Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.
As one who grew up in the generation of paperback comics teaching us what a noble man was, we could have these flights of fancy debating what it would really mean to be a Superhero or Supervillain. Our discussion over who is right, Magneto or Professor X, would reach epic proportions not seen within the chambers of the United Nations. And yet, I understand how these moral debates shaped my values more than actual school.
Which brings us to our first question; if you had would you be the hero you tell yourself you are, sacrificing yourself for others? Or would you be the villain, only looking for your own interests? This dichotomy was best coined by Voltaire with the phrase “With great power, comes great responsibility”. Yes, it was Voltaire and not Uncle Ben or Stan Lee. Sorry to ruin your childhood.
Even before him, Plato debated this moral question with the story of the Ring of Gyges. The basic story is there’s this Ring that makes a person invisible (sound familiar), letting a person do what he wishes without fear of being caught of punished. Hence if all sanctions are removed, would one’s moral character evaporate?
One side argues that morality is only a social construct, an illusion you create about your virtues. The other side argues that the ideals of justice are not a social construct. He concludes that the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites. He continues explaining how the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself.
Confucius, on the other side of the planet, brought up a similar argument between the Gentle Man (Junzi) and the Petty Man (Xiaoren). He summed up the argument with a simple concept. “A Gentle Man only understands righteousness. A Petty Man only understands personal profit.”
And with that we come to our second question; when will you realize you make this choice every day already? In Comic books, in TV, in movies, or even in books; the level of power of a hero or a villain only determines the level of the threat he will confront. And even then, these challenges are even greater than their level. But the reality is this; power only defines what they can do. It is their moral character which determines what actions they choose.
Look at yourself in the mirror. Who would you be with power? If they couldn’t find out it was you, if you could get away with it, would you take advantage of someone? If they never found out it was you, and nobody would applaud your actions, and no reward was offered, would you still do good? Would you be a Villain? Would you still be a Hero? Would you place your own interests first or would you sacrifice yourself for others?
A Hero is not the guy flying around with a cape, or beating up bad guys. A hero is the guy whose greatest battles nobody will find out, the guy who has no interest in the spotlight. A Villain is the guy who just looks out for himself. For him, Evil actions are just a means to gain something for his benefit.
The reality is we are heroes or villains already. We don’t need special powers or gadgets or masks to make these choices. We can’t even avoid making these choices every day. Every day you choose to be noble or choose to be petty. So, seeing how you act and how you behave, I ask you again.
Are you a Hero or a Villain?