Enough with villainy!

Manicheism is the great moral-intellectual error of our times.  There are no complicated issues, no issues still open for debate.  No cases where conflicting value systems may each have arguments in their favor.  No cases of competing goods where all that can be hoped for are reasonable trade-offs.  No conflicts where both sides have legitimate interests.  No, it’s always one side with all the arguments (for we can’t even grant that the other side has bad arguments, as that would grant that they have some case) and all the good people (because egalitarians know that they are just better in every way).  On the other side there is only “ignorance” and “hate”.  It is no longer considered a virtue to be able to see things from the other side.  I’ve been shocked at how often university personnel, whom one might expect to pride themselves on their broad-mindedness, boast about how they don’t understand how conservatives and Christians think.  To understand them would be a discredit, suggesting a commonality of nature with these demon figures.  To sum up, modern men live in a comic book world, in which everyone is a good guy, a bad guy, or a bystander/victim.

I’m a reactionary and am always reacting.  Maybe this is one of my overreactions, but I have come to hate the idea of villains even in fiction.  I regard it as a literary flaw to have a prominent character with whom the readers/audience are not meant to empathize.  Conflict and war have always been themes in the world’s literature, but I have not found in the ancient poets the same urge to paint sides as black and white.  When men were expected to fight for their cities and their gods because such is a man’s duty, there was no need to pretend that the people on the other side were pure evil.  That was before today’s suffocating moralism.  Now, movies make a point of establishing the evil of the villains by having them do gratuitously bad things like killing children or puppies.

But aren’t there people out there who do bad things and are really just not sympathetic at all?  And wouldn’t an honest telling of their stories make them out to be villains?  Sure, but not all true stories have literary merit.  When I was a kid, I went to see a live performance of Peter Pan, and I remember that we were instructed that it’s okay to boo when Captain Hook is on stage–the actor wouldn’t take it personally.  Was that a good thing for the cultivation of my virtues?  Probably it was less damaging than most of the Manichaean fiction I consumed as a child, since the artificiality of it was made explicit.

In popular culture, villainy is used as the motive when other, more understandable ones, are at hand.  Why doesn’t Voldemort want wizards cross-breeding with regular people.  Because dilution of wizard blood would necessarily mean the end of their magical society?  No, because he’s evil.  Why are people scared of mutants in the X-men?  Because half of mutants violently hate humans and half of the other half are prone to lethal accidents?  No, because they’re evil.  Why does the emperor put an end to the Republic in Star Wars?  Because it was a manifestly incompetent government?  No, because he’s evil.

A generation bought up thinking in these terms has now reached adulthood.

If I had to choose, I’d prefer explicit sex to bad guys, because hatred is worse than lust.

Of course, I would feel this way, wouldn’t I?  I am, by all the standards of this age, a villain, a bad guy, both ignorant and evil.  (Have you noticed, by the way, that only Christians are asked to think of ignorance as be exculpatory?  When liberals call their opponents “ignorant”, they mean it to compound rather than mitigate our loathsomeness.  Ignorance is contemptible.)  Naturally, I don’t like how society is being prejudiced against villains like me.

But we bad guys have an advantage on you heroes; I speak now to the socially-approved righteous ones of this age.  You can’t understand us–your self-righteousness won’t let you–but we understand you.  I’m sure you too have seen in movies where the hero confronts the villain, and the villain points out that he and the hero are alike in many ways.  The hero always rejects it angrily.  “No!  I’m good!  You’re bad!”  He can’t let himself leave his own frame even for a moment.  But we agents of darkness are not so fragile.  We can jump effortlessly into your head, and look dispassionately at those silly cliches you call principles.

Like Pascal’s “thinking reed”:  the heroes of this age can crush us, but we are greater than them, because we can understand what it is that destroys us.

28 Responses

  1. Maybe this is one of my overreactions, but I have come to hate the idea of villains even in fiction. I regard it as a literary flaw to have a prominent character with whom the readers/audience are not meant to empathize.

    Isn’t this a problem which is steadily improving? I’m having trouble imagining the Heisenberg character from Breaking Bad in a TV show in the sixties or even the eighties. I’ve recently finished binge-watching The Killing which is similar in that the protagonists are morally complex people with severe character flaws. Were we meant to empathize with the characters on Seinfeld? Were they “bad guys” in the sense you mean? These three are certainly not taken at random, but they are also not the only three examples like this.

    The Killing for example turns the scene you are complaining about on its head. The show is, from beginning to end, about addiction. Addiction is the modern word for vice, of course. The “bad guy” is a murderous psychopath: a slave to his addiction. In the climactic scene of the series, he tells the hero that he, the psychopath, and she, the hero, are the same (and that this is why he wants it to be her who kills him). Then she murders him—it is pretty clear that she agrees that they are the same (perhaps not agrees, but sees his point) by this point in the series.

