--tagline for the Richard Donner film Superman (1978)
Thirty-two years ago tomorrow, the film Superman premiered in the U.S.A., to the thrill and delight of 9-year-olds everywhere (including yours truly). On this fantastic occasion, I thought I’d take a moment to celebrate the virtue represented by the Son of Krypton: Superman-liness.
As an invented virtue, Superman-liness echoes the Roman personal virtue of Virtus (Manliness), from which our word “virtue” actually derives. Virtus is an aggregate virtue that includes notions such as Valor, Excellence, Integrity, and Nobility (itself a difficult concept to define, although later on we will discuss Aristotle’s virtue Megalopsychia, or Greatness, which today we’d probably question as a virtue, since I think it’s best translated as “Being Stuck Up.”)
Gotta admit, the feminist in me cringes when considering that our word for best human (or even non-human) qualities comes from a term for “the best qualities of a male.” Worse, the “peak female quality” in the Roman virtue schema was Pudicitia, translated as “Modesty” or “Chastity.” (Wonder Woman, where art thou?) I’m happy to report not all Romans considered “virtue” a purely male quality. Cicero (remembered in our recent essay on Soithnges) used Virtus in a gender-neutral way to mean Bravery, and he applied it to women he admired, including his own wife and daughter.
What virtues does Superman stand for? Almost everyone can recall the mantra: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way!” Back when I was a kid, my sainted mother, Big Tree, would take all us down to the Straw Hat Pizzeria, and in-between the Pac-Man and pepperoni, we’d watch episodes of the black-and-white 1950s Adventures of Superman TV show staring George Reeves. That show’s opening credits drilled into my head the expression as we know it today--inherited in turn from the popular Superman radio show that aired in the 1940s.
But “The American Way” bit only got added during WWII--for the obvious reasons. As author Blair Kramer reminds us, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two gangly Jewish teens, invented Superman in 1933 as an answer to the anti-Semitic Nazis’ garbled interpretation of Friedrich Nietzshe’s idea of the fully realized man, the Ubermensch. (I’m not an expert on Nietzsche--my twin Kael is--but, reading translations of his work, I’d say what he meant by the Ubermensch recalls qualities mentioned in the TTV essay on Sampajañña.) As Kramer explains, in the original conception, Superman
obeys the Talmudic injunction to do good for its own sake and heal the world where he can. Siegel and Shuster had created a mythic character who reflected their own Jewish values.
Given the dark backdrop of genocide and the Holocaust behind his creation, I find it all the more fitting that, before he stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” what Superman originally stood for was Truth, Justice, and... Tolerance.
I can’t help but notice that the ideals embodied in Virtus--Courage, Nobility, etc.--suggest a sort of Adonis, a statuesque but static figure. The virtues of Superman-liness, on the other hand, require constant Action by the hero to bring them into being. Superman does not symbolize Truth, Justice, and Tolerance. He realizes them, to “heal the world where he can.”
May we see the gates of Superman-liness, and perhaps make a home there.