed his most villainous characters from another writer (I think Marlowe? But I can’t corroborate), who basically invented villains. This basically supports “maybe this good-vs-evil thing is just really attractive…”.

    3. Related, I wonder what a villainous character would seem like to someone who had never been exposed to one. My guess is: pretty campy. Fairly cringey and unrealistic. Even today, most villains are bad – I had the misfortune of seeing Kingsman 2 for example. Everyone agrees there are various degrees of villains. Voldemort’s OK, he gets the job done. Avengers’ Loki is widely regarded as good. It’s probably hard to do well. We can presume that a fiction-saturated world gets better at fiction – maybe it just didn’t stick before because people didn’t get enough practice? The same with the stakes of the conflict. Recently started my first Jane Austen and starkly noticed that the only conflict was about what people of each other, and that probably that was sort of the polite thing to write about, and peoples’ lives being threatened, or the murder of anonymous masses, would be considered boorish and overblown. In today’s terminology, try-hard. Populist writing wasn’t a thing, and less populist fiction survives the further back you look.

    • Related to democratization, widening moral circles… I’m not sure vague nationalist myths of wars where neither parties are good and one fights for the virtue of it and out of fear of ones gods… survives the process of becoming well-informed about the world. See Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts”… globalization and widespread literacy may be to credit.

      I don’t think the ancients believed that neither party was good. I think the switch is more likely to have been from “my side is inherently good by dint of birth” to “my side is good because of our beliefs”. The actions and beliefs of the various sides in ancient fiction may not have determined their moral status, but I think it’s a mistake to cast these stories as not containing morality, or to accuse them of being vague. I’m not sure “my side is good because of our beliefs” is truly much less narrow minded in practice (since everything seems to collapse into two big tribes anyway), but it is a much more rational means of forming effective coalitions in the modern world (to the extent that even our nationalists are explicit ideological coalitions with stances on what counts as white and so on).

    • Michael Handy says:

      Populist writing CERTAINLY existed. The Monk and other Gothic novels, Fanny Hill, The Beggars Opera, Pastorals etc.

      Further back, Lysistrata seems to be pretty accessible as a populist comedy.

    • Tracy W says:

      Jane Austen was unusual. To quote from Walter Scott, another popular author of the time:

      Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of _Pride and Prejudice_. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.

      Walter Scott’s own novels included Waverley , which is set in the Jacobite revolt in Scotland and is amply dramatic.

      What Jane Austen was doing, in making stories about the minutae of people’s lives interesting, was unusual and very hard to pull off. It’s a large part of why she’s so famous in the literary world.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Some tales of good vs evil are more sophisticated than others.

      X-Men is compelling because one can easily sympathize with Magneto. He lost his family in the Holocaust. He is acutely aware of mankind’s ability to commit genocide. It is not at all difficult to put yourself as a mutant in that universe and wonder whether you’d join up with Prof X or the Brotherhood of Mutants.

      I do wish that Star Wars had been more sophisticated. It is not. It’s a very simply fantasy tale, old as time, about a squire, a rogue, a sage and their gay robots rescuing the princess from the evil wizard’s black knight. But the stormtroopers don’t seem particularly cruel or evil. Neither do the officers. Besides blowing up Alderaan, you really don’t see what exactly it is that the Empire does that’s so awful.

      If the leadership were not explicitly scenery-chewing evil, who call themselves the Dark Side using hatred and anger to acquire power, it would be easy to be sympathetic to the Empire. When Vader says to Luke, “join me, and we will bring order to the galaxy!” that doesn’t sound so bad, because that galaxy looks pretty disordered. You’ve got wretched hives of scum and villainy all over the place, gangsters, smugglers, human slavery, and there doesn’t seem to be anything like common-sense blaster control. Even the Empire, ordered as it is, hasn’t figured out OSHA. Handrails save lives, people.

      I’m really curious what life is like under Imperial rule. I wonder if it’s anything like the Roman empire, where the Romans show up somewhere in Gaul, say “okay you stinking barbarians, you’re under our rule now, but we’re generally not going to screw with any of your religions or customs, just pay us taxes, but hey you can have our far superior code of laws, and we’re going to build you some really nice roads to get your taxes back to Rome but you can also use them for trade, and I bet you yokels have never even heard of an aqueduct, but you’re gonna love it!” I just think if I were a bar owner on Tatooine and some well-behaved storm troopers showed up and that made the gleeful murderers stop threatening my customers with murder for no reason, I wouldn’t be feeling all that oppressed and calling for some plucky rebels to free me from all this basic order and civility.

      In civilization I think both order and freedom are good. But too much order and you get tyranny, and too much freedom and you get chaos. Human flourishing happens with you have a good balance between order and freedom, and Star Wars would have been a more sophisticated tale if the order side were not cast as explicitly evil and the freedom side not cast as explicitly good.

      • cmurdock says:

        But the stormtroopers don’t seem particularly cruel or evil. Neither do the officers.

        This might just be because Star Wars [the franchise] hadn’t found its memetic groove yet. IIRC we haven’t seen the kind of humanizing of everyday random Stormtroopers you mentioned since the very first film– Finn isn’t an exception, either, since his instant conversion from being another merciless drone to being a full-on good guy who wants to destroy the First Order (a turn which takes all of 3 seconds for him to make) is in my opinion just more evidence that the filmmakers aren’t interested in having any “grey” Stormtroopers. It’s also interesting to note that there were originally several scenes from Return of the Jedi of the admiral in charge of the Death Star having reservations about obeying his orders, but these scenes were all cut from the final film! I think they knew what they were doing.

        • JPNunez says:

          Finn is less black and white; he is interested in getting out of the empire, but not really help the guys. He is mostly in it out of interest for Rey. In the last movie, he just decides to abandon his new friends, given that Rey ain’t around anyway and they are all going to die stupidly. He has a good core, he is easily convinced to help the good guys, but he is also fickle and will defect if given the chance.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I really don’t like Finn as done. The core idea of “stormtrooper who defects” is neat, but poorly done in Finn. If I were writing TFA, I would have made Finn a grizzled veteran, maybe a sergeant who’d been serving under Phasma for a decade or more in the outer rim, as they brought Order to the lawless parts of the galaxy before invading the New Republic. He would have believed in the purpose of the First Order. Then during the invasion he would be ordered to commit atrocities and he would come to realize the First Order was a sham, they were not establishing order, they were merely murderers. He would then confront Phasma, maybe fight to a draw, vow to destroy the Order, escape with Poe, etc etc. Now he would have motivation beyond “get away,” he would be an expert warrior instead of a rookie, his conflict with Phamsa would be personal and make a lot more sense (as it stands Phasma is really holding a grudge over one random soldier quitting), and you could even have some scenes where Leia/The Resistance doesn’t trust Finn and he has to prove himself or something. All-in-all a much more interesting and motivated character. As it stands I don’t really care about Finn at all. Really the only interesting character left at the end of the TLJ is Kylo Ren.

      • Mary says:

        The irony of Star Wars is that it clearly rips off the Roman transition from republic to empire, and yet those who know their history remember that the empire was for some time better than the republic.

      • aNeopuritan says:

        “Besides blowing up Alderaan, you really don’t see what exactly it is that the Empire does that’s so awful.”

        “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

    • Mary says:

      that writer mentioning that shakespeare had cribbed his most villainous characters from another writer (I think Marlowe? But I can’t corroborate), who basically invented villains.

      There were villains in medieval literature. For instance, there’s a whole class of tales in medieval chivalric romance known as “calumniated queens,” who are the victims of appalling villainy, whether it’s (fairy tale like) by their mothers-in-law who accuse them of witchcraft or giving birth to monsters, or by rebuffed would-be lovers who accuse them of having committed adultery.

  8. Steve Sailer says:

    Plato in “The Republic” complained about the amorality of Homer’s works, especially the behavior of the gods. He wanted only morally edifying selections from literature to be allowed in his ideal city.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Did he have any examples?

      • Henry Shevlin says:

        The clearest quotation on this comes from Xenophanes of Colophon, who criticised Homer and Hesiod’s depiction of religion –

        “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things which are matters of reproach and censure among men: theft, adultery and mutual deceit.” (frag. 11)

        Not sure how that fits in with your broader claims here, but it might indicate that the thought “hey, our stories about our gods make them out to be real shitbags, but what if that weren’t the case?” didn’t require some astonishing leap of imagination, but was available to thoughtful people c. 500 BC.

      • Protagoras says:

        If you’re asking for examples of literature Plato considered morally edifying, by implication his own work. But my own reading of Republic is that it is much more anti-Homer and much less prescriptive of what all literature should be like (apart from that it should not be Homer) than it is often taken to be.

        • Enkidum says:

          And to be fair it’s pretty clear the The Republic would be banned in most of the societies it describes, Plato is pretty explicit about this.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      One issue is stories for children vs. stories for adults. Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc. were always stories for children. So their moral structures are unsophisticated and black-white.

      Other stories have stayed stories for adults (e.g., Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler aren’t particularly nice people, but they are sexy survivors, which appealed enormously to adult women in the 1930s).

      Other stories probably started out for adults and then became kids’ classics. My impression is that Homer’s tales started out marketed to local royal courts (i.e., the most sophisticated audiences available at the time) but by Socrates time had migrated down to the main texts of schoolboys. (Gulliver’s Travels has undergone a similar path even though the book is a highbrow satire, kind of like a Pynchon or David Foster Wallace work.)

      In the Republic, Socrates / Plato is objecting less to the elites indulging in Homer as commoners and boys. (Although the Republic tends to avoid hypocritical copouts and take reformist ideas too broadly and literally.)

      • Steve Sailer says:

        One question is whether narratives are getting more childishly Good Guys vs. Bad Guys in their morality.

        For example, the current Oscar frontrunner, Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is set at about a 6-year-old’s level of moral sophistication. There’s the good Coalition of the Fringes versus the Evilest Evil White Evil Male of all time (played by Michael Shannon).

        And this is in a movie where enormous efforts were expended to get just the right shades of green in every single shot. But, apparently, nobody made clear to Del Toro just how puerile and stereotyped his screenplay was.

    • dalitt says:

      Reading the Aeon article, I thought about exactly this example. It’s funny — The Republic exactly gives a counterexample to the claim that this concern (about good and evil in narrative) did not exist prior to 1700. But Plato’s justification for editing Homer is precisely the Aeon article’s argument: he wants to build a just city-state and influence its national character through story-telling.

  9. Sniffnoy says:

    One T. Greer lists a bunch more counterexamples in this Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/Scholars_Stage/status/957336685712322561

    • azhdahak says:

      The Proto-Indo-European myth of the water-hoarding serpent (i.e. dragon), which gave rise to the legend of St. George, the Zoroastrian myth of Aži Dahāka (known in Armenian as Azhdahak, and in the Shāhnāma as Zahhāk), and the tale of Vṛtra in the Ṛgveda, surely counts as a myth of good vs. evil — or at least heroism vs. evil.

  10. j r says:

    Maybe it’s not a story of one narrative replacing another, but of the two different narratives co-existing throughout history. And maybe we just happen to be living in a time and a place where the good v evil narrative holds a primary place. I suspect that has something to do with the fact that we live in a moment largely shaped by the Enlightenment and its Judeo-Christian roots. Some of the examples that you used support this story.

    The Ancient Greeks, at least until you get to Plato, didn’t really have a dualistic sense of virtue and vice. The pre-Socratic Greeks had a sense of virtue as health and treated ethics as a question of how to live the best life. To that end, they constructed a sort of hierarchy wherein some motivations and some behaviors are more virtuous than others. So, a person motivated by his or her basest desires pursue things that fulfill their temporary appetites: food, sex, hedonistic pleasures. Those who are more noble pursue things that appeal to higher instincts, like family and civic duty. And those who were the most virtuous, the heroic, wanted to accomplish great deeds and inspire great ideas and be remembered down through the ages. So that, the noble are higher than the base and the heroic are higher than the noble, but none is totally alienated from the other. Greek heroes do a lot of very base things and they still get to be heroic.

    It’s only once you get to Plato and his conception of ideal forms that you start to see a duality between what is good and true and right vs what is bad and false and wrong. In fact, this notion of Platonic ideals were appropriated by Christianity along with Aristotle’s metaphysics and constitute a pretty big part of Christian theology.

    The other example you used is the Mahabharata. I’m no expert in Indian history or culture, but I get the sense that Hinduism isn’t built on easily grasped dichotomies of good and evil, but is rather based in a cosmology of fractious, often contentious forces and deities constantly interacting in often conflicting ways.

    • j r says:

      Also, Shakespeare strikes me as one example that goes against the nationalism leads to good v evil narratives. Shakespeare was a profoundly moral writer; not in the sense that he was particularly morally correct, but that his characters exist in a moral universe where actions have consequences and characters reap what they sow. But it’s not the morality of absolute good v absolute evil. And Shakespeare’s work is infused with lots of nationalism, but mostly just because your home is a place worth defending:

      This precious stone set in the silver sea,
      Which serves it in the office of a wall,
      Or as a moat defensive to a house,
      Against the envy of less happier lands;
      This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
      This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
      Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth.

      In the St. Crispin’s day speech, Henry basically says that they’re going to fight because fighting for your country is a noble pursuit and if you survive you’ll have a really cool stories to tell and scars to show and not because the French are in any way evil; they’re just on the other team.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        English nationalism was a thing from, perhaps the 900s onward. There’s a certain amount of evidence that the rest of Europe organized over time on a nation-sized scale (rather than larger or smaller units) because of the threat posed by the unified, aggressive, indeed piratical England.

        The territorial nation state, however, competed for legitimacy with dynasticism. For example, the English kings during the 100 years war were constantly invading France, but they didn’t see themselves as doing something wrong by invading another country. They saw themselves as upholding their hereditary claims to various feudal possessions, some of which happened to be on the mainland.

        Joan of Arc articulated the more modern view in telling the English to go home to their own island. Shakespeare, by the way, couldn’t do much with Joan even though she is one of the most electrifying characters in recorded history, because he was an English nationalist and she was a French nationalist.

        • j r says:

          English nationalism was a thing from, perhaps the 900s onward.

          Sure, but that’s not my point. My point is that the nationalism of the Henry V isn’t based on England being the good guys fighting the evil French. It’s based on fighting for your tribe. And as you say, the wars were mostly about various kings and members of the nobility asserting their feudal claims irrespective of national borders.

          If that is true, then it is a pretty obvious point against the nationalism leads to good v evil thinking argument.

          • Aapje says:

            @j r

            IMO, nationalism at the core just about making a care threshold line up with a polity.

            In other words, to make Bob who lives in Vermont be more willing to compromise with and sacrifice for Alice in Texas, than with Blaise from Quebec.

        • Gerry Quinn says:

          Even if Shakespeare wanted to do something with Joan, could he have ‘sold’ it? England occasionally made political overtures to France around Shakespeare’s time, in view of the more critical threat from Spain – but they were never friends in those centuries.

      • Anon. says:

        Henry V… Part of it is about uniting the country and directing that aggression outward instead of inward, thus avoiding civil war. You can read the St. Crispin’s day speech with various levels of cynicism, but keep in mind that it is about a war of aggression. At the same time the play clearly pushes the idea that the factors that make one a good king are not necessarily morally admirable. Big Machiavellian influence. Henry’s success is certainly not the result of his moral virtues.

        One key point: The play opens with Hal making a corrupt deal with the clergy to use the church’s coffers to fund his war. Later executes Bardolph for robbing a church. The morality and consequences of retail vs wholesale!

        Another is the soldier Williams and the incident with the glove. Not only does it destroy Henry’s idealistic talk, but the commoner reaches a moral standard that Henry cannot:

        I will none of your money.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          You can read the St. Crispin’s day speech with various levels of cynicism, but keep in mind that it is about a war of aggression.

          From a modern perspective, maybe, but from a 15th-century English perspective, I don’t think so. The French King was (supposedly) usurping the throne of France, so overthrowing him in favour of the rightful monarch would have been seen in the same way that overthrowing a dictator to install a democratic government would be seen today.

  11. crondog says:

    >I suppose nationalists could make the very dangerous bargain of telling their soldiers to always fight for the good guys, then get really good propaganda to make sure they look like the good guys. And maybe this would make them fight harder than if they were just doing the old fight-for-your-own-side thing? But honestly, Achilles seems to have been fighting really hard. Is this whole convoluted process really easier than just telling people from the start to fight for their own side and not betray it?

    I wouldn’t dismiss this so fast. If you can pull it off it’s a very good trick. You get people willing to commit atrocities and/or die for your cause while thinking they’re heroes. It is also more virulent as a meme, compared to clan loyalty which is largely constrained by geography.

  12. Steve Sailer says:

    I’ve read that Genghis Khan always felt that his conquests were morally justified by the bad behavior of his enemies.

    Humans are pretty good at rationalizing.

    • Aapje says:

      Dan Carlin said that the Mongols saw themselves as the chosen people: tasked by God to rule the world. Hence anyone who refused to submit went against God’s desires.

      • Ketil says:

        One thing I remember from his podcasts was that the mass extermination of conquered enemies were par for the course. Anybody conquering anybody would more often than not, kill all the men and rape all the women – and possibly kill them as well. In a more recent podcast, he describes how Caesar basically genocided the Gauls, killing hundreds of thousands of people. The middle ages were probably different, since aristocrats would be related in all sorts of ways, and also be valuable for ransom. I think foot soldiers were easily massacred then, too.

        I don’t think it was common to paint the enemy as evil to commit such atrocities, it was sufficient that they were the enemy, i.e., not us. I think it is hard to say when this changed or why, but I think maybe it has.

        • roystgnr says:

          > I think it is hard to say when this changed or why, but I think maybe it has.

          Tribute? If you can get the men to work for you, that’s more profitable than killing them. After everybody does that long enough, the definition of “enemy” changes from “people who will kill us all if they win” to “people who might levy higher taxes than our current ruler if they win”, and so killing them all doesn’t sound quite as existentially necessary, leading to a virtuous cycle.

          Unrelated: what’s that biohazard chi a symbol for? My Google-fu is failing me and my curiosity is killing me.

          • Aapje says:

            You have to keep in mind that generals can have different motivations from armies. A military posting was a great opportunity for a Roman general to become rich (and in Caesar’s case, to repay his enormous debts), but it was temporary, so there was little incentive to do choose the option that was more profitable in the long term. It was basically: get what you can as soon as possible, as long as the victims don’t have friends in Rome.

            The Mongols did prefer tribute. They didn’t react very nicely to being refused, though.

          • azhdahak says:

            There’s an old story about how, after the Mongols conquered the Chinese, they decided to exterminate them all and use China as grazing land, as they did to Western Xia… but one of their advisors, who happened to be half-Chinese, convinced them they’d profit more from leaving the Chinese alive and just taxing them.

          • Kevin C. says:

            @azhdahak

            but one of their advisors, who happened to be half-Chinese, convinced them they’d profit more from leaving the Chinese alive and just taxing them.

            That would be one Yelü Chucai (aka “Long Beard”), the last recorded speaker, reader, and writer of the Khitan language:

            He did his best to convince the Mongols to tax rather than slaughter conquered peoples. In Grousset’s Empire of the Steppes, it is reported that Ögedei would mock him, asking “Are you going to weep for the people again?”

        • JohnofSalisbury says:

          http://deremilitari.org/2014/07/killing-or-clemency-ransom-chivalry-and-changing-attitudes-to-defeated-opponents-in-britain-and-northern-france-7-12th-centuries/
          I’ve posted this to SSC before, and doubtless will again. It’s a great discussion of how humane norms of war got a grip in Europe. Basically, the Frankish warrior elite became convinced that one ought not to do that sort of thing to one’s fellow Christians, and, abetted by various economic and strategic considerations (eg ransom and relationsions, per Ketil), things spread slowly and haphazardly from there. Which plays nicely into Scott’s thesis.

      • Wrong Species says:

        I don’t think the Mongols went on a killing spree because they thought they were the chosen people. And I don’t think they called themselves the chosen people because they felt they needed a justification. From what I know about the mongols, and I could be wrong, is that they were almost amoral. They didn’t feel bad about slaughtering millions of people. They just did it because they could. It wasn’t until years later after interacting with civilization that they had the justification.

        Modern people think that anyone who slaughters innocent people needs some kind of ideological belief to justify it. But I don’t think that’s true. If it was, I don’t think people would have been so willing to do all these atrocities. But they did, and probably slept well at night.

        • Michael Watts says:

          From what I know about the mongols, and I could be wrong, is that they were almost amoral. They didn’t feel bad about slaughtering millions of people.

          […]

          Modern people think that anyone who slaughters innocent people needs some kind of ideological belief to justify it. But I don’t think that’s true.

          This looks like an interesting example of you making exactly the same mistake you’re pointing out. I guarantee you that morality was very important to the Mongols. Foreigners were not, except to the extent that they were occupying desirable land or paying taxes or tribute. But believing that the lives of random foreigners have no particular value doesn’t make the Mongols amoral; morality is of deep concern to everyone in a frontier society.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I don’t think Genghis Khan even had a strong sense of in-group ethics. He killed his brother over a fish. Is there evidence that he had any sense of ethical beliefs that restrained his behaviors?

          • Michael Watts says:

            Without bothering to address your question, I’ll note the same argument proves that the Romans, as illustrated by Caligula, were without morals.

        • nameless1 says:

          Look, we have primary sources: http://adamcollier.com/mongollettertopope/

    • Darwin says:

      Yes, but was it because they were The Bad Guys as a side, or because of their individual moral weakness/failings?

  13. Urthman says:

    The idea that Israel’s God should be worshiped because he is good rather than just because he is powerful or he is on our side goes back at least to the 6th Century BCE. In fact plenty of the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures insisted God would not be on Israel’s side if the people acted in ways that are recognizably “evil” to our modern sensibilities: lying, murder, stealing, accepting bribes, cheating poor people, etc.

    And you get stories like evil Jezebel killing a bunch of Yahweh’s prophets, sending Elijah into hiding, and convincing King Ahab to steal a poor man’s vineyard. Elijah prophesies that Ahab’s line will be wiped out and Jezebel’s blood licked up by dogs. Then Elijah’s successor anoints a new king who raises an army, kills Ahab’s son, marches on the palace and gets Jezebel’s own servants to rise up and throw her out the window to her death, her body to be eaten by dogs. It’s very recognizably a good vs. evil story. Her death is clearly comeuppance for (in part) the stealing of the poor man’s vinyard.

    I think the story of Nathan confronting King David over committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband is also a recognizably good vs. evil story. The seemingly-powerless good guy traps the King with a story about a rich man who steals a poor man’s sheep and has this triumphant, “You are the man!” moment after which David is shamed and punished for his evil deeds.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Those are good examples, Urthman

    • Darwin says:

      But was Jezebel a Bad Guy, with inhuman motivations, like Voldemort or Sauron? Or was she depicted as having typical human moral failings, like greed and envy and wrath and so forth?

      I don’t think anything here is denying that old stories had bad actors in them who were bad people, but this seems different from teh Good Guys vs Bad Guys mythos we have today, with capital-v Villains.

      • beleester says:

        There are a lot of Capital-V Villains, including literal comic-book supervillains, that are motivated by understandable, human moral failings. Magneto is a well-intentioned extremist. Ras al-Ghul thinks that Gotham is beyond saving and needs to be destroyed. Lex Luthor is driven by greed (or in some depictions, paranoia over how dangerous Superman could be).

        The MCU has a decent number of generic world-destroying villains (Guardians of the Galaxy, Age of Ultron), but the movies focused on individual heroes tend to have villains with smaller, more human motivations. The first Iron Man movie’s antagonist was just trying to make a profit in the weapons industry. And I’d note that the MCU is not exactly famous for having deep and complex villains.

        If you restrict it narrowly enough that only Sauron and Voldemort and their ilk count, then yes, you’ll probably find that it’s a recent phenomenon, but I think you’d also find that incomprehensible, inhuman evil isn’t actually that widespread in pop culture.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Then again, look at the behavior of Jacob. He twice screws Esau out of his birthright. And this is the founder of the tribe of Israel. You would think if the scribes were trying to impart moral instructions through their founding myths they would have cleaned up Jacob’s behavior a little bit. Instead what you have is something more like the archetypical warring brothers.

      Just saying a lot of the Old Testament stories sound much more like they’re telling stories that describe the human condition than they are weaving tales about moral paragons.

      • Randy M says:

        I think both you and Darwin are exaggerating the level of good & evil required for the stories to fall into that category. (Or I’m misunderstanding Scott’s post)

        It isn’t “our tribe is all good, yay, theirs all bad, boo”

        I think it is more that the stories are told with the understanding that we will side with the character who makes the more moral choices, and root for them to stay in the light, as it were.

        It isn’t impossible for a story with a grey hero to fall into this category–but when they fail, we expect to see them punished or admonished at least.

      • Deiseach says:

        Then again, look at the behavior of Jacob. He twice screws Esau out of his birthright.

        And in his turn gets screwed by his uncle (on his mother’s side, plainly Jacob gets his deviousness from Mommy Dearest) Laban, who first gets him to work seven years for him in order to marry (beautiful) Rachel, then switches (plain) Leah in at the marriage, then gets Jacob to agree to work another seven years to get Rachel as his second wife.

        After all this, his family life is still unsettled as his wives are jealous of each other – Leah is fertile and has plenty of kids, Rachel has none until after more marital shenanigans and competition between the literal sister-wives, she gives birth to two sons. The elder of these two is Jacob’s favourite, so naturally all his brothers hate him because of Dad’s favouritism and end up plotting to murder him, to ‘only’ sell him into slavery in Egypt then tell their father a false story about “he got eaten by… a wolf… or something. We don’t know, but here’s his blood-stained coat, you tell us!”

        Honestly, Esau comes out of this looking by far the better guy, and the moral seems to be “if you’re a scheming, deceitful, conniving, tricky so-and-so, don’t expect family harmony and domestic bliss, Mr Wise Guy”.

      • beleester says:

        I should point out that the Tanakh isn’t one book, but a collection of books, written by an unknown number of authors over quite a long span of time. It’s entirely possible for one section to be a morality play and another to be a recounting of complex tribal politics.

  14. Steve Sailer says:

    Hebrew/Jewish views of the Amalekites are probably relevant to the historical question. From Wikipedia:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amalek#Judaic_views_of_the_Amalekites

    In Judaism, the Amalekites came to represent the archetypal enemy of the Jews. In Jewish folklore the Amalekites are considered to be the symbol of evil. This concept has been used by some Hassidic rabbis (particularly the Baal Shem Tov) to represent atheism or the rejection of God. Nur Masalha, Elliot Horowitz and Josef Stern suggest that Amalekites have come to represent an “eternally irreconcilable enemy” that wants to murder Jews, and that Jews in post-biblical times sometimes associate contemporary enemies with Haman or Amalekites, and that some Jews believe that pre-emptive violence is acceptable against such enemies.[17]

    During the Purim festival, the Book of Esther is read in the commemoration of the saving of the Jewish people from Haman (considered to be an Amalekite) who leads a plot to kill the Jews. On the basis of Exodus 17:14, where the Lord promised to “blot out the name” of Amalek, it is customary for the audience to make noise and shout whenever “Haman” is mentioned, in order to desecrate his name.

    Extermination of the Amalekites[edit]

    Of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) followed by Orthodox Jews, three refer to the Amalek: to remember what the Amalekites did to the Israelites, not to forget what the Amalekites did to Israelites, and to destroy the Amalekites utterly.

    • outis says:

      I read the Wikipedia article, but it wasn’t quite clear. What did the Amalekites do to the Israelites, exactly?

      • joshuatfox says:

        Deuteronomy 25:18
        “Remember what Amalek did to you … How he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of your, the weak ones who were in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.”

      • beleester says:

        They attacked the Israelites as they were traveling, for apparently no reason, and attacked the stragglers at the rear.

        While they aren’t the only nation that Israel fights on their journey, the other nations are more diplomatic about it and the Israelites can try negotiating. Amalek is just “Surprise! Roll for initiative.”

  15. Barr says:

    The article is nonsense. There are elements of good versus evil, as well as natural versus natural/unnatural, social order/chaos, in tons of myths and fiction across cultures nearly as far back as we have any record. Many of the major medieval works have strong elements of good vs evil: Beowulf, Song of Roland, Gawain and the Green Knight. Obviously good and evil have changed their meanings over time. Older works stress values like fealty, social order, and temperance over things like individualism, and modern liberal values.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      But I would guess that Scott is right that Christianity is a big deal. For example, the Romans were just different in values from the Italians and my guess is Christianity played a big role. The Romans tended to have the moral values of, say, NFL team owners, which is fine but kind of limited for an entire culture. Italians might be less effectual than Romans, but it’s easier for me to identify with their more complex if contradictory moral values.

      • yodelyak says:

        I don’t have enough history to have a coherent object-level opinion.

        Working in politics I’ve often found it necessary to make a body-language level sign of agreement/deference to an older man who points at Christianity and/or the fall of Rome as something critically important for me to understand. I don’t know what it is that’s being pointed at, although I often get away with the man thinking I’m in the club, as it were. I kinda suspect it of being a literary equivalent of an architectural Thomisson, with the publication of “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” heavily influencing founding-era Americans, and then echoing through to the present via other highly influential writers/thinkers such as Isaac Asmiov and his Foundation series, or probably lots of other things I don’t know about or can’t remember right now.

        It’s funny, but I have a general sense that some of these men think Christianity sped up the fall of Rome, and some think Christianity sped up the recovery afterward, and some think Christianity was *caused* by the fall of Rome, and yet none of them are giving enough hints about what they think is important for it to be communicated. Mostly I am just so far from having enough object level knowledge to even think about this… If this is important in a way that should affect our political decisions, then it seems like we’re in *a lot* of trouble.

        Something I’m very interested in understanding is if/when memes from Buddhism or Hinduism might have traveled west and affected Rome or Judaism.

        • Deiseach says:

          Something I’m very interested in understanding is if/when memes from Buddhism or Hinduism might have traveled west and affected Rome or Judaism.

          Dionysus, I think, as the Hindu(ish) influence – he is perceived as coming from “the East”, though all such influences are mediated by passing through the Greeks first and then the Greek version being adopted by the Romans (for Greek influences from Hinduism, it seems Gymnosophists were more of an influence as philosophers). Romans tended to be very suspicious of foreign cults even where they adopted them; Isis as the Egyptian ‘mystery religion’ was both very popular especially amongst upper-class Roman women, and regarded as “weird foreign cult” (though not as weird as the worship of Cybele and her eunuch priesthood). Buddhist influences I could not tell you, though there must have been some what with the whole Silk Road thing.

          The argument against “Well the reason Christianity survived and thrived was because the Emperor adopted it”; yes, but Mithraism was very popular with the army, had a huge influence, had the same mystery cult initiatory and afterlife elements – but never took off in the same way. Arianism, as a version of/alternative to orthodox Christianity, was the dominant strain for centuries, even with Arian emperors – but eventually was overcome by the Christianity we know today. How did this happen?

          • Protagoras says:

            Dionysus may bear some resemblance to some gods in the Hindu tradition, I suppose, but all evidence suggests that his cult originated in Greece (though the Greeks themselves do not seem to have always known this; he’s kind of a god of otherness and foreignness, so they often invented fictitious foreign origins for him).

          • Mary says:

            Dionysus was once thought to be a foreign god imported subsequent to Homeric times, because Homer does not mention him. However, learning to interpret earlier clay tablets has refuted this: they were mostly accounts, and included buying sacrifices for gods, including Dionysus — although, interestingly enough, NOT Apollo.

          • yodelyak says:

            I had never heard of Gymnosophists. I know a little about Mithras and the unconquered sun as one competing religion in/around Cornwall, as a legacy of Roman rule… but nothing about Mithraism or Arianism as a religion during Roman rule in the Mediterranean. Lots of hooks here, thanks.

        • SEE says:

          From about the conquest of Alexander to the age of the Islamic conquests there was a reasonable amount of contact between India and the Mediterranean. Hellenized residents of Bactria were the first people to make Buddha statues. Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to Greece and Egypt. Buddhist gravestones dating to the Ptolemaic era have been found in Alexandria. And the writings of the Church Father Clement of Alexandria (who lived from 150-211 AD) mention Indian gymnosophists being divided into ‘Sarmanæ’ (sramana) and ‘ Brahmanae’ (brahmins), and including followers of ‘Boutta’ (Buddha).

          • Steve Sailer says:

            In Roman times it wasn’t too hard to sail to India. You sailed to Egypt, crossed over to the Red Sea, sailed down to its opening onto the Indian Ocean (the Aden/Djibouti area), and at a certain time of the year there was a super-steady West wind that pushed boats right to southwest India. It was more work to work your way back west around the Indian Ocean, but the trips were made most years. Rome to India to Rome was, probably, at minimum a 2 year roundtrip, but it wasn’t hugely dangerous.

            It seems odd that there wasn’t more Indian cultural influence on the Mediterranean world.

          • yodelyak says:

            @See,

            Lots for me to read about here. Thanks!

            @ Steve S.

            Didn’t know it was a two year water-passage happening regularly. That does make it seem like there’d be a good amount of influence both directions.

          • Mary says:

            In the Hellenstic era, we have an inscription in a Greek-speaking area where an Indian adopted the interpretatio graeca and identified Krshna with Pan.

            I think it was in the Middle East, to be sure.

      • ArkyBeagle says:

        Roman society was an amalgam of other ( generally Hellenic ) societies. Very little was original with Rome; they aggregated ideas from others. They ran roughly like a really large biker gang, where, say the Spartans were an extremely violent biker gang. As with the Mongols, the tradeoff for being conquered was access to the large trading networks running though the empire. We would consider Romans bloody, amoral and untrustworthy.

        If you’re a (Rene) Girardian, then you see Christian Rome as less sanguine and entropic than the pagan version. But this also dissipated martial virtue ( or something something – waves hands…) leading to disolution/disspation in the West, and conquest by the rising of Islam in the East. Rome’s tactical might[1] outstripped it’s logistics by quite a margin, so they had to lose conquest as the primary mechanism for rising in social standing. Economically, both Romes just imploded as rent-seekers cast in the mold of Marcus Licinius Crassus ripped everybody off to blindness. It’s less clear the the Eastern Empire was as economically dissipated, but it was certainly not competitive in its own defense.

        And finally, there’s Schama. As Judaism became an abstraction, after being a practice and before that, a place, it became harder to kill. This explains its competitive advantage in an anthropic-principle manner. Likewise, Rome morphed into The Church and moved into more and more of an abstraction.

        [1] the intro to the feature file “Titus” features a choreographed Roman pike square; quite intimidating.

  16. Taymon A. Beal says:

    I’m not sure how this relates to the “nationalism” hypothesis, but I always assumed that the rise of good vs. evil in fiction was connected to World War II, widely considered to be That One War Wherein There Were Actually Good Guys And Bad Guys.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t know if that’s true, for a few reasons.

      1. Didn’t people not really think about the Holocaust that much until a decade or two after the war was over? Didn’t “the Nazis are much worse than previous enemies” not really play that much of a role during the time of the war itself?

      2. Didn’t people have some pretty similar “other side is really evil” narratives for WWI (“the Huns”) and the Napoleonic Wars that just haven’t really aged well?

      3. I think there have been a lot of other-side-really-evil wars in history, eg the Mongol invasions. And more where one side was at least very convinced the other was evil, like the Crusades. Even though my intuitions say otherwise, it’s not clear that Confederate slavery was so much better than Nazi death camps – was the Civil War good-vs-evil? I agree that our literature seems to be re-fighting WWII a lot, but I think it requires explanation why WWII had this effect beyond just “it was actually bad”.

      • Aapje says:

        Confederate slavery was so much better than Nazi death camps

        Exploiting a group in a harsh way seems a lot less bad* than seeking out to destroy them.

        *Still very bad

      • Baeraad says:

        was the Civil War good-vs-evil?

        I’ve heard a lot of people being adamant that it was, actually. And while I hate to go along with self-righteous black-and-white narratives, from everything I know, er… I find it kind of hard to argue otherwise? You can criticise the North for failing to find a third option to war and slavery, but since the South opted for war and slavery, I’d say they definitely took first place in the Biggest Bastard competition.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          That’s the modern take. But for at least a century the War Between the States was heroes on both sides, fighting for their homelands, with honorable victors and the honorable defeated. Nobody would have ever thought of tearing down a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s only in the last two decades or so that popular culture or Hollywood has turned the confederates into explicitly evil people who did what they did because “Yaaah evil!”

          And I think Scott’s right about the perception of WWII, as well. Sure, Hitler was evil and the holocaust was bad (if it were noticed much at all), but you still had plenty of portrayals in which German soldiers were just…the poor schmucks on the other side of the war, and not evil themselves. Consider Hogan’s Heroes. Today I cannot see Hollywood portraying a Nazi POW camp commandment as a bumbling, but mostly decent careerist like Colonel Klink. In Hogan’s Heroes (2018) Colonel Klink would be starving and torturing Hogan and pals for fun.

          • bean says:

            Today I cannot see Hollywood portraying a Nazi POW camp commandment as a bumbling, but mostly decent careerist like Colonel Klink. In Hogan’s Heroes (2018) Colonel Klink would be starving and torturing Hogan and pals for fun.

            I’m sure there would be someone from the Nazis who is Capital-E Evil, but it might not be the commandant. I’ll agree that since we don’t need the Good Germans to face the Ravening Soviet Hordes, there isn’t as much pressure to separate them from the Evil Nazis (which we exterminated completely, except for a few hiding in Argentina), but it’s not completely impossible. Just so long as your sympathetic Germans aren’t SS or the like.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            It’s only in the last two decades or so that popular culture or Hollywood has turned the confederates into explicitly evil people who did what they did because “Yaaah evil!”

            Well, it was explicitly slavery because of “Yaaah slavery!”

            Nobody would have ever thought of tearing down a statue of Robert E. Lee.

            That’s largely because he wasn’t fully on board the “war to save slavery” train. E.g.:

            “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”

            He felt he had a duty to fight for his country (i.e. Virginia, not the USA) even if it was in the wrong. That’s basically what we expect of a soldier. But if instead he had instead been publicly mouthing phrases from John C. Calhoun speeches, I don’t think the statues would have lasted so long.

