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To cape or not to cape?


March’s Philosophy Conversation – what was formerly “Aristotle’s Breakfast” but has since become the “Philosophy Webinar” – took an interesting turn to address a conversation on heroism. On March 7th 2022, through the guidance of the sage, Dr. John Branya of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Ethics, the conversation moved us through the idea of what myths and stories are. He took the conversation a notch higher by bringing to focus several fictional and mythical (super) heroes. He talked about their strengths and also touched on some of their weaknesses, bringing to the fore their power and the need for responsibility on their part. Part of the conversation also revolved around the notion of the Drama Triangle, and how we can take up a more positive outlook with an Empowerment Triangle. Below are some highlights, where Dr. Branya also brought out the University’s theme for the year: Freedom and Responsibility.

Some Known Heroes (and Villains)

In stories, there is a protagonist and an antagonist – hero and villain. With the provision of some gift, these heroes endeavour to make a positive impact in the  society they live in. Gifts can range from financial muscle – Batman and Iron Man being the references made herein – to superhuman abilities seen in Superman and Spider-Man and The Hulk. Looking back at Greco-Roman mythology, we see demi-gods. These heroes were born of the gods interacting with the human beings on the earth.

To bring out a truer picture of these heroes, the human element of suffering is included as part of their being. This is in various ways, but more through the introduction of a nemesis – an evil our hero was to battle. There are also emotional internal fights, where these heroes battle with themselves on decisions they may have taken, or were to take.

“Great Power, Great Responsibility” – Not Original

The idea about (great) power and (great) responsibility being complementary concepts is not unique to the SpiderMan movie where Uncle Ben advises Peter. In a scene from the 2002 Spider-Man movie, Uncle Ben counsels Peter on his behaviour of late, including a fight he had recently been involved in. He notes that just because Peter can (beat up someone), does not mean that he has to. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Winston Churchill is credited with the quote that “the price of greatness is responsibility.” In the address, he called on the United States to not remain uninvolved in the problems happening beyond its protective oceans, especially if they are looking to become a leading civilization.

Theodore Roosevelt too shared the idea through a letter written in 1908. His quote: “responsibility should go with power.” In the letter addressed to his friend Sir Otto George Trevelyan, Roosevelt shared that he wanted to check his power by maintaining a relatively short presidential tenure.

The tenet “with great power comes great responsibility” is also shared biblically. While sharing about the Parable of the Faithful Servant, Jesus is quoted stating that “he who has much more will be expected of him.”

The Drama Triangle and Need for Heroes

Many times, we cannot overcome our problems on our own. And it is in such opportunities that we need someone with power to come to our aid. This person, with some powers/strengths, will help us overcome the problem we are faced with.

The above scenario is our typical portrait of a Drama Triangle, where there is a villain who creates a problem that affects victims. The villain is more powerful than the victims, and oppresses them. The victims then look outside themselves for a hero to help them overcome the villain, completing the triangle: Villain, Victim, Hero.

The villain has power, but is not responsible with it. Responsibility is shown by being answerable to a higher authority. For one to be responsible, they need to have a mission passed on to them by a superior being.

Our victimhood in certain circumstances creates the need for heroes. But do we need heroes? There are several reasons as to why we may require heroes to be in our midst. Scott Allison shared ten reasons in a list he indicated to not be exhaustive. But during the conversation, Dr. Branya asked participants to share some thoughts. The feedback revolved around giving inspiration and being role models. But having heroes is shown to also improve our lives by making us more EQ adept through their examples of handling crises. It is also through their stories that we too can learn to be heroes.

Differences among Heroes

The themes around which the stories of heroes revolve vary. Their conversation on freedom is widely considered as the talking point.

The Classic heroes, majorly those from Greco-Roman mythology, are doomed to their fates in their lives. They have no freedom to choose what they do with their lives, including their eventual fall from grace. Many end up in eternal damnation, suffering for their errors. Atlas, for example, is doomed to carry the weight of the universe on his back for all eternity; and Sisyphus is damned with pushing a boulder up a hill, and when it rolls down, he is to push it back up. The stories of these heroes are not grounded in evidence.

The Modern heroes, who we are considering in our DC and Marvel comics, are also fictional and invented. They have no historical evidence. The elements of these heroes, though, are uncommon. Their powers and prowess are beyond the evident limits of an average human being. Their stories are also black and white – they are the good guys, fighting off some bad (guys). And good always trumps bad, even with some struggles. Their stories are also based on fate, where the hero has no choice of being bad, and vice versa.

But there are real heroes in our lives – ordinary lives – as well. These do not live outside of the realm of reality. They acknowledge that their lives are not black and white only; they live with several grey areas. They have equal opportunities of being bad, and being good. They are free to make their own calls for steps in their lives. Dr. Branya calls these Real or “Christian” heroes. He notes that these fail, and fail, and fail again. But their difference from the nemesis in our modern heroes is that they get up again and try to be better people in their lives. They keep trying to be good. A feat that can be achieved by all men.

Empowerment Triangle: Conversation on Renewed Hope

An anthropomorphic truth is that man must suffer. But a second anthropomorphic truth is that man is free to make calls in life. He is free to decide how to react to said suffering. He may choose to play victim and wait for a hero to save him; but he also has the option of taking up the opportunity to grow from the challenge that he faces.

“As a person, I am free!” Dr. Branya noted, adding that “how I react depends on me.” It is at this point that he brings out the concept of the Empowerment Triangle – an opposite of the Drama Triangle.

In the Empowerment Triangle, there is no Victim. Only an Actor, who looks at the problem as an opportunity to flourish and grow. The “Problem Giver” is no longer viewed as a Villain, but a Challenger. And rather than cede his power to a hero to help him through the challenge, the Actor takes on the problem himself with direction from a Mentor.

Without challenges, we cannot grow. But to be more human, we must grow in humanity. And for us to be more human, we must allow for our freedom to make decisions more freely.

This is the teaching of Saint Josemaria. For us to carry out our little duties every day. And in doing so, we exercise our freedom to do so, as well as our responsibility to God and to others for the gifts entrusted unto us. And a reminder of our mission.

The idea of a “Chosen One” to free all society from its evils is a shared commonality in all society. But we must also realise that we too are called to take up our armour and fight our small battles within our day-to-day lives. That way, we become better people, and build a better society. Becoming our own personal heroes, and heroes to those around us. Better yet, MENTORS.


This article was written by Cyrus Muthumbi.


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The Centre for Applied Philosophy and Ethics invites you to the next webinar on 5th April 2022 at 5.30p.m. to 7p.m. on The Legacy of the African Woman: Sister, Bride, Warrior and Mother with Insights from Margaret Ogola, Edith Stein and John Paul II.

Join the conversation using the zoom details below: