The Curious Afterlife of Ben Parker



In Amazing Spider-Man #50 (July 1967), Peter Parker suffers one of his biannual crises of faith. He hears that J. Jonah Jameson has put a thousand dollar bounty on his head, and chucks his costume in a litter bin.  (He has a thing about bins. The last time but one he decided to quit, he stuffed his costume in one of Aunt May's waste paper baskets.) For the next few days he tries to abstain from superheroing, but then he witnesses a robbery and falls off the wagon. 

"And yet...how could I have done anything else? A man's very life was in danger." 

The nightwatchman whose life he has saved looks a little like Uncle Ben. This is so ironic that he wanders down to the waterfront and performs a soliloquy. He describes his Origin for the benefit of anyone listening, and explains that "one of the first victories in his crime busting career" was cornering an armed robber in a warehouse. He recalls that, once he had defeated him, he realized that it was the very same Burglar he had once selfishly allowed to escape. 

"I had a chance to stop him...when he ran past me that day...and I didn't...But if only I had done so...Uncle Ben would be alive today." 

Back in the present day, Peter Parker strikes an heroic pose on a waterfront wharf. 

"Now at last it is all crystal clear to me once more" he exposits "I can never renounce my Spider-Man identity! I can never fail to use the power which a mysterious destiny has seen fit to give me! No matter how unbearable the burden may be... no matter how great my personal sacrifice. I can never permit one innocent being to come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act... and I swear I never will." 

There is quite a lot we could say about this panel. Parker is still banging on about a faceless deity named "destiny"; he still regards being Spider-Man as a weight he has to carry -- an "unbearable" weight, at that. 

But what concerns us here is that for the first time, Peter Parker consciously takes an oath that he won't let innocent people be killed if he can stop it. The oath itself is rather a tangle. It is phrased in negative terms: he promises to never not use his power; and never to fail to stop anyone from coming to harm. It's also a bit ambitious. If he was really serious about never allowing anyone to die as a result of something he didn't do,  I suppose he would have to give up his biochemistry degree and go into medicine or surgery, or at any rate focus entirely on finding cures for life-threatening diseases; and then spend his spare time manning a suicide hotline. (Twice as many Americans die by suicide than are shot by burglars each year.) But of course, he doesn't mean he is never going to let anyone come to any kind of harm. He only means "I am never going to let another person be harmed by a gangster or a super-villain." And he isn't even going to be particularly proactive. He isn't going to spend every waking moment checking suburban houses to make sure no Uncles are being shot. He is simply going to refrain from walking by on the other side when someone else's need presents itself. "Never permit one innocent being to come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act" boils down to "Spend some of my spare time catching thieves and super-villains."

But still: this is as close as Peter Parker has come to a Crime Fighter's Oath; as close as he has come to kneeling at his bedside promising to avenge his parents by spending the rest of his life warring on criminals. So it is very significant that it is not shown as part of the flashback to Amazing Fantasy #15, but as part of the stream of events of Amazing Spider-Man #50.

Stan Lee knows quite well what he is doing. He is rewriting the Spider-Man mythos: turning Peter Parker into a much more conventional crime-fighting superhero. But he isn't yet prepared to engage in retroactive continuity. He knows that Spider-Man didn't take a Crime Fighter's Oath in Amazing Fantasy #15, and he isn't prepared to claim that he did. So "I'll never fail to act" remains part of the four-years-later framing sequence.

The End of Spider-Man never quite worked its way into the received Spider-Man narrative. No-one retelling the History Of Spider-Man ever says "First he was a TV star; then he was a self-interested adventurer and photographer; but finally, after Jameson put a bounty on his head, he swore an oath to always fight crime when the opportunity presented itself." 



