Schopenhauersup1. INTRODUCTION


            In present times, I think there are few attitudes more naïve than those which most people have about our modern fictitious heroes, when people consider them as simply imaginary figures whose only function is to entertain. Certainly, the greatest part of our imaginary characters from movies, series and comic books, give us nothing more than entertainment; but there are heroes that go beyond this commonplace condition, and they reach the status of true modern myths whose function is, above all, to reveal more profound information hidden inside the human soul. And such information is hidden in such a profound way, that before it can be revealed to us through descriptive language – in a scientific or philosophical text – it needs to show itself through expressive language – in poems, novels and fictitious stories. (It is worth noting: the philosopher Wittgenstein, according to Buchholz [2009: 118], sometimes had a preference for fictitious stories instead of philosophical texts, because it could show us concrete images of human life in a more clarified way). For that reason, the legendary writer Elliot S! Maggin rightly said, in the introduction to the graphic novel Kingdom Come, created by Mark Waid and Alex Ross: “Super-heroes stories (…) are today the most coherent manifestation of the popular unconscious. They’re stories not about gods, but about the way humans wish themselves to be; ought, in fact, to be”.

In my own opinion, I believe that there is not any imaginary hero who has become more mythological than Superman, in our day. In fact, he can be easily considered the archetype of modern superhero, and all the others superheroes are, in essence, a variation of him, according to Christopher Knowles (2008: 140); but much more than that, I even affirm that never has there existed a hero in history – and here I refer even to the great heroes in Homeric poems – who represented or represents our moral convictions, in such a perfect way. For Superman, above all, appears in popular imagination as a man truly good, in moral sense. In general human conscience, the “super” in his name does not represent only physical power; above all, it refers to his incredible moral superiority. Therefore, the myth of Superman reveals through the expressive language of his adventures, our more universal moral convictions (that the function of our myths is to communicate truths disguised in apparently ludicrous language, this is the central thesis of Joseph Campbell’s The hero with a thousand faces). Superman is incorruptible; he only does what we all know that we ought to do and for each other. And if he fights unconditionally for truth and justice, and adopts a rigid moral code based on protection of human life (as the character expresses in chapter 3 of Kingdom Come), so it’s because all of us adopt these values – certainly, a moral relativist adopts it secretly – so we deeply desire that such a man could exist, to fight for such values. And as a gesture of approbation, we call him Super-man, because we recognize in him the perfect image of our purest moral aspirations.

If the image and acts of Superman express our moral convictions, the function of philosophy,  is to describe the reasons for those same convictions. I think Schopenhauer’s Ethics fulfills such a purpose. And the fact that Superman – the icon of our moral aspirations – has a extremely compassionate personality, reinforces my judgment. For that, when we admire the morality of his actions, we agree with the Schopenhauer’s doctrine – even without knowing it consciously – when the idealist philosopher strongly relates morality and compassion. My objective in this work is to evidence the compatibility between the myth of Superman and the moral philosophy of Schopenhauer. Doing that, I pretend to defend, at the same time, the moral altruism – which consists on the idea that the ethical apogee is the abnegation of own benefits in order to improve the happiness of another person – and the liberalism as political vision – which represents the idea that the political power is not legitimated to impose, by coercive and jurisdictional means, the virtues of charity or altruism, but it can only obligate its citizens to be righteous, that is to say, to abstain themselves from any unjust act, i.e., to refrain themselves from the undertaking of any injury against individual life, freedom and property.




