From our earliest childhoods, we are taught to associate strength, first and foremost, with a physically powerful, young body. The Darwinian mantra, “survival of the fittest,” assigned evolutionary superiority to members of species who were able to maximize their bodily capabilities to adapt to whatever threats to their existence they encountered. In the case of human beings, the “fittest” have traditionally been understood as those individuals – usually young – who have the capacity to withstand severe physical hardships, including natural disasters, diseases, and war, and to emerge from them, if not unscathed, at least not too much the worse for wear.
Individuals who possess these extremely fit young bodies are celebrated for them. They win prizes in the sports arena, they regularly trounce the bad guys as characters in movies, and the abdominal “six-packs” they so casually flaunt are the subject of intense admiration as well as envy on the beach. Physical strength is prized not only as evidence of excellent health and overall well-being, but also as proof of an individual’s moral authority, that is, their natural right to rule over others. Indeed, the equivalence between physical and moral superiority is famously affirmed by Plato’s character, Thrasymachus, in Book 1 of the Republic. In response to Socrates’ question, “What is justice?” Thrasymachus (an imposing physical specimen himself) aggressively maintains that “the just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger,” an advantage he attempts to capitalize on, albeit unsuccessfully, in his ensuing debate with Socrates.
Even as bodily strength has become less crucial for human survival and flourishing over the centuries, the popularity of the “superhero” genre, where might almost always makes right, has expanded exponentially, with new movies and sequels to existing movies being filmed and released in a seemingly endless stream, notwithstanding the current pandemic. The public has an insatiable appetite for Marvel and DC superheroes such as Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the Black Panther, etc. not to mention James Bond and other beloved characters in the “might makes right” genre, but this is no recent development. The appetite for physical strength was satisfied in previous decades by classic American television cartoons such as “Popeye the Sailor Man,” where eating a can of spinach immediately transforms Popeye’s thin arms into bulging muscles that are capable of thrashing his much brawnier nemesis, Brutus, and saving his ladylove, Olive Oil (a damsel in perpetual distress if ever there was one!).
Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Roadrunner, and their many Tinseltown compatriots, powerfully reinforce the common association of physical prowess with moral righteousness and it is significant that their primary audience is young children. Though the humour is rampant in these cartoons, it is almost always at the expense of the villain who is hubristically convinced that he will triumph over the good guy, rather than the “might makes right” ideology itself. Even as children outgrow their cartoon heroes, the alleged equivalence between physical dominance and moral authority remains firmly in place as an accepted component of the cultural imaginary, reinforced afresh through the newest testosterone-charged action hero who flaunts his novel, technology-enhanced abilities on the silver screen. Though the characters’ personalities, aptitudes, and experiences are quite varied from one film to the next, the shared white masculinity of the traditional action heroes as well as the actors who play them reinforces dominant gender and racial hierarchies, forcefully reminding us that it is white men’s might that has traditionally been anointed with the task of making right.
In The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche famously critiques the Judeo-Christian tradition’s efforts to de-couple physical dominance from moral superiority by identifying these efforts as a revenge strategy of the weak who seek to wield power over their stronger compatriots, which they would be incapable of obtaining otherwise. Through a pious insistence upon humility and modesty as the “true” signs of spiritual strength, coupled with an emphasis upon spiritual fortitude as far superior to physical acumen, the Judeo-Christian tradition, Nietzsche asserts, has sought, albeit largely unsuccessfully, to overturn this ancient hierarchy that invests physical perfection with moral nobility. Indeed, Nietzsche maintains, this “slave morality,” is intended to compensate for the sense of inferiority that so often accompanies the recognition of one’s bodily deficiencies, and to minimize the envy of those who do not suffer from them.
There are many ways to critique the association of physical strength with moral superiority, but it’s crucial, in undertaking this project, to avoid the trap that Nietzsche identifies in The Genealogy of Morals, namely of promoting a counter-narrative (e.g. “the meek will inherit the earth”) that he would label a slave morality. This “reactive” morality, he informs us, originates not from a noble, divine source but rather from a self-legitimizing, materialistic politics of resentment that subtly reinforces the power of the “might makes right” ideology that it seeks to overturn. Fortunately, there are alternative examples we can appeal to that readily demonstrate the limitations of both the “might makes right” doctrine, based on the conflation of physical strength and moral authority, and a slave morality, where the weak attempt to seize and exercise the same power that was previously the birthright of the strong.
An inspiring alternative to both of these models ties in directly with the theme of this forum, since it is expressed by the fragile, yet undeniable strength of elderly and frequently disabled bodies, examples of which we so often see, yet rarely acknowledge, much less praise. The strength I am referring to here has an undeniable physical component, albeit one that is not based upon muscle size or a godlike physique. It is grounded instead upon remarkable physical endurance in the face of years (and often decades) of illness, pain, and loss. Putting the lie to the ableist, ageist, sexist, and racist view of strength exemplified in the traditional “might makes right” doctrine, elderly people’s bodies also exhibit many other types of strength such as the psychic strength to take on the challenges of yet another new day, the intellectual strength to grapple in the present with the ever-increasing weight of both the individual and collective past, as well as the emotional strength to survive the death of loved ones, the loss of valued pursuits, and, far too often, the lack of respect and impatience directed towards one by younger, able-bodied people.
In stark contrast to the Oscar Wilde protagonist Dorian Gray’s increasingly paranoid efforts to hide his aging doppelgänger’s appearance under lock and key, the frail, cancerous, yet physically active body of the beloved, recently deceased, 87-year-old U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, fondly known as the Notorious RBG, was constantly on public display. Despite her well-publicized workouts with her devoted trainer, her petite, increasingly stooped frame and the images of her nodding off in the front row during Trump’s State of the Union address, gave visceral testimony both to the fragility of her strength and the strength of her fragility. She did not champion the “instincts of pity, self-denial, and self-sacrifice” that Nietzsche attributes to slave morality; rather, she inspired, and continues to inspire, her many admirers to develop their own strengths in the pursuit of justice for all. When her body lay in state at the U.S. Capitol (the first woman ever to have received this honour), her personal trainer dropped down in front of her casket to do push-ups in her honour, a tribute not to his own exceptional fitness but to his famous client’s resilience and strength. The simplicity of the gesture was itself an homage to a kind of strength that exceeds the physical, a strength that RBG possessed in spades not in spite of but because of her age, her illnesses, her losses, and the burdens of her position at an age when almost all of her peers were either dead or long since retired.
In his October 9, 2020 article in The Atlantic, “What Strength Really Means When You’re Sick,” Ed Yong writes that “Equating disease with warfare, and recovery with strength, means that death and disability are linked to failure and weakness.” Though RBG has often been referred to as a warrior, she does not fit the model of the classic warrior triumphing over his cowering foes, the kind of warrior our current President so clearly aspires to be. Ripping off his mask on the balcony of the White House in front of throngs of largely unmasked supporters on the evening of his premature departure from Walter Reed hospital in early October, Donald Trump sought to project a sense of invincibility, telling his fellow Americans to follow his example and not let the novel coronavirus “dominate” us. Not only did he ignore the fact that the extraordinary medical attention he received is not available to the average citizen, but he also ignored the risk his behaviour posed to everyone around him, from the unfortunate Secret Service agents who were compelled to accompany him in a closed car a day earlier as he insisted upon leaving Walter Reed for an unauthorized “drive-by” to wave at his supporters, to the White House staff who were also compelled to care for him and his infected family upon his return.
As the twenty-first century poster boy for the “might makes right” doctrine, Trump shows in his daily rallies on the campaign trail that he is a man obsessed with vanquishing his enemies by any means available to prove his own self-worth. His attempts to mask his own weakness are never-ending since they are based upon false notions of physical invulnerability that no human being ever enjoys, a shaky foundation that not only denies the realities of illness, disability, and old age, but also the different kinds of strength that they alone are capable of producing. One of the many lessons RBG has taught us, I believe, is to recognize these latter strengths, strengths that radiated from her own aged, diseased body, and that have benefitted and galvanized the young as well as the old. Now it is up to each of us, in our own way and in accordance with our own unique strengths, to celebrate and promote them.