For many of us, what is heroic about Spider-Man is not his ability to do “whatever a spider can,” but rather his effortless inclination to do what is good.
But what makes Spider-Man good?
In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper argues against the notion that “Hard work is what is good.” He says that this phrase, although seemingly harmless, has dangerous implications. It implies that the amount of effort something takes directly corresponds to how good it is; conversely, anything effortless or naturally done cannot be very good.
This explanation of the good as, to use a Kantian phrase, “herculean labour” contradicts Thomas Aquinas’ pronouncement in the Summa Theologica: “the essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult.” In the same work he writes that moral goodness reaches its perfection when it is effortlessness because, by its essence, goodness springs freely from love.
Therefore, what makes Spider-Man a hero in the new movie Spider-Man: Homecoming is not the fact that he can scale the Washington Monument, a very difficult task indeed. Rather, it is the ease with which he decides to scale a 555 foot obelisk in order to save his friends. It is natural for him to do so. As Aquinas would say, virtue enables Spiderman to follow his natural bent in the right way.
Another effect that Pieper identifies from overvaluing hard work lies in our conception of love. He asks, “Why should it be that the average Christian regards loving one’s enemy as the most exalted form of love?” He answers that it is the difficulty involved which makes Christians revere it so much.
On the contrary, to Thomas Aquinas, this difficulty shows the imperfection of such love. Rather, as stated in the Summa Theologica, “the perfection of love wipes out the difficulty. And therefore, if love were to be so perfect that the difficulty vanished altogether—it would be more meritorious still.”
This is where I must insert a spoiler-alert, for if you do not wish to know about the ending of the movie, you should stop reading.
Virtue is exhibited throughout the movie, but the perfection of the movie is in the last fifteen minutes when Spider-Man naturally and automatically jumps into burning rubble to save his enemy’s life. The sublime love and virtue in this act does not lie in the toughness of his skin as the scorching fire burns through his suit or the ability of his lungs to withstand the smoke. The virtue lies in the ease with which he jumps into the flames in the first place.
How fitting it is, then, that Spider-Man is a mere 15-year-old boy, practically a child, for virtue in its perfect form comes with the ease of play. Aquinas points to Holy Scripture to affirm that divine wisdom itself is “always at play, playing through the whole world” (Proverbs viii, 30 f.)
So did Spider-Man really read Thomas Aquinas? Probably not. However, it is not the first time that the thought of Thomas Aquinas rings true in unexpected cases, like that of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
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Liberty—the right to exercise free choice, free from coercive state regulation—is a necessary precondition for virtue. And virtue is ultimately necessary for the survival of liberty. Anyone interested in building a good society should desire to live in a community that cherishes both values.