A year later, in the first issue of an ill-judged black and white magazine called Spectacular Spider-Man, Stan Lee offered a complete retelling of Spider-Man's origin, entitled "In the beginning..." (Poor Stan. He never really got over the fact that he wasn't God.) This time, the story opens at Uncle Ben' s funeral. Rather disappointingly, it appears to be a Christian ceremony. I think some Rabbis wear Anglican style dog-collars, but there are definitely cross-shaped gravestones in the cemetery. Uncle Ben's memorial is quite plain. But whether Jewish or Christian, God knows all about the Pathetic Fallacy: it is pouring with rain and everyone is carrying big black umbrellas. 

As Ben is being put in the ground, Peter Parker breaks out in another flashback. He recapitulates Amazing Fantasy #15 pretty closely: he remembers the radioactive spider-bite, punching the lamp post, and jumping onto the wall to avoid the car -- although he omits the Crusher Hogan incident. Oddly enough, Peter remembers refusing to stop the fleeing burglar while is on his way to an audition for a TV spot, rather than after a TV appearance. But the consequences are the same. Ben Parker is murdered, and Peter apprehends the killer, only to discover...

At the end of the flashback we find that Peter has wandered away from the funeral (leaving Aunt May to eat the cucumber sandwiches by herself) and ended up back on the waterfront. He adopts much the same heroic pose he struck / will strike in issue #50. 

"Yes... Uncle Ben is dead! And in a sense it is really I who killed him!..Because I didn't realize in time...that with great power...the must also always be... great responsibility! But I know it now... and so long as I live... Spider-Man will never shirk his duty again."

"With great power comes great responsibility" was an authorial comment in Amazing Fantasy #15, but here it is put into the mouth of Peter Parker, or at least, into his internal monologue. Again, the oath is phrased in negative terms: not what he is going to do, but what he is not going to not do. It doesn't say whether he thinks that Spider-Man has the same moral duties as everyone else; or whether he has acquired additional duties by virtue of being able to lift heavy objects and hang upside down from ceilings. But whatever his duties are, he is totally never going to shirk them.
The Crime Fighter's Oath from Spider-Man #50 has been folded back into the hero's origin. Lee is now telling us that it was a bespectacled Peter Parker who stood on the wharf and decided that it was his duty to be Spider-Man, a few days after Uncle Ben died. This is hard to square with the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, when Parker wishes that the Spider-Man costume did not exist; with the first appearance of Doctor Octopus, when he is ready to quit after one defeat; or with the first Vulture story, where he seemingly decides to be a "costumed adventurer" out of the blue. And it is hard to square with him quitting in #18 or being at the point of despair in #33. At none of those moments of crisis did he say "I have to carry on because I swore an oath to do so after Uncle Ben died." 

But once again, Stan Lee cannot quite bring himself to overwrite Amazing Fantasy #15. Stan Lee retells the origin story quite accurately -- even apologizing for accelerating the speed at which events unfold -- and Romita quite consciously recreates some of Ditko's panels. But Lee adds a framing sequence, Uncle Ben's funeral, and he embeds the oath in the frame. Peter Parker might have taken a Crime Fighter's Oath when he first discovers who the burglar is, or when he walks away from the scene of the crime with his head in his hands. But instead, he makes his promise down by the waterfront on the day of the funeral: after the end of Amazing Fantasy #15 but before the beginning of Amazing Spider-Man #1.
The story isn't told again until 1970, in issue #94. Peter has just broken up with Gwen Stacey, and Aunt May has been kidnapped by the Beetle. So Peter Parker spends two thirds of a comic wandering the streets feeling sorry for himself and retelling his origin yet again.

In this version, the Oath is pushed back still further. Peter Parker didn't walk down to the docks to talk to himself after all: he literally swore an oath on Uncle Ben's grave, while the funeral service was still taking place. (The celebrant is still Christian and it's still bucketing down.)

"Because I didn't lift a finger to help catch a criminal, I'll always fee partly responsible for what happened to Uncle Ben. I'll never again refuse to use my spider power whenever it can help the cause of justice. I'll spend the rest of my life making up for the death of Uncle Ben" 

"I'll always feel partly responsible" is a very much more moderate accusation than "In a sense it was I who killed him." And the death of Uncle Ben has nothing to do with Peter Parker refusing to use his spider-powers. Anyone could have tripped the Burglar up or grabbed him for a few seconds, and indeed, anyone should have done. That's rather the point of the story.