Arthur Schopenhauer is a philosopher who was very famous because of his pessimism about human condition. Such pessimism has its origin in the premises which his philosophy sustains: here, a basic idea is that the essence of the human being is concentrated on his will, a will to life, because he is always searching for satisfaction of his own necessities and individual vital impulses. The intellect is under the power of will; a mere instrument, by which the individual finds the necessary means for the satisfaction of his own desires, and such desires are in itself irrational. In sum, first we want; then, we think in order to satisfy that wanting. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer recognizes the human capacity for good. Recognizes that justice and right are equally possible, and even charity can be found in any period and civilization. Schopenhauer’s explanation for this apparent contradiction (radical egoism and capacity for good) is as it follows: each individual human being is capable of reaching  metaphysical and intuitive knowledge, through which knowledge the subject transcends the limits of individulism, as long as he perceives that all the individuals share a common essence:  the will. In such circumstances, the suffering of another becomes my own suffering too, because through that knowledge the barriers between the You and Ego do not exist anymore: all human beings are equally volitive beings. Such knowledge or perception is generally called compassion. Therefore, from compassion we acquire a moral conscience. If before we always wanted our own happiness and pleasure, independently if such desire could bring suffering to another one, now, because of the feeling of compassion, we want to restrain ourselves from provoking any suffering on another, and, sometimes, we even want to help anyone who suffers. According to Schopenhauer, in the first case we have the virtue of justice; its principle is neminem laede! (“don’t you injure anyone!”). In the second case, we have the virtue of charity; its principle is si potes, iuva! (“if you can, so help!”). (The basic of Schopenhauer’s moral doctrines can be found in his greatest work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung – The World as will and representation – and Über die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik – On the two fundamental problems of Ethics).

Therefore, the feeling of compassion inspire in us not only the mere respect to another, but even the genuine love and abnegation of itself through charity, that is to say, self sacrifice. Consequently, Schopenhauer’s moral philosophy renders the greatest reverence to altruism. For if the virtue of justice only demands the restraining – i.e., it forbids any action that causes suffering to another – differently, the other virtue, the charity, demands a positive action: si potes, iuva! . But it is obvious that this last virtue cannot be imposed by means of legal coercion, because such imposing would violate the virtue of justice itself: if the human essence cannot be in any way a saint or heroic essence, so a political State which requires from its citizens heroic or altruist actions, it would require from them much more than they actually can give, i.e., it would injure them; it would practice injustice as long as it violates their nature. Therefore, the State only can require the restraining by legal means, but never heroic actions that could put the citizen in a dangerous situation for his life or patrimony. Such altruist actions or charity must appear in a thoroughly spontaneous way. From here, I can introduce the myth of Superman.




The perspective that understands Superman as a mere fictitious character whose function is to bring us entertainment, is certainly a misguided one. The importance of that character transcends simple entertainment: much more than that, it is a true myth that acquires special importance as it became, since its creation in 1938, the summa of all our ethically desirable virtues. By definition, his way of acting and thinking is exactly the way that must be in conformity with our fundamental moral intuitions. Above all, Superman is a perfect moral being. He only wants, unconditionally, what is good. Even his physical gifts, have, as their true purpose, the emphasizing of his true excellence: the moral excellence. Such physical powers would be a great means through which a bad person could pursue his own good and advantages. But for Superman, they became instruments to reach a higher purpose: the good of all mankind.And his actions have moral purity as long as his motives have the same degree of moral purity. Differently, other heroes have motivations that cannot be considered noble, in a moral sense – that’s what happens with characters like Batman and Punisher, determined by a desire of vengeance against criminals. But the motivation of Superman is basically the feeling of compassion and love for all mankind. A great part of his classical, best and famous stories, exalts such feelings. This is the case of the excellent graphic novel Peace on Earth, produced by Paul Dini and Alex Ross; here, the central theme is the extremely compassionate Superman’s character. The story begins when the hero saves a young woman in Metropolis. Nobody was hurting or attacking her; the problem was another one: she was dying of starvation. He immediately took her to a asylum for homeless people, where she is cared for, but the girl stays in his thoughts for the next few days: her personal pain has became his own pain. He cannot avoid the feeling of compassion, and his semblance – admirably designed by Alex Ross – expresses the intensity of such restlessness and suffering.