          • LHN says:

            Maybe. There’s some indication that there wasn’t so much a national consensus on the Civil War as two regional good-versus-evil narratives and a tacit agreement not to bring it up too loudly in mixed company. E.g.,

            Writing in 1903, Union veteran John Stewart had this to say about the idea of placing a statue of Robert E. Lee on the Gettysburg battlefield: “But what is to be gained by putting this statue of Lee on Gettysburg battlefield? If you want historical accuracy as your excuse, then place upon this field a statue of Lee holding in his hand the banner under which he fought, bearing the legend: ‘We wage this war against a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to humanity.’”

            https://angrystaffofficer.com/2017/09/25/deconstructing-the-reconciliation-narrative-of-the-civil-war/

          • Nick says:

            In Hogan’s Heroes (2018) Colonel Klink would be starving and torturing Hogan and pals for fun.

            I doubt it’s representative, but Inglourious Basterds seems like a counterexample to this trend.

          • Matt M says:

            Tarantino is always the exception to the rule, and manages to be just funny/subversive enough to get away with it.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            A lot of current views on the Civil War reflect retconning by New York and Los Angeles media people who can’t imagine that any of their ancestors might have supported the racist and anti-Semitic South.

          • SamChevre says:

            @ Steve Sailer

            And “racist and anti-semitic” is linking two things that weren’t really linked in 1860. The South had an influential and fairly well-accepted Jewish community, and Judah Benjamin was a cabinet member–he was not observant, but was definitely Jewish; and the KKK in its original incarnation was not particularly anti-Jewish.

          • James Kabala says:

            Sam Chevre: Steve is being mostly sarcastic. If you read his blog, the history (or lack thereof) of Southern anti-Semitism has become one of his concerns lately.

            (Also, I hit Report on your comment by mistake. Scott, please ignore it.)

          • James Kabala says:

            LHN: Those views were always there in the margins, but for most of the century they were not the dominant cultural narrative. (That statue of Lee did get built, after all.) That was especially true as more and more veterans died – popular culture was more Confederate-friendly in the 1930s or even the 1950s than it had been in the 1890s.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            @Andrew Cady

            Well, it was explicitly slavery because of “Yaaah slavery!”

            But that’s not why your average infantryman fought. Your average infantryman was poor. He probably didn’t own slaves, or come from a slave owning family. The Confederate government fought because “yaaaah slavery!” but Johnny Reb fought because a bunch of stinking yankees were marching into his state to tell him what to do.

            I don’t really agree with the war on drugs. I think there are a fair number of people in jail for drug offenses that probably shouldn’t be, and I can understand how mass incarceration can be seen as a civil rights issue. Perhaps enlightened Canada under Trudeau legalizes weed, looks across the southern border and decides to come “liberate” our poor, wrongly imprisoned citizens. Agree or disagree with the object-level issue of mass incarceration for drug crimes, I’m picking up my rifle and shootin’ me some of them syrup swillin’ beaver fuckers. They have no right to come down here telling us what to do.

            Point is, we used to treat confederate soldiers as those who honorably fought and honorably lost. Being a confederate reenactor did not mean you supported slavery. We used to even treat German soldiers in WWII that way. But now we’ve retconned these wars into “good vs. evil.” So far that in popular culture we’ve got stuff like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter where the confederates are vampires, and the Nazi Zombie modes in Call of Duty. The losing side isn’t just evil anymore, they’re not even human.

            The fact you think they were good vs evil conflicts doesn’t change the fact society didn’t used to view them that way. You simply hold the new opinion, not the old opinion, but you should recognize it’s the new opinion.

            ETA:

            @Nick

            I doubt it’s representative, but Inglourious Basterds seems like a counterexample to this trend.

            I’m not sure what you mean by this. In Inglourious Basterds the heroes are the Basterds who go and justifiably brutally murder the nazis. Was anyone supposed to feel sympathy for the nazis? I thought you were supposed to be cheering on the Basterds.

          • bean says:

            We used to even treat German soldiers in WWII that way. But now we’ve retconned these wars into “good vs. evil.” So far that in popular culture we’ve got stuff like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter where the confederates are vampires, and the Nazi Zombie modes in Call of Duty. The losing side isn’t just evil anymore, they’re not even human.

            The portrayal of the losing side as human, at least after WWII, was the result of the need to rehabilitate the Germans so we could let them have guns to fight the Soviets. With that need gone, and the war an increasingly distant memory, it’s become more acceptable to just focus on the Nazi part of that dichotomy. I suspect there were similar drivers for the portrayal of the Confederacy.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            bean, then the question is, is portraying the other/losing side in a war as “evil” after the war the default state? Obviously during the war the state and culture are going to demonize the enemy for propaganda purposes. But once the war is over, are the demonic portrayals of the other side usually walked back or not? It only took a generation or two after the Revolutionary War to normalize relations with the British. I don’t think Americans today think the Vietnamese are evil, or the citizens of Iraq. Saddam is still evil, yes, but the Republican Guard were schlubs.

            WWII and the Civil War are the only cases I can think of where the “wrong side of history” is thought of as more evil today than they were likely thought of as during the actual war.

          • bean says:

            WWII and the Civil War are the only cases I can think of where the “wrong side of history” is thought of as more evil today than they were likely thought of as during the actual war.

            This is true, and it does make those interesting. The logic behind the demonization of the Confederacy in recent years is obvious. It’s serving modern political ends, and those pushing it don’t feel any need to tone it down in the name of national unity.
            But it’s not so obvious why the Germans/Nazis are still so demonized. (Besides the obvious, which is that the Holocaust wasn’t revealed to the world until they’d already lost.) Again, during the war, there was no German/Nazi distinction, and the really terrible propaganda was focused on the Japanese. I suspect it was because of how people tend to think of concepts. When you think of the Japanese, you’re more likely to think of consumer electronics and anime than you are of Pearl Harbor, because Japan is the same concept in both cases. But during the 50s and 60s, the US took all of the evil attached to the Germans and transferred it onto the Nazis, which then formed a Singularity of Evil. The only things that Nazis bring to mind now are some idiot skinheads and the Third Reich. All of the later good bits that came out of Germany attached to “German” instead. So everyone agrees that the Nazis were evil, and these days, it’s the one group you can punch at without objection. I think that the Jewish promotion of Holocaust awareness has also played a large part in this. While it was in some ways uniquely horrifying, the Holocaust does get attention out of all proportion to its size, and it’s very firmly linked to the Nazis.
            So I guess I’m saying that if the Germans hadn’t been rehabilitated in the postwar years, I think they’d been seen as less evil during the war now.

          • dndnrsn says:

            There’s something interesting in the way the evil has been shifted and transmuted. In WWII, the Germans behaved pretty abominably – everywhere they went, with regard to Jews and a few other groups, and in the east, in general. Random German soldiers did a great deal of really awful stuff in the east; the “clean Wehrmacht myth” was just that – a myth. But the generals who wrote books after the war defending themselves were defending against charges concerning Germany’s war crimes in general.

            Then, as bean notes, the crimes of the Germans in general were sort of loaded onto the Nazis specifically. Around the same time, awareness of the Holocaust really increased, especially relative to other German crimes – it’s far better known than, say, those millions of Red Army POWs starved/worked to death. (And the popular imagination conceives of the Holocaust as something that happened at Auschwitz, rather than hundreds of mass graves across the USSR + the Reinhard camps + Auschwitz).

            Then, with the Germans no longer needed as a bulwark against the Soviets, recognition of the role of most Germans, rather than just the SS, in Germany’s crimes came back in. But it was a recognition largely based around the Holocaust. It’s widely recognized that the vast majority of Germans were guilty to some degree or another with regard to the Holocaust, but Germany’s other crimes are mostly obscure to people without an interest in history.

          • Ventrue Capital says:

            @Conrad Honcho:

            Perhaps enlightened Canada under Trudeau legalizes weed, looks across the southern border and decides to come “liberate” our poor, wrongly imprisoned citizens. Agree or disagree with the object-level issue of mass incarceration for drug crimes, I’m picking up my rifle and shootin’ me some of them syrup swillin’ beaver fuckers. They have no right to come down here telling us what to do.

            I am a libertarian who cheers for the Basterds (in Inglourious Basterds) and for the North in the War Against Slavery, and if Canada invaded the U.S. in order to stop the War on Minority Drugs, I would be part of the Fifth Column.

          • @Conrad Honcho:

            Most of us never owned slaves and never expect to,
            It takes money to buy a slave and we’re most of us poor,
            But we won’t lie down and let the North walk over us
            About slaves or anything else.

            (John Brown’s Body, Benet)

          • Lillian says:

            I’m not sure what you mean by this. In Inglourious Basterds the heroes are the Basterds who go and justifiably brutally murder the nazis. Was anyone supposed to feel sympathy for the nazis? I thought you were supposed to be cheering on the Basterds.

            Inglorious Basterds is an… inglorious mess of a film that’s basically parts of three different movies haphazardly glued together, of which the one actually about the Inglorious Basterds is pretty bad. The other two being a potentially great film about Shosana and Hans Landa, and probably decent one about a British operation enemy lines.

            Leaving that aside though, no you’re not really supposed to cheer for the Basterds. Oh sure Quentin Tarantino fully expects that you will, but he’s subtly making fun of you for it and drawing parallels between you and than the actual Nazis. That’s part of the point of the theatre scene, the fictional audience cheering as their hero guns down the bad guys by the job lot is meant to reflect the real life audience’s similar reactions earlier in the movie. Also at the start of the film where Hans Landa points out how the farmer hates rats simply because they’re rats, and compares it to how Nazis hate Jews simply because they’re Jews, Tarantino is also implying that the audience just hates Nazis because they’re Nazis.

            The movie also includes a broad portrayal of German characters. On one end there’s the common soldiers who are shown as just regular folk doing their duty to their country same as anyone else would, but you also have an arrogant Gestapo officer, a rapey jerk of a war hero, a sociopathic SS officer, and all the top Nazis including literally Hitler. That the Basterds, and by implication the audience, conflates all of them as a single entity is not meant to reflect well on them.

            Again though, the whole thing is something of an incoherent mess. What points Tarantino was trying to made were not made very effectively. In my case in particular, i was deeply uncomfortable with the Basterd’s antics, so trying to turn them back on me fell pretty flat. Not to mention that the lot of them are just not very interesting. Like i said above, the Inglorious Basterds are the worst part of Inglorious Basterds.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            @Ventrue Capital

            You know, in Dante’s Inferno, the deepest pit of hell is reserved for traitors.

            @Lillian

            Huh. I’ll have to watch it again with that in mind. It’s been awhile. I just remember it being about “killin’ nat-zees.”

            Just to make sure, in Django Unchained, I was supposed to be rooting for Django, right?

          • Lillian says:

            Yes, you were supposed to be cheering for Django. He doesn’t draw out or take pleasure in killing his enemies unless they’ve gone out of their way to make things personal, and those that do are clearly terrible people who have it coming. He also shows some moral qualms in contrast with the Basterd’s unbridled fanaticism.

          • Nornagest says:

            There is a certain kind of romance to unbridled fanaticism. Most people are eager to be fed a line saying that such-and-such a group is human trash and subsequently to cheer on their proxies as they do whatever horrifying shit they want. And we’ve got roughly seventy years’ worth of rhetoric in the culture saying that Nazis qualify.

            I think Quentin Tarantino understands this very well. Though the point could have been made more cleanly, yes.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I think the Nazis were considered bad because they were conquering other countries just because they wanted to.

      • bean says:

        2. Didn’t people have some pretty similar “other side is really evil” narratives for WWI (“the Huns”) and the Napoleonic Wars that just haven’t really aged well?

        Very much so in the case of WWI. I think it actually resulted in some downplaying of axis atrocities because of how out of hand the whole Rape of Belgium thing had gotten. To some extent, I think that WWII propaganda re the Nazis has stuck around better because the Nazis were deliberately vilified separately from the Germans when we needed to use the (West) Germans against the Soviets. During the war, that separation wasn’t there, and it’s sort of visible when you think about the different perceptions of the Germans and Japanese during the war. The Japanese were really, really bad, too, but it’s not widely remembered.

        • Doug S. says:

          Well, not so much in the US, but China remembers.

        • Michael Handy says:

          During the war, that separation wasn’t there, and it’s sort of visible when you think about the different perceptions of the Germans and Japanese during the war. The Japanese were really, really bad, too, but it’s not widely remembered.

          In Asia, even in the Anglophone/Anglophonish countries, it is very much the perception that the Japanese were worse. part of it was who was doing the bombing, but some of it is that men came back from German PoW camps thin, but fed and in as good spirits as could be considered.

          Men mostly didn’t come back from Japanese camps. The reasons why are more complex, as I’m sure you know, but it left a mark that the Germans were Lawful Evil, and the Japanese Chaotic Evil. To illustrate, I have been personally accosted by a WW2 veteran for the crime of eating sushi.

          • bean says:

            In Asia, even in the Anglophone/Anglophonish countries, it is very much the perception that the Japanese were worse. part of it was who was doing the bombing, but some of it is that men came back from German PoW camps thin, but fed and in as good spirits as could be considered.

            I should have specified that I was talking from a US-centric perspective. I’m well aware of the perception of Japan in Asia (I hit every military-related museum I could in Singapore, and I was usually the only one who wasn’t an Australian), but at least in most of the West, everyone knows about the Holocaust. If you ask about Japanese atrocities, you’ll maybe get something about The Rape of Nanking or the Bataan Death March, but it’s definitely something that’s not as well-known. I suspect this is because of the focus on Nazis as opposed to Germans, and because the Jews have worked quite hard to keep the Holocaust in public memory, while Bataan and China don’t have quite the same constituency. US propaganda was far more anti-Japanese than anti-German during the war itself, which should have spilled over more, but doesn’t seem to have done so.

        • Jiro says:

          The Japanese are not widely remembered as bad in America because the left has to portray the Japanese as victims in order to oppose US nuclear weapons. After a few decades of this, everyone forgets what the Japanese did.

      • lupis42 says:

        Didn’t you, in fact, once write a post about the Battle Hymn of the Republic?

        The song portrays a very strong good-vs-evil view of the American Civil War, and it’s popularity suggests that such a view was either already popular or at least very well received.

      • Alraune says:

        Didn’t people not really think about the Holocaust that much until a decade or two after the war was over?

        In the most reliable primary source for contemporaneous US public perception I know of –the most popular late-war propaganda comics–, the Japanese are typically portrayed as vicious, inhuman goblins setting acid traps and staging suicide bombings that make ISIS look bush league. Hitler, by contrast, is typically portrayed as a buffoonish tinpot yokel chain-ganging his even more backwards neighbors into coal mines.

        • James Kabala says:

          There must be enough material out there for someone to write a good cultural history of how the Germans gradually replaced the Japanese as the main villains in the American World War II narrative. Obviously increasing Holocaust awareness played a role. I am mostly serious when I say that the Animal House line about “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” alludes to this transition.

      • Deiseach says:

        2. Didn’t people have some pretty similar “other side is really evil” narratives for WWI (“the Huns”) and the Napoleonic Wars that just haven’t really aged well?

        Atrocity propaganda about the Huns from the First World War was part of the reason the first reports about the Final Solution were disbelieved; suuuure, they’re rounding people including women and children up and sending them off to death camps to murder them horribly!

        For instance, the short stories (and journalism work) of Arthur Machen during the First World War, like the story “The Happy Children” from 1915, where the narrator thinks he sees, in an English village, a procession of the village children acting some old play, but it turns out to be the ghosts of the children murdered by the Germans in their wartime atrocities (as in this recruiting poster image):

        …I could see the children plainly as they went by singing, with the rapture and exultation of them that sing in the woods in springtime.

        They were all in white, but some of them had strange marks upon them which, I supposed, were of significance in this fragment of some traditional mystery-play that I was beholding. Many of them had wreaths of dripping seaweed about their brows; one showed a painted scar on her throat; a tiny boy held open his white robe, and pointed to a dreadful wound above his heart, from which the blood seemed to flow; another child held out his hands wide apart and the palms looked torn and bleeding, as if they had been pierced. One of the children held up a little baby in her arms, and even the infant showed the appearance of a wound on its face.

        …I had seen the White Order of the Innocents. I had seen those who came singing from the deep waters that are about the Lusitania; I had seen the innocent martyrs of the fields of Flanders and France rejoicing as they went up to hear their Mass in the spiritual place.

    • phoenixy says:

      I also think you could argue it in reverse, that the good guy / bad guy narrative shapes how we think of WWII. The good vs. evil narrative of WWII was super heavily complicated by Russia’s role in the war, since they clearly weren’t good guys…arguably this has contributed to popular mainstream views of WWII in places like the US kind of avoiding focus on the Soviet dimension because it doesn’t fit into a good vs evil narrative of the war.

  17. AeXeaz says:

    Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morality” is a much better take on the differences between “modern” and “ancient” morality.

  18. Andrew Simpson says:

    Scott’s explanation lines up in an interesting way with the Master Morality/Slave Morality distinction that Nietzsche makes in Genealogy of Morals. Like Nietzsche, Scott and Catherine Nichols at Aeon want to explain a change over time in the way that we tell ourselves stories about morality. And it seems to be describing a similar underlying change, too: We went from framing characters as “Good and Bad” in the sense of “winners and losers” to framing them as “Good and Evil” in the sense of “kind and cruel.” This is at least a change and possibly a total reversal of values. But neither Scott nor Catherine engages with the Master Morality/Slave Morality distinction directly.

    It seems like a Nietzschean could reply to Scott that, while simplistic Good-and-Evil stories have more memetic success, it’s not necessarily to the benefit of the people and cultures that adopt and share them. Scott suggests the change to Good and Evil stories has to do with transcending group loyalties, engaging in individual moral reasoning, and widening the circle of concern, which all sounds like moral progress. But isn’t it just as possible that the abundance of Good-and-Evil stories are a salve for people who are weak and hopeless and want to feel better about their position?

    We all want to imagine that we could be like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins or Jesus Christ—we could transcend our humble upbringing to save the world when the time is right and the moment calls for us to strike a blow against a massive, world-historic evil. But that’s a great way to feel satisfied with ourselves while sitting on our ass in our hometown in the boonies. We don’t need fancy things like Death Stars or rings of power or even targeting computers—if duty calls, we will be ready with our pluck and our firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, and that will see us through.

    This is a story that the powerful are now happy to spread and the weak are happy to accept, and that makes it a successful meme. But it’s sour grapes, a kind of cultural trap, and it would be good if we could bust out of it.

    Maybe Scott doesn’t think the Good Guy/Bad Guy storytelling shift is the same as Master Morality and Slave Morality. Or maybe he thinks the Nietzschean story is wrong. But I am eager to know how he’d address the Nietzschean take.

    • Darwin says:

      Is this claiming that modern people have less power and are less self-actualized than, say, peasants in 200AD? Either saying that this is true and therefore they need slave morality to feel better when the old peasants didn’t, or saying that they are accepting of this state of affairs because of slave morality whereas the peasants rejected it?

      Either way, that seems to me like an extraordinary and unlikely claim.

      If not, when was the time of Master morality, and what benefits did it actually have for the common person?

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Is this claiming that modern people have less power and are less self-actualized than, say, peasants in 200AD?

        In terms of moral development they’re probably about the same. However I would wager there are an awful lot more people today who see themselves as some kind of paragon in a moral struggle. I mean, after all, my 10,000 word screed about how Trump is just like Voldemort got gold and 500 upvotes on reddit, so racism will be history any day now. Let’s see some peasant do that, eh?

      • Alraune says:

        Is this claiming that modern people have less power and are less self-actualized than, say, peasants in 200AD?

        Less [social] power is obviously true, the creation of larger and larger hierarchies puts you further and further from the top. No 200AD peasant had to compare his wife or herself to a “celebrity” or read aspirational advertizements, and the powerful could insulate themselves from far fewer dangers, so there was a plausible perception that malfeasance was harshly punished.

    • yodelyak says:

      Scott suggests the change to Good and Evil stories has to do with transcending group loyalties, engaging in individual moral reasoning, and widening the circle of concern, which all sounds like moral progress. But isn’t it just as possible that the abundance of Good-and-Evil stories are a salve for people who are weak and hopeless and want to feel better about their position?

      I’m inclined to call it both moral progress and a good salve for the weak and hopeless.

      I think a memeplex that accommodates the weak and hopeless, and gets them to take sufficient heart to score a blow for some larger good, perhaps especially the might-for-right strong… that represents a good improvement, in terms of social collaboration, over a more pure “might is right” formulation (which will have the weak or less strong-willed despairing all too readily).

      I think particularly in terms of creating a norm of punishing ethical defectors, good guy/bad guy is much better than the Nietzschean take, at least for a starting position for educating the very young. I think this comparison shows what I mean:

      If I’m a Nietzschean in a Nietzschean society, and I believe myself to be pretty far to the weak/hopeless side of the spectrum, am I more likely to undertake personally costly vengeance as an act of altruism to my community? Say, e.g., I discover a car dealer has ripped me off by disguising major defects in a car I bought a few months back, costing me thousands, but not enough that I can benefit myself with expensive litigation or etc… do I sacrifice my time/money to attack the masterful and strong dealer who screwed me? Or, for a writ-large example, say I’m somewhere in the bowels of a presidential administration… am I likely to go Daniel Ellsberg and risk the vengeance of a masterful/strong president Nixon, Daniel Ellsberg-style, for the benefit of others? Same set of questions for a good guy / bad guy society… which would you rather live in?

      I do think a Nietzsche-engaged person might be much less willing to let themselves fall further along the weak/hopeless side of the spectrum in the first place. I do think that laziness/willingness-to-despair can be a problem, so I’m sympathetic to Nietzsche’s ideas, and think there’s a good place for them, or related ideas, in young-adult fiction and college syllabi. In other words, like everyone, I like the story of the little red hen. But I think the harder problem is to get relatively weaker/more hopeless people to feel enough hope and warm fuzzy nobility/purposefulness when they self-sacrifice to “punch up” e.g. punish more-powerful defectors, or at least “punch back” and punish even the more powerful who defect specifically against them… so on balance, I think I prefer Star Wars values to Ubermensch-ian ones.

      As a parting shot… I think the phrase “predatory nihilism” describes a behavior I’ve encountered in some corners. It’s something like a direct assault on a person’s framework for meaning, or hope of achieving things within that framework. The point is to engender hopelessness and despair, and thereby passivity, which make a person more easily destroyed/co-opted/exploited. E.g., if you persuade a person they’re incapable, how far will that go to rendering them incapable? If you persuade them no one but you could ever love them, how will they ever leave you? I think individuals reading Nietzsche to themselves often find it an empowering experience, because reasons. But I think it’s instructive how often those individuals then go and try to share the ideas with others, and encounter hostility and even find others are punishing them for being “defectors”–because quoting Nietzsche is often perceived as taking a view that will engender hopelessness or passivity in others, and hence predatory. I think the lesson from my experience is–particularly when trying to argue *for* self-actualization–to keep a loose but strong current of hope for all, and respect for the weak, at bottom, and build specific accolades and encouragements for self-actualization on top of that.

      • Sangfroid says:

        Nietzsche is well aware that there is no ‘universal’ morality for all people. Some people are weak and sick, and need a philosophy to manage their ressentiment. Some people are strong and healthy, and need a different philosophy. His contention was that slave morality had infected healthy and strong people and corrupted their instincts.

        As for the rest of your comment… your reading of Nietzsche is shallow enough that you aren’t even discussing his philosophy. Just sit down one afternoon with a copy of The Gay Science if you don’t have time for anything else.

        • Mary says:

          I remember The Gay Science. It was — rather less impressive as argument than you are presenting it as.

        • yodelyak says:

          I’m aware that Nietzsche’s writing is quite a trip and I of course wasn’t trying to do it justice. I was just disagreeing with the comment I quoted. I almost started my comment with a preface “I’ve only read two Nietzsche books, so what do I know, but I do have enough of an opinion to disagree with this statement…”

          I think I stated a pretty cogent point, which wasn’t intended to encapsulate all of Nietzsche but did respond well to the original comment. I stand by what I said, for now anyway. Anyway I have read a couple of his (but not The Gay Science) and will eventually get around to more, probably.

          I think we can have philosophies that work for us both while we’re young strong and healthy, and still work for u when we’re old and facing death. There’s a respect in which any philosophy I can’t adopt today, not knowing whether I’ll be strong tomorrow or not, is a crap philosophy. I think we can at least sometimes have shared purposes that unite frail and strong alike, and there’s nothing inherently despicable about a strong person caring (say) for his/her ailing parents, or for the future of his society, or any other damn thing. I’m not saying Nietzsche didn’t think that was so, but I am saying that Simpson’s post (and yours) don’t seem to me to articulate something very compelling, and seem to fall into the trap I mentioned of not keeping a good base current of hope for all and respect for the weak as human beings.

    • JohnofSalisbury says:

      What’s so interesting about the Nietzschean take that Scott should bother addressing it? You say that the good vs evil narratives are a cultural trap, but it doesn’t look to me like you’ve given any reasons for believing that. What’s so bad about weak people feeling good about themselves? It’s not as if these stories counsel complacency for ordinary people: the characters make tremendous efforts to fight evil. If the weak end up believing that the powerful are evil, that is bad for the powerful. If enough weak people successfully identify genuine evils and make great efforts to fight them, the evils will be mitigated, which is good.

  19. melboiko says:

    I dislike that the word “better” is used in the sense of “memetically effective”. By which sense Coca-cola is better than French wine, a Big Mac is better than Argentinian steak, Katy Perry is better than Bach, The Little Prince is better than Virginia Woolf, and other objective falsehoods. And the random-reinforcement lever would be the super duper ultra best thing in the whole wide world.

    The distinction between “good quality; acquired taste; lots of hedons” and “easy to like; addictive; few hedons” is a distinction that will get more and more important, I think, now that evil design-marketing-math-psychologist-programmers are explicitly competing to create the most effective possible Skinner boxes. The mobile game landscape, for example, has created an impressive amount of games that are boring and we hate to play and yet just can’t stop; and then, in a particularly moustache-twirling stroke of evil, they offer you the option of paying to not play—”buy a Level Boost by only ten Froocoins and you don’t have to click the same thing 1000 times!”. Spending some time with a game like this and then going back to an old-fashioned arcade game (the type where you paid to play more because it was fun) feels like the same absolute quality-of-life improvement as moving from Coca-cola to fresh fruit juice, or fast-food burgers to handmade ones, etc.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I dislike that the word “better” is used in the sense of “memetically effective”. By which sense Coca-cola is better than French wine, a Big Mac is better than Argentinian steak, Katy Perry is better than Bach, The Little Prince is better than Virginia Woolf, and other objective falsehoods.

      I was provisionally with you until the “objective” part, then you lost me. I don’t think that word means what you think it means. Are you really claiming that the relative merits of Bach vs. Katy Perry are an immutable fact of nature, like the relative masses of the Moon and the Sun ?

      • melboiko says:

        Yes, facetiously.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Right, but the problem is, can you objectively justify that “easy to like; addictive; few hedons” is an objectively coherent concept ? What’s the difference between “linking” and “hedons” ? How do you measure these quantities in an objective way ? You seem to be implying that Katy Perry is worse than Bach, but is that universally true ?

          • melboiko says:

            Ok, I shall attempt a non-facetious answer then.

            I was being kind of unfair to Katy Perry; what Perrian songs provide us is a different kind of enjoyment than Bach compositions, and it’s not totally appropriate to compare the two. Hedons come in colors.

            One way to derive enjoyment from a Bach composition, or classical/orchestral/erudite music in general, could be something as follows. First you have to consciously notice the individual melodic lines, or “voices”, and the way their pitch rises and falls, and their rhythm. (When I’m doing this, I find it helps to imagine I’m playing the instrument, even if I only have a vague idea of what’s the instrument is like). Once you’ve listened to the composition a few times and grew some familiarity (=burned some recognition synapses) for each voice, you listen again and then try achive kind of a gestalt perception, feeling the rhythm and the melody of all of them at once; their individual sensations are designed to fit together, in what’s called “harmony”. (This feature, and this feature only, is a curious Western/European fetish; everything else is musically universal, but only the European tradition has decided to focus on this weird act of mental juggling. If you compare it with, say, African or Indian music, you realize that the “complex” European music is relatively simple re: rhythm, scales etc., but excels in complex harmonies). When you get the hang of this, you get in reward a botload of hedons that music afficionados describe, in all seriousness, as “ecstasy”, “rapture”, “trance” etc. For anyone trying to do this, they have some awesome visualizations of the voices in Youtube now, and I think it’s a wonderful way to start. You can dig yet deeper by learning the basics of music theory and trying to be aware of how Bach hacked it upside-down and sideways; the free online Yale course on classical music is a great start for this.

            One way to enjoy Katy Perry could be as follows. First, have an emotional hangup. Then, on Saturday evening, finally free from your boring dayjob, build up some tension and expectation by trying out some of your favourite, special “going out” clothes; apply the makeup you wouldn’t normally allow yourself; do your hair and nails, etc. Then go to a club; a place designed to alter states of consciousness with dark ambiance/colorful lights, collective rituals, erotic atmosphere and so forth. Give it a push with chemical intoxication. Then when they play Kate Perry let your body move freely to the loud, imposing, pulsating rhythm, in the way that comes naturally to all humans, and when the lyrics go “No, no way / No, no way / You think that I am cracking, but you can’t break me / (break me), use your linguistic faculty to recall these meanings (that you had previously memorized), imbue them with personal significance re: your emotional hangups, and scream these words to the face of the uncaring void.

            You could try to use approach #1 with Kate Perry, or approach #2 with Bach, but I predict you’d get fewer hedons either way. Different colors.

            A claim that I find Bach “better” than Katy Perry is a claim that, even acknowledging for their different purposes, my overall cumulative enjoyment with Bach is higher. Of course there are times when the kind of thing I want to do is Katy Perry-ish and not Bach-ish; but the word “better” still makes sense (in the same way that one could say “I like fencing better than hiking”, even if right now I feel like hiking).

            A belief that Bach is “objectively better” than Perry—or, removing the facetiousness, a claim that Bach is a “good taste”—amounts to a belief that, if any human being follows the entire process to maximize Bach and Perry hedon counts, the absolute count will be higher for Bach, even acknowledging individual variance (and the non-interchangeability of their different colors).

            But the main point here isn’t the controversial notion of “good taste”; it’s the less controversial one of “acquired taste”. The process needed to maximize Perry’s hedon count is a lot easier, faster and simpler than the one needed to maximize Bach’s. Listen to a Perry song but once and you get it; the same ain’t true of Bach at all. This property applies more generally to pop music vs. classical/prog-rock/avant-garde jazz/bizarre ethnic stuff, or Hollywood formula-movies (explicitly designed, via focus groups etc., to be easy and addictive) vs. European arthouse flicks, or fast food vs. good cuisine, and so forth. The point is that if you eat one Big Mac and one weird bland Japanese thingie, you will think the Big Mac is “better”, in the sense that its hedon count will absolutely be higher; however, if you slowly savour 50 Big Macs while paying careful attention to all the individual tastes and their “rhythm” and their “harmony” etc., and do the same with 50 weird bland Japanese thingies, you might well surprise yourself preferring the latter to such an enormous extent that you become a loudmouth Japanese-bland-thingie advocate. Which leads you to never trust your first impressions, which leads you to be food-adventurous (music-adventurous etc.), which is a hedon-maximizing strategy. And this is just a matter of cultural knowledge; one learns to be intrigued, rather than repelled, by a certain impression of strangeness, a feeling of “I don’t quite get what’s the point of this”, which is a telltale sign of “my brain isn’t totally used to this thing yet; I have to soak my neurons in it a bit longer before I can judge”. A few experiences like this and one finds oneself saying, not “I don’t like $thing”, but “I don’t like $thing yet.”

            And that’s why I don’t like using the word “better” to describe “virally successful”. A virally successful hedonistic item will maximize for ease of acquisition, not for maximum hedon count. If you get used to think in Coke=better terms, you’ll believe your tastes never change and spend your entire life missing out on a lot of stuff, which I find to be a minor human tragedy. And, despite the elitist aura surrounding them, none of that “hard” stuff is even that hard. You just have to give it a few tries. I taught my children to like vegetables, Asiatic cuisine, unsweetned tea/lattes etc. without any major trouble. I long for a culture where this would be the norm, rather than an elitist or eccentric thing to do; because, not only it would help fight back the obesity crisis, the attention-economy crisis etc., but it would also be a lotta more fun for everyone; the key to get rid of the oppressive, addictive things may well be realizing that, rather than making sacrifices, you can actually enjoy more without their dominance over you.

            My grandfather and I had a standing joke. He was the head waiter at a country club near my home town, and every Sunday my grandmother drove in to bring him home for his Monday off. My brother and I alternated going with her, and my grandfather always served Sunday supper to my grandmother and whichever of us was along as if we were regular club guests. He loved introducing me to special titbits, and by the age of nine I had developed a passionate taste for cold vichyssoise and caviar and anchovy paste.

            The joke was that at my wedding my grandfather would see I had all the caviar I could eat. It was a joke because I never intended to get married, and even if I did, my grandfather couldn’t have afforded enough caviar unless he robbed the country club kitchen and carried it off in a suitcase.

            (Sylvia Plath)

          • The Big Red Scary says:

            In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis proposed an objective criterion for good literature: if people make the effort to read it again and again, then it’s good, whether or not Oxford dons or SSC readers get it. I think this works fairly well with literature, since reading even twenty pages requires some investment of time and mental energy. Maybe it doesn’t work so well with short songs, which one might play over and over again for nostalgic reasons without having to put any real effort into enjoying them.

          • phil says:

            @melboiko, wow, this is an amazing comment, Scott should give this comment a shout out on the next open thread.

            I wish I had a higher level to engage this comment at than this, but…

            I’m hung up on ” I taught my children to like vegetables, Asiatic cuisine, unsweetned tea/lattes etc. without any major trouble.”

            As the dad of a picky 5 year old, I’d love to hear your take on ideas or strategies/tactics for how to open kids up to more foods/experiences in general.

            Is that an intellectual thing that they’ll grok better as they intellectually mature? Is there a way to help them better in that process?

            again, I thought that was an amazing comment, I’m happy I got to read it today

          • This reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s distinction between verse and poetry in his essay on Kipling, where he argues that Kipling occasionally wrote poetry, more or less by accident, but that what he was really doing was writing very good verse.

            Verse being poems that can be fully grasped at one reading–you might reread the piece to get the same effect again or to figure out how it was done, but not to see deeper into it, unlike poetry.

          • yodelyak says:

            Bookmarked Melboiko’s comment. I’ve seen “hedons have colors” and “acquired tastes/don’t-like-yet” before, but I want to re-read this comment again later. I guess per The Big Red Scary and C.S. Lewis, that makes it literature.

            For the lazy, some top quotes extracted from Eliot’s essay on Kipling are reproduced here.

            Or buy the whole essay here.

          • RobJ says:

            @melboiko This reads like a defense of pretention, and a very good one. I have a conflicted relationship with it. On the one hand, of course people will say an acquired taste is better, they’ve put the work into it and they wouldn’t have put that work into it unless they like it enough in the first place, or had other reasons (likely social) for really wanting to like it. Plus, people will be biased against feeling the effort wasn’t worth it, particularly if there is some social advantage involved.

            On the other hand, I have somewhat pretentious taste in music (prog-rock fan here) and it’s definitely annoying when people don’t seem to buy that I actually enjoy it, as if it’s just something I listen to in order to seem like I have better taste or something. No, this genuinely gives me chills.

            But there are other things where I’ve at least attempted to put the effort in (literature, film) and just found no reward from it whatsoever. No matter how many times I’ve tried Pynchon, Joyce, or even less difficult stuff (along with criticism of them, etc…), I just never found any reward from it and went back to my precious sci-fi and fantasy novels. And I love them… I have a hard time believing the true literature lovers out there are somehow getting more hedons than me. I’m even sometimes tempted to be that guy who says “C’mon you can’t really enjoy Gravity’s Rainbow, right? Who are you trying to impress here?” but then I think about how others see my love of pretentious music and think better of it.

            I’m not really sure where I come down on it, but I’d say these are my lessons I’ve learned:
            – you should generally trust that people like what they say they like, even if it is an acquired taste
            – you should not necessarily trust that you will like it if you put in the effort, even if they say you will
            – people who enjoy the intellectual part of thinking about and discussing things versus experiencing them will be far more inclined to enjoy acquired/pretentious tastes because they provide a lot more to think about. People who don’t enjoy that so much probably won’t have any interest in putting in the effort.

            P.S. I’ll second Phil’s comment about kids and vegetables. Any tips? God knows we try so hard to make tasty stuff and it just will not take.

          • patrissimo says:

            I nominate melbolko’s long comment for “comment of the week” post.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @melboiko:
            I hate to say it, but I’m less impressed with your comment than some of the other posters 🙁

            Your comparison of Bach vs. Katy Perry basically amounts to saying, “Bach is more difficult to appreciate than Katy Perry”. That is, even a completely untrained person could appreciate Katy Perry; but it takes a lot of training — years, potentially — until you can even comprehend Bach, let alone enjoy it.

            The first problem with your comment is that, if you apply this line of reasoning in an even-handed manner, you will come up with come counterintuitive answers. For example, the Pathfinder D&D system for roleplaying games is incredibly complex (perhaps not as complex as Shadowrun, but still). It takes a lot of training to comprehend, and, I would argue, years of training to master. And yet, most experts would no doubt agree that it stands in the same relationship to most modern literature (and, in fact, many other forms of art) as Katy Perry to Bach. The same can be said for video games, recreational engineering, and other such frivolous past-times.

            Secondly, while some people do indeed develop a preference for “weird Japanese thingies” over Big Macs, many people never do — and not for lack of trying. Some people express a preference for “weird Japanese thingies” or rare wines or whatever, but fail to follow through under blinded experimental conditions; this may indicate that at least some people are simply professing a preference for something “classy” just to signal sophistication.

