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.