(I’ve been slacking a little on my blogging lately. That’s not because the well has dried up. Part of the reason is that I have a lot going on in life right now. Part of it is that I’m gearing up to begin writing a new book about superheroes, and that takes up a lot of my mental energy. But once I get through the next week or so, I’ll start blogging more regularly again.)
One of my favorite themes in superhero comics and movies (and, indeed, in all of literature from ancient Greek tragedy to modern fiction) is the importance of fighting battles that you ultimately can’t win. It’s an old idea whose roots go deep into the ancient past of pagan cultures.We see it, for example, in the Greek play Antigone when the title character confronts her sister about their dead brother, Polyneikes. The king of Thebes has decreed that no one may bury Polyneikes’ body, but Antigone determines to defy the king and bury her brother, choosing loyalty to her family and to the gods over obedience to the State. Her sister, Ismene, says that Antigone is fighting a battle that she can’t win, arguing that it is foolish to fight when you know that you’re doomed to lose. Antigone only says that she will stop fighting when she dies, and that she despises Ismene for being unwilling to fight herself.
The idea that sometimes you have to fight battles when you know that you’re destined for defeat shows up throughout the rest of ancient literature and mythology, as well, so it’s no surprise that the modern descendants of ancient mythology—superheroes—reflect this perennial theme.
Perhaps the most obvious example of a character who fights a battle that he must ultimately lose is Batman. His war on crime in Gotham is heroic not only because of how brilliant, dangerous, and effective he is; it is also heroic because in the end, Bruce Wayne will fail. He has no superpowers and no immortality. Crime will outlive him.
Because of my interest in this idea, I was delighted to read an exchange between Wonder Woman and Io in Wonder Woman 196 by Greg Rucka. Io, whose job on Themyscira is to be blacksmith and weapons maker, continually makes weapons that immediately disappear because after the crossover Our Worlds At War, Themyscira is a weapons-free community. Io complains to Diana about the futility of her work, and Diana points out that there is often meaning and nobility in fighting for a lost cause or persisting in a doomed task:
Diana’s assertion that “the journey matters as much as the destination” might sound like just another instance of an oft-repeated cliché, but her point is deeper and wiser than the clichéd language might suggest. The journey matters as much as the destination in part because of the journey’s effect on the life and soul of the one who makes it. Diana is an ambassador of peace and love, and even if she will ultimately fail to reach everyone in the world of men, she cannot be that ambassador for peace unless she tries. Therefore her habit of “teaching peace to those who would not hear of it” makes Diana herself the warrior for peace that she wants to inspire others to be. Giving up the fight would mean giving up her identity.
Diana’s attitude recalls the virtue ethics of Aristotle and others. According to virtue ethics, being good and happy depends upon your ability to embody the virtues (for example, courage, temperance, patience, etc.), which you must practice habitually in order to possess. In other words, as a good friend recently reminded me, Aristotle taught that we become the things that we do habitually. Diana persists in teaching and exemplifying peace to humanity because doing so makes her an ambassador for peace. And it doesn’t matter that humans in their stubbornness and pride won’t ultimately listen.
But there is another reason to fight the battle that you know you can’t win, one that is harder to put into words. Both Diana and Io persist in what are probably doomed tasks because the tasks are worth doing in and of themselves, not just because they are instrumental to some other good. There is value in the blacksmith’s ability to craft a fine blade, a strong shield, or a powerful axe, and this is true even though Io’s blacksmithing has no practical benefit. Again, preaching peace is worth doing even when nobody listens, even when they hate you or kill you for it. There is often a nobility in the doomed cause, a goodness that can only be achieved in continuing the fight even though you know you’ll never win—or to use Diana’s slightly clichéd metaphor, there’s a nobility in persisting on the journey even though you know you’ll never reach the destination.