            But most importantly, you are still talking about “hedons” as though they were universally and objectively measurable units, just like meters or seconds. Given the argument we’re having, this comes dangerously close to begging the question. Bach is better than Katy Perry because it yields more hedons, and we know it yields more hedons because it’s just better in the long run, where “better” is defined as “more hedons over time”. How are you measuring all those hedons ? You say that “if any human being follows the entire process to maximize Bach and Perry hedon counts, the absolute count will be higher for Bach”, so presumably you have some repeatable procedure that we can follow to measure this absolute count, right ?

            Don’t get me wrong, I do agree with you that Bach is more complex with Katy Perry, and I do acknowledge that some people so enjoy Bach immensely. But that’s not enough to convince me that one is objectively better than the other, nor that the concept of “objectively better” is even coherent.

          • noddingin says:

            Dunno Katy Perry, and prefer Bach to Beatles, but…

            I’ve seen a description similar to melboiko’s of Perry’s, of the audience and the occasions where the Beatles live-performed their earlier songs; to an audience that came to dance and socialize, to music they could scarcely hear. The Beatles’ reviewer found a subtle design in “She Loves You” that only showed up (to me) on a few re-readings replays, even when replayed in tranquility. [That is, who is the narrator, and how does he feel about the situation?]
            So Lewis might give SLY points for saying more than meets a shallow ear, especially as the deeper design needs a subtle musical effect to bring it out. “With a love like that, you know you should be glad” needs the suddenly minor key and the oddly slow pace.

          • noddingin says:

            @ David Friedman

            Verse being poems that can be fully grasped at one reading–you might reread the piece to get the same effect again or to figure out how it was done, but not to see deeper into it, unlike poetry.

            I’d like to see a fan-fic of Kipling’s reply to Eliot on this; probably something about ‘goes no deeper than the plaster’. But the layers in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies — presented as children’s stories — are … pretty countless.

          • Eliot’s claim wasn’t about Kipling’s prose but his verse.

          • noddingin says:

            @DavidFriedman
            Eliot’s claim wasn’t about Kipling’s prose but his verse.

            Yes, sorry I was unclear. Kipling knew about designs that go no deeper than the plaster, and might well reply that whatever his poems did, his stories went much deeper.

      • Andrew Cady says:

        One thing that is objectively true about Bach and Katy Perry is that one symphony by Bach contains more (information-theoretical) bits of music than an entire musical career of Katy Perry.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Is that actually true ? I will gladly grant you that one piece by Bach contains more bits than one piece by Katy Perry, but I’m not sure about the “entire musical career” part. Also, white noise contains even more bits than Bach…

          • wiserd says:

            “Also, white noise contains even more bits than Bach…”

            That’s an important point. Perhaps an additional criteria in an information-as-value ranking would be elegance. How much could you randomly change it without noticeably degrading it? A musical piece by Bach contains information elegantly. It cannot tolerate small random changes without people commenting on the decreased quality.

        • Michael Handy says:

          Depending on the exact Bach we are talking about (J.S, not J.C), I find that hard to believe, as he didn’t write any Symphonies.

    • Icedcoffee says:

      Considering he lived almost 300 years ago, I’d say Bach wins from shear staying power.

    • Doug S. says:

      Katy Perry is better than Bach if you want to dance the way people usually do today.

      Coca-cola is better if you want to drive home afterwards. Also I’m pretty sure a lot of the value of French wine comes from the snobbery – if Coca-Cola and other fizzy drinks cost $100 a bottle you’d get people declaring their inherent superiority over, say, iced tea or whatever.

      I won’t defend a Big Mac except to say that it’s a lot cheaper than the steak.

      I haven’t read Virginia Woolf but don’t knock The Little Prince. It tells its story and its moral lessons simply, elegantly, and plainly, which is extremely difficult to do well.

      • melboiko says:

        I disagree on the French wine not being better than Coke, due to incontrovertible subjective evidence. While undoubtedly some of its renown is sheer capitalist wealth-signaling and commodity fetishism (certainly there’s no reason to ascribe hundreds or thousands of dollars to a bottle), I *know* how many hedons a good wine (French or otherwise) can give compared to a sugary soft drink, and I know the difference isn’t caused by snobbery, labels, prices, expectations or any other external factor; since I’ve experienced both as sensations, no argument in words can change this experiential knowledge (no more than you can convince me that unripe watermelons taste better than ripe ones and I bet people would love unripe watermelons too if you just painted them red).

        I also know that wine is an acquired taste—i.e. you need to get used to it—while sugar is not. So when people claim that sugary drinks are more hedonic than good wine, it’s much more plausible to me that they simply haven’t took the time to get their synapses acquainted with wine, rather than it being a genetically-determined preference. I find this more plausible because, in my personal experience, whenever I press a sugared-drink-preferer for details, they invariably turn out to have a fixed-taste, non-food-adventurous worldview; which necessarily precludes access to any acquired taste in the first place. (I.e. the person denies themself the only way to access the maximum hedonic value of non-easy flavors.)

        I deal with your other objections in my comment above starting with “I shall attempt a non-facetious answer”.

        • whenever I press a sugared-drink-preferer for details, they invariably turn out to have a fixed-taste, non-food-adventurous worldview; which necessarily precludes access to any acquired taste in the first place. (I.e. the person denies themself the only way to access the maximum hedonic value of non-easy flavors.)

          One contrary datum. My worldview is sufficiently food-adventurous to include Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Iranian, Indian, medieval Islamic and medieval western European.

          I enjoy diet coke and coke zero, get very little pleasure from wine.

          Of course, it is possible that if I spent a long time learning the subtleties of various wines my view would change.

        • yodelyak says:

          I think there’s some good work that’s been done showing there are people who are more/less gifted in terms of how strong their “taste” is, as in, how plentiful/strong the actual sensory-organs of their mouth are in terms of generating a vivid/varied experience, and likewise how strong their sense of smell is, such that it’s actually people with relatively bad sense of taste–and whose noses do the real work of enjoying a fine wine–who make up most wine experts and the people whose experience informs talking about wine as an acquired taste. (Of course anyone can get the social-type enjoyment of drinking a bottle others can’t/won’t appreciate–and all you need for that is someone to look down on. But that works with anything, not just wine.)

          The advice I saw was to “try wines, and maybe a wine-tasting class, but appreciating wine isn’t for everyone.” I have a very strong sense of sweet/sour/bitter, and relatively no sense of smell (I’m the last person to be able to detect a milk has soured by smelling it. I’m more likely to notice floating chunks than to smell a give away. So I have a habit of using a very small taste test before adding possibly-soured milk to something, because smelling it won’t help me.) There are many flavors I have learned to like (my sense of bitter seems to be relaxing, and I no longer hate e.g. broccoli, kale, coffee, and beer) and there are many subtleties I might like to explore someday (I’ve been playing with risottos, lately, and am trying to figure out why it’s supposed to be better if cooked the correct, time-intensive way) but I think some taste experiences are not available to me, including a strong appreciation for wine.

          • Michael Handy says:

            I felt the same way, until I realiased I only liked Merlots, Tempranillos, and Malbecs (and dessert wines of course.) I still am of the opinion that white wine is really a type of vinegar, and people are trying to trick me.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          I *know* how many hedons a good wine (French or otherwise) can give compared to a sugary soft drink

          And? How many? Please be precise!

    • Darwin says:

      I understand your point, and yes, it’s always important to keep in mind the difference between our revealed utility structure and our intended utility structure.

      However, in term to objecting to how the terms are used in this article, I think this is unnecessary semantic quibbling.

      Of course, words like ‘better’ are *always* related to some particular operational definition, and that behavioral definition is generally implied through context clues rather than explicitly stated. However, given that this entire part of the article is about memetic spread, I think it’s not at all confusing or dangerous to let people correctly intuit that ‘better;’ here means ‘better at spreading memetically’, and not better in some absolute moral or Utilitarian sense.

      It’s not impossible that someone would make that mistake, but I think it’s unlikely enough that we don’t have to stop and slow down and use extra words just to avoid it.

    • MaxieJZeus says:

      TL;DR: C. S. Lewis’s “An Experiment in Criticism” may not settle all the usual debates about “taste” and “objectivity” in the arts. Maybe it’s not even a very good experiment. But at least it scrambles the usual categories so that people won’t automatically reach for the same predictable talking points while still aligning with many common intuitions.

      Disclaimer the First: I do not endorse Lewis; I am only presenting what he wrote. Disclaimer the Second: It’s been awhile since I read EC, and my presentation depends upon my memory and a quick skim of the text. Disclaimer the Third: Believe it or not, this was originally a short reply to The Big Red Scary; it got out of control.

      So — In “An Experiment in Criticism,” C. S. Lewis proposes to reverse the usual relationship that literary critics hold books and readers. Typically, theories are adduced to explain why some books are “good” and others “bad”, and readers are praised or rebuked for preferring one kind to the other. But Lewis suggests we instead look first to reader reactions, and subsequently classify books on their merits based on the quality of reader they attract.

      First: Why explore such a reversal? Because there is little agreement on criteria for judging literature, but possibly more agreement on distinguishing “good” (or “literary”) readers from others. The latter, then, can help us pick out the former, which can be further examined to see what qualities they have in common. (My own observation here: there is no guarantee that the books so discovered will have many, or even any qualities in common. They may not even have any “families of resemblance” but only families of families … of families of resemblances. So this is not a technique toward finally discovering a definition of “good literature,” only an empirical investigation as to what sort of qualities are associated with it.) It’s like trying to find truffles not by sitting in the agora and reflecting on the properties that truffles should have, but by getting yourself a truffle hog and taking it out to the forest.

      So what should we look for in a truffle– er, “literary reader” (henceforth, LR)? We can’t define them as people who find good books, as that would be circular.

      Lewis proposes that LRs are distinguished by these qualities at least: LRs enjoy reading and especially re-reading books; they seek out chances to read and give it their whole attention, and become despondent when prevented from reading; they can be moved emotionally in “momentous” ways by the first reading of a book; and they talk constantly about books, and particular books often provide an iconography or vocabulary for their lives. Notice how these qualities do not necessarily reflect any *merit* in the LRs. They are simply behaviors. So we are *not* defining books as “good” because they have been endorsed by “praiseworthy” readers.

      More particularly, LRs tend to read in certain ways which “unliterary” readers don’t. LRs read receptively, in that they take a book on its own terms and try adding it to their own experience and knowledge; the contrast is with those who read merely to stimulate within themselves a wanted effect, like a drug, or for other, non-literary purposes. (Lewis is unimpressed with “irreligious Puritans” who read for their own moral edification, not because a book is worthwhile in and of itself.) LRs also closely attend to words and the way they have been chosen and joined together for precise effects; the contrast is with casual readers who only want a cliche or “hieroglyph” (as Lewis calls them) to tell them what sort of reaction they are supposed to have to the events of the plot. For an LR, abstractions, paraphrases and condensations destroy the book; for non-LRs, a summary can serve just as well as the original. LRs do not read for vicarious pleasure or to “identify” with characters or imagine themselves in certain situations; the contrast is with those who read mainly to imagine themselves in a certain place, doing certain things, just like the characters. LRs appreciate the construction of a book regardless of whether it is taking them anyplace they particularly enjoy; non-LRs tend to prefer that Romeo and Juliet live happily ever and get cross when they don’t.

      “Literary reading” is also not the same as “criticizing” in the professional manner. For the LR, the ideal experience is one where they drink the experience in while hardly noticing themselves or their reaction; only afterward do they reflect on the book and the precise ways that it moved them. Lewis is cautious about professional critics (either academic or journalistic) who are always “on”, especially when they are paid to dissect books. Such people may start as LRs, but they often cease to be LRs because the love has been “hammered” out of them. This is an important caveat.

      Lewis’s suggested test is then this: Find someone who likes a book or an author and interview her about it. If the interview shows that she has the habits of an LR, and that she talks about the book as an LR would, then this is evidence that the book is a good one, for it can support and feed the habits of the kind of person who is especially attuned to literature.

      So Lewis’s test is *not* merely “Look and see to see what people reread: those are the good books.” (Although it is usually LRs that reread books, so this test is not necessarily misleading.) The test is “Look to see what passionate readers read (and reread) and react positively to with intelligence, penetration, informed knowledge, and ardor: those are the good books.” But beware of “professional readers”, who judgments too often are influenced by fashion and popularity and must often apply a critical “apparatus” to books in order to deal with their crush of responsibilities.

      Some apparent corollaries of this theory: (1) To the extent that LRs coalesce around certain authors and titles and ignore others, it seems to make sense to speak of certain books being objectively better than others; or at least to observe that an agreement among LRs will signal that there is something operating that is not idiosyncratically subjective. (2) The body of “good books” at least in principle can become much broader, and there is every likelihood of it trampling down the usual boundaries of “merit” and “taste”. If LRs (even a small minority of them) return to Tarzan with the same alacrity as they return to Moby Dick, then we need to accept that the two books belong in the same company, “literary reputation” be damned. (Conversely, if no LR ever willingly reread a “masterpiece” then maybe it should be quietly taken out and buried.) (3) Though this is not a corollary so much as it is an observation by Lewis: there is *no* apparent correlation between being an LR and having intelligence, subtlety, wisdom, breeding, good taste, or an appreciation for the other arts. It is perfectly possible (say) for Albert Schweitzer to be a very unliterary reader, and for Al Capone to be one of the most “literary” of LRs. (4) There is no reason to assume that LRs will be unanimous or even largely in agreement. That RobJ can’t enjoy Pynchon is not evidence that RobJ isn’t an LR. Lewis himself was very much out of sympathy with contemporary literature, and was unapologetic about adoring Arthur C. Clarke while disliking Evelyn Waugh.

      Lewis believed that the same sort of theory can be applied to the other arts. But (see point 3 above) he cautioned that being an astute consumer of one art in no way correlates with being astute in another. (He even commented that “musicians have notoriously bad taste in poetry”; I would love to know who he had in mind.) However, there are enough differences between the art forms that “literary” and “musical” connoisseurs will not exactly resemble each other in the way they approach works of art.

      Applications to some of the commentary above:

      * Regarding melboiko’s remarks on Bach and Kate Perry: Lewis would have rejected talk of “hedons” out of hand — the amount of pleasure has nothing to do with the kind of pleasure. The discussion of Bach would seem to be the talk of a “musical” listener; the defense of Perry the talk of an “unmusical” listener. This is not because of the quality of the music or the quality of the defense, but because the person who says such as above about Bach seems to be listening receptively *to Bach* and she can talk intelligently and approvingly of what the music does and how it is doing it. But the other *uses* Perry for other means: to alter her consciousness and make her receptive to certain activities — and for Lewis the “use” of art for other ends unmistakably signals the absence of “good” reading, listening, etc. Again, though, I emphasize: Lewis did not think that made such people bad or worse than anyone else. And Lewis allowed that readers (and listeners, etc.) approached art at different times for different purposes. It is perfectly possible for an LR to read and use literature for non-LR purposes without compromising themselves. It’s like the difference between Michael Jordan, who sometimes uses a basketball as a paperweight, and me, who can *only* use a basketball as a paperweight. That makes him better *at* something than me (basketball), but does not make him *a better person* than me.

      * To Scott’s tentative suggestion that good-vs-evil stories are “better in a mimetic sense” than the ones that came before: Lewis would note (after he LOLed) that LRs can be found savoring and disdaining literature of any kind. Lewis (contra his reputation) might even be suspicious of the contemporary taste for black-and-white conflicts, as it is very easy to construct “unliterary” reasons for liking that kind of thing. It suits a very simple temperament that enjoys “the Event” (as he called the bare rough-and-tumble of “action plots”) and reacts with irritation to any sort of complication or complexity. White hats and black hats also make convenient “hieroglyphs” (another metaphor he employs in his analysis) that the “unliterary reader” uses so he knows how to feel about certain characters and their actions. This would not mean that he thought “good vs. evil” books are likely to be inferior to other types, only that there were plenty of boring, unliterary reasons to like them along with good, literary reasons to like a subset of them, and that the literary reasons for liking them likely have nothing to do with the fact that they employ “good vs. evil” as the root of the conflict.

      * I don’t believe Lewis suggested the same experiment in regards to the culinary arts, but he explicitly allowed that people could respond to nature in ways that paralleled “literary” and “musical” reactions, and I don’t see any reason it couldn’t be extended to explain why wine is better than Coke. But just as we might be surprised to traditionally “low grade” books rating higher than unread “classics” by this method, we might find certain “low quality” dishes outscoring the prestigious ones.

      * There doesn’t seem to be a place in the proposed analysis for “taste,” at least if that word is supposed to connote gradations of superiority. There seems room for it if it means no more than “preference”, though, and then only as an empirical observation about people. Nothing more can be drawn from the attributes “has a taste for Bach” or “has a taste for Coca-Cola but no taste for wine” than can be drawn from “has red hair” or “lives in a one-bedroom apartment.”

      • yodelyak says:

        Disclaimer the fourth: my writing style may make me seem like an excellent person with whom you would like to be friends.

        I enjoyed wading through Lewis’ framework with you. Thanks for doing the work.

      • Nornagest says:

        I’m starting to get the feeling that I should read more C.S. Lewis. I read the Narnia stories when I was a kid, liked them for what they were, and then read almost nothing of his until I picked up The Screwtape Letters last winter and found it both hilarious and way more subtle than the impression I’d had of him.

        • noddingin says:

          @Nornagest
          I’m starting to get the feeling that I should read more C.S. Lewis.

          The Discarded Image might be a good starting place for many SSC readers. It’s rigorous history (from Professor Lewis’s Oxbridge lectures), has fairies and angels (tho I don’t recall any devils), much from Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being (which explains something that Professor Digory said about Narnia), Geocentric cosmology, and an Epilogue with the masthead quote “The best of this kind [images/models] are but shadows.”

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Discarded Image is a good place to start.
            Also I’m always curious to find out what a nerd thinks of Out of the Silent Planet, being Platonist anti-interplanetary travel SF.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @Le Maistre Chat:
            I made it through Out of the Silent Planet through a monumental effort of will, but I couldn’t handle Perelandra. On cold days, my patience still hurts from the sprain it received from those books. In a way, I think that C.S.Lewis did achieve a sort of greatness through them, because concentrating so much interminable boredom in such a small volume of space surely requires some kind of a special talent. I wish I could tell you that I liked the metaphysical ideas he presents in those books, but the truth is that whenever I try to recall any details about them, my mind simply shuts down in self-preservation.

          • MaxieJZeus says:

            @Le Maistre Chat:
            I think OOtSP has a very interesting idea, but I would also make of it the same criticism that Lewis made of 1984: “There is too much in it of the author’s own psychology: too much indulgence of what he feels as a man, not pruned or mastered by what he intends to make as an artist.”

            As for the idea (Platonist anti-interplanetary travel SF): it’s such a particular and specific idea that it almost resists discussion. There are other books that have been written on the notion that humanity is not suited for the cosmos, only for the earth (for instance, Clarke’s “Childhood’s End,” which Lewis loved), but they have a much different metaphysics behind them.

        • Mary says:

          I’d recommend Studies in Words.

  20. Deiseach says:

    Nor was it on the mind of the authors of Mahabharata, the Norse sagas, Jack and the Beanstalk, et cetera.

    Whoa- pulling you (or Robin Hanson) right up there re: the Mahabharta! That’s chock-full of commentary about how this is the struggle of dharma versus adharma; Yudisthira, the eldest brother and king who wants to throw it all over and go live quietly in the forest rather than engage in a bloody civil war gets lectured by the sages and elders that it is his duty to be king and to rule and to claim the rightful throne. His cousins are all shown as exemplars of evil living and behaviour, and the only morally grey character, Karna, is shown to be ‘really’ one of the Good Guys as the secret eldest son of Queen Kunti and eldest brother of all the Pandavas.

    The whole action gets held up in the middle before the bloody battle of Kurukshetra by Arjuna having those exact same doubts: what are we fighting for/over? those are my family on the other side! and Krishna delivering the entire Bhagavad Gita as an answer (basically much the same message God gives to Job, only differently couched: shut up and do your duty).

    Even Jack and the Beanstalk – yes, Jack is a thief and murderer, but the Giant deserves it – he’s a miser and a cannibal (Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman/Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread). Ask any five year old who’s the Bad Guy and who’s the Good Guy there, and I’m willing to venture you won’t get a “Actually, it’s a morally ambiguous tale where both characters are in that middle grey area without a clear hero and villain structure” answer 🙂

    Bronze Age/Early Iron Age epics like the Iliad and the Táin Bo Cuailgne are somewhat different, I’ll agree, but that’s because they’re not dealing with a mindset shaped by one or two thousand years of Christianity; it’s a pagan world where Honour is the currency and standard, and where Good and Evil is judged in terms of who is acting most in accord with their status as honour-bound warriors in a kshatriya society. Odysseus’ cunning is admired but also faintly deprecated (he relies on using his brain and being sneaky instead of being a proper Argh Manly Slaughter hero like Achilles).

    • Bugmaster says:

      I’m afraid I’ve only read the Cliff Notes-esque version of Mahabharata, but this (sadly unfinished) Sci-Fi adaptation is IMO quite excellent:

      https://www.fanfiction.net/s/3764123/1/Mahabharata-Story

      That said, is there a more traditional translation that I should read ? My relationship with Hindu epics is kind of the same as my relationship with EVE Online: it seems really great from a distance, but once you get into it, it’s nothing but wall-to-wall spreadsheets…

      • Deiseach says:

        That said, is there a more traditional translation that I should read ?

        There is a huge Wall O’Text multi-volume translation into English by a Hindu scholar, which is very 19th/early 20th century in linguistic style and dense and chunky. I haven’t found a good modern translation into English online, which is sort of a pity seeing as how there are numerous translations of Homer, Virgil, Dante and so forth.

        I came to it backwards; first the television series made in the 80s, then an abridged for theatre (even then clocking in between 9-11 hours) and broadcast on TV (in a six hour reduced version) European version, then to the online text 🙂

        Every so often you get another Hindu TV version of it; there’s one featuring Karna as the viewpoint character and hero which does go for the “son of a charioteer versus the system of kings” critique in a muted way (and really, even in the source mythology, the gods/Krishna have to cheat like crazy to make sure Karna loses, what with hitting him with curses, depriving him of divine armour, and persuading the Pandavas to break the rules of proper warrior conduct on the battlefield).

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Ultimately we know that Arjuna and his four brothers are pure good because they choose Krishna over his army, and then Yudhisthira pets the dog when a god says not to. 😉

    • Mary says:

      Even Jack and the Beanstalk – yes, Jack is a thief and murderer, but the Giant deserves it – he’s a miser and a cannibal (Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman/Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread).

      And that’s as far as the “small boy defeats the ogre” story gets. Most versions are even more clear, because the ogre/giant/witch offers hospitality to the hero and his siblings in order to kill them in the night.

  21. aethelfrith says:

    This article is nonsense. I just re-read Beowulf and I guarantee you there’s plenty of good-vs-evil content to it. As others have addressed above, the apparent amorality of Homer and was a topic of discussion among the ancients themselves. Others have addressed Plato and Aristotle, but have you read Cicero? Consider the following:

    True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, though neither have any effect on the wicked. It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment.

    -De Re Publica, Book III

    Cicero’s oratory also frequently casts himself as a virtuous hero defending the republic against various evil villains. I struggle to see how this fits into Scott’s model.

    Additionally, the discussion of early Christianity is lacking. Christianity didn’t appear out of nowhere and immediately become a major religious influence on the Roman Empire. The Edict of Milan was in 321, nearly three centuries after the founding of the religion. Are we supposed to imagine that 300 years is blindingly fast for a large cultural shift? And does Scott really think the spread of Christianity across Europe was dominated by meek monks asking fierce barbarians to convert, and them agreeing? Have you noticed how many martyrs the Catholic church has? Conversion was not simply “asking” either. Overlooking blatant examples of spreading Christianity by the sword (ie Charlemagne and the Saxons) common missionary tactics included things like destroying the shrines and statues of opposing deities to prove the superior power of Jesus, and the conversion of a monarch (which was frequently politically motivated, sometimes imposed by a victorious Christian power in a peace treaty) could impose substantial wordly pressure on the unconverted.

    But even if we pretend the ancient sources support Scott’s model (which they don’t) and his metaphor with early Christianity holds up (which it doesn’t) there’s is still a large problem with this argument: Scott’s perception of morality is that of a 21st century American, and the Greeks and Romans were writing from the perspective of ancient Greeks and Romans. What looks like black-and-white good-versus-evil to us could easy look like complex shades-of-gray to our distant ancestors, as their values are different. Characters and actors which are perfectly aligned with good or evil behavior in our view will not be in alignment for someone of a different moral perspective, and thus could be interpreted as demonstrating moral shades of gray. Naturally, this can work in reverse as well: a work which, to its ancient authors, appears to demonstrate perfect good-vs-evil moral sensibility could very well look morally neutral or complex to us, with our different values systems. Scott does not address this issue in the slightest, thereby assuming either that it is trivial to identify when this is happening, or that, if good-vs-evil narratives existed in the past, that they would reflect modern sensibilities.

    In short, this post is bad literary criticism, bad history, and bad reasoning.

    • Lillian says:

      spreading Christianity by the sword (ie Charlemagne and the Saxons)

      Four thousand men all dead in one day; they would not renounce their heathen ways. Thirty years of campaigning consumed, to subject those Pagans to Christianhood. He shed blood of Saxon men, he shed the blood of the Saxon men, and he shed it at Verden. Thus, the Bloody Verdict of Verden.

  22. onyomi says:

    I would say that good vs. evil stories, at least as political atrocity propaganda, are very old, at least in the case I’m most familiar with, the Chinese.

    For example, the founders of the Zhou Dynasty justified their conquest of the Shang through stories about how horrible and depraved the final ruler of the Shang (and, predictably, his sadistic consort) had been. And not just “he levied high taxes” or “he wasn’t our guy”; gross stuff designed to hit your disgust moral foundations, like dismembering pregnant women, devising cruel and unusual tortures for entertainment, boating on a lake of wine dotted with forests of roast meat, etc. Moreover, this was thought to be a pattern: the Shang had supposedly been justified in overthrowing the Xia because their last ruler was evil and depraved as well.

    The story of King Wu of Zhou versus the last ruler of the Shang is very much “good conquers evil” stuff: King Wu’s birth is even retroactively imbued with a certain supernatural aura akin to Moses, Buddha, Jesus… Heaven sent him to smite the evil empire.

    What’s more, there’s actually a suspicion in the Chinese tradition of pure fiction not intended to instill virtues. That is didactic is the default mode for storytelling, “just for fun” the aberration. Not all didactic stories include a struggle of good against evil, of course, but I think there are a pretty good number of B.C. historical stories including obvious heroes and villains.

    That said, I do think there is something to the “good vs. evil as storytelling crack” theory, and intensifying the villainy of the villains while making the heroes into even more extreme underdogs may refine it. An interesting example might be the Three Kingdoms stories. The original historical records do not present a black-and-white struggle between good and evil, but popular retellings in drama, storytelling, and finally, the famous novel, move very much in that direction. In the novel (and to a sometimes comical extent in popular drama) it is clear who are the virtuous underdogs and who the villainous plotters.

    Certainly in the realm of popular drama you already have comically, exaggeratedly bad, unsympathetic characters losing to exaggeratedly good characters at least as early as the 13th c. though usually not in an epic, LoTR kind of way.

    • glorkvorn says:

      Doesn’t the three kingdoms period make for an awkward setup for a good-and-evil story? I can see how they make Liu Bei’s group into the virtuous underdogs and Cao Cao’s group into the evil overdogs. But where does that leave the Sun dynasty? They’re just kind of a third wheel, aren’t they? They’re not particularly good or evil, just very devoted to their own family and people.

      There’s also no satisfying end to the story. The scrappy underdogs hold out for a really long time, even after the deaths of the original leaders. But they eventually get run down. What are we supposed to make of that?

      • onyomi says:

        The popular dramas and spinoffs tend to focus on a few of the most beloved characters and episodes: Liu Bei being virtuous, Guan Yu being loyal, Zhang Fei being bellicose, Zhuge Liang being clever, and Cao Cao being crafty. Other characters fall by the wayside or have a tendency to get turned into villains or heroes. Zhou Yu, for example, turns into a villainous rival of Zhuge Liang (even more so in the dramas than in the novel, and I don’t think the histories say anything about that).

        • Matt M says:

          The Dynasty Warriors series basically treats Wu as a semi-neutral third party and resists the temptation to make them all good or all evil.

          … and makes them the primary recipients of the required fanservice

          • Protagoras says:

            They seem to try to avoid making playable characters all evil as much as possible; Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu are the only ones that spring to mind that are consistently presented as objectively villainous, as opposed to just hated by their enemies (and actually even Lu Bu not quite always). They certainly don’t seem to have as much of an anti-Cao Cao bias as the novel.

            It occurs that Dong Zhuo is also almost the only playable character that Dynasty Warriors presents as ugly.

    • MB says:

      I think that the new aspect is that the heroes can be weak, unmanly, and base born. For example, the apostles are not kings’ sons, nor are they particularly brave, martially inclined, rich, adventurous, or anything like. Some of them are servants, beggars, eunuchs, or women. They seem ordinary or even mediocre, certainly not exemplary, but have hidden, imponderable qualities, especially their moral fortitude.
      I see echoes in some earlier stories, but for example Job becomes rich and successful again, Buddha is a prince, Joseph becomes the prime minister of Egypt, etc..
      The earliest non-religious equivalents I know of are in 19th century literature, such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Scarlet Letter, The Count of Monte Cristo, etc.. Moll Flanders, a century earlier.
      I’m not sure they had this in the Antiquity. As far as I know, ordinary people (commoners of both sexes, servants, slaves, etc.) were at most comedy fodder in the Antiquity, never were there tragedies written about them. A tragedy about a peasant girl was a completely new thing two centuries ago.
      On the other hand, maybe non-European literatures are different. It would be interesting to learn more.

      • Nornagest says:

        The earliest stories about Robin Hood have him as a yeoman, which is difficult to translate into modern terms but definitely not aristocratic — “middle class” is close. Late versions give him a noble title but that’s pretty clearly not part of the original theme.

        The Icelandic sagas (earliest sources 13th century, but about events in the 11th or earlier) are mostly about random settlers, warriors, and outlaws.

        • MB says:

          Yes, but he had some martial qualities: braveness, intrepidness, etc.. It wasn’t a story of mediocrity, victimhood, and martyrdom.
          His is more similar to the Marathon story than to the Great Expectations story.
          In other words: Robin Hood stories are always about his heroism, never about the salvation of his soul/moral fortitude that allows him to resist the temptation of wickedness. It’s not a psychological drama. People don’t care about him because of his everymanhood, his angst, etc.. Quite the opposite.
          Maybe a better comparison is with Till Eulenspiegel. Till Eulenspiegel is a sort of ancestor for the everyman character I am thinking of. But it’s mostly comedy, so it doesn’t go against my classification.
          Edit: actually, the Till Eulenspiegel story I know is the 19th century one, no wonder he seemed so modern.

          • onyomi says:

            There are older, up-from-nothing stories based on true events (the founders of the Han and Ming Dynasties, for example, were both commoners); that said, there is a tendency to retroactively imbue these guys with greatness. After all, how could a commoner rise to the level of emperor if not unusual? Plus, you don’t want your dynasty founder to be a schmuck, of course.

            I can think of stories genuinely focused on lives of admirable everymen at least as early as the late-16th-early-17th c., though at that point China is becoming sort of “early modern” and has a publishing industry, so whatever makes us love such stories now may have made such stories popular then. Probably earlier examples, too.

  23. ragnarrahl says:

    “But honestly, Achilles seems to have been fighting really hard. ”
    Achilles was a fictional demigod. Most ancient deaths in battle happened when chasing down the fleeing. The early modern era came up with the idea of making the soldiers more afraid of their officers than the enemy by killing some of them and this worked well enough to be widely adopted despite sounding rather counterproductive, which does not speak at all well for the prior state of the art in getting folks to fight to their last. Sure, there are always stories about exceptional warrior cultures, “with your shield or on it,” but this was not the rule.

    “Also do we really want to claim that concentration camps worked because the Nazis believed you should take principled positions based on moral values, instead of unquestioningly supporting your in-group? ”
    I think they might have believed that there was a terrible monster to the east that would inevitably put them in those camps if they didn’t unquestioningly support their ingroup enough to avoid losing the war.
    Which is what actually happened, more or less, to about half the country.

    So less “principle” vs “blind obedience” and more “existential threat.”

    I know listening to neo-Nazis is generally unpopular, but “what the Nazis thought they were fighting for” might be an area in which they are unusually insightful– hence, I direct you to the lyrics of the neo-Nazi song “The Snow Fell.”

    • Allisus says:

      The Nazi/Communist battle is a definite possible outcome if we allow the current right/left political discourse continue on it’s path.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        While the left likes to claim the right in America is now fascists, Nazis in all but name, this is entirely incorrect. The right has barely budged. 2018 Trump’s ideas are really close to 1992 Bill Clinton. America good, illegal immigration bad, marriage is between a man and a woman, etc. Republican ideas today are not that different from Republican (and Democratic) ideas 20-30 years ago, and nobody would call Bill Clinton or Bob Dole a Nazi (well, you could call Bob Dole a Nazi, but he’d jab that pencil in your eye for doing it, kid).

        I don’t think the left today is particularly communist either. I don’t know exactly how to describe their current brand of lunacy, but the whole “it’s commies and nazis all over again!” doesn’t seem like an accurate reflection of the state of the union, but saying it is will probably get upvotes on reddit.

        • jhertzlinger says:

          OTOH, 1992 Clinton was similar to 1980 Reagan: Cut spending, deregulate, and allow free trade.

          Cthulhu does not always swim left.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      The early modern era came up with the idea of making the soldiers more afraid of their officers than the enemy by killing some of them and this worked well enough to be widely adopted despite sounding rather counterproductive,

      This was thought of before the early modern era. Herodotus has the Spartan traitor Demaratus tell Xerxes before Thermopylae that the Persians fight out of fear of their superiors (and specifically of Xerxes himself) while the Spartans fight out of fear of their law.

      And of course there was the Roman practice of decimation.

    • Alan Crowe says:

      I think that you get a better sense of the history by listening to Nazis rather neo-Nazis. Listen to the WWII marching song Erica. The lyrics are about a flower and a fiancée. German conscripts marched off to war singing of the land and the girl back home.

      “The Snow Fell” portrays Germans as ideological, with the implied warning from history being “Don’t get taken in by a bad ideology.”.

      “Erica” portrays Germans as naïve with the implied warning from history being “Don’t be naïve.”.

    • Lillian says:

      “But honestly, Achilles seems to have been fighting really hard. ” Achilles was a fictional demigod. Most ancient deaths in battle happened when chasing down the fleeing.

      That most casualties happened during the rout was not lost on Homer, as even mighty Achilles slays the most Troyans as they flee in terror from him.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      The Easterners may have undone Prussia, but left Saxony.

  24. Allisus says:

    A lot of today’s most popular tales incorporate meta stories that pop up over and over in old religious texts. Star Wars, Stark Trek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter etc all deal with similar themes. That everyone is equally good/evil and each individual has to fight the inner battle of moving towards the light and away from the dark in order to be redeemed. That is just one example.
    Perhaps why this recurring theme makes for such compelling storytelling is because we fight this battle in our own lives everyday.
    I highly recommend watching Jordan Peterson’s lecture series on the bible where he interprets the bible metaphorically. Very relevant to this blog post. It can be found on YouTube.

    • Darwin says:

      Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter etc all deal with similar themes. That everyone is equally good/evil and each individual has to fight the inner battle of moving towards the light and away from the dark in order to be redeemed.

      Sauron and Voldemort were equally good/bad, and just needed to win the inner battle within themselves to move towards the light and away from the darkness in order to be redeemed?

      I think this is stretching a lot.

      Yes, there are individual characters within those stories that have the character arc you describe, but at their base those stories still rely on the ‘scrappy team of good guys vs organized monstrously evil villian that must be destroyed’ motif.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Sauron and Voldemort were equally good/bad, and just needed to win the inner battle within themselves to move towards the light and away from the darkness in order to be redeemed?

        Voldemort was orphaned and raised by Muggles in a similar way to Harry Potter. Potter is given some of his powers and the choice to succeed in Syltherin and rejects it, all of which implies that Voldemort didn’t have to be bad. I don’t think that Voldemort or Sauron can be redeemed by the time we are introduced to them.

        There is a line of two in LOTR where Gandalf says that Sauron wasn’t always evil, but that his pursuit of power twisted him.

    • smopecakes says:

      Between Peterson and Jonathan Pageau’s symbolic interpretations of movies and meanings I see a lot of those same themes.

      The ring bearer characters are all close to being equally good in their innocent state. Smeagol is immediately corrupted by the ring but it’s not a story of how he is bad but how Bilbo and Frodo are uniquely good and moreso lucky. They are very grounded in a sensible and careful traditional-narrative way of being and have many friends and allies who help them and give them various understandings of things in a long journey.

      Something Pageau talks about is the story of the princess and the frog – an archetypal story of a time of uncertainty or chaos when people revert to a sort of trickster frog character who represents changeability. They dive into the water which represents chaos and look for the most important thing – a key virtue that their changing society needs. If they find the golden ball which is the most important thing and bring it back to the princess they become a prince. By becoming something important to a society in a chaotic time they become the hero for someone else or for a group of people.

      So the golden ball story seems to be deeply archetypal, and I think both Peterson and Pageau might even argue it actually runs back in some way to something like the time in evolutionary history when the trickster frog ancestor learned to walk and swim. That’s obviously pushing it a very long way but it’s maybe not so radical in an overarching sense as not making any consideration like that at all.

      So what The Lord of the Rings is as well is a story of the war against chaos. I think they can be about an external chaos monster, in Petersonian terms, but I see Lord of the Rings as about one society or civilization facing chaos. More typically this story is about an overstructured society that casts off a merry band of characters who hopefully can rebel creatively and rebalance the society without any real destruction. It can also be about an understructured society that has no central connection and thus is spiraling outward into chaos if a character or group doesn’t find a way to reconnect the society. Both types of societies are vulnerable – you can see both in the history of France, where an understructured aristocracy was challenged by the English monarchy and later gave way to an overcentralized monarchy that itself was vulnerable to its underrepresented margins.