Physically, such mental state is inexplicable. After all, how could be possible the sharing of suffering between two individuals whose bodies are incommunicable through space ? Someone could object that the feeling of compassion is developed through intellectual effort, by which we imagine ourselves suffering the same pain of another individual; in such circumstances, the feeling of compassion would not be opposed to the egoism: on the contrary, would be based on it. But the myth of Superman seems to contradict such objection. It is noteworthy that in Peace on Earth, Superman expressly pronounces himself to be completely ignorant about the human sensation of starving. “It’s ironic”, he says. “I don’t need to eat. I will never know hunger. I don’t know what victims of starvation feel. I can’t decide if that is a blessing or a curse”. Therefore, he is incapable to imagine his own ego suffering from such misery, because of his invulnerability. Despite this, his attitudes, his intensive concerns, restless, and inconformity shown by that story, confirms the authenticity of his compassion. A kantian philosopher could argue that what Superman does has not any direct relation with feelings and inclinations of his natural character, because such thing is irrelevant for our discernment between right and wrong. This discernment would be entirely made by our pure practical reason, which announces to us, rational agents, categorical duties of virtue. In summa, a kantian philosopher would say that Superman wants to free the girl from suffering because his pure practical reason demands categorically such actuation (for more details about a most “orthodox” Kant, see his greatest and most famous works on morals, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, Kritik der praktishen Vernunft. Then the rigidity of his own doctrine on morals is significantly diminished in Metaphysik der Sitten). But what is shown in Dini’s texts and Ross drawings, indeed is not a man determined by a “pure respect before the moral law”; on the contrary, we see a man whose semblant seems to be very disturbed by feelings and emotions. Certainly, his actions are all in conformity with the moral law. But Paul Dini and Alex Ross reveal to us that intimately the fundament of the Superman’s searching for good can be found in an intense suffering and restless of emotional nature. Is the compassion which moves our hero; the respect before moral law is a consequence of it.

At this point, is important to emphasize that the true function of the myth is not the creating, but the expressing of the most profound aspects of human soul: and the myth of Superman is an expression of our most profound moral convictions. Thus, it attests that we do not condemn the feeling of compassion; on the contrary, we laud it. Such conclusion has special importance because it demonstrates to us a convergence between that which is expressed by Superman’s myth and that which is explained by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and contradicts the moral rigidity of Kant’s philosophy, when such philosophy conceives a good will as something which is exclusively related with the action motivated by moral duty, enunciated by pure practical reason; thus, independently of any pathological inclination. It contradicts too the moral conception sustained by Ayn Rand’s objectivism, because she rejects the altruism – and, consequently, the compassion – as an ethical fundament, to privilege the “rational selfishness” (as exposed in her work The virtue of selfishness). In my point of view, this is absurd. Therefore, there’s a convergence here: if Schopenhauer teaches us that the root of our moral feelings is the compassion, and as such, it must become object of respect and reverence; so the Superman’s myth confirms such thesis: because our greatest imaginary hero, who expresses our moral convictions, is a compassionate man, and his love for all mankind is the element that dignifies even more his beautiful deeds.




If we discuss virtues like charity and altruism (I understand them as the same thing), so we must to make a clear distinction between private virtues – and here I include the charity or altruism itself – and the public or political virtue per excellence: the justice. In a liberal conception, the objective of the political power is to avoid the perpetration of injustice. So the State, as Schopenhauer (1966, p. 594) has defined, is just an institution of protection: protection directed outwards, against other nations; protection directed inwards, that is, protection of the members of a State against one another; protection against the protector, that is, against the State itself. Therefore, the duty of the State is the creating of laws, by which it can forbid actions against individual life, freedom and property (Schopenhauer advocates the thesis accordingly with such individual rights are naturals). Consequently, inside moral limits, the State can only impose the virtue of justice, through the legal exigency accordingly with we must to refrain ourselves from offensive actions. But the virtue of charity or altruism cannot be politically imposed without injuring the citizens at the same time, because generally men are not naturally inclined to altruism. The State is not morally legitimated to demand through legality more than the human being can give; so such exigency would be unjust. After all, heroic or altruistic acts are laudable as long as they are not legally obligated, but when they occur through spontaneous and autonomous action.

