“Our integrity and reputation depend on our ability to do the right thing, even when it’s not the easy thing… The Code is based on our fundamental understanding that no one… should ever sacrifice integrity — or give the impression that they have — even if they think it would help the firm’s business.” –J.P. Morgan Chase Bank’s Code of Conduct
Good evening Heroes-in-Training. As we have embarked on our individual Journeys, we have set goals and tried to identify key requirements of a Heroic Quest (Accepting the Call to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, Mentors and Helpers, Entering the Abyss and Emerging Transformed, among others). But as we battle a variety of Adversaries, it is important to ask ourselves: What separates Heroes from Villains?
I believe the answer is the choices one makes. Generally speaking, the Hero is confronted with difficult situations and is often faced with a character-defining choices. Usually, the Hero adopts a Code, either formal or informal, that governs their conduct and choices. Some popular examples of Heroic Codes include:
- The Anglo-Saxon Code of Honor: A pastiche of ethical codes of the early Germanic Peoples, as well as Prussian virtues. Seen in Beowolf.
- Chivalry: Medieval knights’ adhered to the code of Chivalry, which in the modern age means offering to cover dinner in exchange for a trip to second base. Seen in Arthurian Legends, Don Quixote, and That One Movie With Martin Lawrence.
- Bushido: Japan’s samurai class uses a warrior code known as Bushido (The Way Of The Warrior). Seen in The Seven Samurai, or if authenticity isn’t a major requirement, Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai.
- Code d’Honneur: The Code of the French Foreign Legion , still in use today. Seen in Beau Geste, or for Three Stooges fans, Wee Wee Monsieur.
- The Prime Directive: The Starfleet code, which I think is all about concealing the existence of William Shatner’s man girdle. Seen in Star Trek.
- The Jedi Way: A Code which requires celibacy (for Jedi Masters and overzealous fans alike) and, in some cases, godawful grammatical English. Seen in Star Wars.
The Villain, or Henchman, or other Evildoers, usually have no code. Or, they have a code and disregard it. For example, J.P. Morgan Chase Bank (see quote at the top of this post), which admitted to mis-marking hundreds of billions in CD’s with no civil or criminal consequence for anyone involved. Can’t you just imagine their executives tenting their fingers and laughing at your misfortune, like Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, or Mr. Burns from The Simpsons?
In either case, bad guys routinely choose the easy way out. Expedient, self-serving choices. Or, moral indifference. Sometimes, outright, unrepentant Evildoing of the highest order.
So, it’s important to adopt a Code, but also to be disciplined enough to stick to it, no matter how tough the circumstances.
Like that scene in The Untouchables, when G-man Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and sharpshooting young lawman George Stone (Andy Garcia) are trying to take Capone’s bookkeeper into custody at Union Station. The bookeeper is the key to taking down Capone (Robert DeNiro), and it’s safe to say that, after (25 YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT) Capone’s gang killed his Mentor and friend Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), Ness is obsessed with getting his man.
But, because of his Code, which generically can be stated as ‘To Protect and Serve’, Ness won’t sacrifice innocents in his pursuit of justice. Just before the Bad Guys enter the scene, a single mother is awkwardly trying to pull her fully stocked baby carriage down the concrete steps. Seeing the Damsel in Distress, Ness begins to help her navigate the stairs, when you guessed it, Capone’s gang walk in and spot Ness and a slow motion gunfight ensues. Meanwhile, and simultaneously even, the baby and carriage start to careen (at a glacial pace) down the stairs. It’s the classic Odessa Steps homage! So what does he do?
Well, Ness sort of takes turns wasting gangsters and trying to catch the runaway pram, struggling to do both. He is sticking to his Code, even though it makes his choices much more complicated and puts him in greater danger. Meanwhile, the bad guys are firing indiscriminately about the train station, killing random extras in period clothing and sailor suits.The have no such code, and are far less conflicted. Their reaction is pure self-interest.
So then Ness runs out of bullets! Because screenwriters (in this case David Mamet) sadistically love to dig deep holes for their Heroes to climb out of. Luckily, Ness’ partner Stone comes running out of nowhere, and in one of the coolest moves EVER, he slides across the marble floor, tosses Ness his spare revolver to kill the last remaining gangster, and catches the baby carriage in one fluid motion. Now, that, True Believers, is an action sequence. They got the bookeeper, and they get Capone in court. I can’t wait until they remake this film and replace Andy Garcia with a kung-fu fighting CGI android, and really punch up the explosions.
Now, Ness broke a lot of rules, his own Code many times and killed Frank Nitti in cold blood, but this is infotainment not journalism. My point is, as we embark on our Quests, to achieve certain Goals, to slay specific Dragons, or to unearth Treasures, we must be mindful of how we conduct ourselves. Heroes are careful to do things the right way, to balance their Purpose with their Code. Always be aware of the Greater Good.Adopt a Code. It could be as simple as “Do unto others as you’d have done to you”.
We can’t take shortcuts, or cheat to get to where we want to go, or mistreat others as we embark on our Journeys. Because even if it helps us get there faster, we will arrive at the end transformed, all right. But transformed into one of the Villains. As Master Yoda said, in one of his more coherent lines of dialogue, “If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.”