      And The Lord of the Rings is really about both. The ring of power is the one actual evil, which leads to the creation of overstructured non-narrative ideological societies which threaten to take over the understructured rest of Middle Earth. You can particularly see this one society angle in how Faramir redefines an Easterling as no true enemy in The Two Towers. (the movie, I’m not certain if that’s in the book – although I do know C.S. Lewis has a very similar moment for a Calormene in Narnia)

      So what we have is something like a golden ball story woven into a war against chaos story, or maybe the war against chaos is itself a development of the golden ball story. It’s something like being about how the search for good works rather than being the social definitions of what is and isn’t good in narrative form.

      • achenx says:

        You can particularly see this one society angle in how Faramir redefines an Easterling as no true enemy in The Two Towers. (the movie, I’m not certain if that’s in the book

        Those lines are Sam’s internal thoughts in the book. Jackson et al. gave the lines to Faramir to monologue for the movie.

  25. Hoopdawg says:

    Missionaries would come to the tribe of Hrothvalg The Bloody, they would politely ask him to ditch the War God and the Death God and so on in favor of Jesus and meekness, and as often as not he would just say yes. This is pretty astonishing

    This is not a comprehensive account of what happened, though. What happened is that the missionaries would come to the tribe of Hrothvalg The Bloody, who happened to be situated next to a vast and powerful Holy Roman Empire, which happened to have no qualms against attacking the lands of neighboring pagans, and in fact considered it their christian duty. Then Hrothvalg would make a reasonable game-theoretic decision to ditch his old gods in favor of Jesus, meekness, nominal peace with a powerful neighbor, and strategic advantage over those dirty pagans from nearby tribes.
    (Alternately, they would come to the tribe of Hrothvalg The Bloody who did not yet realize how scary the Christian states are, and they would predictably die in gruesome ways and become canonized martyrs of the Church.)

    • S_J says:

      Does this also explain the way that Christianity was accepted in Ireland, under the ministration of Patrick?

      My other example of Boniface, who preached Christianity in Frisia and Germania. Though Boniface had the support of the Carolingian dynasty, I don’t know if we can point to that as a reason for the success of Boniface. (And he died a martyr, and is canonized as a Saint…)

      LIkewise with the saints who traveled into Viking regions to preach. Did they win because of the Message, or because of a powerful empire that the Vikings were afraid of?

      At one time, the Varangian guard was composed of Rus/Norse/other-warriors who traveled to Constantinople to take service as mercenaries in the pay of the Emporer. When this practice began, these were mostly pagans serving a Christian Emporer. How did that cultural exchange affect the spread of Christianity?

      And what about the pagan Angles and Saxons who invaded England, and met Christian Britons? Though the Angles and Saxons came to dominate England, they adopted the religion of Christianity.

      I’m not sure the story of the spread of Christianity is always simple.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        And what about the pagan Angles and Saxons who invaded England, and met Christian Britons? Though the Angles and Saxons came to dominate England, they adopted the religion of Christianity.

        Though not (always) from the Britons- the Pope sent missionaries to the Saxons a couple of hundred years later, IIRC earlier than the Bernicians in the North adopted Christianity from Celtic sources (after their king, Oswald, had spent time in exile in the Christian Scottish kingdom of Dal Riata). There were differences in practice and possibly doctrine between Roman and Celtic Christianity, which were resolved in England at the Synod of Whitby.

    • Darwin says:

      Sure, but is that not true of every other religion/ideology/nation? Weren’t they all playing that same exact game all the time?

      The question is why Christianity is so uniquely better at that game than all the other competitors. And I think memetic vigor is a reasonable candidate for that dissociation.

      • yodelyak says:

        [Epistemic status: mumblety-mumble, points-at-shiny-thing like-child-points-at-cupboard-hoping-for-cookie. Cupboard-may-not-contain-cookie.]

        Odd theory:

        Buddhism or some other early Eastern religion allowed a single man under a tree to meditate and achieve a very controlled and stable Haka-like state while still, powerless, and alone. Naturally, haka-like states have notable advantages, and a controlled and stable haka-state would be sought after, and might immediately confer status on one who achieved it. Such men could potentially build followings that achieved real political power.

        But mostly not, for reasons of [mumbles into hand something about trade-offs between Haka-states being charismatic and strong, but less good at lots of other things, like maybe they’re prone to going all no-self generous and trusting, which might have reproductive costs, or maybe haka-states tend to destabilize other institutions like patriarchal extended families, or really I’m just mumbling].

        But Haka-like states and zen philosophy traveled west on the silk road, and were incorporated by canaanites struggling under Roman political rule. Individual Jewish men, under pressure to solve the political problems they faced, and perhaps incorporating some advantages of being people-of-the-book, or something else, used this eastern technology for achieving haka-like states and achieved stable, hyper-charismatic and contagious states, and were sometimes killed for it. These men’s haka-like states conferred benefits like a lasting immunity to threats and a short-term immunity to pain, which in turn created stories of men stoically accepting martyrdom and feeling no pain, and other miracles and resurrections, which went viral on the same wave of contagious hyper-charisma.

        Then again, take “haka-like states” out and just put “mumble mumble religion”… ugh.

        Someone tell me what I should be reading? I’m interested in the history more than achieving any particular religious experience myself.

    • John Schilling says:

      What happened is that the missionaries would come to the tribe of Hrothvalg The Bloody, who happened to be situated next to a vast and powerful Holy Roman Empire

      Wait, what? You mean this Holy Roman Empire?

      Because by the time that was founded (Christmas day, 800 AD), Germany, England, Ireland, and Armenia had been largely Christian for at least a century. Russia and Scandinavia would take a bit longer to catch up, but would get around to it before the HRE was in a position to directly threaten them, Only in Eastern Europe, of the eight regions Scott explicitly listed, was there any element of conversion-because-HRE, and even there it was only a minor part of the process.

      And if you are referring to the original Roman Empire, with “Holy” being applied in some ironic sense, that Empire didn’t become Christian until its peak conquering days were well in the past, and when the Goths, Vandals, et al got around to adopting Christianity they chose a variant that was explicitly heretical by Roman Catholic standards and they for damn sure weren’t doing it because they feared Roman conquest – seeing as how they were busy gearing up to conquer Rome.

  26. fuguenocht says:

    Christianity came out of nowhere and had spread to 10% – 20% of the Roman population by the time Constantine made it official. And then it spread to Germany, etc…I’ve looked around for anyone who has a decent explanation of this, and as far as I can tell Christianity was just really appealing.

    Key thing to understand about the rise of Christianity is that during its time as the Roman state religion it adopted all the structural benefits of Roman bureaucracy (most obvious in the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church and the summary, council-based ways it dealt with early doctrinal splits to maintain unity) and was then able to retain and leverage these advantages to become one of the Empire’s two main successor power centers in western Europe — the other, the aristocracy, also being a remnant of Roman bureaucracy, though less intactly preserved.

    This isn’t to say memetic fitness didn’t have a key part in its early rise, and obviously its missionary ethic contributed to its later worldwide domination — but an “open market of ideology” is not a full explanation.

  27. sohois says:

    Could this not just be a case of selecting a few titles that fit the narrative, and ignoring the rest? I know very little about ancient literature, but couldn’t it be the case that books such as The Iliad survived in common knowledge because it was a complex, superior narrative to simple tales of good and evil, which will often be easier for mass audiences to understand but perhaps not have the lasting quality of great works? It doesn’t really need mentioning that there are many stories in the modern era which offer far more than a simple good vs evil narrative, and while these may not be as popular I wouldn’t bet against There Will be Blood lasting longer in cultural memory than Star Wars. Did the ancient Greeks, or Persians or Chinese or whomever not have many, many tales which took on simpler narratives, but as a result were not quite good enough to last into modern cultural memory?

    • beleester says:

      Actually, even among the famous works I can think of a number of clear good vs. evil stories.

      Odysseus – Clever underdog hero uses his wits to escape various obviously-evil monsters and villains to return home. Meanwhile, Penelope uses her wits to fend off the horde of suitors who want to marry her and take Odysseus’s stuff.

      Theseus – Wandering hero kills bandits and murderers, saves his father’s kingdom from an oppressive other kingdom which is literally demanding human sacrifices.

      Antigone – Desecrating the dead is bad, m’kay?

      • Enkidum says:

        Odysseus – monsters aren’t evil, they’re just, well, monsters. I guess you could argue that in many situations in the Odyssey, expected host-guest relationships are being broken (the suitors stay too long, and thus are bad guests, Polyphemus eats his guests, and thus is a bad host) but this isn’t really a perfect analogue for good and evil. I think there’s definitely something to the idea that this is a fundamentally different way of looking at things than the Christian one. Odysseus is the protagonist, sure, but he’s not a Jesus figure in any way.

        Antigone – I think you’re really misinterpreting things here. The whole point of the play is that both Creon and Antigone are right. This is the fundamental tragic insight, that not all goods are commensurable, and thus righteous conflict is inevitable. Her brother is a traitor, and thus not justified in being according funerary rites. But he is also her brother, and thus deserves funerary rites. Admittedly, Creon comes across as kind of an asshole, but I don’t think there’s much of an indication that he’s wrong in the Hitler-was-wrong sense. The idea that there cannot be opposed goods really is a novelty in the Christian tradition, I think, most clearly expressed by people such as, e.g., Boethius.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          The way I remember it it was pretty clear that Creon was over the line denying funerary rites. I don’t think Antigone had any kind of ‘in’ with the gods–they just punished Creon because he was objectively wrong.

          Wiki’s summary confirms that it ends with Creon admitting he was wrong and everything was his fault…

          • Incurian says:

            That is a pretty shallow reading.

          • Enkidum says:

            Yes, not all goods are commensurable. Creon was objectively wrong to deny funerary rites. Antigone’s brother was objectively wrong to rebel against the city.

            To suppose that the play is about how family ties are more important than the polis (which is the interpretation you’re pushing) is really, really wrong. Again, not all goods are commensurable. That it is so hard to understand this extraordinarily simple point is an illustration of just how far the Christian interpretation of Greek philosophy has reached into our culture.

        • beleester says:

          Odysseus – monsters aren’t evil, they’re just, well, monsters.

          Monsters may not be immoral, but they are the archetypal example of “conflict lacking in moral complexity.” Slaying monsters is always the right thing to do – Beowulf doesn’t have to sympathize with Grendel or understand him, he just needs to fight him. Monsters are just an obstacle in the hero’s way that needs to be removed.

          I think it’s pretty much the same thing as a “pure evil” villain in narrative terms, especially since the original post was commenting that good-vs-evil narratives are used to dehumanize the enemy. Just like how killing Grendel isn’t morally complicated, killing Nazis isn’t morally complicated. Good-vs-evil narratives make the antagonists into monsters to be slain.

        • Lillian says:

          I guess you could argue that in many situations in the Odyssey, expected host-guest relationships are being broken (the suitors stay too long, and thus are bad guests, Polyphemus eats his guests, and thus is a bad host) but this isn’t really a perfect analogue for good and evil.

          You are really underestimating just how important those host-guest relationships are to the Homeric audience. To break hospitium was to invite the wrath of the gods, so showing a character doing it was an easy way of showing that they were unambiguously evil. It’s the ancient equivalent of having the villain shoot a puppy.

      • Michael Watts says:

        Theseus – escapes from the labyrinth with the help of the king’s daughter who has fallen in love with him. After promising to take her home and marry her, he thinks of a better opportunity during the voyage to Athens, so he logically leaves her to die on a barren rock in the middle of the ocean.

        Heroic.

        • beleester says:

          I think the version I read just had him skip out on her and she never even got on the boat in the first place.

          But regardless, I don’t think you have to be 100% pure pureness for the overall narrative to be a straightforwards good-vs-evil punch-up. Batman commits how many felonies when he’s pursuing supervillains?

  28. MB says:

    Nietzsche seems relevant here. In the old stories the dichotomy was good in the sense of noble vs. bad in the sense of low birth and the main achievement was dying in glorious combat. In the new stories the dichotomy is good in the sense of humility vs. evil in the sense of hubris and arrogance and the true achievement lies in overcoming temptation.
    The Christian influence is obvious. Whether the phenomenon that Nietzsche described started with the rise of Christianity or not, it was certainly in full bloom in the 19th century, e.g. in Charles Dickens’s stories many heroes are base and low-born (Copperfield, Pip).
    My guess is that it started with Christianity, at the end of Antiquity, but, due to the barbarian invasions, the old Homeric mentality became once again prevalent until around the 1400s, when the rise of mercenaries, professional soldiers, the new middle class, the “noblesse de robe”, etc. again put an end to it.
    Maybe once the Roman empire has conquered the known world and established “pax romana”, people eventually became dissatisfied with displays of military strength. Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, etc. were too successful for the good of their successors and made people wonder what happens next, where it all leads.
    Also, there were some spectacular displays of hubris the next century, with Caracalla, Philip the Arab, Eliogabalus, etc.. The old ways began to seem like a dead end, maybe. Christianity was a channel for this discontent.
    Maybe this is a genuine evolution in human psychology (i.e. at the end of Antiquity people discovered a cure for hubris) or maybe this is a cycle that keeps reoccurring, who knows.

  29. Unnamed says:

    Anthropologists have tried to track the religious beliefs of different societies and explain the variations. I don’t know in detail what they’ve found, but I do know that they have put together some pretty big data sets and that Swanson’s (1960) book “The birth of the gods” gets cited a lot.

    A little bit of googling reveals that, in one data set, 24% of preindustrial societies believed in an active high god that was concerned with morality. Not sure how many of those were pre-Christian or independent of Christianity.

    • Emby says:

      We should probably be wary, though, of extrapolating too far from the characteristics of modern non-industrial societies to those 1500 years ago. High-level concepts can percolate an awfully long way in that sort of time

  30. Emby says:

    Harry Potter is a seemingly ordinary and really quite weak guy who just happens to be fated to save everything through destiny, parentage, and the power of love/sacrifice, much like Jesus.

    (this isn’t a joke – one could describe Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins the same way)

    Whole theses have been written on Frodo Baggins as Christ-figure

    • baconbits9 says:

      Frodo as a Christ figure is a pretty big stretch, though any one character as a Christ figure is a big stretch.

      • Anon. says:

        Fellowship opens with Frodo being 33 years old. This is not a coincidence.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Gandalf dies at the top of a mountain after a struggle against evil and then is brought back to life to finish his task of saving mankind. That is not a coincidence.

          The fact that Frodo has one or two aspects that can be related to Jesus is not enough to make him a Christ figure, there are far to many (I would say intentional) differences in the story to make it so.

        • Kindly says:

          Dante is also approximately that age at the beginning of the Inferno, and I bet I could come up with at least as many Dante-Frodo analogies as you could come up with Frodo-Jesus ones.

          (And we have unusually good circumstantial evidence that Dante is not Jesus.)

          • JohnofSalisbury says:

            This seems like a tedious argument. No single character in Tolkein’s oeuvre corresponds to Christ exactly, in the sort of way that Aslan does in Lewis’s. Tolkien didn’t go in for that sort of thing. Nonetheless, Tolkien’s work is deeply infused with his Catholicism, to the point that we may reasonably recognise aspects of Jesus in several characters. The way I’ve heard it broken down in detail is that Frodo is Christ as Priest, Gandalf is Christ as Prophet, and Aragorn is Christ as King. There are other Christlike figures in the wider mythos. I’d say that Luthien is one, and Earendil another.

  31. fion says:

    “And doesn’t the Bible contains” should probably be “And doesn’t the Bible contain”

  32. Eiður Á. Möller says:

    Vague ideas can often be “saved from death by their vagueness” as Pauline Kael said. i.e. they travel better in a mass-communication society than involved ones do (think meme’s and inane slogans “Right side of history” etc). Movies allow for more visual complexity but less literal, and can be marketed to a larger population when the good and bad qualities of characters apply to a larger crowd (are more vague but yet, for dramatic purposes, distinctive).

    That is the largest driving force for why movies are the way they are. Same could probably be said for radio in different terms, and the Gutenberg machine was also blamed for allowing the distribution of lowbrow literature (appealing to the masses).

    Seeing some causation between this and Nationalism is at best a very vague idea also — so maybe we can predict this hogwash will travel very far 😀

  33. zzzzort says:

    It seems like good vs. evil stories existed for a long time, but that they were more common in a religious context. Maybe it didn’t take 1500 years for the meme to jump contexts, it just happened to be when religion stopped being the most universal form of pop entertainment. The Peace of Westphalia marked both the beginning of the modern nation state and the end of the pretence of a universal catholic identity in europe. Villainy’s more recent popularity might be a consequence of secularization. This also feels quite eurocentric, with europe’s specific understanding of both religion and political states.

    So, more testably, were (secular) good vs. evil stories more common in Germany and Britain than France and Italy in the 1700’s? Grimm, Robin Hood, and some of Shakespeare seem to agree with that, but I’m a lot less familiar with non-english traditions.

  34. Anon. says:

    Missionaries would come to the tribe of Hrothvalg The Bloody, they would politely ask him to ditch the War God and the Death God and so on in favor of Jesus and meekness, and as often as not he would just say yes.

    I wouldn’t say this is an entirely accurate version of the spread of christianity. I mean, the Battle of Milvian Bridge was quite important and that was basically turning Jesus into a war god. In general, Christianity changed radically between the time when it was a small upstart religion and when it later had to be a state religion, and justify/support all the things that states do. If Hrothvalg The Bloody actually did become less violent (which I doubt – the history of Christian Europe is basically a history of endless war), we might as well view that as a colonialist ploy.

    • Deiseach says:

      we might as well view that as a colonialist ploy

      I’m just going to sit here and turn that around so I can catch its full beauty from all angles and admire the perfect perfection of that remark.

      Colonialism. Gotcha. Wot, no patriarchy? Hrothvalg the Bloody not taking advantage of the New Male Deity Religion to oppress, suppress, repress and depress the Matriarchal Mother Goddess Peaceful Golden Age wise crone elders of the tribe and grab power for himself?

      Did I come to Ireland without God, or according to the flesh? Who compelled me? I am bound by the Spirit not to see any of my kinsfolk. Is it of my own doing that I have holy mercy on the people who once took me captive and made away with the servants and maids of my father’s house? I was freeborn according to the flesh. I am the son of a decurion. But I sold my noble rank, I am neither ashamed nor sorry, for the good of others. Thus I am a servant in Christ to a foreign nation for the unspeakable glory of life everlasting which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – from The Letter to Coroticus,
      St. Patrick

    • JohnofSalisbury says:

      Sorry, accidentally reported Anon. Hrothvalg the Bloody probably didn’t get any less violent personally, but, as I posted above, there was a genuine change in European norms of war over the long term:http://deremilitari.org/2014/07/killing-or-clemency-ransom-chivalry-and-changing-attitudes-to-defeated-opponents-in-britain-and-northern-france-7-12th-centuries/

  35. Murphy says:

    Minor side note. One change I’ve noticed between older stories is that characters breaking from their families and independently just striking out on their own is a lot more common in modern stories.

    I suspect that this boils down to reflecting reality, try to strike out without family support or at least support from someone in Ye Olden Days and your most likely end was in a paupers grave. In more modern times someone with any kind of saleable skill can much more easily simply drop all contact with their family, move to another country and do their own thing.

    Which I suspect also ties in a little with the loyalty thing. Loyalty wasn’t terribly optional if you wanted good outcomes.

  36. konshtok says:

    I really like explanation 1

    the 19th century saw both the rise of nationalism and the development of cheap reliable and easy to use hand guns

    now consider two societies
    one dominated by the “good guys only fight against evil” meme
    and the other by the martial virtues
    saturate with hand guns and let simmer for a few decades
    what will you find when you come back?

  37. Machine Interface says:

    iirc, reading Achilles as fighting for his side out of patriotic duty is a completely anachronistic modern projection. Achilles, like his comrades, is essentially a mercenary, he’s in for the fun of battleing, not so much because he believes in a greater cause; the side he fights on is accessory.

    When for a long interval in the story, Achilles refuses to fight, his friends come to try to talk to him into getting back to the fight. Their arguments essentially amount to “you’re going to miss all the fun”. Not once do they mention “duty”.

    • roystgnr says:

      This here.

      http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AchillesInHisTent

      “Achilles in his tent” is a *trope namer*. He backs out of the fight, while his comrades’ army is suffering and dying, because he’s pissed that Agamemnon pulled rank and took a slave girl that Achilles “deserved”. When he gets back to the fight, it’s because a friend who went in his place was killed and now he’s pissed, so we can say his moral universe consists of at least “Achilles and Patroclus”, but “Achilles and Patroclus and all the other Greeks” appears to be a much much weaker moral category. It must *exist*, since there’s some sort of “fighting and looting and enslaving and raping Trojans is good, but doing that to other Greeks would be bad” dichotomy, but IIRC it doesn’t seem to go much farther than that.

    • Michael Watts says:

      Achilles, like his comrades, is essentially a mercenary, he’s in for the fun of battl[]ing

      The mythology makes it clear that this is not why the Greeks are there.

      They are there fighting against Troy because every Greek king swore a binding oath to help take revenge on anyone who abducted Helen. The oath was a ploy to make sure Helen didn’t start wars among the Greeks. When Paris later abducted Helen, Menelaos went around reminding everyone of their oath, and they were all stuck, unable to go back on their word. Achilles was sent to hide among the women of a court because his father didn’t want him in the war.

      So, true, it’s definitely wrong to say that the Greeks are there out of patriotic duty. But they’re not there for fun, either; none of them wanted to fight in the first place. They’re there because of personal duty.

      • Lillian says:

        Except that Peleus was not among Helen’s suitors, so neither he nor his son were bound by the Oath of Tyndareus, and indeed Peleus did not participate in the war at all. Thus while the Acheans may have been motivated by personal duty and honour, Achilles himself was not. He joined the war against the Troyans because he could not resist the call to fame and glory. His motivations were entirely mercenary, so Machine Interface’s point still stands.

        Much of the plot and dramatic tension of the Illiad hinges on this fact. Achilles is at the siege of Troy only because he wants to be there, and he can withdraw from the fight whenever he pleases with no stain on his honour. He is the greatest and most crucial asset the Acheans have, for without him they cannot win the war, yet nothing and no-one can actually compel him to fight.

        • Michael Watts says:

          As I read this post, Scott uses “Achilles” to refer to “soldiers on the Greek side”, not Achilles personally. Or, perhaps, to refer to the Greek nobility, as the soldiers are obviously there because their king made them come. But the article is about the social structure that applies to the Greeks in the Iliad, not the personality of a particularly impulsive one.

          Machine Interface, in the sentence I responded to, was even more explicit:

          Achilles, like his comrades, is in for the fun of battling…

          However much that applies to Achilles, it is wildly off as a description of his comrades. The Myrmidons are there because Achilles is there and so they have to be there too. The other Greek tribes are there because they have to be.

  38. gbdub says:

    How universal is the “scrappy underdog story”?

    “Noble amateurs defeat tyrannical evil empire” is basically the American creation myth, so it makes sense that this story type is popular here, but is that universally true? Is there a Russian version of Rocky where Ivan Drago bulks up laboring on a collective farm, eating brown bread, and hugging kindly babushkas, in order to defeat the evil capitalist stooge Rocky, with his array of fancy gizmos?

    • Doug S. says:

      That was Rocky IV. 😉

      In the original Rocky, Rocky Balboa knows he can’t actually win the match against the champion Apollo Creed, and in fact he doesn’t. The goal Rocky set for himself, and achieved, was to prove that he was worthy of the opportunity to challenge the champion – Apollo had won most of his matches by knockout, and if Rocky could “go the distance” by making it through the entire length of a boxing match with Apollo without being knocked out, he’d show that he’s as good a fighter as any of the professionals that Apollo defeated in the past. Which he does. Rocky loses the match, but he succeeds in winning the respect of Apollo Creed and the audience watching.

      • gbdub says:

        Yes, I was aware of that, and was referring to the series. Forgot that this is a place where one must always be wary to avoid putting out pedant-bait 😛

        But the first movie does make an interesting point, Americans at least like underdogs even when they lose. We like our heroes to fight against impossible odds without losing hope, even (especially?) if the odds eventually catch up to them

        “Remember the Alamo”… and Bataan, and Wake, etc.

        We also like martyrs and self sacrifice, but not suicides. We laud guys that jump on a grenade, but not Kamikazes or suicide bombers. We expect our heroes to fight to the end and maintain hope, but at the same time we don’t seem to attach the same “better death than surrender” attitude that the WWII Japanese had.

        • baconbits9 says:

          We also like martyrs and self sacrifice, but not suicides. We laud guys that jump on a grenade, but not Kamikazes or suicide bombers.

          The end of Independence Day.

          • Incurian says:

            The difference is not the tactic, but when it’s used. If it’s used as a last resort, it’s noble. When it’s used as your standard opening move, it’s less noble. You could say that the Japanese resorted to the tactic out of collective desperation, but something about planning it ahead of time and doing it deliberately seems less noble than say, an infantry company out of ammo deciding it’s better to do one last bayonet charge.

            Possibly I am just rationalizing.

          • gbdub says:

            That was much more like jumping on a grenade than a Kamikaze attack. Everyone he loved was literally moments away from death and the only way to save them was to sacrifice himself.

            Note that it wasn’t even originally supposed to be a suicide attack – he was the last guy with a missile, and only resorted to a suicide run when his missile failed at the last second.

            And I’m pretty sure Will Smith / Jeff Goldblum set off to the alien mothership with the idea that the odds of escape were slim. But the plan was to shoot and run. They were willing to die rather than abandon the mission at the end, when it looked necessary to set off the bomb, but that was never the plan.

          • bean says:

            I think the distinction rests on the principle that you don’t start with a plan which involves you killing yourself directly. It’s perfectly permissible to set off on a suicide mission, but those are suicidal because you will all be killed by the enemy. It’s OK for you to kill yourself in the heat of the moment, but only when it’s appropriately heroic. Your plan where everyone survives falls apart, and the only way to take out the enemy is to go in and push the self-destruct button. But it’s got a be a last-minute improvisation, with heavy overtones of “there’s no other way”.

          • Mary says:

            By the end of the war, the Kamikazes were sent off in planes that could not land a second time — that is, even if they found no American ships to attack, they would die anyway. A non-trivial difference.

          • Lillian says:

            On the plus side, the Japanese did succeed in going from losing hundreds of planes in order to inflict trivial damage on the American fleet, to losing hundreds of planes in order to inflict moderate damage on the American fleet. A significant efficiency improvement!

          • bean says:

            @Mary
            Most of them didn’t really have the skills to get back. Kamikaze raids were a bunch of really inexperienced pilots lead by one skilled pilot who could navigate. The USN found that if they intercepted and scattered them before they got within visual range of a target, then they were totally ineffective because most of the pilots had no idea where they were going. If they could see a target, then it was almost too late to do anything.

            @Lillian
            Very, very true. USN air defenses were so good by 1945 that Kamikaze attacks were cheaper than conventional bombing in terms of lives/planes per hit.

          • Mary says:

            yup. the point was their death, not any military success.

          • Lillian says:

            It’s unclear to me how one can read two posts clearly stating that kamikaze tactics were more successful than conventional tactics, and agree that this means the point was the death of the pilots rather than military effectiveness.

          • bean says:

            @Mary
            Pretty much what Lillian said. By 1945, the Japanese had screwed up so many things so badly that sending people to crash into ships was actually their best strategy. I agree that it looks repugnant to us, and it’s the sort of thing that only the Japanese would come up with. But it is also what a smart and completely unrestricted strategist would have come up with at that point, because it meant that the ratio of deaths to damage was actually better than with conventional bombing. It may or may not have been about their deaths, but it was undeniably effective, and it basically scared the pants off the USN.
            And they very rarely sent people off without a very good expectation of finding a target. The fleet off Okinawa wasn’t going anywhere.

    • Its perhaps something that just appeals to younger people. Kids are automatically underdogs.

    • Galle says:

      Heroic communist underdogs were a big thing in Soviet media, certainly. Hell, when you get down to it, communism is basically Plucky Underdogs: The Ideology.

  39. HeirOfDivineThings says:

    This is a good post summarizing scholarship on why Christianity “came out of nowhere”:

    Christianity won over paganism by epitomizing pagan ideals. Some excerpts:

    “Greek tradition,” Riley points out, “had developed to a very sophisticated degree a world-view called ‘Greek pessimism.’ The literature they held in most high regard is termed ‘Greek tragedy.’”

    The Greek goddesses of fate, Moirae, who were known as Fata among the Latin speaking Romans (compare our “fatal”), determined not only the destinies of earthly mortals, but even that of the chief god Zeus himself.

    “It was one of the joys of the gods to disabuse people of their false hopes for long life, health, wealth, offspring, peace, even intelligence.”

    Contrast the promises of the Jewish scriptures: It was long life, health and well-being that were promised to all who obeyed the Law of Moses. Curses were the consequence of disobedience.

    […]

    The stories teach us that Greek life was short and harsh, even for the highly placed, and that suffering was the fundamental human experience. And worse: for the innocent or especially pious, suffering unjustly was inevitable.

    […]

    Xenophon illustrates how this learning the most important lessons of life was the point of studying the likes of Homer. In Symposium he writes as part of an exchange with Socrates:

    So now, Niceratus, suppose you tell us on what knowledge you most pride yourself.

    He answered: My father, in his pains to make me a good man, compelled me to learn the whole of Homer’s poems, and it so happens that even now I can repeat the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” by heart.

    I recall how in high school on reading the Homeric epics how I was left mystified by my teacher’s claims that these were in some sense considered “the Bible” of the Greeks. I could see no lessons in them comparable to the direct “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” in the Bible I knew. I was too young at the time to truly understand the more sophisticated lessons they do indeed teach. Riley explains:

    What one learned from the classical tradition was what it meant to be a respected person in the larger context of the Greek cosmos, a world controlled by the jealousy of the gods and the vicissitudes of Fate. One learned piety towards the gods, to respect the rights of others, especially the unfortunate, the suppliant, and the stranger. But what one learned above all was how to face the ultimate test, unjust suffering, the inevitable suffering unto death, with courage and integrity. The texts display a remarkable sophistication on this point . . .

    And then Richard Carrier’s research on the historicity of Jesus points out that, as Greek philosophy spread across the areas that they had conquered, the local deities would mix with Greek philosophy/pessimism. These Greek pessimism + local religion combinations became “mystery religions” where pious local gods undergo unjust suffering/execution. Whatever you think about his other arguments about Jesus not existing, it seems like he’s correct that Christianity is Greek philosophy mixed with Jewish religion. So it’s not as out of nowhere as it seems.

    • onyomi says:

      Kind of scary/ironic to think of the Old Testament as the life-affirming religion of the ancient world, but maybe “God will punish you if you’re bad and bless you (maybe) if you’re good” is probably a lot better than “life is full of senseless, unjust suffering; the gods laugh at our attempts to defy cruel fate, which even they cannot escape.”

      Related, an archaeologist once told me that while the ancient Egyptian religion, (one of?) the first to include a possibility of (pleasant?) life after death, may seem kind of morbid and scary by our standards, in fact it was probably a sign that life in Egypt was good enough that people actually wanted it to continue after death.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Nietzsche saw the Old Testament as the life-affirming narrative of an ancient state, with Jewish ressentiment and trickery resulting from the Roman conquest. Now having slave morality, they cunningly developed life-denying Platonism into Christianity to infect their masters with slave morality.

  40. Icedcoffee says:

    Regarding Rome and the rise of Christianity: apart from the very appealing argument of pure coincidence (i.e. Constantine has a weird dream, paints crosses on his soldiers’ shields, and wins the Battle of the Milvian Bridge), my Roman history professor theorized that a major contributor was the Christian idea of martyrdom (dying for your religion gives you instant access to heaven) made the Christians irrationally brave, (see, e.g., lions in the Coliseum), and the Romans came to respect Christianity as having some of the old Roman virtues of bravery, strength, heroism, etc., that the Late Empire period lacked.

    (I should also note the Judeo-Christian monotheism was heretical to Romans, because it denied the existence of other gods, thus leading to their continuous persecution and facilitating conspicuous showings of bravery)

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      From the Church’s perspective, that was a positive feedback loop. The more martyrs, the more Hellenes would abandon the immoral Olympians for monotheism, leading to more martyrs… until at last we win.

    • Mary says:

      There were a lot of factors.

      For instance, the children of a Christian mother and a pagan father overwhelmingly turned out Christian, and since that marriage was much more common than the other, there were demographic factors. (And the reason it was commoner is that Christians did not expose their children — we have Christian apologists defending this odd custom — and pagans did, disproportionately of girls. Later, Christians also took to taking up exposed children, thus tilting the ratio even further.)

      And I have heard of people giving some credit to the technological advantage in books. Christians liked the new-fangled codex; pagans, the old-fashioned scroll. It wasn’t subtle. Archaeological digs have found libraries where more than 90% of Christian works were codices and more than 90% of the pagan, scrolls.

      • Mary says:

        Also there were some plague epidemics. Christians organized nursing for the ill.

        Those of you thinking that medicine of the time did little good should note this also meant you would eat and drink while bed-bound.

  41. jddt says:

    Personally I give a film bonus points if it lacks this good-guy vs. bad guy thing; so I know there to be plenty that lack it. Let me take a moment and just cite the films I have at hand that don’t have this plot:

    For example Bolt, ParaNorman, Moana, Back to the Future, Mary Poppins, How to Train Your Dragon, Song of the Sea, Inside Out, The Lego Movie, Dumbo, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Home, Saving Mr. Banks.

    So I don’t accept the premise that every story in pop culture is good vs. evil rather than a complex mix.

    I don’t think there’s anything complicated going on here: it’s easier to construct films and stories about a good-vs-evil axis; you might as well ask what it says about our culture that every other films has talking animals, or is sci-fi — they’re compelling things that are a common starting point for story writing.

    Also, the Hebrew Bible very much does not assume a “the Israelites are good; everyone else is evil” stance; it is very mixed and nuanced; for example in the story of David (Israel’s favourite child) murdering Uriah to conceal his affair with Uriah’s wife — David very much comes off worse and is humilated by Nathan to press the point home — despite Uriah being a Cananite no less; see also the book of Ruth, an entire book dedicated to how lovely a Moabite(!) is and that she is a matriarch of the house of David.

    • Galle says:

      I haven’t seen all the films you listed, but I do know that The Lego Movie has exactly this standard plot. It’s just that the main villain himself ultimately performs a virtuous betrayal.

      How To Train Your Dragon doesn’t have exactly the standard plot, but it does have the closely related plot of “two sides foolishly fight each other over identities until the heroes teach them that good and evil are what matters”.

  42. Thegnskald says:

    I think you are slightly behind the times on this one; moral narratives have gone out of fashion in fiction.

    Comic books largely abandoned them in the 80s, fantasy abandoned them in the 90s (I blame Robert Jordan specifically for this, as the Wheel of Time deconstructed the ridiculousness of moral narrative), science fiction abandoned them – shit, a while ago, I am not even sure now. Fiction has never been big on moral stories. There has been a small resurgence, but even that has included a lot more nuance than the early works.

    Movies are behind the fashion on this, which is to be expected, since Hollywood generally sells nostalgia, and it is currently largely selling comic book nostalgia.

    In games, modern games have slowly been drifting away from morality stories.

    • Incurian says:

      I blame Robert Jordan specifically for this, as the Wheel of Time deconstructed the ridiculousness of moral narrative

      Can you elaborate on this?

      • Thegnskald says:

        Briefly, the villains are cartoonishly evil – but accurately so, such that they can’t cooperate or coordinate. Jordan took the idea of evil seriously, unlike previous works where “evil” is somehow better able to coordinate than “good”.

        They literally come in with all the advantages – they are more powerful and longer-trained, have forgotten powers, massive armies, death for them is only a temporary setback, secrecy, special powers that only they possess, processes to mind control good guys – and lose horribly because the best coordination they can manage is when the evil overlord forces them to do so on pain of a fate worse than death – during which they are STILL undercutting one another, just in more subtle ways.

        Rereading it as an adult, the idea that the villains could win is laughable. They are literally too evil to win. The good guys don’t even know it, mind – they think the issue the villains have is that they grew up in a softer universe, whereas the forces of good have been fighting for their existence for a thousand or two years. So the good guys win without even pressing this specific advantage – that is how inept capital E evil is, taken seriously. Chronic backstabbing doesn’t even begin to describe it.

        And, indeed, epic fantasy since the WoT has shifted to less obvious evil; Joe Abercrombie is, I think, my go-to example, since GoT is more like The Three Stooges than a true gray morality. (Seriously can’t express my contempt for the characters of GoT enough. These people are the best schemers this universe has to offer? Oh, hey, you and your ally are facing an asshole known to scheme, and one of your guys just died in mysterious circumstances in a way that clearly implicates your ally – clearly it must have been your ally, not your enemy trying to make you both fight.)

    • Deiseach says:

      I think you are slightly behind the times on this one; moral narratives have gone out of fashion in fiction.

      And people are getting tired of this; I’m seeing a small but definite “Why can’t we have decent heroes who are decent because they’re decent? Why does Captain America have to be a ret-conned Nazi? Why does Superman have to be a jerk? I’m fed-up of dark gritty reboots and anti-heroes” backlash, and not amongst the dinosaurs of my generation but the Young People 🙂

      Jordan took the idea of evil seriously

      You tell me this with a straight face about the guy who created the Aes Sedai and that other sect/cult/wotsit of Smexy Magick Faintly S&M Vaguely Femdom Wimmin?

      Yup. Srs Evul. Right. The ‘heroes’ (who really needed a good smack around the head with a cast-iron frying pan) take innumerable volumes to finally decide ‘yeah the Big Bad probably is kinda bad, come to think of it’ and then promptly do everything stupid, and even then the Big Bad can’t get it together to destroy the universe or whatever the aim was, maybe he only wanted to get out to Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte (I admit, I gave up after Volume Six – I think it was – because the sheer amount of stupid was annoying me to death).