    Breaking Bad is similar. The whole series is about sin (hubris in this case) hardening into vice and then to wickedness in the protagonist. By the end of the series, he is pretty much a “bad guy” in the sense you mean. But you are most definitely supposed to identify with him throughout, though most viewers seem to get off the identifying with him train at some point.

  2. How about The Lord of the Rings? Sauron doesn’t seem to have any motivation other than mere libido dominandi. Gandalf, on the other hand, makes the same claim that you make: he understands his opponent but counts on his opponent not to understand him.

  3. Weltanschauung,

    Sauron isn’t an “on stage” character, so I’m not bothered by him being purely evil, but it was a defect to not invite us to empathize with Saruman, who did have understandable motives.

  4. DrBill,

    My youth may have been the worse time for this, at least the comic books and cartoons I consumed. Take “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”. Skeletor is just a bad guy; he admits it himself. His henchmen are called “evil warriors”. Nobody thinks to themselves “Hey, I wonder if Skeletor has some valid grievances.” I just took his evil for granted, because no kid thinks to himself that he’s going to become one of Skeletor’s evil warriors when he grows up. But then I did. Turns out life is more complicated than King Randor and the Sorceress would have you believe. Did He-Man damage my soul? Probably not much, because at the time all of this was understood to be childish. That’s what I think has changed. Now Manichaeism is considered morally serious.

    Probably the reason people didn’t take that “battle of good vs. evil” as seriously when I was a kid was the Cold War. The arbiters of culture wanted to demoralize the West to promote communism, so there was a lot of lip service in movies about seeing other peoples’ points of view. It was all hypocritical of course. In those movies, the American military leaders were purely evil. We were never invited to consider why they saw the Russians as enemies. Still, the lip service to open mindedness may have had some effect.

  5. for the liberal exploration of this very issue, see the ever-wordy scott alexander: https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/01/30/the-invention-of-moral-narrative/

    there’s also an expanding brain meme I saw somewhere that goes like this:

    tiny brain: villains are bad guys for no discernable reason
    small brain: villains are bad guys for the love of evil itself
    normal brain: villains have selfish motives like money or power that are blown out of proportion
    glowing brain: villains are in thrall to an evil authority, and are just doing their job
    exploding brain: villains motives are about as reasonable as the hero’s and the two just have conflicting goals
    galaxy brain: the villain arguably is right, and has better motives than the hero.

    It is interesting that the more you analyze Star Wars villains and heroes, the more you realize that Luke Skywalker is essentially radicalized by a terrorist organization, and that Darth Vader is just a skilled enforcer in the galactic government who is trying to keep the government stable.

  6. djz242013,

    Thanks for this link. It’s nice to see that some liberals have noticed this too. Alexander’s argument against it having something to do with nationalism is convincing to me. I also think it’s pretty implausible that it has something to do with Christianity, given the timeline. On the illiberal side, Carl Schmitt made some interesting points about moralistic propaganda, which he saw as stemming from the deligitimation of distinctly political (friend vs. enemy) categories.

  7. On a related note you may wish to look into the following:

  8. Satan is, of course, the archetype of all evil characters. Because he hates God, he hates and seeks to destroy everything that is good. And yet it is often said that he is the most interesting character in Paradise Lost. Maybe that’s because evil makes sense in a metaphysical context where good means something more than “I like it.” Our culture has a Manichaean crust because it has a nihilist core.

  9. That’s an interesting observation. This is one reason I despised that move 300: It wasn’t enough just to show the Spartans trying to defend their home and way of life from enslavement or extinction, they had to portray the Persians – members of one of the world’s great civilizations – as a bunch of degraded perverts (part of this probably had to do with the fact that the Spartans were portrayed as brutal and inhuman perverts themselves, so in order to get the viewer to want to root for the Spartans, the Persians had to be portrayed as even more decadent). It’s also why I get irritated by Mel Gibson movies: is it really necessary to make Edward I and the English into evil incarnate in order to make a good movie out of the story of William Wallace? (And I say this as someone who identifies with his Scottish ancestry).

    To see how these sorts of movies should be done, check out Zulu, where a tiny Welsh regiment courageously fights off thousands of Zulus, without the Zulus being portrayed as inhuman monsters.

    I don’t think this bothers me as much though when the characters are not ostensibly historical. I’m guessing I probably also wouldn’t mind so much if it were Communists being portrayed as the evil-incarnate villains (but who would know? that movie doesn’t exist).

    Any idea when the focus on villains began? Completely off the top of my head, I might go with Dracula. And film probably exacerbated things, not least because actors enjoy trying to play evil characters. I bet things intensified after World War II, when religion was driven from the public square and Hitler replaced Satan as the ‘solitary hate-figure’ (Paul Johnson’s phrase). I note though that some of the older WWII movies don’t portray the Germans as utterly evil (e.g., Stalag 17).

    On the other hand, some of the O.T. Biblical stories seem to be pretty Manichean in this sense: the enemies of the Israelites seem often to be portrayed as simply evil.

    A tangential question: had the Fall not happened, would we still have fiction? It seems that all our stories revolve around conflict to be overcome in some way, so if there were no conflict, would we still have stories?

  10. I find it easier and more accurate to regard people according to whether they seek to serve God’s ‘agenda’ of creation, or to oppose it: whose *side* they are on.

    There are some mostly-nasty people who are on the right side; and there are a very large number of mostly-nice (kind, well-mannered, hard-working, cheerful) people who have chosen the Wrong side and thereby seek to subvert, destroy and invert The Good.

    It was a sign of the moral (Christian) seriousness of the Harry Potter books (not the movies) that the character of Snape was portrayed as a thoroughly-nasty person who really did serve on the side of Good – he had courage and he had self-sacrificing and disinterested love; he had nothing else – but it was enough.

    From your RCC perspective Hilaire Belloc might be regarded as a basically nasty man (boorish, aggressive, resentful) who served on the side of Good. His sparring partner and friend Bernard Shaw being the opposite.

  11. “Any idea when the focus on villains began?”

    Iago in OTHELLO is pretty much a pure villain: I don’t think it’s just modern audiences who see his attack on Othello as so disproportionate to his claimed reason that the latter is obviously just an excuse.

    In folklore, witches basically do evil out of pure malice: that’s a very widespread notion and I’d be surprised if it didn’t predate all of written literature.

  12. JMSmith,

    Satan feels like a literary flaw in the Bible. People freely choosing to do bad things suffices to drive the action, so the villain wasn’t really needed. Likewise, what really brought down King Arthur was infighting between his knights (both sides of whom act for understandable motives, neither are cartoon villains), and Mordred is like an opportunistic pathogen finishing off an already weakened host. Satan has little role in the practice of the Christian religion. We don’t get to blame him for our sins.

  13. it was a defect to not invite us to empathize with Saruman…

    Are we not invited to empathize with Saruman? I’ve always thought we were, though with open eyes. The tragedy of Saruman is that he was good, is supposed to be good, and a passion for understanding (in the engineering sense) led him to a place where he was then dominated by evil, even while still telling himself (up until the end, where he is truly fallen) that the evil he does is still for the Greater Good.

    We see also that the characters in the book understand this. Gandalf gives him many a chance to repent, and even in the end does not pass the ultimate judgment upon him, but merely stops him in doing his evil. (Or mostly; his lesser, petty evils are on such a scale that it is up to the hobbits to right them.) He is offered mercy and understanding.

    Saruman is a portrait of a man’s descent into Hell and the trap that ultimately keeps him there – the trap laid by the self for the self. And as such, he is the most sympathetic portrait I’ve ever laid eyes on.

    I worry perhaps that your reaction against cartoon villiany has thrown you beyond the right into the territory of complete relativism.

  14. […] From Bonald: Enough with villainy! […]

  15. It seems that Lord of the Rings has several other characters who have turned to evil but with whom the reader can still empathize to some extent: Denethor, Gollum, Boromir.

    What would you make of Dante? Dante initially feels sympathy for the sinners he meets in hell, but Virgil rebukes him for this, and as Dante grows in virtue and begins properly to hate sin, he starts to recognize the justice of their punishments and ceases to have sympathy for the sinners.

    Craig N,

    That’s a good point about witches.

  16. Satan feels like a literary flaw in the Bible. People freely choosing to do bad things suffices to drive the action, so the villain wasn’t really needed.

    I get the point you’re making, but it’s funny to read that Satan feels like a literary flaw in the Bible, because of course, the reason he’s in the Bible is because he actually exists. It would be like criticizing a biography of JFK by saying that Lee Harvey Oswald feels like a literary flaw.

  17. Ian,

    That’s true about the Lord of the Rings. I did find it easier to sympathize with those other characters.

  18. Rhetocrates,

    What keeps me from complete relativism is that I still believe in bad acts. I’m just skeptical of the idea of bad people.

    The Judgement of souls is a truly miraculous thing. During life, each of us is a muddle of good and bad. Only the confrontation with the purely simple Being, in Whom all goods are inseparable, can break this ambiguity and bring things to a single binary choice.

  19. IMHO this is one of the Dark Enlightenment insights – morality can be used for evil. Look. Imagine a sort of a competition of all against all. At one point people figure out maybe we should not allow the most brutal methods of competition, call those bad acts, and punish people who do them.

    What is literally the first thing a smart psychopathic Machiavellian will think? “OK then I will just accuse my opponents with wrongdoing and if I succeed the punishment will take them out of the competition and I win. If I fail, my punishment for wrongful accusation will be far lower. Sounds like a win.”

    So it is, at least these days, precisely the people who look like they shine with holiness, are the psychopathic status maximizers. So most of the time, at least these days, someone accusing someone else of being evil usually means nothing but an attack, and since unprovoked attacks are wrong, the accuser is likely more evil than the accused.

    I mean, at a court, false accusation is still a crime but in the media there is no punishment for, say, calling Republicans literally Hitler. And it obviously hurts them or at least is intended so. So psychopathic status maximizers will use that angle.

    The only way out is of course making false accusations very costly.

    But in the meantime use the heuristic of assuming the opposite. If someone who looks like a pure idol of holiness says old white dudes hunting lions is evil, assume the accuser is a psychopathic status maximizer and the hunters are actually quite careful about causing the least harm to the ecology.

  20. “When liberals call their opponents “ignorant”, they mean it to compound rather than mitigate our loathsomeness. Ignorance is contemptible.”

    “All wicked men are ignorant of what they ought to do, and what they ought to avoid,” says Aristotle, “and it is this very ignorance which makes them wicked and vicious. Accordingly, a man cannot be said to act involuntarily merely because he is ignorant of what it is proper for him to do in order to fulfil his duty. This ignorance in the choice of good and evil does not make the action involuntary; it only makes it vicious. The same thing may be affirmed of the man who is ignorant generally of the rules of his duty; such ignorance is worthy of blame, not of excuse.”

  21. @MPS

    That’s a good point. The idea that ignorance, per se, mitigates evil acts is easily abused. Furthermore, people are really good at believing whatever they have to believe to make their own actions good. The lawyerly locution “knew or should have known” is apt. It’s only inculpable ignorance which mitigates.

  22. Wasn’t it the christians who first came up with the ridiculous idea of “just war” thereby shoving in morality where it had no place? This all feels a bit like the pot calling the kettle black…

  23. Just war doctrine used to function differently. Modern Christians tend to think of it as a bunch of conditions that are rarely satisfied, and the point of the doctrine is to make war rare. Pre-modern Christians didn’t expect war to be rare, even under righteous rulers. The point of just war doctrine is not to discourage wars, but to protect the souls of the princes who wage them. They were not to initiate war for selfish or frivolous reasons, but legitimate reasons for fighting may not be particularly uncommon. It may even often happen that two kings justly–i.e. sinlessly–wage war against each other. Just war doctrine should not be thought to have anything to do with identifying one side as the good guys and the other as the bad guys.

  24. It feels like you are splitting hairs. Once it is established that some reasons can be bad (i.e. “selfish” or “frivolous”) and some good (“just”) it is natural to ask which reasons are better (more “just”) than others. And of course if two entities are in conflict, the one with the worse (less “just”) reasons is (relatively) bad while the other is (relatively) good. And if war, the purest form of conflict among all human activities, is subject to morality, so is everything else.

    Just war doctrine implies Manichaeism.

  25. Certainly war is subject to morality, just like everything else. I’d say what saves me from Manichaeism is that I believe in good and bad acts, but not good and bad people.

  26. That’s very interesting. I’m not sure I agree with it but it is interesting nevertheless.

  27. It may even often happen that two kings justly–i.e. sinlessly–wage war against each other.

    I’ve wondered about this before. Do you have an example of where this might be the case (real or hypothetical)? For a couple of the just war criteria (taken from wikipedia, so perhaps not accurate), I have a hard time seeing how one side meeting the requirement wouldn’t be mutually exclusive of the other also meeting it (just cause, comparative justice).

    Regarding good and evil people versus good and evil acts, it’s probably almost a cliche at this point, but Solzhenitsyn’s quotation is always good:

    If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

  28. The Church herself takes an anti-Manichean perspective in regard to many aspects of her history. For example, she has canonized several individuals who backed rival claimants to the Apostolic See. She recognizes that, while they may have made an error of judgment, holy men and women who supported the anti-popes were nevertheless filled with grace and the habitual virtues. I also think St. Joan of Arc’s story is relevant here. I’ve never seen any indication that the rival combatants were evil, or motivated by wickedness.

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