Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 08, 2020

The Cincinnatus Option

I was thinking about the kinds of mythology society retells about service.

If we think of the early American republic, one of the key myths was the myth of Cincinnatus. The reason why his story was important to the American founders was that he displayed a powerful consciousness of the division between the individual and the duties of the state. When the Senate came to Cincinnatus as he was plowing his field, they called upon him to leave his life as a private person and save the state from a threat. He left his plow in the field, went to serve the state as dictator (an office which according to the laws of the Roman Republic had complete power for a short period of time) and then as soon as he was done surrendered his power and returned to plowing his field.

Cincinnatus does not see himself as specially anointed or empowered as a person. Rather, he is an ordinary citizen who is asked for a short time (as short at time as possible) to act with extraordinary power to protect the state and his fellow citizens. But his power is not personal. He does not, in and of himself, have the right to wield power. He has power only to the extent it is given to him for a time by the state.

It struck me that in a sense this is the opposite to many of our modern mythologies. There is perhaps no more clear example of a modern mythology than the superheroes that populate so many of our hit movies. And what is the standard story that we see in superhero stories? They have a special set of abilities which they must live up to by serving society. Take, for instance, the central story of basically all the Spiderman movies: He has a special set of abilities which only he has, and thus he must act on behalf of a city that needs him. Spiderman is not an ordinary person briefly called up to act on behalf of society, he is a unique person who must always fulfill a special roll because of his special abilities.  He cannot go back to his ordinary life because there is only one Spiderman.

A great many other modern stories similarly involve that one special person who must fulfill a destiny for the good of all.  Harry Potter is the only one who can defeat Voldemort and save the world of wizards.  Neo is The One who can defeat The Matrix.  Even a lot of theoretically non-supernatural stories involve some specially gifted character with "a certain set of skills" who must blaze in to save the world from terrible danger.

In all of these cases, the character is special because of some inherent thing about the character.  Perhaps that's very convenient for generating sequels, because when danger looms the only choice is to call back that one character who starred in the previous story.  But it also suggests a world in which people hold authority within society not because of an office with which they are temporarily entrusted, but rather because of a unique set of abilities which only that character has.  These peculiarly gifted characters stand above the law.  Harry Potter must save the wizarding world whether their incompetent government actually wants him to or not.  Spiderman must fight crime not because he's been legally entrusted with that duty but because the legal authorities are helpless to stop certain evils without his super-powered intervention.

But in a sense, doesn't this great emphasis on the special individual who has authority to act to protect society because of his specialness promote an vision of society in which people who think themselves exceptional would see themselves as heroes for engaging in vigilante actions?  Engaging though these stories of special individuals are, when they are the predominant kind of story that we tell about saving society from danger were are probably creating a vision of society in which people feel entitled to step up and take power into their own hands.  And yet, the virtue of Cincinnatus, who assumed power only when he was asked to and gave it back as soon as he was able, is surely a virtue that we would like to see lived out in society by those who actually hold power.  Surely what we want is for those who have wielded power on behalf of law and order to see themselves as having gone back to being ordinary citizens at the end of their office -- not see themselves as heroes uniquely set apart by a lonely vocation to protect society due to their own special abilities and experiences.


Rob Alspaugh said...

I think it probably also works in reverse: people who have any kind of power or authority view themselves as being special and necessary. The American Dream becomes: acquire the authority that validates your desire to be viewed as special. Which in turn breeds an acid skepticism about authority and power among those who do not have it ?).

Agnes said...

I think that the virtue of Cincinnatus is an ideal that doesn't exist in the real world. No one just puts down the mantle of power and steps away from it to go back to the plough. If we view our democratically elected leaders as if they would do that, we are blinded to the realities of politics. You are probably right that there is a tendency (both by the would be leaders and the people who want to be secure under a stable and trustworthy leadership) to idealize the leaders of your own political side, to build up their public image as superheroes. Even if the thrill of having power would not be enough to corrupt those who wield it (like the One Ring, if you want another myth), there are so many additional benefits and privileges (maybe ancient Rome, if we accept the trope of their classical puritan virtue had it differently???) that they will really forget and deny that they are basically ordinary citizens.

Christine said...

Hmm,interesting. I think another downside of superhero myths is that ordinary people may think that they can't do anything to help society and just wait for a politician to save them.

Domenico Bettinelli said...

It's interesting that Amazon's The Boys series (as violent and profane as it is; I do not recommend it) illustrates the same superhero problem you describe. Slight spoiler: the superheroes are not what they seem and in fact see themselves as specially empowered to do what they want regardless of what anyone else thinks or wants. By nature of their powers, they become supervillains in almost every case.