      I get that that is sort of your point, but “Imma make my Bad Guyz so inept a class of seven year olds could out-scheme them, and even then my Heroes are literally dumber than rocks and can’t capitalise on this” is not Taking Evil Seriously in my view. That’s Dastardly and Muttley, not anything approaching a working set of opponents.

      • Thegnskald says:

        The heroes are pretty inept, yeah.

        Part of the issue with the storytelling is that it was meant to be a trilogy; the publisher pushed for more books. So the first couple of books are intended to set up one climactic third book, not a huge series. (5, 6, and 9 really suffered for this)

        Gender in the book is… odd. It is a half-inversion of real gender, and I think it was an attempt at social commentary on the nature of gender and power, but whatever he was trying to say wasn’t very clear. But if your take on it is “femdom”, I think one of us missed the point, because at least that part seemed clear, which is that power is fairly corrupting in a less-powerful-people-matter-less regardless of gender. (Which was somewhat more significant a message when he started writing, and it was still popular among some groups to assert women in charge would be less evil)

        • Aapje says:

          it was still popular among some groups to assert women in charge would be less evil

          This never went away.

          • Thegnskald says:

            No idea ever actually dies.

            But that one is pretty marginal now, and seems mostly to come from male feminists of the sort who want to believe their personal failings are the result of their gender, rather than being – well, personal. Most of the old-school feminists I have spoken to are basically convinced at this point that it doesn’t hold up.

          • Matt M says:

            I never bought the “If women were in charge there would be less war” argument.

            But I DO buy a “If 50% of the infantry were women, there would be less war” argument, because society would be far less willing to treat female lives as disposably as they treat male ones.

          • Aapje says:

            @Thegnskald

            I see this sentiment expressed in the ‘letters’ section of my newspaper fairly often, which suggests a fairly large amount of support for this idea among the Dutch moderate left. The writers of these opinions seem to be mainly women.

      • Vorkon says:

        You tell me this with a straight face about the guy who created the Aes Sedai and that other sect/cult/wotsit of Smexy Magick Faintly S&M Vaguely Femdom Wimmin?

        I THINK you’re probably thinking of Terry Goodkind with that second example. If not, I have no idea which group in WoT you’re talking about.

        • Nornagest says:

          I’m guessing the Seanchan, although now that I think about it it’s a little eyebrow-raising just how many cults like that there are in fantasy.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I still get a chuckle out of D&D dark elves, an evil matriarchy of black-skinned cave dwellers who all have magic and scanty clothes.
            Oh, and spiders!

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m tired of scheming evil dark-elf demon priestesses with whips and corsets, and I’m tired of tortured good dark-elf renegades with scimitars and angst. When can I see a shy, neutral dark-elf beastmaster that just wants to be left alone to raise her six hundred adorable pet tarantulas?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            “Get out of my house, you stupid adventurers! Don’t hurt my tarantulas! They’re hardly any XP!”

          • hlynkacg says:

            Once this is over remind me to tell you about the time a band of druids jumped out of my potted fern.

    • Tracy W says:

      But J. K Rowling’ s Harry Potter was 90s. Hunger Games, which has a strong good-evil theme, was in the 2000s. Perhaps they’ve gone out of favour in fiction but fans seem pretty clear.

      • Thegnskald says:

        The biggest drawing point for me as far as Harry Potter goes is that it wasn’t endless pages of “traipsing through the woods”. Until it was. Damn I hate the last book; you wrote six fantasy books that weren’t “Wandering through a forest collecting the three artifacts of power to face down the evil wizard”, and then…

        • baconbits9 says:

          I liked it right up until the end when Harry had to face Voldemort alone… again. The whole series about friendship, loyalty etc and then they win on a technicality where Harry is the real owner of the Elder Wand, instead of the 20 or so remaining fighters all murdering Voldemort together.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Eh, if they’d done that people (perhaps you, perhaps not!) would complain it was just the “we have to work together as a TEAM!” trope.

            I’d say “everything is a trope” but saying “everything is a trope” is probably a trope.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Yeah, but my issue is that most of the story line was everyone doing their thing. Hermoine was smart, Ron was loyal, Harry was brave. Harry had already done the bravest thing he could, but to get the big ending he suddenly got Hermoine’s brains and figured out something important that ensured victory. I though it was out of character for the series which is why I don’t like the ending.

            Rather I would have had Mrs Weasley stand in front of him to protect him the way she would have any of her kids, Mr Weasly to stand in front of her, and on until everyone left was pointing their wand at Voldemort, and on and on.

            Hell, I would have preferred Neville blasted him from behind to avenge his parents.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Forest traipsing, three artifacts of power central to the plot being brought up at the last minute, ghost Dumbledore, the utter ineffectuality of everyone involved, the seventh goddamned repeat of the “Can I really trust my friends?” drama fight, the “redemption” of Snape hinging on his obsession with a dead woman rather than growing as a person, the endless pointless meandering (the middle half of the book could be cut), the endless whining, the whole “Can we really trust Dumbledore” arc (hint: it doesn’t matter, you don’t have any options and he’s dead)… other things I’ve forgotten because I am not going to reread it.

            I found it a bad book with a few good moments, as opposed to the previous books, where they were good books with a few bad moments.

          • Fahundo says:

            My preferred ending would have been if Harry’s muggle upbringing won him the day, and he was the only wizard to think of shooting Voldemort with a gun. Although I guess it makes less sense for a story that takes place in the UK.

          • LHN says:

            And then Rowling would be accused of ripping off Ralph Bakshi.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wizards_(film)

          • Nornagest says:

            Rowling’s worldview is far too British for her to go for that, even though every eleven-year-old in her wizarding world is effectively carrying around a deadly weapon.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            My preferred ending would have been if Harry’s muggle upbringing won him the day, and he was the only wizard to think of shooting Voldemort with a gun

            I would like a movie like this. One of the things I loved about Ghostbusters was the nonchalant way in which the protagonists countered the supernatural with science. It never occurred to them to ponder the nature of life after death, consult an oracle, cast a spell, get a magic charm from an ancient sage. “Ghosts? Let’s trap them like rats and store them in a containment facility in our basement.”

            I’d like to see a movie with the theme “magic wizards tearing up New York? Let’s shoot them with guns.”

          • Matt M says:

            It’s not quite the same, but one of my favorite movie scenes of all time is when Indiana Jones is confronted by the elaborate swordsman guy, and proceeds to pull out his gun and shoot him dead.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I’d like to see a movie with the theme “magic wizards tearing up New York? Let’s shoot them with guns.”

            Done in at least one episode of Buffy, where a demon who could not be harmed by human weapons gets blown up by an RPG (or something similar). Explanation: humans have gotten better weapons since the “can’t be harmed by human weapons” idea came about.

            Guns, though, probably not going to work. Even born wizards could think of using magic to throw mundane things to beat shields against magic, and thus would have counters for projectiles. Wizards at all familiar with the mundane world would think of it even sooner.

          • bean says:

            Explanation: humans have gotten better weapons since the “can’t be harmed by human weapons” idea came about.

            The actual quote was “no weapon forged” could harm him. My immediate thought was that they should just cast it instead, but I liked the AT-4 (IIRC) they used better.

          • Matt M says:

            There’s also a rather humorous scene in Thor: Ragnarok in which an Asgardian uses powerful automatic assault rifles (obtained from an exotic land known as “Texas”) to do significant damage to supernaturally empowered enemy forces.

          • Vorkon says:

            I’d like to see a movie with the theme “magic wizards tearing up New York? Let’s shoot them with guns.”

            He hasn’t made any movies yet, but isn’t that basically Larry Correia’s entire body of work?

          • Nornagest says:

            The actual quote was “no weapon forged” could harm him. My immediate thought was that they should just cast it instead, but I liked the AT-4 (IIRC) they used better.

            There’s a joke to be made here about self-forging warheads, but I don’t think the AT-4 uses one (though HEAT is a similar concept).

          • Kevin C. says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            I’d like to see a movie with the theme “magic wizards tearing up New York? Let’s shoot them with guns.”

            Well, replace New York with Tokyo, and that’s kind of the start of Gate: Jieitai Kanochi nite, Kaku Tatakaeri, isn’t it?

          • Nornagest says:

            Gate

            Man, that comic was such a letdown. You could do so many interesting things with the concept, but it looks like it’s shaping up to be just another harem series. Complete with the nebbishey loser protagonist trope that I can’t stand, although this one is at least kinda competent once you get past the laziness and the nerdiness.

        • quaelegit says:

          Hunger Games has lots of traipsing but no artifacts (afaik remember at least). Also as someone who (especially at that age) was not a fan of romance, personally I really enjoyed the “manipulation of media expectations of romance for survival” aspect of the first book. (IMO the second book wasn’t as well executed and the third book was a mess, but the first book I found quite good and would recommend.)

      • AG says:

        What, I don’t think Hunger Games has a strong good-evil theme, especially with what happens in the climax of the series. The main theme of the series is about the myriads of ways people get exploited, and how that can come from any direction.

        • The Nybbler says:

          The first two books are good vs evil — the outer districts versus the Capital and the privileged districts. After District 13 is revealed and we meet “Coin”, she starts muddying it up, showing good ends (the defeat of the Capital) by evil means (war, and ultimately, sacrificing the outer districts’ own children) and eventually Alma is shown to be simply the other side of Snow’s coin. But even muddied up, it’s still about good and evil.

        • Tracy W says:

          Yeah and then in book 3 Katniss kills the evil President right at the end, the author takes her out of the pilot (for like the millionth time – aargh) and when she returns she finds the world is reformed and good reigns. (Katniss is understandably still traumatised, but the political transformation is, well, shall we say not what I was expecting by about 3/4 of the way through the last book.)

  43. S_J says:

    Over Christmas break, I read Beowulf, in a translation-plus-commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien.

    For those who don’t know: one of Tolkien’s early scholarly papers, The Monsters and the Critics, was about Beowulf. Tolkien had a strong mastery of Old English, and had a similar level of knowledge of Nordic languages and legends. He enjoyed the poem as a story, and enjoyed it as a piece of cultural and linguistic history.

    The story of Beowulf is a story of Good vs. Evil. The Evil is embodied in monsters, not in humans. But the poet linked the monsters to the family of Cain in Genesis.

    The poet praises Beowulf for his courage and skill of combat. The poet also praises Beowulf for not exalting himself above the kings he serves under, and for being willing to sacrifice his life to save many others.

    The poem is told as if most characters have heard of Christianity and give it some credence. But the poem also mentions that the people of Heorot went back to their old idols and religious practices while under the depredations of Grendel. And the central characters in the story do not talk about the afterlife or Heaven in a Christian way.

    It is a story that could be enjoyed by pagans or by Christians who were present in England during the 8th Century. The story is told in Old English, but the source was either Danish or Geatish. Thus, the Old English speakers who heard the story would not identify it as a story of Our Tribe.

    The English audience would likely recognize the cultural context of kings-and-heroic-warriors. They would recognize the type of political maneuverings between Danish/Swedish/Geatish kings that are in the background of the story.

    But the story of Beowulf isn’t a simple Us-vs-Them story. Nor is it a story of Nationalism.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Yeah, as I was reading this post I was thinking “But what about Beowulf? Isn’t a pure “good vs. evil” tale that isn’t due to modern interpretations?”

    • hnau says:

      Great points! But I have to add that one of Tolkien’s main points in The Monsters and the Critics was to focus attention on the dragon as well as Grendel (the monster that everybody remembers). And the dragon episode is important because it’s still clearly good vs. evil, but not a clear-cut victory for good like in most modern stories. The dragon kills Beowulf and his people are going to fall on hard times as a result.

      Showing a “good vs. evil” conflict and then *not having good win* is very characteristic of the Norse / Germanic myths, but it barely happens at all in modern stories. Maybe that’s the difference?

  44. Michael Handy says:

    I dispute that the Iliad isn’t a Good vs Evil narrative. it’s just about people, not sides.

    It’s just that, like most old stories, it’s a virtue ethics narrative. So PEOPLE are good, or evil, based on their failings. The moral of the Iliad is “don’t let your desires control you, or all is doomed and the gods can’t save you”

    Firstly, the Trojans are CLEARLY the good guys. They have one evil character, Paris. His evil is that he is lustful, and thus effeminate. His desire, and his inability to overcome it, fucks things up so bad an entire CITY-STATE of good, rich, wise, god-fearing people cannot fix it, against an army of terrible human beings.

    Everyone else in Troy is a good guy. Priam is wise and Noble, Hector is no shit a modern virtuous knight. Aeneas is pretty awesome.

    On the Greek side, with the exception of Diomedes (who is something of the model of a perfect greek.), Achilles, who is not thrilled at being there and is too hot-headed, and Odysseus, who becomes rapidly not thrilled at being there and is all-together too sneaky, we have mostly assholes

    Agamemnon is high grade, full octane evil, even to a Bronze age noble, right from the first section of the Illiad. He enslaves and rapes the daughter of a priest, abandoning his vows to his wife, and his rage in war gets hundreds of his soldiers killed for no reason. He repeatedly tests his commanders for insubordination, not unlike a paranoid dictator. He is the worst.

    Menelaus is consumed by envy and hatred. Even more than Paris, this whole thing is his fault. They are there for a decade because of adultery, it feels stupid because it IS stupid. Paris wont face him in combat, he’s a coward, that should end it.

    Ajax cannot lose, even to a friend. When he does he goes insane and kills himself.

    Patroclus is overly rash, rushing in when it is unwise, breaking the shield wall. He represents the rage of Achilles without its control.

    They are just all awful. And its hard to see how someone could read the Illiad and not see it as a character study for a young noble of the Greek Dark Ages. A guide on how to behave, how to fufuill your duty, and the consequences of failure on those you care about.

    • Enkidum says:

      I very, very much doubt that this is the way the Greeks read/heard the text.

      The Greeks, after all, were… the Greeks. And not the Trojans. So they’re not going to listen to a narrative that exclusively condemns their own people and celebrates a foreign tribe. That’s just not how things worked.

      Odysseus’ “sneakiness” is very much to be admired, indeed that’s why he’s the main character of the Odyssey. As you note, the others have flaws, but that’s simply because these are the main characters of the story and Greek characters tend to have both virtues and flaws. Achilles rage and pride are flaws, but his courage and bravery are virtues. Seeing either side as the “true story” is really missing the point.

      • hlynkacg says:

        I think that you are making the fundamental mistake of trying to force ancient stories to fit a modern narrative/moral framework rather than letting them stand on their own.

        Aeschylus was a Greek, a veteran of Marathon who wrote stories celebrating the Persians and was celebrated in turn. Falsifying your claim about “how things worked“. As Michael notes above, the Iliad is not about heroic Greeks defeating dastardly Trojans nor was it ever intended to be. The Iliad is about Hector and Achilles, and how their respective virtues and flaws contribute to their ultimate fates. A structure/theme that will be familiar to any fan of classical literature.

        As for Odysseus’ “sneakiness”; He is perhaps the ur-example of an anti-hero. He is called out in story for his arrogance and lack of virtue, and while his cleverness does lead him to victory it also gets all of his friends killed.

        • Enkidum says:

          Sorry, I think I’ve explained myself poorly. I 100% agree that the Iliad is not about heroic Greeks defeating dastardly Trojans. However, contra Michael above, it is also not about heroic Trojans standing up against dastardly Greeks. As you say, it’s about Hector and Achilles, and their respective flaws and virtues. Modern morality tales don’t enter into it, again, contra Michael above.

      • Michael Handy says:

        Except the Greeks, sitting in Togas in Athens or wrestling each other in Sparta, discussing the finer points of the virtuous life, aren’t the original audience. The high Bronze Age is as alien to them as it is to us.

        The original audience is a post-apocalyptic Strongman, his son, and the bunch of goat herders he’s managed to threaten into following him, sitting in the ruins of Mycenae, wondering How It All Came To This.

        The Illiad is set, after all, towards the end of the final Bronze Age Collapse, and the story is basically how the Greek ruling class destroyed itself. So yes, the Trojans are the good guys, and the Greeks are the reason you are sitting in a hut eating gruel and smelling of goat, rather than hitting proto-Phoenicians with a hammer from your golden chariot.

        • Enkidum says:

          Come on, this is doing violence to the text. It’s a story about a bunch of guys hitting each other with swords, and their virtues and flaws. It’s not a pat moral fable.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      +1.

      @Enkidum Lucky for us we have lots of interpretation of the Iliad available to us from the Classical Period, and indeed Plato, Aristotle, Gorgias, and Euripedes all seem to interpret the Iliad in a way consonant with Michael Handy’s interpretation.

      • Enkidum says:

        You need to do a lot more work than this. The Greeks are happy to criticize the flaws of their heroes. But to present the Iliad as a morality tale about how the Greeks were bad and the Trojans were good is just silly. (Note that none of the writers you mention ever do this.)

    • Deiseach says:

      Agamemnon is high grade, full octane evil, even to a Bronze age noble, right from the first section of the Illiad. He enslaves and rapes the daughter of a priest, abandoning his vows to his wife, and his rage in war gets hundreds of his soldiers killed for no reason. He repeatedly tests his commanders for insubordination, not unlike a paranoid dictator. He is the worst.

      Mmmm, I tend to think your reading there is not how the original audience would have seen it, particularly the “vows to his wife”. Men didn’t owe fidelity to wives, the fact that the Greek victors come home with slave women who are expected to be concubines as well shows that, as does the way Jason (for instance) can dump Medea and marry a new, politically-advantageous wife. Marriage was for alliances and progeny. Odysseus and Hector are about the only two characters who have anything like what we’d consider good marriages, where they plainly do love and respect their wives and treat them as people.

      Agamemnon can be a bastard, but the fact remains that he is the agreed war leader and overall commander. That’s why he and Achilles get into the pissing match over the slave girl, because they are both manoeuvring to maintain their status and honour, and neither can back down for very real consequences of “loss of face” as to their standing in the army and with the other commanders.

      Why does Troy fall? Not because of virtue of one side and evil of another, but because it is the will of the gods. Paris is prophesied from birth to cause the ruin of his homeland (which is why his parents are urged to kill him; their failure to commit infanticide dooms the city – which is the virtuous act there?); the resentment of Hera and Athene for his judgement in favour of Aphrodite means that they incite the Greeks on against the Trojans; that Aphrodite needs to pay Paris the bribe she offered him means that Helen has to run off with him (Paris’ crime there is a sin against hospitality and his host, rather than lust or adultery as such); because Helen is the daughter of Zeus and princess of Sparta, she is fated, the fears that the rejected suitors for her hand would riot and kill them all made her father reluctant to select one until Odysseus came up with the compromise that all the suitors would have to swear an oath to defend the husband and marriage of Helen, which is why Menelaus and Agamemnon were able to call on the Greek commanders to keep that oath when Paris abducted her – it’s like the dominoes all falling that from the slap-dash assassination attempt of a Serbian nationalist ended in the horror of the First World War.

      It’s the implacable workings of Fate, the ill-will of the gods, that cause the ruin of Troy and the individual virtue or wickedness of the characters has little to do with the foreordained result. Hector is admirable because Hector is a great hero, and besides he needs to be a mighty soldier to be a worthy opponent for Achilles. Menelaus does what he does because he cannot permit the insult to his honour of letting Paris abduct Helen pass, else he will lose all respect and status and his position as a king will be in jeopardy.

      These are pre-Christian values.

    • engleberg says:

      @It’s hard to see how someone could read the Illiad and not see it as a character study for a young noble of the Greek Dark Ages-

      Not hard at all if they read it as the story of the Wrath of Achilles. Everything in the Illiad is about how Achilles gets annoyed. He didn’t want to be there. His boss steals his girl. Everyone tells him insultingly dumb lies. His friend dies and its his fault because he was moping over previous annoyances. He lashes out knowing he will die for it.

      Plato and Aristotle thought anger was a big deal, and you can read philosophy about the right time to be angry and how much, but that’s not the point of the Illiad. It’s more Riding Dirty on I-95 than John Bunyan.

  45. beleester says:

    I think that your idea of “ancient heroes weren’t 2018-virtuous, but they were 1000 BC-virtuous” holds a lot of water. Ancient myths did have characters reliably get punished for breaking certain moral laws (much like any character today who shuns The Power of Friendship is sure to be proven wrong by the third act), it’s just that the crimes that they committed were things like kinslaying or idolatry rather than slavery and mass murder. Homer doesn’t see a problem with the Greeks attacking Troy, but he makes it clear that kidnapping the daughter of the high priest of Apollo was a very bad move.

    A third theory: properly-written good-vs-evil stories are just better, in a memetic sense, but it took a long time to get the formula right. Coca-Cola is better than yak’s milk, but you’ve got to invent it before you can enjoy it – and just having a vague cola-ish mix of spices in water doesn’t count. But once you invent it, it spreads everywhere, and people throw out whatever they were doing before.

    There are definitely some modern, “refined” story formulas, but I feel like they’re only marginal changes, not enough to explain a huge shift in storytelling style. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat (the Bible of modern Hollywood writing) is just a slightly more detailed version of the Hero’s Journey. Some of the things you outline are due to narrative necessity – the heroes are disorganized underdogs because if they were organized and efficient there wouldn’t be a challenge – but like I said, marginal changes.

    One theory: the broad democratization process marked by the shift from sword-based aristocratic armies to gun-based popular armies. Old stories celebrated warrior virtues – strength, loyalty, bravery. The new stories celebrate populist virtue – compassion, altruism, protecting Democracy. The new nation-states would have liked to maintain the warrior virtues, it just wasn’t an option for them in the face of having to suddenly win the loyalty of a bunch of people they hadn’t cared about before.

    Somewhat relevant: Extra Credits had an interesting analysis comparing American and Japanese video game design and how their culture views guns. Japanese culture has the idea of a warrior class (the samurai), and often present the hero’s power as something innate to them (like Megaman’s arm cannon). American culture has the idea of the citizen-soldier, and their games often present the hero as an everyman who is pushed into taking up arms (like Gordon Freeman). Except both of those games were made long after the shift to gun-based armies was made, so I’m not sure if this is evidence one way or the other.

  46. Irene-Attolia says:

    Thanks for this. I read the essay yesterday and couldn’t believe the author missed this when citing Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as examples. And Rowling, frankly. Even Philip Pullman – he wrote His Dark Materials as an atheist fantasy, but the false god in the story was clearly the Christian version.

    Christianity shaped Western values so much that it’s in our DNA even as a secular society. It worries me that so many people seem unaware of this. (It’s not like we have to agree with it, any more than knowing who our parents are means we have to agree with them.)

    I was actually thinking about the redemption of Darth Vader in this light recently, after watching the TLJ. It struck me that it only really works because he dies in the end. We get to feel uplifted by his repentance, and the fact that Luke “saves” him, but never have to face the ugly consequences of his crimes, which would be the Star Wars version of the Nuremberg trials. I wonder if anyone was troubled by that when they first saw RotJ.

  47. thasvaddef says:

    BUT, are good vs evil narratives inherently better? A lot of my favourite modern narratives involve grey vs grey morality, anti-heroes, anti-villians and sympathetic antagonists. I realise that you mean good in the sense of instant-gratification/ memetic fitness. But I don’t think my taste is that much more sophisticated than average, and I’m more likely to read and recommend Worm than Superman. And anti-hero stories have had a lot of commercial success.

    Or is there a three-step evolution of narratives, like this:
    Amoral (tribe vs. tribe) -> Moral (good vs. evil) -> Morally complex (antihero vs. sympathetic villain)

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Superman is a bit passe, but I don’t think there’s anything average about preferring a 7,000 page web serial to the latest Avengers blockbuster.

      • thasvaddef says:

        OK I take your point. Perhaps a better example would be the Daredevil series which shows the arch-villain at home, appreciating art and finding love, while the hero beats people to within an inch of their lives (although he follows the classic good-guy rule of refusing to kill even the most evil enemies)

    • Darwin says:

      One possibility is a three-step evolution, where you can’t get to good moral complexity without passing through simple moral definitions.

      Another possibility is simply habituation: you absorbed many thousands of standard good vs evil stories by the time you were 12, and now they’re a bit boring, and the morally complex stories are at least novel and therefore appealing.

      It may be that if you had neither seen either type of story and were suddenly exposed to one of each, the good vs evil narrative would seem far more compelling.

      • Thegnskald says:

        Eh. I’ll take Joe Abercrombie over 70s and 80s fantasy now, and would have taken it when I was younger.

        And I prefer fantasy with good versus evil; to me it is a defining characteristic of fantasy. I would prefer the version of Heroes where Twigs is just a villain, rather than a morally ambiguous sociopath, and the weird knight guy with the squeaky voice isn’t also a morally ambiguous sociopath. I’d find that story more interesting (although it would be harder to write the literally best battle scene I have ever encountered, in which we switch POVs from killed to killer over the span of a battle).

        It isn’t that good versus evil is boring, it is that well-written villains require moral ambiguity; they need a believable reason for what they are doing. Twigs is an amazing character, and the previous book told his story of shift from idealist to morally ambiguous sociopath in an amazing way.

        But coming away from Abercrombie’s books, mostly I am left with a feeling that literally nothing that happened actually mattered. (With the possible exception of Red Country, which is my favorite book of his). A bunch of people died, and nothing meaningful happened.

        Which is realistic, but kind of unsatisfying.

        I expect there will be a shift to a more graduated version of good versus evil, just because my preferences tend to get satisfied for some reason. Villains who are relatable, but still villains.

        • Vorkon says:

          But coming away from Abercrombie’s books, mostly I am left with a feeling that literally nothing that happened actually mattered. (With the possible exception of Red Country, which is my favorite book of his). A bunch of people died, and nothing meaningful happened.

          Yeah, you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head on my problem with Abercrombie’s work, too.

      • thasvaddef says:

        Stories with moral complexity do seem like a response to black and white morality, like deconstructing or challenging a trope. In that sense, yes, going directly to moral complexity would be like watching a parody without seeing the original.

        I suppose a story with moral complexity requires a more complex plot and characters as well, which could make it longer. Which would be worse in certain situations, such as a story for children, an orally-transmitted story, or a medium with a short time-span such as film, compared to either amoral or simple moral. It could be worth the increased commitment in other cases.

        But the original question is, do simple moral stories out-compete the amoral?

        What examples of modern amoral stories are there? Or do moderns always see things through the lens of (modern) morality? If the Illiad was written today, would it be seen as a response to black and white stories with added complexity?

    • AG says:

      One of the things missing from this entire discussion is how these narratives are mostly confined to specific genres (and usually, “Genre” genres). My aunt’s taste in movies is a preference against those pat stories. She always goes for the messy “based on a true story” drama films like Argo, American Made, Molly’s Game, etc.

      On TV, sure, you have your crime procedurals with a clear sense of good and evil, but people also love their relationship dramas, from “messy relationships in high school” to “messy relationships in the workplace” to “messy relationships at home with a laugh track,” and those take up way more screentime than good-and-evil shows, if not in the mainstream buzz perception.

      So you could make the argument that the ancient stories that don’t follow good-and-evil are just the usual soap operas made hyperbolous by fantastic elements, and the shift is that mythology/religion became Genre, leaving the old mode to “realistic” dramas.

  48. Sangfroid says:

    To write about this subject without reading Nietzsche is like reinventing geometry without having heard of Euclid. He studied theology with the intent of becoming a minister before he moved to classical philology; this background makes him uniquely suited to tackling the problem of the evolution of morality.

    The rise of Christianity, and the dominance of Socratic-Judeo-Christian morality, was a phenomenon of enormous interest to Nietzsche. The great problem he wrestles with is what to replace it with – having shown that our morality is hollow, false, unhealthy, decadent – what path can man take?

    Read the Hollingdale or Kaufmann translations of his work if you read him in English.

    On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemicsummary, summary, first essay
    Twilight of the Idols & The Anti-Christ – a profound attack on modern values and Christianity.
    Beyond Good and Evilan introduction

    • Protagoras says:

      On translations of Nietzsche, I would say don’t read anything older than Hollingdale or Kaufmann. The older translations (e.g. Zimmern) are pretty awful, but Hollingdale and Kaufmann are not perfect, and more recent translations are mostly fine and perhaps in a few cases better.

    • Incurian says:

      Is there a single volume worth reading either from or about Nietzsche that is comprehensive enough to understand his main ideas?

      Edit:That is to say, can you make a recommendation?

      • Protagoras says:

        “Comprehensive enough to understand his main ideas?” No. But if you lower your standards a bit, I would tend to recommend Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Kaufmann certainly had flaws and blind spots, and is somewhat too concerned to defend Nietzsche’s reputation against threats that have faded since he wrote the book. But he has a considerable number of insights, and I think his biases will resonate well with the kind of people who hang out here (which may have the unfortunate effect of making them less visible, but it will make him easy to understand).

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        I’d put in a vote for The Gay Science (though I’ve only read that and Zarathustra). It doesn’t really have central theses–the format is ‘aphorisms’, chunks of text ranging from one sentence to maybe a few pages, without any explicit connection (and often no implicit connection) to one another. It’s sort of an antidote to reducing Nietzsche to one or a few main ideas.

        I mean, if you want to understand Nietzsche’s lasting contributions to philosophy, that reduction is probably useful; but if you want a feel for who he was as a thinker, I’d start with TGS.

        It’s also just really fun to read.

        • Sangfroid says:

          The Gay Science is not a collection of disparate aphorisms, by any means – each section builds on itself until it reaches a crescendo at the end of each book. They aren’t meant to be taken out of context.

      • Sangfroid says:

        Nietzsche was a student of Schopenhauer, a man notorious his aversion to prevarication, meandering, and writing to fill up a page. There are a very few cases when you might wish Nietzsche to get to the point, but in general you can’t ‘render down’ his works without ending up with something misleading and incomplete; it’s easy to take something out of context and make it appear to say the exact opposite of what was meant.

        It took me about seven years to make my way through everything Nietzsche wrote, and there are few ways to better invest your time; to steal a phrase, he was a great improvement over many of his successors.

        My recommended order for tackling his work:
        The Gay Science
        Beyond Good and Evil
        On the Genealogy of Morals
        Twilight of the Idols & The Anti-Christ
        Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is
        Thus Spoke Zarathustra
        The Will to Power
        Human, All Too Human
        Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality
        Untimely Meditations
        The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music

  49. jonmarcus says:

    Seems like your arguments conflict with each other? On the one hand, “Good vs Evil” isn’t actually new concept, it can be seen in the Crusades, the Bible (both Jewish & Christian), Norse & Maya myth, etc. But on the other hand, “Good vs Evil” is this cool modern meme that conquered everywhere once it caught on because it’s irresistibly powerful.

    Pick a side. Hint: you may want to avoid the side that needs to claim a meme that was the keystone for a bunch of religions/mythologies (including Christianity!) hadn’t quite caught on yet.

  50. baconbits9 says:

    Not that I disagree with everyone who has already pointed out that a lot of historical stories were about good and evil, but to take a different approach a lot of the ‘good vs evil’ stuff is modern movies is simply ease and familiarity. Michael Bay movies aren’t about good vs evil, they are about big explosions and fight scenes. Everything else is a set up. You cast Mark Wahlberg not because he is a great actor, but because you know his character from the time he steps onto the screen which allows you to skip all kinds of build up. Other highly visual movies just mail in large chunks of the plot and script so they can get to the stuff people are paying to see.

    I think the article is based heavily on a flawed premise to start with, comparing pop culture to folklore. Pop culture is filled with things that will be forgotten in a few years/decades. I am sure that Virgil had a contemporary who went around telling stories using sound effects or nudity or some other hook and skimped on character development that wouldn’t translate to the written word or cross cultures easily.

  51. Rm says:

    Really? Evven Wikipedia says “The baptism of Kiev was followed by similar ceremonies in other urban centres of the country. The Ioakim Chronicle says that Vladimir’s uncle, Dobrynya, forced the Novgorodians into Christianity “by fire”, while the local mayor, Putyata, persuaded his compatriots to accept Christian faith “by the sword””.

  52. redxaxder says:

    Fourth possibility: narratives with easy good/evil are more effective at propagating (in the memetic sense) in the short term, but the curators preserving stories for the future select against them.

  53. Jaskologist says:

    If this is so, maybe the next question is whether there’s anything else waiting to be good-vs-evil-ified, what form that will take, and what will happen afterwards.

    If this is caused by Christianity, we would actually expect to see a decrease in good-vs-evil stories in cultures that lose their belief. And anecdotally that seems to be the case. Who’s the good guy in Breaking Bad? The Wire? The Sopranos? Rick & Morty? See also the general grim-dark trend.

    But it’s really hard for me to come up with a way to measure this objectively.

    • AG says:

      Counterpoint: good-and-evil stories are still very popular in countries/cultures that are not dominated by Christianity. Anime, for example, shows that the memetic value in the Christ figure has transcended the religion and just become good storytelling.

  54. VolumeWarrior says:

    Difficult deciding which hill I want to die on here. I have more quibbles, but the modern hero narrative has really been bothering me these past few years.

    But Harry Potter fights for Dumbledore and against Voldemort because the one is good and the other evil

    Harry fights to preserve the status quo, because that’s easy to understand. But it’s not clear that Voldemort’s vision for a wizard monarchy is worse, except for the fact that Voldemort does unnecessarily evil and cruel things. Thank goodness those were written in! The story would have been much more difficult if Voldemort were an eccentric utilitarian.

    In general, hero narratives never try to achieve large improvements to the status quo, even though people will universally agree that some parts of the world are bad. Part of this is because most large improvements are actually controversial. Say superman goes and liberates North Korea without any bloodshed. That’s good right? Well it violates our intuitions about foreign intervention and pits us as the aggressors. You’re just not supposed to use power aggressively.

    Consider a narrative where there’s some evil aliens, but they’re not bothering us. They have some really advanced technology that if we steal, will usher in a utopian age on Earth. This is problematic because it casts humanity as an inferior race who needs to cheat to get ahead. We prefer a story where we, as in real life, make progress slowly on our own.

    Modern bad guys are just a stand in for disrupting the status quo. We KNOW they’re bad because the author has them commit atrocities and say mean things, but none of this is inherent to their disruptive plan. The vast majority of bad guys can be re-written as steel man versions who have plausible neutral/good motives. See r/theempiredidnothingwrong.

    I believe this is because excellence bothers us. People who want to get really far ahead of the pack and change everything on the back of brilliance/innovation/etc. We not only fear changes to the status quo, we fear evidence of our own mediocrity and laziness. It’s a fear of ambitious men taking all the fame and resources from a complacent and ineffectual populace. Notice that genpop never gets off their butts and fights the Joker or Lex Luthor in any of these stories (despite guns probably being effective). Which segues into my next point…

    Harry Potter is a seemingly ordinary and really quite weak guy who just happens to be fated to save everything through destiny, parentage, and the power of love/sacrifice, much like Jesus.

    Modern heroes suck! They’re just normal people who find injustice and then correct injustice. Like robots. They have super powers, but they’re still normal people. Normal as in they’re wired like normal people. They have vanilla emotions, worldviews, and aspirations. So hero = normal person + radioactive spider steroids + fetish for status-quo-preserving-justice.

    This is because the modern hero narrative as actually a fantasy about how normal people are secretly great. You can see this most clearly in zombie apocalypse fantasies. First, surviving a zombie apocalypse seems really easy. Everyone imagines that there’s no way they’d be stupid enough to get eaten by zombies. But somehow, 99% of humanity is killed, and we’re left with a cross-section of humanity that persists due to their virtues, despite these virtues actually existing in the bulk of the population. For example, one of these virtues is not being stupid enough to… idk, wander around at night. Unclear how most people got zombied. They just did.

    It’s a double vision where OTHER normal people suck but THESE normal people are great. You’re great too, because you’d obviously do great in a zombie apocalypse! The hero narrative is also a fantasy that YOU stand out as you are, despite being completely unremarkable.

    Normal people in the background of hero narratives are practically speechless. They’re helpless, self-centered, and just die randomly. This is a mirror into the insecurity of the viewer. The viewer needs to see ineffectual bumblers, and the identification with the hero helps the viewer distance themselves from the faceless normals. Identification with the hero is easy because the hero is like them, except with mutant DNA.

    I really really wish I could give counterexamples of heroes not just being steroided versions of normal people. But I can’t think of any popular examples. If you rewrote Beauty and the Beast where Gaston is a hero for rescuing Belle from an evil monster, Gaston is just wired fundamentally different from a normal person. He’s ambitious, horny, and egotistical. He’s even stronger than everyone else because he’s spent his whole life bulking up and practicing his killing skills (he’s a hunter). Normal people aren’t like this. Gaston makes normal people feel insecure because he’s going to outwork and outperform them. So when Gaston gets what he wants, normal people need to imagine he’s acquired it through violence or a thinly-veiled rape fantasy, as opposed to just being better than they are.

    In my mind, the best examples of heroes with heroic (read: exceptional and strength-producing) personalities are the protagonists from 80’s manga/anime. Jojo, Berserk, and Fist of the North Star are good examples. These heroes all do and say things normal people would find unthinkable. The price of excellence is sometimes uncompromising brutality, but they also frequently violate the norm that you shouldn’t think “too much” of yourself. They also have clear goals and often ignore side quests to help starving villagers. They’re defined by their seperate-ness from normal behaviour. And yet this is what being truly heroic entails.

    In these stories, normal people are not only lacking in super powers, but they are *different people* from the heroes. There’s no version of Guts walking around at normal power level. It would drive Guts insane if he couldn’t murder anyone he wanted.

    So TLDR – The modern good vs. evil trope isn’t about good vs. evil. It’s about normal people who are comfortable with the status quo and are worried about ambitious usurpers. This narrative is unflattering, so the good and evil elements are tacked on to validate everyone’s self image. Real heroes aren’t commercially viable because their personality is completely antithetical to normal peoples’ complacent lifestyles.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Harry fights to preserve the status quo,

      This is a very superficial reasoning, Harry ends up in conflict with the Ministry of Magic and refuses to lend his name to that fragment of the status quo and he is specifically loyal to Dumbledore, not to Hogwarts the institution.