The Superman’s myth reinforces such liberal convictions. In truth, Superman can be easily considered as a symbol of conservative liberalism: he sustains a strictly obedience and respect for American laws and public institutions, and, consequently, he only claims from the citizens the same behavior, without forcing them to take altruistic or heroic attitudes. Here again I can take Peace on Earth as paradigm. Superman says: “it’s not my place to dictate policy for humankind. But perhaps the sight of me fighting hunger on a global scale would inspire others to take action in their ways”. This quote is specially important because through it Superman expresses his greatest mission: to give a symbol by which the humankind can be inspired to choose freely the good and to reject the evil; to embrace spontaneously the heroism and altruism and to abandon the natural egoism, inaction and indifference. He is not a judge or a politician: above all, he is an educator.




Therefore, I can appoint here two distinct conclusions (not necessarily on this order): 1) in the mythological image of Superman we can find a picture of the conciliation between political liberalism and altruistic ethics, as long as Superman respects the human limitations and imperfections, and because of that he does not demand from them nothing more than the virtue of justice, i.e., the self refraining from provoking unjust acts according to Schopenhauer’s definition (which is here the liberal and political element); on the other hand, Superman quest to foment, in the heart of men, another values like charity, solidarity, heroism and altruism, through his own example (and here we can find the pure ethical and altruistic element). There’s no contradiction: the only value which is imposed – even through physical coercion – is the justice; the charity or altruism can only be recommended. 2) So Superman’s actions incorporate those two virtues appointed by Schopenhauer, justice and charity, exactly as conceptualized by Schopenhauer, and the cause of such incorporation is the compassionate character of Superman – another point explained by Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Consequently the myth of Superman seems to offer  an expressive correlate for Schopenhauer’s philosophy: what Schopenhauer teaches through abstract conceptions, Superman expresses through esthetical performance.




BUCHHOLZ, Kai. Compreender Wittgenstein. Tradução de Vilmar Schneider. 2. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Vozes, 2009.


CAMPBELL, Joseph. The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton: Princeton university press, 2004.


KANT, Immanuel. Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Stten. Werke in sechs Bänden IV. Ed. W. Weischedel. Wiesbaden: Insel, 1956.


______. Kritik der praktischen Vernunft. Werke in sechs Bänden IV. Ed. W. Weischedel. Wiesbaden: Insel, 1956.


KNOWLES, Christopher. Nossos deuses são super-heróis. Tradução de Marcelo Borges. São Paulo: Cultrix, 2008.


RANDY, Ayn. The virtue of selfishness. New York: Penguin Group, 1964.


ROSS, Alex; WAID, Mark. Kingdom Come. New York: DC Comics, 1997.


ROSS, Alex; DINI, Paul. Peace on earth. New York: DC Comics, 1999.


SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur.  Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik. Zürich: Diogenes, 1977.


___. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Erster Band. Zürich: Diogenes, 1977.


___. The world as will and representation, volume II. Translated from german by E. F. J. Payne. New York: Dover Publications, 1958.



  1. Superman as the Classical Liberal hero. This has got to be one of my favorite articles we have had on the site. Filho explains the failure I have always felt but have never been able to express with Rand’s Objectivism while simultaneously making a case for a Libertarian style democracy. I think if we examined Robert Heinlein’s heroes through Schopenhauer we could more readily understand the difference in motivation between say Heinlein’s D.D. Harriman and Rand’s Henry Rearden.

    1. Hi, Jonathan. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’m very proud to have contributed to The Freehold. I hope to write soon another philosophical article with the same elements: politics, ethics and comic book characters… so I can send it for publishing it again. I think the comic books give us a great source of moral experiencies, which can and must be explored in a serious and philosophical point of view. Therefore, it’s a laudable initiative, when The Freehold offers a space where we can discuss at the same time fiction and philosophy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *