Shutting the Door on Tyranny When the Opportunity Comes Knocking

People often regard Batman as the hero of The Dark Knight, although there’s another hero who’s often overlooked. This hero is arguably more heroic than Batman himself.

Although Batman fights for the good and works tirelessly to protect the streets of Gotham, he does so as a vigilante. A masked figure, operating outside of the law with experimental weapons that make law enforcement cringe. With great power comes great responsibility, as they say, and thankfully Batman is guided by a moral compass.

But try as he may, Batman spawns the Joker. In his own words, “You complete me,” says the Joker in a conversation with Batman. The Joker is chaos, while Batman is order. Batman strives to put chaos at bay, only to have chaos pushback against his efforts. In a way, Batman is fighting an absurd battle. He and the Joker are locked in the eternal struggle of chaos vs order — anarchy vs structure.

In his confrontation with Joker, Batman (or Bruce Wayne) has the resources of wealth and power at his disposal through the technologies of Wayne Enterprises. In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne creates technology to hack cellular frequencies and listen to every conversation happening in Gotham City. Spyware so powerful that even the NSA would be impressed. No privacy, no secrets, and all the knowledge of the city at one's fingertips. Knowledge is power, and this machine of absolute knowledge is absolute power.

Bruce Wayne trusts this device with his friend and business colleague, Luscious Fox, to locate the Joker and inform Batman of his whereabouts. In a feat of integrity, Luscious initially turns down the opportunity to use such a powerful machine, believing that too much power in the hands of one person would be devastating. Realizing he has no other choice if they want to locate the Joker and stop his plans, Luscious agrees, but resigns from Wayne Enterprises so long as this technology exists.

In a more extraordinary testament to virtue and moral courage, Luscious uses the absolute power of the machine, then turns his back on these capabilities. In the most triumphant feat of heroism, Luscious rejects the prospect of absolute power and destroys the machine after Joker has been located.

This wouldn’t be the first time in history one man has rejected absolute power. The first President of the United States, George Washington, voluntarily gave up his power after two terms in office, setting the precedent for modern democratic leaders to voluntarily give up power in a peaceful transition of leadership. While we take this act for granted today as it is normal practice in most developed countries, it was far from typical in its historical context. Washington led the Americans in their revolution against the British Empire and has been the only American leader to be elected with unanimous support. There were many who would support Washington as king if he so chose that path. Instead, Washington voluntarily rejected the option of absolute power, recognizing the tyranny it creates.

Another historical figure who demonstrated heroic virtue in resisting absolute power was the first Roman dictator, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. In the early days of the Roman Republic, there was no absolute leader. However, in times of extreme emergency, the Romans would elect one man as a dictator, bestowing upon them ultimate power. When an invasion arrived on the doorsteps of Rome, his fellow citizens pleaded Cincinnatus to take the reigns of dictator and defend his country against the invaders. After the enemy was defeated, Cincinnatus gave up his absolute power and returned to his farm. Cincinnatus is still celebrated today as a beacon of leadership, heroism, and civic virtue.

In the words of Robert G. Ingersoll, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Power can seduce. Power can corrupt. Power can harden one's heart and possess the mind of the once righteous. In our quest to vanquish our enemies, it is wise to resist the seductive urge for greater power. When the lust for power awakens in one’s soul, a tyrant is born. It seems that true heroism is stepping from excessive power rather than embracing it.

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Matthew McKenna

Matthew McKenna

When facing hardship and burned by flame / We look to myth for where to aim / As stories of old were understood / Extract the gold and make it good.