      But it’s not clear that Voldemort’s vision for a wizard monarchy is worse, except for the fact that Voldemort does unnecessarily evil and cruel things

      Yikes, a Communist! The necessary things that Voldemort does are evil and cruel. To get a pure blood race in control you are going to have to punish/kill/imprison all the powerful non pure bloods, and any pure bloods that stand with them.

      • VolumeWarrior says:

        Harry ends up in conflict with the Ministry of Magic

        He’s in conflict with them insofar as they are complicit in failing to preserve the status quo (and later complicit with Voldemort). In the end, the ministry goes back to normal.

        he is specifically loyal to Dumbledore, not to Hogwarts the institution.

        Dumbledore’s main goal is to preserve the status quo though. That’s the whole point behind his childhood disagreement with Grindlewald. Grindlewald has some good arguments, but DD just says: “Nah, things should stay the same.”

        Yikes, a Communist! The necessary things that Voldemort does are evil and cruel. To get a pure blood race in control you are going to have to punish/kill/imprison all the powerful non pure bloods, and any pure bloods that stand with them.

        All governments have to use violence to achieve their ends. And I’d argue that the pureblood thing is just tacked on as an evil eccentricity.

        [edit] The steelman version of Voldemort is that he uses superior arguments to win a democratic election as minister of magic. Then, he reveals wizarding to the muggle world. Wizarding is so useful that even the lamest wizard is able to secure a job earning millions of dollars a year. Wizards become the elite 0.01% of society that no one can compete with or have any bargaining power against.

        • baconbits9 says:

          He’s in conflict with them insofar as they are complicit in failing to preserve the status quo (and later complicit with Voldemort). In the end, the ministry goes back to normal.

          No he isn’t, he specifically has the line “I don’t agree with your methods”, and he actively works with double agents in the ministry who break ministry rules.

          Dumbledore’s main goal is to preserve the status quo though

          It is? I guess that is why he becomes minister of magic when the opportunity arises and why he won’t sacrifice himself to save Draco’s soul/life.

          And I’d argue that the pureblood thing is just tacked on as an evil eccentricity.

          Yeah, only no, its ‘tacked on’ in the sense that it is the major part of his backstory, and the major reason his followers are drawn to him.

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            No he isn’t, he specifically has the line “I don’t agree with your methods”, and he actively works with double agents in the ministry who break ministry rules.

            This is all validated by the ministry’s failure to be an effective institution at fighting Voldemort. If Dumbledore insisted on deontological correctness even if it lead to Voldemort winning, Dumbledore would look like an idiot.

            It is? I guess that is why he becomes minister of magic when the opportunity arises and why he won’t sacrifice himself to save Draco’s soul/life.

            I thought he does sacrifice himself for Draco, so maybe you made a typo. But regardless of how messy the story gets, Dumbledore’s long term vision for society is basically the same as when the series starts.

            Yeah, only no, its ‘tacked on’ in the sense that it is the major part of his backstory, and the major reason his followers are drawn to him.

            His followers are cartoon villains. Basically racist inbreds. In the steelman version, his followers just think they should be allowed the right to free association.

          • baconbits9 says:

            This is all validated by the ministry’s failure to be an effective institution at fighting Voldemort. If Dumbledore insisted on deontological correctness even if it lead to Voldemort winning, Dumbledore would look like an idiot.

            So Harry refusing to help the ministry is exactly the same as an alternate version where Harry helps the ministry and wins? I guess if that is your interpretive style you can always come to the conclusion you want.

            Harry rejects the status quo (at least) 3 times as being ineffectual at fighting Voldemort. He drops out of school after Dumbledore dies, he forms DA’s army when Dumbledore is replaced as headmaster and he refuses to help the ministry in fighting V after they fire Fudge and try to get their act together.

            I thought he does sacrifice himself for Draco, so maybe you made a typo. But regardless of how messy the story gets, Dumbledore’s long term vision for society is basically the same as when the series starts.

            He does sacrifice himself for Draco, and he refuses to become minster of magic. Those are two things that run counter to the status quo, in addition to reviving old traditions (Triwizard cup).

            Dumbledore as headmaster changes the status quo, and it is not clear that those changes permeated wizarding society. Dumbledore spends the series fighting for, and grooming Harry to fight for his vision of society, not society as constructed. He doesn’t fight for or against institutions, but for or against people.

            His followers are cartoon villains. Basically racist inbred

            Like Draco Malfoy, who is rich and gifted (a prefect who con repair damaged magical artifacts), who ends up terrorized and agrees to kill Dumbledore to save his father’s life? Or Regulus or Serverus? Or Crouch Jr?

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            Harry rejects the status quo (at least) 3 times as being ineffectual at fighting Voldemort. He drops out of school after Dumbledore dies, he forms DA’s army when Dumbledore is replaced as headmaster and he refuses to help the ministry in fighting V after they fire Fudge and try to get their act together.

            This is not rejecting the status quo. This is going against the huddled masses. “Heroes” frequently go against the huddled masses (see OP), but Harry’s only goal is to make things the way they were. That is what “preserving the status quo” means.

            in addition to reviving old traditions (Triwizard cup).

            I don’t think you understand what counts as the status quo. Saying we need more international magic cooperation in order to fight bad guys who want to radically change society is supportive of status quo-ism.

            Dumbledore spends the series fighting for, and grooming Harry to fight for his vision of society, not society as constructed. He doesn’t fight for or against institutions, but for or against people.

            Institutions don’t define the status quo. He fights for people to keep living the same lifestyle they were going to live without Voldemort taking over.

            He doesn’t fight for a radical departure from normal wizarding life.

            Like Draco Malfoy, who is rich and gifted (a prefect who con repair damaged magical artifacts), who ends up terrorized and agrees to kill Dumbledore to save his father’s life? Or Regulus or Serverus? Or Crouch Jr?

            I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Some of the henchmen have moral reservations. This is irrelevant to whether the protagonists want to preserve the status quo.

          • baconbits9 says:

            This is not rejecting the status quo. This is going against the huddled masses. “Heroes” frequently go against the huddled masses (see OP), but Harry’s only goal is to make things the way they were. That is what “preserving the status quo” means.

            Harry doesn’t do anything to preserve the status quo outside of fighting Voldemort, which is not the same thing as fighting for the status quo. Fighting for the status quo means defending it against any attack, fighting against one guy means fighting against one guy. Harry fights for ideals, or he fights for people, the status quo doesn’t register.

            He fights for people to keep living the same lifestyle they were going to live without Voldemort taking over.

            No, the bolded is flat false. He fights so that people can live, not so that they can live in a specific way. This is the difference between fighting for freedom and fighting for your government.

            The ministry IS the status quo in the books, they reject the idea that Voldemort is back because that automatically breaks the status quo and forces people to live other than they have.

            But Harry doesn’t fight FOR the ministry, its survival is incidental as far as he is concerned.

            Institutions don’t define the status quo

            Wait a second, a minute ago you said

            He’s in conflict with them insofar as they are complicit in failing to preserve the status quo (and later complicit with Voldemort). In the end, the ministry goes back to normal.

            So the ministry is the status quo when you use it to support your argument, but it isn’t the status quo when you don’t?

          • baconbits9 says:

            I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Some of the henchmen have moral reservations. This is irrelevant to whether the protagonists want to preserve the status quo.

            You said Voldemort’s followers were cartoonish inbred hicks.

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            Fighting for the status quo means defending it against any attack, fighting against one guy means fighting against one guy.

            I’m sure if there were 2 Voldemorts he’d fight both of them. And it’s not clear which changes to the status quo Harry is okay with. See the steelman version of what-if-Voldemort won democratically.

            No, the bolded is flat false. He fights so that people can live, not so that they can live in a specific way. This is the difference between fighting for freedom and fighting for your government.

            It’s just a huge coincidence that while Harry is fighting for Justice, friendship, and freedom, it happens to mean that everyone just does whatever they were already going to do.

            This is my point. It is too conspicuous to be a coincidence. Modern authors are pushing status quo fetishism under the guise of higher ideals.

            The ministry IS the status quo in the books, they reject the idea that Voldemort is back because that automatically breaks the status quo and forces people to live other than they have.

            The ministry is complacent. Yes, they get more “life is normal” for a few months, but in the long term they lead to “life is not normal”. If they really could ignore Voldemort with no consequences indefinitely, this would break the narrative.

            So the ministry is the status quo when you use it to support your argument, but it isn’t the status quo when you don’t?

            The ministry is the status quo when it preserves the status quo. The ministry is subversive when it enables and complies with Voldemort. When the ministry goes back to being a normal government at the end of the narrative, it supports the status quo.

          • baconbits9 says:

            it happens to mean that everyone just does whatever they were already going to do.

            You mean get jobs, get married and have kids? If that is the status quo you are describing then this whole thing has to be a troll job/joke. That is called life, not the status quo, you might as well say that people eating food is the status quo, and since Harry didn’t want people to starve he was fighting for it!

            I’m sure if there were 2 Voldemorts he’d fight both of them.

            Yes, that is right. He would fight against a Voldemort, or two Voldemorts.

            He doesn’t fight for Truth and Justice, he mostly fights against Voldemort, and when he realizes that his death is required to kill Voldemort he does it. He doesn’t realize that the “status quo” needs him to die, or that “justice” or “truth”. The only clear ideal that Harry fights for is that people shouldn’t be subservient to others based on their birth (and he kind of lets this go with house elves).

            Institutions don’t define the status quo.

            In literature institutions represent the status quo almost always. You cant write a backstory and job for thousands of non characters, or describe culture and history down to the smallest detail so you use stand ins. In LOTR the status quo is represented by the 3 rings not controlled by the 1,

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            You mean get jobs, get married and have kids? If that is the status quo you are describing then this whole thing has to be a troll job/joke. That is called life, not the status quo, you might as well say that people eating food is the status quo, and since Harry didn’t want people to starve he was fighting for it!

            People would get jobs and have kids even if Voldemort took power. Same with food. What Voldemort would radically change is how social privileges are handed out, and how wizards interact with muggles. This is portrayed as “bad” because Voldemort and his followers are cartoonishly evil. See the steel-man version of the plan.

            He doesn’t fight for Truth and Justice, he mostly fights against Voldemort, and when he realizes that his death is required to kill Voldemort he does it. He doesn’t realize that the “status quo” needs him to die, or that “justice” or “truth”. The only clear ideal that Harry fights for is that people shouldn’t be subservient to others based on their birth (and he kind of lets this go with house elves)

            Yeah, that’s the status quo.

            In literature institutions represent the status quo almost always. You cant write a backstory and job for thousands of non characters, or describe culture and history down to the smallest detail so you use stand ins

            The ministry’s job is to keep things the way they are. Then the ministry fails because they’re ineffectual and eventually infiltrated by Voldemort. That’s when the ministry stops being the status quo. The ministry becomes the status quo again when Voldemort is defeated and the legal system goes back to normal.

            Idk why this is so hard. Everything Harry does coincidentally returns us to completely normal wizarding life.

        • baconbits9 says:

          The steelman version of Voldemort is that he uses superior arguments to win a democratic election as minister of magic. Then, he reveals wizarding to the muggle world. Wizarding is so useful that even the lamest wizard is able to secure a job earning millions of dollars a year. Wizards become the elite 0.01% of society that no one can compete with or have any bargaining power against

          Steelman isn’t analogous to fantasy.

          • Deiseach says:

            Wizarding is so useful that even the lamest wizard is able to secure a job earning millions of dollars a year.

            Ah, I dunno about that. Most of the kinds of “Hogwarts High” fanfic I roll my eyes at has Muggle students introducing Muggle goods like pop music and mobile phones and the rest of it to their wizard-born fellow students and this becoming wildly popular and adopted, so really then the question is “if you don’t write a yard of essay on a parchment with a quill but instead type it up on your laptop, what’s the point of magic parchment?” Same with sending letters by owls versus email and so forth.

            So while some magic would certainly be exceptional in the Muggle world (medical treatments for instance), a lot of it would be replaced by Muggle science (travelling by Floo Powder is marvellous, but how many modern houses and apartments have real fireplaces nowadays?)

            Therefore not “all, even the lamest wizards” would be earning millions; think of Silicon Valley and all the people in good jobs earning good money but working for a living and certainly not “millions! right now!” from their jobs.

          • baconbits9 says:

            So while some magic would certainly be exceptional in the Muggle world (medical treatments for instance), a lot of it would be replaced by Muggle science (travelling by Floo Powder is marvellous, but how many modern houses and apartments have real fireplaces nowadays?)

            Its not clear that non wizards can travel by floo powder even.

          • bean says:

            a lot of it would be replaced by Muggle science (travelling by Floo Powder is marvellous, but how many modern houses and apartments have real fireplaces nowadays?)

            I think your causal arrows are backwards here. If Floo Powder is available, you’d bet people would be installing fireplaces. Or using portkeys to reduce congestion by having people “carpool” from outlying areas.
            (I’m now wondering what the restrictions on “fireplaces” for the Floo Network are. Can they be moved? Could we fit one on, say, a warship? Or on the ISS? Now there’s a fun discussion to have with the safety people.)

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            @ Dieseach

            So while some magic would certainly be exceptional in the Muggle world (medical treatments for instance)

            Don’t medical professionals make upwards of $400k/year? What if they had a left-click-to-cure-stuff button?

            In general, magic breaks the laws of thermodynamics. There has to be something cool you can do with that. See Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, where HP enumerates several plans for world domination using simple cantrips.

    • Deiseach says:

      If it’s a “complacent lifestyle” to not be murdered by a ‘hero’ who feels entitled to murder anyone he wants, then I for one desire to wallow in complacency!

      Modern heroes suck! They’re just normal people who find injustice and then correct injustice.

      I don’t know any way to say this that doesn’t sound like head-patting patronising from an adult to a child, so I’ll just steam ahead: you’re pining for the 90s and the heyday of GrimDark ‘Adult’ Protagonists, Heath Ledger was the quintessential Joker, man! Nobody (except me,
      I’m sixteen and So Deep) understands that nihilism is the only thing that makes sense, damn all those mundanes and their boring square little lives and boring square little values!, aren’t you? 😀

      • VolumeWarrior says:

        If it’s a “complacent lifestyle” to not be murdered by a ‘hero’ who feels entitled to murder anyone he wants, then I for one desire to wallow in complacency!

        You’re misreading it. I’m not talking about arbitrarily dark heroes.

        The GrimDark stuff is transparent. GrimDark Batman is still just a justice robot. He just occupies slightly greyer area with more vicious themes.

        understands that nihilism is the only thing that makes sense,

        It’s not nihilism. It’s the recognition that exceptional achievements require an exceptional personality.

        Today’s heroes are just normal people on steroids who fight to preserve the status quo.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          If you’re doing a story about conflict between people (as opposed to man vs. nature) then don’t you really have two options? Either everything is fine and the hero is defending the fine-ness (status quo) from the evil invader, or the bad guy won in the past and now the hero is overturning the tyrannical order. That still goes on. Hunger Games certainly fits that description.

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            Yeah in apocalyptic stories, you typically start out already in the apocalypse and want to get things back to normal, which almost always means a western enlightenment lifefstyle. This is what I mean by “status quo”, even if it is not the initial state of affairs in the story.

            If there were an apocalyptic scenario where the main characters overthrow some evil force and replaced it with a benevolent communist dictatorship and incidentally wind up dissolving the nuclear family, well, that would offend the reader’s sensibilities.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            There’s plenty of sexual liberation and alternative family stuff in science fiction.

            This stuff is certainly out there, but it seems like you want more politics in hero yarns. But there’s no reason for hero yarns to be particularly political.

    • thasvaddef says:

      In general, hero narratives never try to achieve large improvements to the status quo

      This may be true of mainstream narratives set in the modern world, such as superheroes and perhaps Harry Potter.

      But in Star Wars (and in general stories about a “rebellion”) the protagonists are seeking to overthrow their status quo of an evil empire. Although, they are trying to bring about something more like our status quo – a democracy.

      So shouldn’t the conclusion be that most writers are in favour of democracy (even a flawed democracy) whether or not it’s the status quo?

      Staying on the example of Star Wars, Luke is your steroided everyman, but the Jedi such as Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi gained their powers through long training and study, and they have an abnormal mentality (devotion to a philosophy of celibacy, cultivating inner peace, following the will of the force, and being completely accepting of their own deaths).

      • VolumeWarrior says:

        But in Star Wars (and in general stories about a “rebellion”) the protagonists are seeking to overthrow their status quo of an evil empire. Although, they are trying to bring about something more like our status quo – a democracy.

        I agree. What I should have said instead of “status quo” was something like “modern western norms”.

        So shouldn’t the conclusion be that most writers are in favour of democracy (even a flawed democracy) whether or not it’s the status quo?

        My conclusion was that writers favor defining “good” as “similar to middle class America”.

        Staying on the example of Star Wars, Luke is your steroided everyman, but the Jedi such as Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi gained their powers through long training and study, and they have an abnormal mentality (devotion to a philosophy of celibacy, cultivating inner peace, following the will of the force, and being completely accepting of their own deaths).

        That’s a good point. I only saw the original trilogy once, but Yoda and Obi-Wan are plausibly wired differently than the average Joe. I guess Dumbledoor is also wired differently than average. But the main storyline is well-insulated from their eccentric foibles, typically living as hermits rather than heroes.

        • Tracy W says:

          My conclusion was that writers favor defining “good” as “similar to middle class America”.

          Maybe I’m just revealing my ignorance of “middle class America” but I thought authors like R. A. Heinlein or Gene Rodenberry were often deliberately pushing against contemporary racism.

          • John Schilling says:

            Right, but they did so at a time when middle-class America was mostly opposed to contemporary racism. Not marching-in-the-streets opposed, but that was mostly laziness. In 1965, 59% of Americans indicated a willingness to vote for a black president, and see here for much more. When Star Trek was on the air, most Americans believed that the future ought to be and would be a place where someone like Lt. Uhura belonged on the bridge of a spaceship.

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            Not familiar with these works, but I believe it. Star Trek breaks my pattern because it is not only anti-racist, it’s maximally integrative fully automated space communism. This is very different from our current lifestyle.

            On the other hand, the entire fantasy trope is arguably an allegory for racism. Just who are the orcs supposed to be? What about the hook nosed goblins who are obsessed with gold?

            The world of warcraft movie was funny. The message seemed to be that most orcs are brutish and violent, but SOME orcs were cool and able to suppress their tribalistic killing urges long enough to tolerate a human.

            I’m not racist, one of my best friends is an orc!

          • Matt M says:

            The message seemed to be that most orcs are brutish and violent, but SOME orcs were cool and able to suppress their tribalistic killing urges long enough to tolerate a human.

            Perhaps lost on those not familiar with the larger plot from the games, but I think what they were intending to go for was “One super evil Orc used dark magic to corrupt everyone else, making them evil, while those he had not yet gotten around to corrupting were mostly good.”

            Which is basically where the game series ultimately landed on its third installment, after a fairly standard and cliche-ridden “humans good orcs bad” first two games when it was getting off the ground largely due to gameplay mechanics with story as an afterthought.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Star Trek is also pretty racist. Sure, humans are blank slates, but “a klingon who isn’t violent” or “a ferengi who isn’t greedy” are rare enough that they’re the plot arcs of episodes.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Tolkein’s orcs are corrupted elves; not sure where that fits in to racism. He has Black Men of the South who have come under the influence of Sauron, but they’re still men. I believe the folklore goblin’s love of gold is a separate stereotype from the Shylockian Jewish one; in any case, Tolkein used “goblin” and “orc” for the same creature, which didn’t particularly love gold (it was the dwarves who did), nor was it hook-nosed.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            On the other hand, Rowling’s greedy goblins were hook-nosed bankers.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Right, but they did so at a time when middle-class America was mostly opposed to contemporary racism. Not marching-in-the-streets opposed, but that was mostly laziness. In 1965, 59% of Americans indicated a willingness to vote for a black president, and see here for much more. When Star Trek was on the air, most Americans believed that the future ought to be and would be a place where someone like Lt. Uhura belonged on the bridge of a spaceship.

            I think this is misleading in two ways. First is that if 59% of people are willing to vote for a black president that means 41% of people aren’t. A black candidate would have to carry 5 out of 6 people willing to consider him just based on his race to approach 50%, which functionally means he is unelectable. Secondly there is a gradient in intensity to consider, a racist person might consider murdering a black person if they could get away with it, where as a non racist person might just be willing to vote for a black person for president. Under such circumstances the racist minority is much more influential than the non racist majority.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Just who are the orcs supposed to be?

            Pontius Pilate?

          • The original Mr. X says:

            I think this is misleading in two ways. First is that if 59% of people are willing to vote for a black president that means 41% of people aren’t. A black candidate would have to carry 5 out of 6 people willing to consider him just based on his race to approach 50%, which functionally means he is unelectable.

            The question isn’t whether a black candidate could have plausibly been elected, the question is whether middle-class America was non-racist enough to like stories set in non-segregated environments.

            Secondly there is a gradient in intensity to consider, a racist person might consider murdering a black person if they could get away with it, where as a non racist person might just be willing to vote for a black person for president. Under such circumstances the racist minority is much more influential than the non racist majority.

            Theoretically, sure, but how much evidence is there that this accurately describes the situation in 1960s America?

          • quaelegit says:

            What came to mind it Emmett Till’s high profile murder which happened in 1955. My understanding was that in the 1950s lynching was uncommon but tacitly condoned in many areas of the US (especially the Midwest and South) and that this changed across the 1960s. Wikipedia says “most but not all lynchings ceased during the 1960s” but doesn’t give numbers.

            To go back to Tracy’s original question and John’s point — the US was a really big country even back then. Heinlein and Star Trek could make a living catering to the sensibilities of the large part of the middle class that was more opposed to racisim, while another large part of the middle class voted for the Dixiecrats.

            Actually, I’ve been told that Chekov was more subversive than Uhura or Sulu, for being Russian during (or shortly after?) the height of the Cold War. I was going to guess that US “victory” in the Space Race might have made it more acceptable — but the first Star Trek episode aired in 1966, before that!

          • John Schilling says:

            Actually, I’ve been told that Chekov was more subversive than Uhura or Sulu, for being Russian during (or shortly after?) the height of the Cold War.

            Right, and note that Chekov wasn’t introduced until the second season, when the show was on a secure footing in the prime-time lineup (and when the Klingons were clearly established as the Soviet-equivalent menace against which all humanity was united).

            W/re not-captain Uhura, the target audience there isn’t just the 59% who would have voted for a black president, but all the rest who would have been OK with e.g. a black cabinet secretary. It may not be a coincidence that the first black cabinet secretary was appointed in 1966, and as near as I can tell to no great controversy.

      • andagain says:

        But in Star Wars (and in general stories about a “rebellion”) the protagonists are seeking to overthrow their status quo of an evil empire.

        IIRC, in Star Wars they are trying to restore the Old Republic which was overthrown by the usurper Palpatine. They are really counter-revolutionaries. Palpatine was the true rebel, even if he took the title “Emperor” after the success of his rebellion.

    • RobJ says:

      I guess you say this fairly explicitly, but it sounds like what you consider a hero is most people’s idea of a villain. Your hero is anti-democratic, deciding other’s fates based on a belief in their own superiority. The typical hero is pro-democratic, fighting against those who wield power to suit their personal whims.

      And what you call status quo is what I think many would call just mainstream modern morality. There are plenty of stories out there of people fighting against what they think is real existing injustice in the world (and sure, plenty of stories make the villains cartoonishly evil to drive the point home). You just seem to feel that the modern sense of injustice is wrong, so a real hero would tear it all down to build something that fits closer to your moral sense. Is that right?

      • VolumeWarrior says:

        I guess you say this fairly explicitly, but it sounds like what you consider a hero is most people’s idea of a villain. Your hero is anti-democratic, deciding other’s fates based on a belief in their own superiority. The typical hero is pro-democratic, fighting against those who wield power to suit their personal whims.

        A hero might also be indifferent to the masses. For example, in the alt-beauty and the beast example, Gaston’s saving Belle from the beast is mostly his quest. I don’t mean that Gaston is an anti-hero or subversive or whatever. I’m not even sure if this is anti-democratic. I mean that Gaston behaves exceptionally, choosing passion over cowardice. Cowardice and weakness that afflict the “normal” people in his society and cause them to live in fear of the beast.

        And what you call status quo is what I think many would call just mainstream modern morality

        Agreed. Mainstream modern morality, with all it’s hangups and unspoken contradictions.

        You just seem to feel that the modern sense of injustice is wrong, so a real hero would tear it all down to build something that fits closer to your moral sense. Is that right?

        Well most villains just kind of want to kill or enslave everyone. I agree that this is wrong, and not just a violation of mainstream modern norms. My two major problems are:

        1) Everything that isn’t like mainstream western civilization is portrayed as irredeemably evil (or at least culturally eccentric and undesirable to emulate). This is reflected in the heroes’ bias towards preventing evil as opposed to inventing good.

        2) “Heroes” are just normal people with steroids. They are devoid of a heroic personality, values, etc. Modern heroes just robotically prevent injustice because that is the thing that preserves mainstream society.

      • pontifex says:

        “Have you ever sympathesized with a super villain” would be a good question for the next SSC survey.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        1) Everything that isn’t like mainstream western civilization is portrayed as irredeemably evil (or at least culturally eccentric and undesirable to emulate).

        What do you think of The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, or Dancing with the Last of the Mohican Samurai Wolves in Space–I mean Avatar?

        • aNeopuritan says:

          Do the Amerindians depicted resemble actual Amerindians? Are the blue Avatar people different from Blue Bay Aryans?

        • John Schilling says:

          They resemble what BBAs actually believe Native Americans to have been, which differs from what BBAs are in that e.g. Native Americans actually lived in something resembling “harmony with nature” rather than living in cities and visiting nature on weekends.

          But #1 might be better rephrased as “Anything not portrayed as irredeemably evil will be presumed to share the core values of mainstream progressive western civilization, and we’ll pretend real hard that the Sioux didn’t kidnap and rape Mary McDonnell in the backstory of Dances with Wolves

          • aNeopuritan says:

            Resembling “harmony with nature”: setting (parts of, of course) the forests on fire for those who plant, extinguishing the horses for those who didn’t. If a rape was omitted, I’m pretty sure so were the days-long torture-murders, “arguably” more shocking and certainly more specific to Amerindians, and definitely pre-Columbian.

          • Nornagest says:

            The last movie I saw that even touched on that was 1991’s “Black Robe”. Maybe the only movie: early Westerns sometimes made the natives the bad guys, but generally left that sort of thing in subtext.

      • aNeopuritan says:

        I may have missed Roland and Liu Bei being democrats. In fact, if you’re one, you shouldn’t be looking for people to *protect*.

    • Tracy W says:

      Isn’t the issue with writing stories where the status quo is drastically improved is that this is fundamentally hard in a story telling sense because it boxes in future stories? You get a Lensman Arms Race. Or you get a utopia that’s boring.

      There’s some exceptions. E.g. Lois McMaster Bujold switches to off planet threats (plus A Civil Campaign). But that’s a space opera where she can just keep adding planets and new civilisations, plus she’s an exceptional writer and plotter.

    • Nornagest says:

      Say superman goes and liberates North Korea without any bloodshed. That’s good right? Well it violates our intuitions about foreign intervention and pits us as the aggressors. You’re just not supposed to use power aggressively.

      The Authority did stuff like this several times — with a Superman analog, even.

      Of course, it also ended up killing off a George W. Bush stand-in for his foreign interventionism, so maybe it’s not the most internally consistent piece of work.

    • LHN says:

      Superman also mostly doesn’t do that because he’s the hero of a serial story that can’t diverge too far from the real world in its culture, technology, or politics no matter how many alien invasions it weathers.

      (Freed of those limitations in a Look magazine feature, Superman’s creators did have him end World War II singlehandedly. http://ws.fortress.net.nu/look/?page=2 )

    • Powerful Olfactory Hallucinations says:

      I really really wish I could give counterexamples of heroes not just being steroided versions of normal people. But I can’t think of any popular examples.

      I think you would find R. Scott Bakker’s “A Prince of Nothing” series (starting with The Darkness That Comes Before) very interesting. The main “hero” is basically a rationalist super genius that has to manipulate people into thinking he’s Jesus, so he can get in a political position that is strong enough for him to fight off Sauron. Since noone else is on his intellectual level, he treats people like flies that he can do whatever he sees necessary to reach his goal.

      I think a lot of people reading this site would find the series interesting. Bakker is a philosophy lecturer who uses the series to discuss ideas and concepts that also have been adressed on this blog.

  55. Doug says:

    Does Noah’s ark not present an essentially good vs. evil story. God floods the entire Earth and saves Noah. This has nothing to do with tribal or national affiliations. Noah and his family are good, and the rest of the populace is wicked.

    • James Kabala says:

      No “vs.” involved. The story (at least as told in the Bible) involves no conflict or war whatsoever.

  56. Freddie deBoer says:

    “The very existence of Crusades seems to point to “all the good people get together and fight all the bad people, in the name of Goodness” being a recognizable suggestion.”

    This sentence does exactly what the essay complains about! Seeing religion as boundarying good rather than the circle of belief is itself a very modern, Manichean phenomenon.

    “The past stories seem much more conducive to blind nationalism than our own.”

    The notion of the nation-state is a modern conception, certainly no older Napoloen.

  57. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    Re: villains changing sides, I was surprised to find in Mere Christianity the statement, “In war, each side may find a traitor on the other side very useful. But though they use him and pay him they regard him as human vermin.” This isn’t the subject a lengthy argument; it’s casually assumed to be something the reader will agree with. This was written the middle of World War II!

    So there’s some evidence that “fight for your side, because it’s yours” was alive and well as a value at that time.

  58. JohnBuridan says:

    Judaism and Christianity have long histories of describing narrative struggle between good and evil. Moses and Pharaoh, Judith and Holofernes, Antiochis IV and the Jewish People, the Qumran community in the Dead Sea Scrolls, St. Paul in Romans and Galatians, all describe themselves as the forces of light versus the forces of darkness. Prophecy always takes the form of the Eternal Battle between Good and Evil.

    It’s usually sin and death that are the real enemies, since the battle is not of flesh and blood, but principalities and powers. So most of the epic battle between Good and Evil is an analogy. However, on occasion, evil comes into our reality. Antiochis IV, Hitler, Pompey, Babylonians etc. Sometimes these evil doers are a chastisement, other times they are the Abomination of Desolation.

    So I think the good vs. evil narrative is well established before modernity. Paradise Lost provides it again as an early modern epic. Beowulf struggles against man and monster. And the thing to notice about the epic is that the struggle between people is controlled by fortune and their is very little value judgment. But monsters are evil. The principalities of darkness have always existed in western literature, even before Manicheanism.

    Consider Gilgamesh: although its worldview is nearly totally unrelated to Judaism, Enkidu and Gilgamesh to encounter real evil and defeat it in the monster Lugulbanda.

    I will defy anyone to try to prove that a struggle between good and evil does not exist in pre-modern literature. Good vs. Evil does get amplified though, and that’s something we should consider.

    Jonathan Shay hypothesizes in Achilles in Vietnam that Judeo-Christian worldview encourages people to paint the enemy as the forces of darkness, and actually inhibits the soldier’s ability to cope with PTSD.

    On the other hand, IIRC, Eisenhower recalled that the U.S. troops in North Africa did not fight very well at the beginning, because they thought of the Germans as just other people. But as casualties grew, ground troop determination to hate, demonize, and destroy those Nazi SOBs grew as well.

    Perhaps there is a connection between demonizing the enemy, casting them as a Lugulbanda, so that a people can fight more desperately against the enemy, whether it be sin or Nazis or Democrats or Republicans, and success.

    I think Tolkien is synthesizing narratives from the past which include pagan and Christian narratives, but in all of these stories there exist some evil made flesh.

    As for the spread of Christianity, I might circle back to propagate an explanation for how that happened so quickly all around the world, even to this day, without coercion.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      … Lugalbanda? That’s Gilgamesh’s dad, not a monster. He had his own narrative poems, set when he was a youth in King Enmerkar’s army and got lost on the March to Aratta, land of lapis lazuli and original residence of Ishtar.

      • JohnBuridan says:

        Ahh!!!! I meant Humbaba. Shouldv’e used the internet instead of memory. Thanks for the correction.

  59. Deiseach says:

    I’ve looked around for anyone who has a decent explanation of this, and as far as I can tell Christianity was just really appealing. …I know this is a horrendously naive-sounding theory, but it’s the only one I’ve got.

    Pretty much how Julian the Apostate saw the appeal of it, when he was trying to revive Classical paganism and writing exhortatory letters to local priests: hey, you guys, get with the Current Year, these Christians are winning away all your people by helping the sick and burying the dead and clever PR stunts of that nature!

    22. To Arsacius, High-priest of Galatia [362, on his way to Antioch in June?]

    The Hellenic religion does not yet prosper as I desire, and it is the fault of those who profess it; for the worship of the gods is on a splendid and magnificent scale, surpassing every prayer and every hope. …Why, then, do we think that this is enough, why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?[i.e. Christianity] I believe that we ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues…. In every city establish frequent hostels in order that strangers may profit by our benevolence; I do not mean for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money. I have but now made a plan by which you may be well provided for this; for I have given directions that 30,000 modii of corn shall be assigned every year for the whole of Galatia, and 60,000 pints of wine. I order that one-fifth of this be used for the poor who serve the priests, and the remainder be distributed by us to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. …Then let us not, by allowing others to outdo us in good works, disgrace by such remissness, or rather, utterly abandon, the reverence due to the gods. If I hear that you are carrying out these orders I shall be filled with joy

    Julian was Supreme Pontiff, and as such felt responsible for the teachings and conduct of the priesthood. He saw that in order to offset the influence of the Christian priests which he thought was partly due to their moral teaching, partly to their charity towards the poor, the pagans must follow their example. Hitherto the preaching of morals had been left to the philosophers. Julian’s admonitions as to the treatment of the poor and of those in prison, and the rules that he lays down for the private life of a priest are evidently borrowed from the Christians.

    This Fragment occurs in the Vossianus MS., inserted in the middle of the Letter to Themistius, and was identified and published separately by Petavius. It was probably written when Julian was at Antioch on the way to Persia.

    (From the larger Fragment of the Letter) Now it would perhaps have been well to say earlier from what class of men and by what method priests must be appointed; but it is quite appropriate that my remarks should end with this. I say that the most upright men in every city, by preference those who show most love for the gods, and next those who show most love for their fellow men, must be appointed, whether they be poor or rich. And in this matter let there be no distinction whatever whether they are unknown or well known. For the man who by reason of his gentleness has not won notice ought not to be barred by reason of his want of fame. Even though he be poor and a man of the people, if he possess within himself these two things, love for God and love for his fellow men, let him be appointed priest. And a proof of his love for God is his inducing his own people to show reverence to the gods; a proof of his love for his fellows is his sharing cheerfully, even from a small store, with those in need, and his giving willingly thereof, and trying to do good to as many men as he is able.

    We must pay especial attention to this point, and by this means effect a cure. For when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. And they have gained ascendancy in the worst of their deeds through the credit they win for such practices. For just as those who entice children with a cake, and by throwing it to them two or three times induce them to follow them, and then, when they are far away from their friends cast them on board a ship and sell them as slaves, and that which for the moment seemed sweet, proves to be bitter for all the rest of their lives—by the same method, I say, the Galilaeans also begin with their so-called love-feast, or hospitality, or service of tables,—for they have many ways of carrying it out and hence call it by many names,—and the result is that they have led very many into atheism…..

    Interestingly, Julian seems to have been well-disposed to the Jews, had no quarrel with the way they worshipped their God, and even intended (or said he intended) to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem for them!

    Therefore, when I saw that there is among us great indifference about the gods and that all reverence for the heavenly powers has been driven out by impure and vulgar luxury, I always secretly lamented this state of things. For I saw that those whose minds were turned to the doctrines of the Jewish religion are so ardent in their belief that they would choose to die for it, and to endure utter want and starvation rather than taste pork or any animal that has been strangled or had the life squeezed out of it; whereas we are in such a state of apathy about religious matters that we have forgotten the customs of our forefathers, and therefore we actually do not know whether any such rule has ever been prescribed. But these Jews are in part god-fearing, seeing that they revere a god who is truly most powerful and most good and governs this world of sense, and, as I well know, is worshipped by us also under other names. They act as is right and seemly, in my opinion, if they do not transgress the laws; but in this one thing they err in that, while reserving their deepest devotion for their own god, they do not conciliate the other gods also; but the other gods they think have been allotted to us Gentiles only, to such a pitch of folly have they been brought by their barbaric conceit.

    51. To the community of the Jews [Late 362 or early 363, Antioch]

    For it is natural that men who are distracted by any anxiety should be hampered in spirit, and should not have so much confidence in raising their hands to pray; but that those who are in all respects free from care should rejoice with their whole hearts and offer their suppliant prayers on behalf of my imperial office to Mighty God, even to him who is able to direct my reign to the noblest ends, according to my purpose. This you ought to do, in order that, when I have successfully concluded the war with Persia, I may rebuild by my own efforts the sacred city of Jerusalem, which for so many years you have longed to see inhabited, and may bring settlers there, and, together with you, may glorify the Most High God therein.

    For as for those who make such profanation [of pagan temples and statues of the gods] a reproach against us, I mean the prophets of the Jews, what have they to say about their own temple, which was overthrown three times and even now is not being raised up again? This I mention not as a reproach against them, for I myself, after so great a lapse of time, intended to restore it, in honour of the god whose name has been associated with it.

  60. madlordsnapcase says:

    I don’t think that Christianity spread because it was an optimized story. We’ve probably been optimizing stories since we started to talk. Maybe a hundred thousand years. We would have found it sooner if that’s what it was.

    I offer a Whig History guess: soft, kind Christianity found the new story meta that dominated under technologically improved economic conditions. Christianity spread because, a) we inherently want to be sort of nice, and b) being sorta nice in general was starting to look more plausible. Rome etc had attained enough capital and security that charity beyond one’s tribe started to look sane. Maybe we could live and let live.

    Prior to that, there was no live and let live. We were at carrying capacity, and if the other tribe prospers, that means yours can’t.

