Gladiator: Ideal Manhood and the Brutality of Life: Cain, Abel and Joseph of Egypt

14 Feb 2018

***This was my first attempt at a video essay. The video got taken down by the studio after being flagged for copyright. This kind of video is very common on Youtube these days and use of the material is appropriate under the legal doctrine of “fair use”. I quickly realized I just used too long of clips. I’m in the process of adjusting the video and will repost a new version in the near future. 

The following is the text of the above video essay:

You might think that the reason Many men, and a good deal of women, love Gladiator is because of the 15-year-old in them—it’s full of gore, action and spectacle.

But that’s not the reason I think people love this movie and watch it again and again over the years. They love it because it tells a compelling story about the kind of man men want to be, and women want to be with—the ideal man.  Gladiator is about how the ideal man acts when confronted with the sometimes brutal and malevolent nature of our world.  

PartI: The Ideal Man

The name of the ideal man in Gladiator is Maximus. That’s a fitting name because he’s man at the maximum. He’s not just one of the classical archetypes of manhood—such as the king, the warrior, the magician or the lover—he is a very satisfying combination of all the manly archetypes.

In the opening act of the movie, we’re presented with what happens to a man who lives life properly.

We find Maximus on the tide of a great battle, and even more impressive than the ordered and capable army he commands is the moving way in which his men respect him.

It’s clear he has won his position through his competence. He’s not just a technician expert that gives orders on the sidelines. Maximus plays the game at the highest level and rides at the head of his men into the arena.

Maximus is the epitome of a gentleman. You cannot be a gentle-man without being a man first, someone who can rip off heads in power and fury. But a gentle-man then restrains that power to gentleness in order to respect his elders, women, children and society.

What Maximus touches turns to gold. The battle is won, and Maximus is the great man.

And the more we look, the more we find we he’s the great man because the way he lives is great.

He doesn’t want to be on the battlefield shedding blood.

Yet he is on the battlefield because he believes in higher ideals. And he lives a life of sacrifice to those ideals.

He sacrifices to the political ideal, even in a world where the political ideal has been corrupted in reality.

He sacrifices to the ideal of the home and the family.

He sacrifices to the transcendent—the higher and yet uncomprehended forces at play in the world, that he has the humility to honor.

What he does, he does in service and duty to these ideals. And he lets everything else fall as it may. He is not interested in manipulating the world to his preferred outcome. He sacrifices the present to what is right and lets the future consequences follow, with the faith that the future will be the best it can possibly be if he partners with, and sacrifices to, life in this way. And onto this kind of man spills the favor of existence.

Men want to be this kind of man.

Women want to be with this kind of man.

When the emperor, the God of the Roman Empire needs a successor who will turn a corrupted state back to its ideal he turns to Maximus.

Part II: Cain and Abel

And what of Commodus, the emperor’s real son. The emperor cannot favor Commodus.

Commodus and Maximus are not brothers, by blood, but the story emphasizes their symbolic brotherhood.

While Maximus sacrifices and his sacrifices bring him the favor of God and life, Commodus also sacrifices.

But Commodus’s sacrifices are not of the same quality, and hence do not have the same results as Maximus’s.

Commodus yearns for the favor of his father, and the same kind of favor which life has shown to his brother Maximus. In essence, even Commodus wants to be Maximus.

But Commodus is blinded to the ways in which Maximus had to partner with life and sacrifice to life, in order to curry its favor. Commodus believes that life can be manipulated according to his own terms, and he’s willing to use any means, to gain his ends.

This sort of manipulation is demonstrated throughout the movie through his relationship with his sister, Lucilla, who he doesn’t just love as a sister, but with whom he thinks he can twist the rules of affection and make her a sexual partner as well. He is willing to do anything to manipulate her to act in the way he desires, apparently blind to the way his means make the accomplishment of his goal impossible.

And while his manipulations get him some immediate results, he finds that the things he wants the most elude him.

Commodus is such a fantastic villain because he is worthy of our pity. He’s genuinely trying. We have all met these kinds of people who seek so earnestly to succeed but have had their perceptions warped to think they can write their own rules for obtaining success.

The story of Cain and Abel, the archetypal story of the hostile brothers, tells us what happens next. When the older brother finds his offerings rejected by God, instead of accepting his responsibility for his failings, instead of cursing himself, he casts blame on everything else, including existence itself, and everyone in it. He curses the God, and he curses his brother, who stands as a gleaming accusation of everything is not.

Beyond simply cursing his ideals, he seeks to destroy them. In gladiators version of the story succeeds in destroying his father, and attempts to destroy Maximus as well, but not just destroy him, he wishes to destroy Maximus’s spirit by making Maximus suffer in the most acute way possible.

Because Maximus had stolen the love of the people from whom Commodus most desired it, Commodus would take from Maximus the love of those he most cared about.

Those who feel pain most exquisitely know exactly how to produce it in others.

Part III: Joseph of Egypt

Maximus loses everything. His family, his home, his health, his position, his people. Everything that is, except his character. And here’s where the story gets especially interesting.

Maximus is beat down, a shadow of his former self. The story wouldn’t be believable unless it were so.

And yet, when pressed, aspects of his former character awaken, and just as before, those around him, can’t help respect that which commands respect.

Having to construct himself anew, Maximus initially lives merely for the ideal of survival, Maximus is made to fight in the gladiator arena, where his supreme competence once again becomes apparent, and people again rise to their feet in honor of that supreme competence.

Maximus despises what he’s being made to do in the arena, and calls out the crowd for their warped taste for blood, and still they cheer him.

Learning that his capability could earn him the chance to be presented in front of the emperor, now his hostile brother, Commodus, Maximus’s ideal turns from survival to revenge.

As word of his ability grows, admiration begins to grow, in the men around him, and even in the youth, such as the nephew of the emperor.

This is the story of Joseph of Egypt, the story of how when you try to destroy the ideal man and even thrust him into slavery and the lowest dungeon, an eventual  and inevitable collision of opportunity with competence will rocket him back to the top, because of a certain attitude that kind of man possesses toward life.

Maximus’s achievements place him right back before the emperor Commodus, who is unaware he still lives, and Maximus considers killing him, then and there, to achieve his vengeance, but his principles awaken and get the best of him. Instead, he lives according to his ideals, and lets the consequences follow, just as before.

As the deadened parts of his character begin to resurrect, everything begins to restore itself. Men honor Maximus wherever he goes. And his motivations slowly transform from seeking vengeance to the nobler pursuits of sacrificing himself to the higher ideals.

Commodus is incensed with internal conflict and rage.

He plans a final manipulation where he mortally wounds Maximus before pretending to challenge him to battle in the arena to prove his strength and valor and gain the admiration of the people.

But Once again Commodus misjudges the nature of being, he misjudges the ways that the ideal man has contracted with being with a certain attitude, that in the long run, however unexpectedly, ensures him the favor of life.

Both Commodus and Maximus suffered tremendously in life. Both Die at the end of the story, as we all will. But Commodus dies having lost everything he ever valued. While Maximus dies having gained all he ever valued. What was the essential difference, the key of wisdom separating these two opposing brothers?