    • Wrong Species says:

      I don’t think that really works because Christianity started really spreading when the Roman Empire was in decline and became more prominent in the Early Middle Ages. After that, it successfully converted the Vikings and other “barbarians”. If anything, it was much easier to convert Christians in the less developed societies than the more developed ones.

  61. OptimalSolver says:

    Aren’t those later versions of Robin Hood still pre-1700?

    Edit:Oops, just read further and you mention that.

  62. no one special says:

    Argh! The essay wants the heel/face turn to be so important, but doesn’t know what it’s talking about:

    Bad guys change their minds and become good in exactly the same way in countless, ostensibly folkloric, modern stories: The Lord of the Rings,

    There is no heel/face turn in Lord of the Rings.

    If the essay can blow something this simple, why would I expect it to hold any water at all?

    • baconbits9 says:

      There are definitely Face to Heel turns in LOTR, you could argue that there are some Heel to Face turns- Theoden, Boromir (it is unclear when/how much he lusts after the ring, and what he would do to gain it) and you could maybe argue that a lot of the Elves (Cereborn) are functionally racists who have to open themselves up somewhat to help the fellowship, though that is a bit of a stretch.

      • no one special says:

        Face/heel, yes, but no heel/face. There are no bad guys who repent of their badness to join the good guys. Surely no one changes sides.*

        (Hell, even Frodo face/heel turns at the end, succumbing to the temptation of the ring, but he is saved from his own weakness by the grace of God/incredible luck.)

        * Okay, I guess Saruman changes sides, but that’s face/heel, and happens before the book really starts.

        • baconbits9 says:

          (Hell, even Frodo face/heel turns at the end, succumbing to the temptation of the ring, but he is saved from his own weakness by the grace of God/incredible luck.)

          Its not luck it is pity/mercy that allows Gollum to live to that point, and that his momentary lapse is overcome by his previous good deeds.

          Theoden is under Sarumon’s control until he is shown the light and then dies bravely in battle compared to Denethor who strives with Sauron and goes insane with dispair. You have the ghosts of cowards past who fight for Aragon to fulfill their vows.

          Of course Tolkein is to good a writer to use tropes in the laziest way, so none of these are prefect.

  63. OptimalSolver says:

    In Harry Potter, don’t most characters choose their side based on school House and family affiliations? I doubt all the Slytherins gave the matter much thought. Voldermort was a Slytherin, their friends and families were Slytherins, it’s basically like a Trojan fighting for Troy.

    • baconbits9 says:

      The sorting hat reads their wishes and puts them in the appropriate house, hence how Harry and Sirius end up in Gryffindor.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Apparently Hogwarts has to have House Evil because 25% of wizards are just like that, and morally bad students deserve the same education as everyone else.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Slytherin produced more dark wizards than any other house…. not that it turned all its students dark, or that no other house produced dark wizards.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            No, Slytherin house didn’t turn everyone in it dark, but I thought all the dark wizards had been Slytherins?
            At least in Britain. Fantastic Beasts made the American wizards in general look like totalitarians. Non-racist, gender neutral totalitarians.

          • Mary says:

            Hagrid says that all evil wizards are Slytherins. This is contradicted by other material about Hogwarts. It’s only Hufflepuff that doesn’t turn out evil wizards on occasion.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Wormtail was in Gryffindor and a dark wizard, though merely a minion. The only Big Bad Dark Wizard in canon aside from Voldy is Grindelwald, right? And he was from Durmstrang, so no Hogwarts house at all.

        • Mary says:

          Slytherin is inconsistent. In earlier books, it’s House Evil, which can work as a comic children’s book trope. (I recommend Castle Hangnail for a good treatment.) In the later books, the moral issues are not quite clarified.

          “Ambition” is not perhaps the best term for it. “Dedication” or “zeal” would work much better to get something of the earlier effect into a sensible pattern. (Even the skulls could make sense. Memento mori — your chance to achieve is fleeting.)

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Slytherin is inconsistent. In earlier books, it’s House Evil, which can work as a comic children’s book trope. (I recommend Castle Hangnail for a good treatment.) In the later books, the moral issues are not quite clarified.

            In the final battle the Slytherins are all either kicked out of Hogwarts or locked up in the dungeons (I forget which) to stop them acting as a fifth column, and the narrative voice seems to think this is a reasonable thing to do. Also, I think Harry specifically notices a lack of dead Slytherins on the good guys’ side after the battle.

      • Wrong Species says:

        I’m pretty sure the sorting hat chooses, based on various characteristics, which house to go in but someone who really doesn’t want to join a certain house can get around it.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          Yup. In fact, Harry specifically asked not to go in Slytherin, although the Hat said he’d do well there.

          • Mary says:

            Which is one problem with Cursed Child: Albus wasn’t offered the choice. Not to mention that Scorpius strikes me as Hufflepuff to the core.

  64. perfectlypacked says:

    I think that there was an important change in the form of literature right around this time but I don’t think it’s the influence of memes or guns v swords, but rather the influence of Protestantism on literature. A group of scrappy amateurs deposing fascist incumbents by honoring a universal truth: that is the story of the Star Wars movies and of Robin Hood but also that is the story of Martin Luther.

    I don’t agree that it’s just by evolution. I think the most convincing part of the nation-state thesis is that there is a propaganda element, that someone was pushing and organizing this change to literature because they were motivated by money or power. The Protestants had this motivation because the Church had a lot of money to be taken away from them. People like Henry VIII found themselves in a position where they could fund their global ambitions by converting and then looting the monasteries. To help that go over smoothly, they had a good incentive (and lots of money) to get people to tell convincing stories about how good and virtuous people who challenge established doctrine were.

  65. Moriwen says:

    “The author sweeps this under the rug by saying that the Israelites don’t seem much more virtuous than the Canaanites, but one could argue that they’re just not more 2018-virtuous; maybe 1000 BC-virtue was worshipping God and smashing idols.”

    This seems like a really good point to me, and one that deserves more attention than you give it. How sure are you that ancient stories aren’t good vs. evil? Maybe you’re just not recognizing 1000 BC-good and 1000 BC-evil.

    (I’m not sure that ancient stories are good vs. evil, either, but I think you need to make the case that they aren’t more thoroughly before going to too much effort to try to explain it.)

  66. Darwin says:

    >I suppose nationalists could make the very dangerous bargain of telling their soldiers to always fight for the good guys, then get really good propaganda to make sure they look like the good guys. And maybe this would make them fight harder than if they were just doing the old fight-for-your-own-side thing? But honestly, Achilles seems to have been fighting really hard.

    Improper switch of reference class here, I think? At the beginning of this we’re talking about the motivations of real soldiers, at the end we’re talking about fictional accounts of a mythical soldier.

    The fact that Achilles (in fictional accounts) is written as fighting very very hard, does not mean that telling real soldiers the story of Achilles will cause them to fight very very hard. It may be that stories of mythical strength virtues don’t motivate soldiers to fight but stories of good vs evil do, and you can rely on basic egocentrism to make every soldier assume that of course the side they identify as are the good guys.

  67. Doesntliketocomment says:

    So does this mean those people who fill out “Jedi” as their religion aren’t being ironic?

  68. p duggie says:

    Rene Girard offers another explanation of why Christianity was a “better meme”

    The old memes were founded by people who scapegoated out groups, and killed them to achieve social peace. Oedipus is a sex pervert with a club foot, and he ADMITS he did the thing. But that’s the story we now tell about him, because we blinded and exiled him to stop the plague. It was a noble lie.

    Embedded in the christian story is the idea that the people in power aren’t really good and the outgroups bad. This is more in line with reality. But it offers hope even to the powerful who know they’re lying.

  69. cargocultist777 says:

    I’m not sure that stories have become more moralistic over the previous centuries. If if they have it could have something to do with urbanization. Cities have been population sinks for a long time and not just because of the problem of infectious diseases. There’s reason to believe that living in cities can mess with the brain and at least reduce Darwinian fitness, and probably shift a population to the right of the autism-schizophrenia spectrum. The effect might be to be make people more likely to invent, morally heighten, be receptive to and transmit moralistic stories.

    A more mundane explanation might be that living in cities and modern life in general is more cognitively demanding than living in rural areas, meaning people might choose simpler, more convenient tales so a to not overtax their brain. Relatedly, people with borderline personality disorder may favor black-and-white thinking to compensate for a global deficit in their executive functioning. (I’m not going to delve into the complexity of personality disorders and other disorders of the brain here.)

    Here’s a twin study exploring the possible effects of urbanicity on the risk of developing schizophrenia (Scott probably knows mor about this subject than I do): https://academic.oup.com/schizophreniabulletin/advance-article/doi/10.1093/schbul/sbx060/3814212

  70. Maznak says:

    This looks like exactly the idea that might be fruitfully discussed with Jordan Peterson.

  71. cmurdock says:

    North America may be as much an example of the inexplicable appeal of Christianity as is Europe. Very low epistemic status on my part, here, but my impression is that the “conquering Spaniard, sword in one hand, Bible in the other” image isn’t quite an accurate picture– oh there were plenty of conquerors with swords in their hands, sure, but they weren’t the same people carrying the Bibles. E.g.: I once read about an incident– I wish I could remember where– where the friars of a Spanish colony got into hot water with the governor because they were converting too many of the Natives to Christianity, which meant that they could no longer be exploited as slave labor due to some imperial Spanish law that gave certain rights and protections to Christian subjects of the king. Also, allegedly, the Christian Indians of New Mexico were quite distressed after the Pueblo Revolt that there were no longer any priests around to baptize their children, so much that when the Spanish returned 14 years later they thrust their newborns into the incoming priests’ arms. The raw numbers of converts claimed at the time may have been inflated (and the extent of syncretism underestimated), but by and large the clergy seem to have had very little trouble convincing the indigenes of North America to accept Christianity. And no, I don’t quite understand why, either.

    It’s probably no coincidence, though, that so many of the colonial Euro-Americans who are known even by today’s standards as being advocates and defenders of the Indians– Las Casas, De Smet, etc.– were Christian priests of one sort or another. There were exceptions, of course (e.g. Bishop Diego de Landa), but the christianization of Europe had its violent episodes as well (e.g. Verden).

    • Nornagest says:

      Picture this: you’re living somewhere in what’s now central California, making a living eating mussels and weaving tule and occasionally getting into fights with your neighbors over the best mussel beds. Some pale, threatening strangers come up out of the south, wearing glittering shirts and riding bizarre chuffing beasts of burden. You don’t understand what they’re saying but their intentions are unmistakable. You do all the right rituals before battle, stuff that’s always worked for you before; meanwhile, the lead rider pulls a little statue of a guy nailed to a tree out of his cuirass and kisses it. Then they effortlessly kick your best guys’ asses and enslave you and your family.

      A few years later, you’re starting to pick up the language, and this scrawny dude in a cassock arrives and offers to teach you the secrets of the strangers’ gods, purely out of the goodness of his heart. Do you say no?

      • JohnBuridan says:

        I have to say this is a loaded story, masquerading around as argument. It definitely adds no nuance to the complicated picture of the spread of Christianity.

        But even the kernel of truth in your simple narrative only applies to some Spanish missionary activity. The fact is generalizations like this about the spread of religion do more harm to the truth, than they shed light, especially since you seem to assume that native americans are stupid.

        A counterpoint: The French priests simply lived with the native americans along the St. Lawrence River, and Jesuit Relations records that their main tactic was caring for the sick and elderly left behind to die during migrations, and generally practicing good works. Because the social mores of the natives did not require helping the sick during a migration, when the Jesuits did so and saved their life, the individual expressed gratitude and the tribe was shown an example of compassion and thought the priests were brave.

        This is essentially the same reason I find EA desirable and attractive. EA people care about others and look for ways to help and show the world there is a better way to do charity. Wasn’t that part of Scott’s fascination with the EA conference too? “Look at these people conciously trying to do good!”

        This probably has a lot to do with why people would convert to Christianity in the first place… This is also why lots of people aren’t Christians. A lot of Christians are assholes, engage in rank venery, use spurious arguments to defend dumb politics, use their beliefs to justify their malice, are hostile to rational inquiry etc. etc.

        But certainly some version of Christian morals has some level of attraction factor, right?

        • Nornagest says:

          especially since you seem to assume that native americans are stupid.

          Absolutely not. The takeaway here is not that the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas were stupid, or ignorant, or even superstitious as such. The key takeaway is that there was no distinction between religion and everyday life in pre-modern worldviews, and that that has deep implications for how and why pre-modern people undertook what we’d call a conversion. And that goes just as much for the Spanish of the time as for the natives, by the way, but the Spanish perspective here doesn’t shed much light on the spread-of-Christianity issue.

          I don’t think it even makes sense to single out Christianity and treat its spread as some kind of great mystery at a time when every other thing about the Americas was getting wrung out and hung up to dry. The moral of the story would have been exactly the same if I’d told it about the French expansion in the Northeast.

          • JohnBuridan says:

            I see your point. Definitely agree that pre-modern worldviews did not distinguish between daily life and religion. But by the point that the French Jesuits are in North America, they do distinguish between the two (~ a hundred years after the Spanish come to America).

            Also, I am not sure what you mean by “the moral.” Do you mean that Natives convert due to being culturally dominated? That is demonstrably not the case. I don’t even think it is the case as a general rule.

            At the time that the Huron were becoming Christian, they would not have felt pressure that the Europeans were hanging them out to dry. Their big rival were the Iroquois (who eventually wiped them out). In fact, I think French expansion in the Northeast has a very different moral from Spanish expansion. DeChamplain was a decent human being in charge of the French operation.

            While Dutch, Spanish, English expansion was aggressive and exploitative, the French managed to be far more humane than other colonial forces in America, and so we actually get a different moral, right?

          • Nornagest says:

            Do you mean that Natives convert due to being culturally dominated?

            That’s probably a reasonably accurate way of putting it in some cases, but I was going for something broader. The 16th and 17th centuries were crazy tumultuous for the Americas even in places the Europeans hadn’t gotten to yet, for all sorts of reasons, but anywhere there was a European presence, it would be natural from a pre-modern perspective to associate those changes with the introduction of European ways of life. Even if the European presence was trivial or if the Europeans weren’t doing any serious colonizing, though of course if they were it would make it that much more salient. There are a number of ways one could respond to that, and some of them involve adopting aspects of that way of life.

            Certainly the French expansion had a very different character from the Spanish (and both from the English), but I don’t think that makes much difference to the Christianity question.

  72. Wrong Species says:

    Maybe the relevant distinction isn’t between abstract ideals vs in-groups but abstract ideals vs leaders. For the ancients, there wasn’t a fine line between natural and supernatural so following God was just an extension of following your king. But Christianity conflated God and goodness. So in the modern era when people started becoming desacralized, they still had the goodness aspect stuck in their head, leading to our modern belief systems. That’s how nationalism can seem both pre-modern(following in-groups) and modern(following the abstract ideal of the nation, regardless who is in charge.)

  73. Irein says:

    A few people have already mentioned the 5th-century BC Persian invasion of Greece, and I’d like to add to that, because I think Salamis in particular offers a good test-case for this discussion. I think it’s a fair assessment to say that Herodotus’ account of Salamis is more triumphalist than Aeschylus’ play the Persians, which depicts the arrival of the news of Persian defeat to the Persian nobility back in Sousa (there are arguments for Persians being triumphalist, but I don’t buy them, and I’m happy to talk about why). Salamis should be a perfect example of a scrappy force of morally-correct “good guys” defeating the powerful and well-organized “bad guys,” but this is only reflected in some of the accounts.

    On another note, I think one might want to consider the influence of Platonic and Stoic philosophy. It seems as if individual-morality-based good-vs-evil stories might be more plausible when the intellectual climate has a) started to accept that “helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies” may not be justice after all (Republic I) and b) that morality requires self-reflection and an intense focus on improvement of the self. Certainly the concept of individual evil can be found in Seneca the Younger’s tragedies, though there usually isn’t an explicit “good” to counter it.

    I guess this is more data than analysis, but it might complicate the argument a little.

  74. Nornagest says:

    the shift from sword-based aristocratic armies to gun-based popular armies

    This is more of a pet peeve and doesn’t bear much on your overall point, but for most cultures in most of history the sword was to the spear roughly what the pistol is to the rifle. More romanticized, definitely a status symbol, small enough to carry around and use in self-defense, it’s what you’d use for dueling or for certain specialized roles; but not the dominant battlefield weapon. If you’re a regular grunt that’s planning to get together with some dudes and go kill some other dudes, you might carry a sword but it’s not what you’d expect to be using most of the time.

  75. C Harwick says:

    The Aeon article makes sense if you think of kinship as having real but limited integrative force. So “us versus them” stories – which are eternal – don’t need a moral undertone until you start scaling up beyond kinship’s capabilities. Historically, this happened with the rise of the nation state.

    Falsifiable prediction: the ancient Roman and Chinese empires should have had something closer to good/evil stories than the ancient Greeks or medieval fiefdoms. Can anyone confirm or deny?

    • Nornagest says:

      I haven’t read a lot of Chinese literature, but The Water Margin is full of entertaining jerks doing morally questionable things without editorial comment. Strikes me as closer to the Greek or medieval mold.

      • JohnBuridan says:

        Do you recommend it? I am looking to read one of the Chinese novels from around that period.

        • Nornagest says:

          It’s good, but very long. Most of the earlier parts are only loosely tied together, though — more than half the book is effectively origin stories for its many, many protagonists — so you could easily read some of it and decide if the rest is for you.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Whatever else you think of it, having 108 distinct protagonists who are all Chinese men is an impressive feat.
            Epic poems don’t get close to that many major characters, and use warrior women and multiple ethnoi to make them more distinct.

  76. vV_Vv says:

    I wouldn’t say that the Iliad is devoid of moral content.

    Hector is as close as it gets to a “good guy”: loyal to his country, loving husband and father, brave enough to fight against insurmountable odds (the Trojan war as whole, and specifically the one-to-one fight against demigod Achilles). Achilles, on the other hand, is a petty asshole: he quits fighting over a dispute with Agamemnon over a sex slave, does nothing while his fellow Achaeans are being slaughtered until his friend/lover Patroclus is killed, then become enraged, slaughter Trojans left and right, kills Hector and abuses his corpse. In some versions of the myth he had to be guilted into going to war in the first place.

    However, Hector is not a Jesus figure: he starts as royalty and a highly competent military professional, he does not pursue universal good, and in the end he loses.

    And doesn’t the Bible contains lots of good vs. evil?

    Well, somewhat. God and Satan in the Book of Job and even in the Synoptic Gospels aren’t quite the universal Good/Evil polar opposites that they would later become. Satan is more of a Loki-type trickster, while God is more of a Zeus-type authoritarian father figure. The universal Good/Evil dichotomy is more evident in the Epistles and the Apocalypse, but I think it didn’t become fully developed until medieval times.

    Missionaries would come to the tribe of Hrothvalg The Bloody, they would politely ask him to ditch the War God and the Death God and so on in favor of Jesus and meekness, and as often as not he would just say yes. This is pretty astonishing even if you use colonialism as an excuse to dismiss the Christianization of the Americas, half of Africa, and a good bit of East Asia.

    Medieval Christianity wasn’t the feelgood religion that you get now from Pope Francis or your average friendly Presbyterian pastor. Medieval Christianity was more of a God-smiting-the-heathens kind of thing. Hrothvalg The Bloody would quickly embrace it because it allowed him to declare himself the rightful ruler in the name of the One God, and whoever questioned his rule wasn’t just a traitor, he was a heretic.

    Maybe this good-vs-evil thing is just really attractive, and naturally replaces whatever was there before – but it’s just really hard to get exactly right.

    I don’t think this is an universal taste even today.

    Stories like Death Note, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones (before the dumbing down of the last season) notably feature morally ambiguous or amoral characters who win. Note that these stories are considered more sophisticated and more mature compared to the usual good-vs-evil stories. Contrast with Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, which were initially not considered serious literature for being excessively Manichean.

    This leads to another theory: good-vs-evil stories are more palatable to a less educated, less refined audience. Conflict between binary universal moral forces is easy to understand, while morally ambiguous characters require sophisticated reasoning about their motivations.

    The prevalence of good-vs-evil stories roughly coincides with the diffusion of the printing press and the increase of literacy. Christianity got its good-vs-evil theme earlier because it was aggressively preached even to illiterate people for political reasons.

    • Wrong Species says:

      I think good vs evil stories are more sophisticated than the earlier stories because they need a reason for joining sides, while in the pre-modern stories, there isn’t even really a choice to be considered. It’s a sort of dialectical thing where each stage increases in the complexity of characters. It progresses roughly:

      Stage 1. Characters fight for their side because it’s their side. The only question might be one where we are unsure of their bravery.

      Stage 2. Characters fight for a side because it’s the right choice they have decided on. If there is a right choice, that means there’s a wrong choice, which means that there needs to be a clear cut good vs evil.

      Stage 3. The heroes get deconstructed, where there is still a clear cut villain but the protagonist is varying shades of gray, like in Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones originally.

      Stage 4. The villains get deconstructed, where it isn’t clear that one is good or bad but the protagonist still has to make choices. We can see the beginnings of that in pop culture, like in the Marvel Civil War movies where not only is it hero vs hero, but the “bad guy” is not actually that bad. One of the best examples is in the tv show The Americans, where the protagonists, who are Soviet sleepers agents in the US, do really terrible stuff but you still sympathize with them and their neighbor, who is in the FBI.

      I don’t know if there is a stage 5 or what that would look like, but it would make stage 4 look as unsophisticated as Harry Potter is to us.

      • vV_Vv says:

        I think you are right that the primary driver of character motivations has changed.

        The classical heroes are larger-than-life people primarily motivated by unbridled passions: ambition, lust, greed, adventure, honor, duty, hubris.

        Jason and Sigfried are motivated by ambition. In the Trojan war myth the story is set in motion because of Paris’ lust (which was in turn caused by petty jealousies among the gods), Menelaus is then motivated by honor, Odysseus and Agamemnon by duty (with some amount of political convenience), Achilles mostly tags along until Patroclus is killed, then he’s motivated by rage, Hector is motivated by duty. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is mostly trying to survive and go home, but he succumbs to hubris which causes him great misfortunes. (Interestingly, despite the fact that the Hobbit is considered the simplest of Tolkien’s works, its main characters Bilbo and Thorin are classical heroes motivated by ambition and greed and vulnerable to hubris, unlike the modern heroes of LoTR.)

        The modern, “good guy” heroes, on the other hand, are primarily motivated by the villians being very shitty people who do morally intolerable things.

        I think this may reflect the transition from high-conflict to low-conflict societies: in a high-conflict society, passion can be a legitimate reason to engage in hostilities, even in violence: you can conquer lands, raid treasures, kidnap wives, etc. as long as you are strong and smart enough to get away with it, the only real risk is overplaying your hand (hubris). In low-conflict societies, this behavior is seen as unacceptable, the only acceptable reason to engage in violent hostilities is self-defense or defense of the innocents, hence the need of evil villains who do really bad things and good heroes who never abuse their power.

        A notable exception are the war movies based on recent historical conflicts. Usually they do a pretty good job at not portraying the enemy soldiers as evil villains, even when they are the Nazis. This may be because in this case the motive of the conflict is common knowledge that does not need to be justified within the story, hence soldiers can be humanized.
        Maybe he Illiad was the Greek version of Saving Private Ryan?

      • beleester says:

        Deconstructions often get followed by reconstructions – something that revisits older tropes that the deconstruction might have discredited, and making them work again.

        E.g. Evangelion was a deconstruction, pointing out that piloting a giant robot would be a miserable experience that takes a psychological toll, but it was immediately followed by Gurren Lagann (from the same studio!), to remind us that giant robots are still awesome.

        I’m not even sure it’s a linear progression – the immense breadth of the market today means that you can have brutal deconstructions and light-hearted good-vs-evil punch-ups coming out at the same time. Captain America: Civil War came out just two years after the lighthearted Guardians of the Galaxy.

        • vV_Vv says:

          I’m not even sure it’s a linear progression – the immense breadth of the market today means that you can have brutal deconstructions and light-hearted good-vs-evil punch-ups coming out at the same time. Captain America: Civil War came out just two years after the lighthearted Guardians of the Galaxy.

          Indeed. In fact Gurren Lagann is actually contemporary of the first installment of Rebuild of Evangelion.

  77. Matt M says:

    I wonder if the point here is that maybe the purpose of storytelling changed.

    JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter with the goal of making a lot of money for herself – and the way to achieve that is to be as broadly appealing as possible. Therefore, she solved for “telling the best possible story” without any other considerations (certainly without considering how it might improve enlistment for the RAF).

    I’m not an expert on ancient literature, but I don’t believe that the ancient “stories” we are familiar with were the same in that regard. I don’t think Homer’s goal was merely to get rich by telling the best story. It seems to be written mainly to document history, then for storytelling, then maybe for something resembling theological reasons (anger the Gods and they will make your army lose, therefore maybe DON’T abandon Zeus in favor of Jesus).

    To the extent that increased productivity and wealth in societies in general continued to expand the division of labor, I think that leads to increased specialization. At one time, the mission of a “storyteller” was one part historian, one part entertainer, and one part priest. But further wealth led to further specialization, which produced superior products on all three vectors. Our current day historians can focus on the history, so they know more than Herodotus. Our current day storytellers maximize for entertainment value, so their stories are more entertaining than Homer. Our evangelists don’t have to write long tracts to get their message out, so they preach better than St. Augustine.

    The more people we produce and the more we allow them to maximize for increasingly specific ends, the better we should expect the results to be.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter with the goal of making a lot of money for herself – and the way to achieve that is to be as broadly appealing as possible.

      Did she though? I mean, obviously the franchise turned out to be wildly successful, but did she anticipate any of that, or was she just writing what she thought was a good story, and maybe somebody will notice? Most books fail to find a publisher, and even the ones that do frequently languish in obscurity. Did Rowling really optimize for saleability?

      • Matt M says:

        In my mind, “Good story = Saleability”

        My point is that she was maximizing for entertainment value. Whether she expected to achieve the success she did is beside the point.

  78. Andrew Cady says:

    The Iliad also wasn’t targeting the same teen-to-early-20s demographic that modern comic book action films target.

    • thasvaddef says:

      Wasn’t it?
      I know Alexander the Great was a big Iliad fanboy in his teens and 20s. And surely lots of other warriors (who would also be in this age cohort) surely wanted to hear the heroic feats of their supposed ancestors.

      • vV_Vv says:

        I know Alexander the Great was a big Iliad fanboy in his teens and 20s.

        Yes but at that age he was actually leading armies into battles, rather than fantasizing over it.

  79. chrismounce says:

    One theory: the broad democratization process marked by the shift from sword-based aristocratic armies to gun-based popular armies.

    Note that this shift started happening before guns. IIRC, crossbows caused loyalty problems for the medieval French because (unlike longbows) pretty much anyone could use one with minimal training.

    If this first theory was correct, we should expect to see some good vs. evil stories arise earlier than the advent of guns.

    • thasvaddef says:

      I believe the most well-known crossbowmen (Genoese) were mercenaries. So they didn’t fit into the feudal system at all.

  80. HeelBearCub says:

    OK, how can we go 264 comments in, and no one mention Pascal’s Wager?

    Wasn’t early Christianity different merely because it promised you an awesome afterlife just for believing in Christ, no heroic deeds necessary?

    • JohnBuridan says:

      Well, no. Christianity required you to be part of a “hateful cult” and risk social ostracism. Pliny the Younger wrote a famous letter to Hadrian asking him what to do about the Christians in his province. They were technically not allowed to practice Christianity, but they weren’t disturbing the peace. One implication of this letter is that other governor’s were more fastidious about applying the law than Pliny.

      The first 33 bishops of Rome were martyred. Until Christianity was officially legalized, it doesn’t seem to have been an obviously good deal. Of course, the facts on the ground in some places were kinder to Christians.

      It does not seem early Christians evangelized using a Pascal’s Wager of beliefs, and certainly encouraged pacifism, free giving to the poor, and had a very strict sexual ethic. So I doubt people would call that an “easy deal.”

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I think you either misunderstand my comment or misunderstand Pascal’s wager.

        Pascal’s wager does not posit that believe in Christianity is costless, merely that the payoff is infinite and therefore worth any cost.

        And other religions of the time weren’t offering this payoff generally. Either it was available to specifically selected warriors, or it was not available at all.

        So Christianity was offering a package that was fairly unique, a Pascal’s wager couched in a way that was memetically satisfying.

        • MugaSofer says:

          Sure, they’re objecting to your characterization of Christianity as “just for believing in Christ, no heroic deeds necessary” – heroic deeds were necessary in the early days. (And even later, great personal virtue was still a requirement.)

          EDIT: If there is a Pascal’s-wager-y innovation in Christianity, maybe Hell? Although the “default” afterlife in most religions wasn’t exactly pleasant.

          • Nornagest says:

            The Dharmic religions have hells. Usually not eternal, but life in them is supposed to be so long that they might as well be.

  81. spandrel says:

    On nationalism and good guys vs bad guys:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn1VxaMEjRU

  82. thasvaddef says:

    Who are these nation-states that are writing and deciding what narratives to produce?

    Certainly there was a lot of nationalistic literature in the 18th – 19th century, but writers were private citizens who wrote what they wanted. Charles Dickens’ books weren’t designed to send British boys off to fight the Frenchmen stirred up by Victor Hugo. In fact, both of those portrayed as evil the System and figures of the Establishment, not what a nationalist warmonger would want.

  83. theredsheep says:

    NB: I am not reading 300+ comments. But I’m (re-)reading the Oxford History of Byzantium right now, and one of the points it makes about the rise of Christianity is that Christianity, like Judaism, is fundamentally different from the cluster of practices we call paganism, at least at the late stage the latter was replaced. Paganism was basically a set of actions you had to perform to ensure future prosperity. So the city performed games, ceremonies, festivals, etc., but that was it. There were no complex beliefs about moral duty or the meaning of life, they were just things you did so Zeus wouldn’t give your sheep a plague. Now, a lot of classical myths do have moral elements, from what I recall, but this is what the history text is telling me, and it agrees with the other things I’ve read about classical religion, that its observance was mostly about rituals. If people wanted beliefs about good and purpose, they turned to philosophy, like the Pythagoreans or Platonism. Christianity was different in that it blended these two aspects: it was about deities, yes, but it also incorporated philosophical elements. The same could be said of Judaism, but it was way too ethnocentric to spread.

    However, this only got it up to about ten percent of the Roman Empire. It became the state religion for whatever reason–the conventional argument is that it was a unifying force in a rapidly dissociating and dysfunctional polity–and conversion rates increased dramatically, even though vigorous persecution was not applied for some time, and the temples stayed open in Athens until the 500s. The simplest explanation is that lots of people converted because they could see where their self-interest lay. This does not surprise me, but then I’m cynical. Plenty of people converted to Islam later for similar reasons.

    Now, a lot of Christianity’s early spread among barbarians can be linked to its association with Rome, which was prestigious. Your early barbarian could become either Catholic, to get in the Emperor’s good books and earn favors, or Arian, to “get with the times” without surrendering your independence. Most went for the latter, but their descendants gradually converted for political purposes until Arianism disappeared. Later barbarians could choose between Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

    I say all this as a practicing Orthodox Christian. Most people are just not all that religiously inclined, in my experience. I would guess that maybe forty percent of the population is “partially sensitive,” so to speak; they want to believe in something, but they’re happy enough being conventionally religious with no special effort. Another forty are either indifferent or don’t like it. The remainder are divided between the passionately spiritual and incurable shysters and hypocrites. I think I’m on the bounds between conventional and really-means-it.

  84. Thyle Dysig says:

    I own a Colt 45 Peacemaker. For those of you who don’t know, the Colt 45 was the most popular revolver in the American west. It’s a single action gun that takes a long time to load, holds 6 rounds, and requires the hammer be cocked before the trigger is pulled. It is an old gun.

    I was shooting with a friend at his ranch. He invented something that is used to build large buildings around the world. He has a lot of money, so he decided to retire as a cowboy. He has set a range with thick metal rings that ring out when hit. I pulled out the 45 and shot 6 times. Each time we heard the telltale ring of a hit. My friend pulled out a very expensive 9mm semiautomatic pistol. He fired 15 rounds and hit the target 5 times. I then fired again hitting the target each time.

    He allowed that I was shooting well. I allowed that my gun is easy to shoot. Seeing that he was curious about the gun, I offered him a try. He squeezed off 6 rounds hearing the telltale ring each time. He whistled, said that the gun is a pleasure to shoot, and stated his intention to get himself one.

    Samuel Colt made a damn fine gun that is in some ways superior to the modern semiautomatic. The modern gun can hold 15 rounds; the Colt 45 holds 6 rounds. The modern gun can fire those 15 rounds in a couple of seconds; the Colt 45 takes much longer. But it’s much easier to hit the target with a Colt 45. Samuel Colt didn’t know how to make semiautomatic gun, but he did know how to make a gun that is damn easy to shoot.

    The modern gun smith knows a lot more than the gunsmiths of 150 years ago, but maybe not knowing those things means that the gunsmiths of yester year better understood the few things they did know. Our brains are only able to hold so many facts and understand so many things. The more complexity we learn to navigate, the less brainpower we have to learn things at a deeper level. There’s and old saying, “he was a jack of all trades, but the master of none.” I believe the modern world is like that. From computers to taxes, the average person needs to be able to navigate a lot of fairly complex things these days. That doesn’t leave much brainpower left over for understanding the most complex machine we regularly interact with: humans!

    Studies have, for years, been showing that people are becoming less socially and emotionally sophisticated. The other day, my high-school aged son had his yearbook out. He was chatting with my mom. She on occasion would make a comment about the personality of one of his peers. My son would inevitably exclaim that she was dead right. My son and I were astounded by her insight. We than asked her about several of the students. Her accuracy went down a bit, but she was still hitting about 85% correct. From subtle cues of the picture, she was able to read the personality of students she had never met.

    I could tell many such stories. Another one would be about several of us middle-aged men being whupped by a grandma at poker after explaining the rules to her when we sat down.

    My theory is that modern people are less socially sophisticated. So we prefer simpler good vs. bad stories. The ancients had good verses bad stories, but they also had a lot of stories about really complex characters, such as Achilles who did both terrible things and noble things. Or stories about king David who heroically killed Goliath and who also killed a loyal subject so he could marry his wife. A string of never ending good verses bad stories would have been boring.

    • smopecakes says:

      This is so good. Maybe because of the limited access to narratives before they simply had to be better, the longest lasting ones with the most basic truth – and maybe as well people simply had no option but to learn to read people’s narratives directly from those people themselves.

      Something I noticed in the Trojan War is that there seems to be a system of virtues and honours. Achilles refuses to fight after his “slave girl” is taken. Who by the way, he won’t force himself on, and who seems to believe or come to the belief that she does belong with him. It’s kind of like the ancient version of rights and responsibilities. Honours were translated into rights, and virtues into responsibilities. Along the way we lost the sense of connection between the two as they had to become formalistic to work on a civilizational scale, and perhaps as well as new testament morality defined or was interpreted as defining the rights as being unrelated to the virtues but only inherent in the person. I recently saw some graphs showing the word responsibility has taken a dive in usage while rights have skyrocketed. Perhaps as people don’t believe in the new testament as genuine scripture the virtues are less and less taken seriously but the rights or honours are no chore to keep around as a concept.

      • Lillian says:

        As i recall, Achilles explicitly considers Briseis his wife, and she considers him her husband. So she is not just some slave girl, and that is why the son of Peleus is so monumentally angry with Agamemnon. The entire reason they’re even having a Troyan War is to correct the injustice of a man stealing another’s wife, and here commanding officer of the Hellenic armies has the temerity to do just that thing and pretend that it’s his right.

      • Thyle Dysig says:

        Thanks. I think you also make a pretty interesting point about virtues and rights.

        It’s my understanding that people in Medieval Europe thought that the way to make a person more virtuous was to make the person feel deep emotions. They believed that emotions made people good.

        Today we try to teach people to be virtuous by telling stories where a scrappy bunch of underdogs defeat the overpowering overlord. The idea is more intellectual than emotional. If you do the right thing, everything will work out in the end.

        But what if the person who is tempted to be bad doesn’t think they will get caught?

        I see this tension in Tolkien’s work. His work coming after WWII was probably a big influences in the evolution that we mention. But, ironically, his writing indicates that he was trying to reach both levels. At least that what it seams to me when he coined the phrase “eucatastrophe.”

  85. JoeCool says:

    I think that the fact that Islam and Christianity have a habit of banning the competition goes a long way to explaining their success.

    I think we’re also finally seeing the defeat of good vs evil narrative, at least in television, and even blockbuster good v evil seems to be decreasing. Star Wars the last Jedi had a pretty explicit “grey” gambling planet/dude.

    Thor Ragnarok directly parodied the good vs evil dynamic, and just had a bunch of factions fighting it out, with the classical “evil” faction saving the day by being pitted against Thor’s sister by the heroes.

    • Imperatrix says:

      By the time Christianity banned anyone, in 381, they had already become the single most powerful religious faction in Rome. They also had made inroads into places as far away as India by then. Curiously, even when they were not in power the Christians made significant inroads. For instance, the Nestorians were actively persecuted by the Zoroastrians and were never in a position to ban anyone else, yet they had successful missionary endeavors as far from Persia as China.

      And this is not particularly unique. Pentecostalism arose in the early 1900s, yet less than a hundred years later it somehow has hundreds of millions of adherents. Most of them are in Africa and a sizeable number from groups who were not historically Christian. It is pretty hard to see how a movement started in 1910, which was actively opposed by the established churches of every imperial power, gets by just due to banning the competition.

      That might explain one group becoming hegemonic (e.g. Sunni Islam), but Christianity has had several different rounds of: new denomination with different beliefs about something important to Christians at the time sends out missionaries and converts wide swathes of non-Christians. From the Nestorians to the Seventh Day Adventists, to the Pentecostals, to the Mormons the world has seen all manner of Christian groups have rates of conversion basically not seen by any other religious group in history barring, perhaps, Islam.

      • JoeCool says:

        Yes, though once they were in power their could never be a “repeat” by an upstart religion, especially because as states become stronger the degree of persecution became stronger as well. In fact the only way you could have another religion and not have it insta smacked down is by keeping it Christian, at least in a lot of countries, or at least I suspect this is the case.

        That being said, I don’t really know what I’m talking about here, there was certainly a lot more to it than the banning of the other religions, the idea of God being a nice fellow and the meek inheriting the earth must have been an extremely attractive proposition as well.

        • Imperatrix says:

          This sort of “ban the competition” has not worked for other religions though. Rome, Persia, Japan, China all managed to have large Christian populations from conversion in spite of official banning.

          More tellingly you can compare Buddhism and Christianity. Christianity rose to become the dominant religion of Rome before becoming the official religion and managed to survive under Julian the Apostate even without official patronage. In the Persian empire, Christians were the second faith of the empire in spite of Zoroastrian persecution. Long before there was official support, Christianity had successfully converted wide swathes of territory.

          In contrast, Buddhism remained confined to India until the conversion of Ashoka. With far greater patronage than offered by Constantine, Buddhism managed to convert very few areas outside of India (not until 220 BCE or so does even Sri Lanka convert). When the Shunga rise, Buddhism falters in its heartland.

          To whit, 500 years after the life of Jesus, Christianity has spread through both bottom up and top down conversion to about half of the known world. It had become the dominant religion of one of the world’s super powers and independently had become the majority religion of places like Ireland and Ethiopia. 500 years after Buddha it is still a minority religion in its heartland and has barely even been introduced to the areas major trading partners.

          And this happened repeatedly, Protestants managed large scale conversions among Native Americans beyond the remit of imperial powers. Pentecostals managed it in Africa.

          Something in Christianity lends itself much better to large scale conversion than other religions. Sure Christianity also used the typical run of convert the king, have him enforce conversion on the populace top down, but it also has runs of mass conversion from the bottom up (e.g. Korea, China, Japan).

          In many ways, the world falls into four basic areas: places where Christian converts dominate, places where Christianity was so dominant that people became post-Christian, places where Christians were liquidated by repression, and places where Christianity has had trouble reaching. By far the first is the largest in the world, the second is again huge, and the third is last of any substance. Places with no Christian conversion are basically wilderness and are obnoxiously tiny. This is a degree of penetration not seen by any other world religion.

          • theredsheep says:

            Note that Julian the Apostate only reigned for eighteen months, and did a rather halfhearted job of persecution–“you can’t teach school now, nyah!” And Islam missed the boat in the age of discovery, so this isn’t a fair comparison.

          • Imperatrix says:

            The point is that Julian was not able to appreciably alter the religious trajectory of Rome. Jovian, proclaimed from the army led by Julian, promptly reinstated Christianity and added more restrictions on paganism to boot. Somehow Christianity went from a small Jewish cult in the mid first century to being the most powerful faith in half the world in under 300 years; most of that occurring before the Empire officially converted.

            In contrast, Buddhism needed all that time to get its first official religious conversions outside of the homeland. Sihkism, Bahai, and the like are all off to much slower starts than Christianity. Zoroastrianism was much better endowed with official patronage in the era of the most explosive Christian growth … and did not come close to its successes. Worse when pitted in head to head competition in regions of Sassanid influence, the Zoroastrians lost the popular vote (e.g. the Caucuses).

            You can argue that Islam missed the age of exploration … except for the fact that if you look at the 20th century exceedingly little spread of Islam occurred in Africa or Asia. Christianity managed in both and it was often sects disfavored by the Imperial powers (e.g. Korea was ruled by Shinto imperialists but saw massive Christian conversion). Likewise, there was extremely limited penetration of Islam into the African interior of East Africa where Islam long had coastal predominance.

            Prima facie there is something very different about Christianity compared to most all other religions that has lead to it, repeatedly, having massive waves of voluntary conversion. The closest analogues of which I am aware are the Islamicization of Indonesia and Bangladesh. These are still vastly slower than the conversion of the Roman Empire and were still backed much more by official power and obvious self-interest. I really do not know of any conversion episodes close to those of the Kirishitans; something is different about Christianity that goes above the normal “the ruler says to convert”.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Imperatrix: did Bengalis really convert without an Islamic sultanate? Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines definitely though.
            Peninsular Malaysia and the islands are an odd exception in the conquest-centric history of Islam. Curious to know what happened there.

          • Imperatrix says:

            The Bengali conversions definitely began before Delhi set up anything like the sultanate. Most history I have read seems to take the tact that the Sufis had a substantial impact on converting the population, particularly members of certain castes, but that it was far from a plurality before a sultanate was instituted.

            Certainly, it was not completed in any sense before the arrival of a sultanate as the Ganesha dynasty reverted to Hinduism following a Hindu rebellion. But in the broad strokes this is somewhat similar to the Christian experience; they even a re-reversion back to Islam (albeit the ruler in question went Hindu -> Muslim -> Hindu -> Muslim).

            These two incidents stand out largely because they are the only incidents in basically all of history where there is anything like large scale bottom up conversion without Christianity involved.

            When you look at Christian growth numbers that are frankly insane in light of other religious traditions. They happened without massive conquest, they happened basically everywhere, they happened in the face of truly terrible persecution (e.g. Japan), and they did all of this early growth in a society with a static population (arguably falling on a global basis).

            The conversions sustained in Rome or Csetiphon were really without precedence. Bengal and Indonesia are really lesser examples, but they do show just how weird the Christian spread was.

  86. sa3 says:

    Definitely a fun speculative question, even if the Aeon piece is wrong in most of the ways it could have been. On Christian conversion: the missionaries did adopt the existing gods. That’s why there are so many saints who fight dragons, defeat local enemies, etc. The bible has lots of non-meek stuff to choose from (it’s a large book; just need to find the bit that appeals to the target). I suspect there was a lot of ‘sure, we have [local god] in Christianity too! we call him [made-up saint] and he’s actually a lot more relatable’.

    Another possible explanation for Christian success is organization. The church institutionalized relatively quickly, especially after it became the religion of the Roman state, and that structure helped it sustain itself over time and maintain cohesion across large spaces. Think this is probably at least partially a ‘religion of the book’ effect. Most prior religions were oral traditions, which were displaced relatively easily by written faith, especially if the representatives of the written faith were smart enough to co-opt the people who were in charge of remembering the oral traditions, which I assume they were. Written faith allows for big organizations. Oral traditions had far fewer of those; lots of small, decentralized groups of believers who can be incorporated into larger tents.

  87. skybrian says:

    A side point: why pick Coca-Cola to represent memetic success and not, say, coffee or tea? Also, why isn’t Thai iced tea more popular than Coca-Cola?

    Also, it seems like picking a single drink to represent memetic success doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, rather than picking a variety of drinks, such as the large selection of competing drinks at your average gas station. People like variety, no?

  88. Peter Shenkin says:

    Here are some “reverse examples:” modern works in which evil is in fact rewarded.

    In the film “The Thomas Crown Affair”, the bad guy gets off scot free, laughing at the end, IIRC.

    The point of much noir literature is sticking it to the good guy. As in David Goodis’s “Down There”, or Jim Thompson’s “Pop. 1280.” In some, like the latter, there aren’t any good guys (or gals) at all; as soon as you meet a character whom you almost find yourself expecting will turn out to be “good”, the character turns out to be at least as bad as the rest of them.

    A fairly recent novel by Lawrence Block (I forget the title; looking through a list, it might be “The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes”) has a plot rather similar to that of the James M. Cain classic “Double Indemnity”, but has a happy ending: the evil-doer, whom (as in “Double Indemnity”) the reader is cultivated to root for, gets off with no unfortunate consequences whatsoever. It’s great the way the author keeps you expecting till the last page that he’s going to get it for sure; then, when circumstances make it suddenly clear that he’s not going to, it comes over like the punch line of a joke.

    However, this ending is an “exception that proves the rule,” because it plays on the weight of our expectation that evil will be punished.

    • Matt M says:

      In the film “The Thomas Crown Affair”, the bad guy gets off scot free, laughing at the end, IIRC.

      Ditto “The Usual Suspects”

  89. orientingreflex says:

    hypothesis:
    the emergence of moral narrative in the western storytelling tradition corresponds to the transition from clan-based society (low outbreeding, low diversity) to civic society (high outbreeding, high genetic diversity). In the context of weakening of blood ties, these narratives helped establish a basis for societal cooperation based on ideals rather than simple loyalty.

    to test hypothesis:
    look at the narrative structures of the stories that circulate in societies that remain clannish to this day. Are they loyalty-based or morality-based?

    All of the examples of this particular flavor of moralistic narrative in this piece come from inside the hajnal line. Is the shift away from loyalty narratives unique to western europeans?

  90. hnau says:

    Most of the explanations proposed seem unnecessarily complicated. There’s no need to bring in nation-states or zeitgeists or military tactics if we can explain the change in terms of the stories themselves.

    And I think we can! Most fiction written before, say, the beginning of the Renaissance was meant to be read aloud to a group. Only elites could afford their own written copies. Certainly epics, sagas, religious literature, etc. fall into this category. The printing press wasn’t widely used until the mid-15th century; reading privately for enjoyment wasn’t a common practice until the 18th century. So the nature of the audience, distribution model, and demand for stories all changed dramatically over this period. Basic economics dictates that storytellers would adapt to meet this change in demand.

    Why this would make stories more starkly good-versus-evil is harder to guess. If I had to construct a just-so story for this, I’d say that groups of live audiences would be more comfortable with tradition-based narratives and more likely to share a strong cultural background. With individuals, on the other hand, warm fuzzies and black-and-white situations might be more likely to sell.

  91. WashedOut says:

    Also do we really want to claim that concentration camps worked because the Nazis believed you should take principled positions based on moral values, instead of unquestioningly supporting your in-group? Really?

    Ellen Degeneres, is that you?

  92. smopecakes says:

    I have some recent takes on this. In this comment I generally argued that because people can’t understand and deal with life without a narrative that gives enough basic information and motivation to operate they will inevitably recreate ones on the lines of their nearest identity or group if they have none. So if you turn that argument around you can see how the idea of a new narrative that is both secure and broader than yours is inherently attractive. Because the Roman empire had combined relative safety from group conflict as well as relative individual legal protection, the idea of a universal God who wouldn’t be impressed with anyone that did still get away with anything had a place to step in to and create a safe space where group conflict morality could be transformed or constructed into citizen morality. I see Jesus as being a powerfully masculine and powerfully feminine personality who had something like the social intuition and/or left-right brain connection of a feminine personality and the systematic leaning of a masculine personality that allowed him to understand that this could happen and how. There’s a Judaic tradition of the holy fool or divine individual that seems to be on these lines. And there’s a Christian tradition of some saints of the early church who I think typically had their mother convert, who then converted them and tasked them with spreading the word. So there’s that feminine – masculine combination again. It’s a lot to understand so it has been a rare condition both for some kind of change to be possible and for a person or group to realize that and be capable of it as well.

    I think there has been a civilizational sleight of hand that’s happened with the word truth. I’m not a linguist but I’m currently assuming that the meaning of truth as in a true or useful and sharp axe was more basically the original one. Looking it up the verb true means: “bring (an object, wheel, or other construction) into the exact shape, alignment, or position required.” That sounds a lot like the kind of meaning behind the word truth that could make a universalist narrative sound very true to people who didn’t necessarily have no wish to look beyond a historical tribal existence. If God can be seen as the creative narrative that defines the scope of your tribe there could be no God more true than the Christian one. It may be that pre-Christian people understood this far better than we do, or have up until about now. As well, if there is an older emphasis in the word truth that could be described as something most symbolically accurate in describing reality it makes sense to me that people would find a universal one that convincingly included all people to be true in a “most true thing known” sense in combination with the “true axe” meaning.

    And then I see the progression of the word on these lines. There’s an argument that Catholic universalism created a cultural drive to understand reality on the lines of a whole system that is coherent and operates on reliable rules. So the word truth in the Catholic universe began more and more to mean something like an absolute truth related to existence as created by one God. As this cultural framework worked to encourage scientific endeavors on these lines the fact that this was a very valuable element to have in a society really reinforced this meaning of truth. And then the printing press happened. It seems to me that fundamentalism was a social development in response to that, in a way of protecting against this new power that could cause sudden and intense narrative upheavals. And maybe fundamentalism then reinforced an idea of absolute truth further by now tying it as tightly as possible to one narrative in order to hold it together in the narrative chaos. Something like that seems right. And this smacked into the idea of survival of the fittest and a natural order that more and more clearly clashed with the biblical texts on the basis of absolute truth. (although as I also argued in the first link, I believe the creative narratives of civilizations have been symbolically true on this count all along- survival of the fittest as we have interpreted it has been a less accurate social narrative on all counts of symbolic, axe, and even absolute truth in an overarching sense)

    That leads to your question of where it goes from here. In a later comment in that reddit discussion I ended up making the case for something like evolutionary postmodern symbolic traditionalism. When you realize that the experience of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone creates an argument or realization that the idea of evolution of having no direction seems wrong, some basic conflicts between narratives dissolve. If the most adaptive change is one that increases the whole system then the way that the narratives of civilization have basic elements of creativity and synchronicity doesn’t need to be seen as being in opposition to scientific reality at all. To me it even creates a presumption that those narratives know things we don’t. This creates the ground for a new meta-narrative that could include or link all people in modern western societies, and perhaps beyond. When people who are in “non-scientific” narratives realize that their narratives have far more truth even in a definite absolute sense than we have been assuming I think it creates an environment where people will feel much more capable of choosing the best parts of their narratives as well as having the capability to work out which parts are the best and to value and look for links between narratives which themselves might point us to understandings on the level of absolute truth.

  93. Douglas Summers-Stay says:

    You mentioned the Bible as stories of Good vs. Evil. I just wanted to point out (for those less familiar with it than you) that it is also filled with stories of the few scrappy poor vs. the military colossus. Some specific examples are Elisha, whose servant sees the great host of Syria, with all its chariots, encircling the city and all looks lost, and then Elisha opens his eyes and he can see the vast supernatural power on the side of good. Or Gideon vs the Mideonites, who manages, with only 300 men, to trick the enemy army into thinking it is surrounded and the enemy flees, fighting against each other. The slaves led by Moses win despite Pharoah and his army. And, of course, David and Goliath.

    • DavidS says:

      I think it’s worth distinguishing some of those which may actually be ‘underdog winning’ vs. those where you hardly count as ‘scrappy’ because you have immense supernatural power directly intervening in your favour.

  94. nameless1 says:

    I mny humble opinion, Scott, you have never got some so completely utterly wrong than this one. An epic fight between good and evil is a concept straight out of Gnosticism. One popular idea, originating from Eric Voegelin is that modernity reinvented Gnosticism first through Protestantism and then through Leftism. But you can track the idea back even longer than Gnosticism – to Zarathrustran and Mithraic faiths, Ahura Mazda etc.

  95. Deej says:

    I think it’s material wealth led to moral progress plus stories people like. People became richer and could afford to to be nicer and so became less willing to see other groups as wrong in and of themselves. This led to more of a need for nation states to make stories more good v evil, which led to good stories that people liked, then hollywood amplified the whole thing.

  96. Jaskologist says:

    Scott, this is tangentially related to the post, but directly related to your questions on the growth of early Christianity.

    Rodney Stark, a sociologist by training, actually crunched the numbers on this one. He had to use some guesses, but they were pretty reasonable (1,000 Christians at 40AD, 6,000,000 in 300AD (10% of the empire)). It turns out that the magic of compounding interest is sufficient to do this:

    And so you simply need to figure out what kind of rate of growth is needed (it will go up and down, but you only need an average). Stark crunches the numbers. If you start with 1000 Christians in the year 40 and end up with 6,000,000 Christians in the year 300, you need a rate of growth of (only) (about) 40% a decade. That is to say, the 1000 in the year need to grow only by 40 by the year 50, so that then there are 1400 Christians. By the year 60, with the addition of another 40% more; by the year 70 another 40% — keep doing the math: by the year 100 there need to be only 7400 Christians; by year 200 then there will be 210,000; and by the year 300 there will be 6,000,000.

    It’s not a matter of miracle necessarily. And you don’t need massive conversions at any point. Assuming a steady rate of grown, where every ten years each ten Christians manage to convert, between them, only four more people to the faith, then you get to 6,000,000. Stark is a bit more precise. He concludes that you need a rate of grown of 43% per decade.

    And for him, as a sociologist of modern religion, this is not at all implausible. On the contrary, it’s both believable and highly interesting. As it turns out, it is the rate of growth of the Mormon church from the time of its founding until today.

    So there you go. 40% growth per decade is enough, just like the Mormons are doing now.

    • theredsheep says:

      You’re assuming that there will be no conversions in the opposite direction, no falling away; every Christian’s descendants remain Christian for centuries, and there was a great deal of competition from various belief systems. On the other hand, you’re also ignoring ordinary population growth; the children of Christians were very likely to be Christian themselves, and every time a couple has three surviving children that’s a “profit.”

      Also, growth rates approaching fifty percent per decade, sustained for centuries, are frankly incredible, compound or not.

      Now, this does get me thinking about a possible explanation: Christians, unlike much of the Roman population, were dead set against abortion and infanticide. Going back to the Didache in the second century, at least, where both are lumped in with sorcery, poisoning, and pederasty as unclean gentile vices. If you’ve got a population that won’t engage in birth control, its growth is naturally going to be disproportionate to the larger population that will. Conversion would have played a part as well, but higher birth rate might have been the more crucial factor.

      • Jaskologist says:

        I’m assuming nothing along those lines. 40% is clearly the net growth. To the extent that some fall away, those just have to be offset with more converts. Do note that growth numbers here include births.

        Incredible or not, this is very likely the growth rate of Early Christianity, and is the current growth rate we’ve been able to observe with Mormonism. How those numbers get achieved is a very interesting question, but those are the numbers you should be looking to explain.

        • theredsheep says:

          Fair enough, but the excerpt at least strongly implies that he was thinking only of adult converts, and “only” 40% growth is a strange way to put it, especially given the profound differences between Christianity in the Roman context and Mormonism in the American context–and between the prevailing conditions. Mormonism was almost perfectly tailored to cater to American notions of exceptionalism; Christianity had this freakish idea about a God who got murdered by humans and transgressed the prevailing moral framework far more than Mormonism did (the nineteenth century was a golden age for bizarre quasi-Christian belief systems). Meanwhile, nineteenth and early twentieth century America offered almost unlimited room for growth, so long as you weren’t Native American, and were for the most part peaceful. Christianity grew during a time when the Roman Empire stalled, then had its bottom fall out. The third century in particular was an endless cascade of civil wars and misery, capped by the worst persecutions under Diocletian. And the elapsed time period for that sustained 40% average is about twice as long in Christianity’s case.

          EDIT: No, only about fifty percent longer–Mormonism began earlier in the nineteenth than I thought.

        • Imperatrix says:

          I would submit that Mormonism is far less impressive, is it just riding off its Christian heritage?

          Christianity had to deal with at least some degree of outright massacres for the better part of the era. Further Mormonism endorsed an extremely strong set of social mores towards high fertility; Christianity had extremely strong currents towards limited fertility. When it comes to actual conversion, I expect the old time Christians were vastly more successful at conversions.

          Further, how different is ancient Christianity from Mormonism? They both have the same appeal of heaven, they both hold that God in some fashion communed as a man, and they both lack hereditary castes (minus some of the more obscure Mormon sects).

          And it is not just Mormons, pretty much every major Christian denomination/heresy that has survived has had pretty explosive growth. Methodism and Pentecostalism, for instance, both had major missionary successes with this sort of growth rate. Compare the growth rates of things like Buddhism (extremely limited growth until the conversion of Ashoka, and even afterwards highly geographically limited for a long time) or Zoroastrianism (basically never making it out of the Persian orbit except in India).

          When I look at history, I see a bunch of Christian sects/heresies with decent non-compulsive conversion rates, a tiny set of Muslim sects in a few select times & places (e.g. Sufis in Bangladesh) and basically no one else. Pretty much everything else relied entirely on convert the king and then convert the populace. Christianity is basically the only faith where you see that and actual bottom up conversion.

          • Nornagest says:

            Mormons have some massacres in their history too, though not on the scale that early Christians are alleged to have had.

            It’s very hard to speak definitively about early Christian theology; it produced several very different offshoots, and there’s a relative dearth of primary sources. Mormon theology is distinctly weird, but in ways that you probably wouldn’t care about at this level.

          • theredsheep says:

            What do you mean by strong forces towards infertility? If you’re referring to monasticism, that was a relatively late development in terms of the time period we’re looking at; the whole phenomenon is generally held to have been something of a reaction to the era of martyrdom ending, to Christianity becoming more conventional and acceptable.

          • Imperatrix says:

            theredsheep:

            Well for a start you had monogamy and non-remarriage of widows. You also had a strong current of celibacy that is explicitly endorsed by the apostle Paul.

            Compared to the Roman mores of the time (which allowed high class males to partake in hypergamy) or the early Mormon era, early Christianity was far less likely to see huge population growth.

          • Nornagest says:

            Roman mores of the time (which allowed high class males to partake in hypergamy)

            “Hypergamy” means “marrying into a higher social class”, not “screwing a lot of people”.

    • Tracy W says:

      40% per decade is huge. (I’m not a Christian). How many things have ever grown at 40% per decade for 240 years?

  97. John Richards says:

    The mahabarata is absolutely loaded with concepts of good and evil. Good versus evil is NOT as devoid of the battle of good versus evil as is claimed.

    “The whole point of the Mahabharata is the whole ‘theirs not to question why, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die’ philosophy that makes for effective nationalist soldiering.”

    Having read the Mahabharata, I would dispute that this is the whole point of it. To me, the pinnacle of the Mahabharata is not found in the bahgavad gita, but rather in Yudhishthira’s experience in Naraka.

    • DavidS says:

      There is a fatalistic element in the way dharma is treated a lot of the time though, from my memory? It’s less ‘we must do this because it’s good in a normal sense’ and more ‘it is our duty to do this because it’s our dharma even though in normal terms it feels really wrong’. Having to fight your kin/friends/pupils etc. etc.

  98. ajar says:

    I think it’s much easier to control a group of people through a good/bad dichotomy than with physical force. After all, create an effective dichotomy, and people basically police themselves! It’s effective top-down governance:)

    I wonder whether the physical/survival environment in which people live has been an important influence on the spread of this good/bad paradigm. Is the worldview of most hunter-gatherer groups for example also defined by this dualism? Or is a dualistic worldview more likely to stick in places where social order is stratefied and so many people share resources that the risk of man-made conflict that threatens survival is great? The good/bad dichotomy may not reduce the risk of man-made conflict but it helps create coalitions that increase the odds of gaining the upper hand during a conflict.

  99. MugaSofer says:

    Achilles fights for Greece because he’s Greek, and the pagan worships Zeus because he (the pagan) is Greek, and that’s all there is to it.

    But Achilles fought for pay, in money and slaves (it’s kind of a major plot point that he stops fighting when the King starts welching on the sex-slave side of the bargain.)

    And our Greek pagan likely believed that people everywhere worshipped Zeus, just under different names and different customs.

  100. Harkonnendog says:

    Regarding the appeal of Christianity to pagans, a Hawaiian uncle told this story at a Christian men’s retreat.
    (Paraphrased because he spoke a Hawaiian heavy version of pidgin and this is just a recollection.)

    “Before the missionaries Hawaiians lived under the kapu system. So you were whatever you were born, and the mana came from above to the nobility and was then spread to the common people and the land. And they didn’t have music like we have, they had chanting. So the missionaries came with their organs and their melodies, and it attracted people. Then, the message, that all people were created in God’s image, it wasn’t only the nobility who had a connection to Holiness, was revolutionary. And the idea that God loved all people, and wanted a personal relationship with all people, that was attractive. And then the idea that God sent His only son for us, He loved us that much, and that nobody could come in between you and God, that was attractive.
    Pretty soon the leaders of the kapu system recognized the threat. And then when the leaders of the kapu system cursed the missionaries nothing happened to the missionaries, and they told the people that while the curses had power, they could not hurt them because they had the Holy Spirit to protect them. And that told the people something.
    On top of all that, a lot of Hawaiian women had half-white kids from the whalers, and whites were considered high in the caste system, so the parents weren’t able to discipline them because the kids were of a higher caste. So a lot of those kids were raised by the missionaries and became missionaries.
    So, we have the light of God in us, but we have been flung out and away from Him by sin, but there is something in us that wants the small lights in us to rejoin with God and be in Him, in His light. And when the people heard there was a path to that, that God not only wanted us to be with Him, but had made a path, and it was easy, that is how Hawaii became Christian.”

    There was a lot more, and it is a much more powerful story when delivered by a respected, gravitas-laden Hawaiian uncle, but hopefully you get the sense of it, the idea.

  101. The original Mr. X says:

    I haven’t read through all the comments yet, so I don’t know if anyone’s pointed this out already, but Achilles isn’t actually fighting for the Greek cause.* He’s fighting for glory and plunder, which is why he get so pissed when Agamemnon insults him and confiscates his booty.

    * Which wasn’t really the Greek cause at all, if by Greek cause we mean a war fought for the sake of the national interest of Greece. Most of the Greek leaders were there because they’d sworn an oath some years previously not to let anybody mess with Helen’s husband.

  102. yuvi says:

    I don’t think you’re being naive about Christianity being appealing, but you shouldn’t be astonished either. Out of the three major religions, Judaism is the weirdest one to have survived (the “old testament” we know today was actually compiled a few hundred years *after* Jesus had already died).

    Christianity wasn’t just appealing, it also had an easy entry barrier – you do a little bath, say some words, bada bing. Compare that to Judaism – circumcision? Yeah. Good luck recruiting.

    I’d say a large part of Islam’s success in taking root is similar. Converting to Islam only requires repeating the same line 3 times. That’s it.

    Of course there are other factors, but I’d say ease of entry is a huge part of a religion spreading and taking hold.

    • theredsheep says:

      Christians were (very rough guess) about ten percent of the Empire at the time of Constantine. By the close of the fourth century, they were closer to ninety percent. That century saw relatively little persecution of pagans; the temples were closed and had their treasure confiscated, but individual pagans were mostly left alone. Paganism was only officially banned around 380, IIRC, and then the ban wasn’t rigorously enforced, as pagan temples remained open in some places like Athens. The simplest explanation would seem to be that, once Christianity was obviously on the winning side, people saw that as a reason to hop aboard. Same thing worked well for Islam; Christians and Jews were rarely compelled to convert–initially the Muslims didn’t even try to convert them–only treated as second-class citizens. The gradual pressure worked well over time, until places that once had a tiny minority of Arabs were flooded with Muslims.

    • Imperatrix says:

      Christianity was not an easy religion to enter in the Roman era. This is not an era of nominalism like the present.

      Becoming a Christian meant leaving behind Roman sexual mores (e.g. citizen males can sleep with their wives, mistresses, lower ranked males, prostitutes) for Christian ones (you may sleep with exactly one wife). Failure to live up to these Christian mores meant penance or excommunication. I see little reason to believe that Romans easily gave up their “Liber” that easily.

      Becoming a Christian also meant leaving behind the Roman entertainment of the day. Gladiators and circuses were officially banned by the early Church fathers and again you got penance or excommunication. This is at least the equivalent of giving up television in the modern era.

      Likewise, Christians had to forgo divination and magic. All Romans, including most Christians, believed that these rites had actual power to get you things you wanted; yet to become a Christian you had to give up on the ability to curse your enemy or to receive counsel about the future in the typical manner. Again this was enforced with penance and excommunication. Worse still, early Christianity had strong pacificist expectations and you lost legal protection. Given that Romans turned to laws and magic as their normal method of defending themselves this was a large loss. Modernly, this was akin to forcing Americans to giving up guns.

      Lastly, Rome was a slave state with an idiotic fraction of the Empire’s wealth held as slaves. Christianity, at the time, was the least slavery friendly religion. In practice, Christians were expected to free at least their Christian slaves. We have numerous accounts of nobility converting and promptly granting freedom to all their slaves.

      In short, becoming a Christian meant you got laid less, you had less entertainment, you were unable to defend yourself, and you were impoverishing yourself. These are some of the criticisms of the pagans of the era. Yet Christianity prevailed.

      Outside Rome, the Church of the East had far higher barriers to conversion (the persecution being much worse in Persia) and never had dominance in society. Yet they had successful missionary endeavors in China, India, Southeast Asia. They were not as successful as the Western Church, but they had religious conversion rates higher than basically all other world religions.

      Even if we look just at nominal requirements, what exactly is the bar to become a Buddhist then? Basically nothing, yet Buddhism remained confined to upper India for centuries and had miserable missionary efforts even after Ashoka converted. Amrit is also not particularly hard to do, yet we have seen very slow rates of conversion to Sikhism in a much larger and denser world. Bahai conversion is easy, and yet their rates of conversion are low.

      This sort of Just So story really does work when you apply the premise to other religions nor when you look at actual historical praxis.

      • theredsheep says:

        I’m not super-familiar with pre-Constantinian Christianity, but I do know that the Byzantine variety accepted slavery, and circuses were a big part of their entertainment. I recall reading that, at some point, the classical world suffered a glut of slaves due to Rome’s military success, so that a lot of slaves wound up being pretty much useless status symbols. Latifundia or mines could be profitable, so could workshops, but a lot of slaves were guys who followed you around holding your cloak and tying your sandals. You owned them to keep up with the Joneses. Scripture certainly didn’t forbid owning one–Paul sends Philemon’s runaway back to him, gently hinting that it would be nice to free the guy–only said that masters should be kind.

        I also understand that a lot of Christianity’s early appeal was the authority it promised over demons–Christ was superior to pagan deities and their powers, ie magic.

        • Imperatrix says:

          The early church fathers explicitly condemn the gladiatorial games and circuses pre-Constantine. Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian and the like all explicitly condemn Christians attending. This is why the Christian period moved from gladiators to charioteers in the main – they needed to have one step of plausible deniability for their bloodsport.

          Again, the Church Fathers explicitly viewed liberating slaves as good, they also required giving the slaves rights (e.g. what is commanded to Philemon). John Chrysostom actively repudiated much of slavery. Multiple saints were recorded as beggaring themselves buying freedom for Christians. This is not to say that Christianity forbade slavery, merely that of all extant religions of the time it was the most critical of slavery.

          However you want to slice it, slaves were capital and treated like such in the Roman Empire. Christians, for whatever reason, were often liberating slaves and certainly renounced typical Roman rights (e.g. slavery had to be “just” and you did not have free reign over a slave’s body, but had to treat him as a “brother”). Whatever was actually happening on the ground, the Pagans of the era explicitly castigated Christians for being opposed to slavery.

          Christians believed that God was more powerful than demons, but they also believed that Satan was the prince of this world (literally). Renouncing divination and magic meant that you were in for hurt in this world because God typically let Satan reign and your best hope was to be martyred and enjoy the next life.

          Conversion in Rome was not a bunch of 21st century rationalists looking for the expected lifetime return to conversion and saying Christianity is a better option. It was decision made where Christians said you have to give up wealth, prestige, self-defense, and supernatural power. Pagans said if you converted you lost prestige, self-defense, wealth, and supernatural power. People still converted. And in percentage terms, they converted at rates massively higher than anything else ever recorded in human history.

          I mean take a step back and look at today. Who converts to Christianity? People do not become Unitarian Universalists or any of the easy forms of Christianity all that much. Instead they convert, in large numbers, to Pentecostalism, Seventh Day Adventism, and many flavors of traditional Conservative Protestantism. These all require people to forgo sex, to lose academic credibility, and place high burdens on participation (e.g. tithes, alcohol abstinence, not sleepy in on Sunday). The low cost branches of Christianity are not even treading water; the high cost ones have been seeing massive conversions in Africa and Asia and still a big number in the US and Europe. Whatever is the magic sauce for Christianity it is not now or ever been about the low cost of conversion.

          • theredsheep says:

            Not claiming it was, given that I belong to one of the higher-cost branches. Only critiquing specific claims.

  103. rich lewis says:

    My hypothesis is that moralistic narrative is a social technology that evolves when large ‘distances’ need to be bridged. The larger the distances (both spatially and and socially) the more moralistic the narrative has to be to be heard across the background noise. Hence as societies become larger and more urbanized, the more narrative (artistic, governmental, etc) becomes Manichean in character. Some micro-examples that might prove the macro rule: mainstream Hollywood movies since the 1970’s have lost moral nuance and adopted black and white narratives because the audience for those movies has globalized. To appeal to European and Brazilian and Chinese youngsters only the most primitive moral narrative will ‘get heard’; another example is social movements – the more globalized a social movement, the more crudely moralistic its message tends to be – I could quote dozens of examples, but think of how Islamism has become more Manichean as its audience globalized – from relatively nuanced critiques of local Arab regimes to crude Hollywood narratives of the ‘evil’ West versus ‘good’ Muslims. And a similar story could be told for domestic movements like Black Lives Matters as they attain greater geographic scope.

    So how does any moral nuance survive? In compartmentalized groups of ‘elites’, both artistic and governmental where social distance is removed by common intellectual or aesthetic training? I’m not sure. But a worrying trend might be the increasing gap between the functional demand for Manichean narrative in the ‘generic’ world of globalized communications and the subtle, sophisticated nuanced world of ‘some’ elites. And of course many of those very elites are manipulating the globalized, generic, Manichean narratives for their own gain!

  104. apollocarmb says:

    stupid article from Hanson. Just because we dont see any “good guys” in ancient stories doesnt mean the civilizations they originated in didnt. Morality in ancient Greece was very different to morality in 21st century america. This is so incredibly obvious.

  105. aNeopuritan says:

    On the less violent conversions to Christianity: this account on Islam contains many causes that had analogues.

    (I know Le Maistre Chat asked, but I think this is too good to not be top-level.)

  106. Makhno says:

    Reading the article and comments regarding the spread of Christianity, it seems that either I or everyone else is missing something rather obvious: Christianity was the first religion that embraced evangelism (the act of proactively and intentionally converting outsiders and spreading your religion as far and wide as possible) as a central tenet. As far as I know, the ONLY other religion with evangelism as a foundational concept is Islam, and those are now the two largest and fastest growing religions in the world.

    As far as substantive criticism of the original article’s thesis, i think the biggest mistake the author can be accused of is the common one of thinking a concept that has been around for a very long time, at least in a more primitive form, is more modern than it really is. It still seems that Manichean style good vs evil narratives tend to go hand in hand with more nationalistic (in terms of an actual nation or in-group in the style of ‘white nationalism’) cultures.

    Take the bible, one piece of counterevidence you offered, for example. Before christ, what was the bible (torah, old testament, etc) other than the national epic of the nation of Judah? Origin story, history, and a set of national values. If things in the nation are going bad it’s because you are being punished or tested, and if things are going well its because you are being rewarded, so always follow the rules god has set forth (or in practice, always listen to you priestly aristocratic class). You are the chosen people and everyone else is an outsider to be killed and conquered, or at best not to be trusted.

    • DavidS says:

      Not sure about this. Mithraism and things like the cults of Isis seem to have proselytised and sought new members too. My sense is that Christianity combined
      – evangelicalism
      – non-elitism: others wanted to get the elite on board, they wanted to get women, slaves and other assorted riff-raff as well
      – non-localism: plenty of religions only really made sense where they started as they were based on local gods/rituals. For soldiers, merchants, bureacrats etc. across a huge empire this doesn’t really work
      – promising unusually significant rewards/punishments
      – exclusivism: you weren’t meant to worship other gods
      – inflexibility of a form that helped strengthen self-identity: in particular the rejection of worshipping the Emperors seems to have helped forge the church in some ways (although dividing it massively as well)
      – combining popular and intellectual (below)

      What I think is sometimes missed is that Christianity didn’t take over against some really powerful estabished ‘religion’ where everyone worshipped Jupiter lots. The empire worshipped a hodge-podge of deities, the different religious cults didn’t really fit together into much of a coherent overall theology/pantheon and were quite often quite narrow social clubs etc. etc. Julian the Apostate tried to sort this out but died to early (may have failed anyway). The popular religion seems to have been pretty much entirely split from the God(s) of the Platonist or other philosophers. Whereas Christianity you could still have rituals, community worship etc. etc. but you also had this major intellectual underpinning to draw on.

      • Makhno says:

        I mostly agree with your points, but based on what I’ve seen of the archaeological record, Mithraism more resembled a secret society like the masons than a full fledged prosyletizing religion. This speaks to your point about Chrisitanity being non-local and non-elite, but in practical terms it basically means casting the net wider to catch more converts, so again, seems obvious why Christianity spread so much further. Even the term proselyte is derived from Koine greek and its first common usage as far as I know was in the Septuagint to refer to a gentile converting to Judaism (which is still what the early Christians were calling themselves). There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence for any religions prior to Christianity making concerted and intentional efforts to spread their faith as far and wide as they could. Exclusivity is also a contributing factor, and something also shared by Islam.

        But pretty much I don’t see how anyone could be surprised how Christianity and Islam are the worlds two most dominant religions, and there’s no need to ascribe that dominance to them being any more true or ‘better’ than other religions to an individual follower.

  107. DavidS says:

    Harry Potter as Jesus figure is obviously not a joke. More generally, I wonder whether another part of it is that we’re simply not comparing like with like. The Iliad, Mahabharata, Norse Sagas etc. are at various points on the scale of being actually historical, which Star Wars isn’t unless you count ‘long long ago…’. Also, unless you cherrypick or define epic as ‘morally straightforward’ we definitely have shades of grey epic fantasy, e.g. Game of Thrones. Also I’m not sure that e..g the Ramayana isn’t more straightforwardly goodies and baddies

    I think the Christian element does play a role though. There’s a strong tragic appeal in the Mahabharata that you can have everyone acting correctly in following their dharma and this causes terrible war. You still have some of this ‘isn’t it terrible us all doing the honourable thing causes terrible outcomes’ in various warrior-caste stories well into the Christian era. But stuff influenced more strongly by the more universalising ethics of Christianity is presuambly less into that.

    One related case I find fascinating: as far as I understand it, the prophets in Islam (including lots of Old Test