This time around, Peter Parker makes an oath that he has some hope of sticking to. "I'll fulfill whatever duties turn out to come with the ability to spin webs and climb walls" and "I'll never let a Bad Thing happen to anyone else in the whole wide world ever, ever, ever" are hopelessly over ambitious. "I'll help the cause of justice whenever I can" is quite achievable. And once again, Peter allows himself considerable wiggle-room: he isn't going to always help the cause of justice; he's going to never not use his spider-powers in that particular cause.

The second part of the oath is neurotic as hell. He isn't merely going to be a good citizen and never not help the police. He is going to spend the rest of his life "making up" for Uncle Ben's death. Peter Parker does not see himself as having learned a moral lesson; he sees himself as having incurred a debt. He could have said: "I fouled up, acted selfishly, and someone died. Well, I sure won't do that again."  With great power comes great responsibility, as the fellow may or may not have said. But he isn't interested in becoming sadder but wiser; he is interested in assuaging his own personal feelings of guilt. He's at a Christian burial, but he's thinking in terms of karmic debt. And the debt is unpayable. Never not helping the cause of justice will not make him feel less guilty about the death of Uncle Ben. He's be better off lightly whipping himself and walking barefoot to the holy site of his choice. He himself recognizes this. Having [SPOILER WARNING] rescued Aunt May from the Beetle he says "Even though I'll always feel guilty for the death of Uncle Ben... maybe tonight... in some small way... Spider-Man paid a part of that never-ending debt." 

But, once again: Stan Lee doesn't interpolate the oath-taking into Peter Parker's account of his "origin", which once again sticks very closely to Amazing Fantasy #15. Once again, the oath is part of a funeral scene which Stan Lee has added to the original story.
So: Lee has quite consciously re-positioned Spider-Man as a conventional superhero in the Batman or Superman mold, taking an oath to fight cowardly, superstitious criminals in the name of their parents. This idea becomes more and more dominant as the series goes on. Since at least 2001 the words "with great power comes great responsibility" have been attributed to Ben Parker himself.

Lee presents the Crime Fighters Oath as a new event in Spider-Man #50; places it shortly after Ben's funeral in Spectacular Spider-Man #1; and has it take place during the funeral itself in Spider-Man # 94. He knows full well that this is an addition to the mythos which to some extent overwrites the saga of #1 - #33; but he chooses to leave the origin story intact. The Spider-Man text is the site of a struggle between Lee and Ditko's artistic vision long after Ditko had departed.


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A Sincere But Futile Attempt To Engage With Ayn Rand (2)

Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair.

So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle's feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven's despite.

William Blake




We have all heard of people who have spent large sums of money keeping cats and dogs alive long after the vet recommends euthanasia. We might even have said “I am sorry, but by keeping Rover alive when he can no longer bark at postmen, you are being cruel. You ought to have him put to sleep and get a new puppy." There have been tragic cases where doctors and  courts have decided that a desperately sick child ought to be allowed to die, however sad it will make his parents. One might even say the same about a very old person "I am sorry, but another operation would be cruel: you ought to let Grandpa slip away peacefully". The self-interested thing to do is sometimes to keep the suffering creature alive; the altruistic thing to do is to let their life come to its natural end. 

If we believe in the tao — if we believe in human empathy and think that other people have value and agency — then there can be more than one point of view about what constitutes a good death. People who work in hospices or geriatric wards tell us that some of the very old and the very sick find their last hours and minutes precious and wouldn’t want them taken away. Different individuals might have different feelings about this. Some of us might say “If I am ever so frail that I can’t wipe my own bum then for god sake just let me go”; others might say “If I live to be 103 I damn well want you to wheel me into the cinema for the midnight showing of Star Wars: Episode XXXIII”. 


But on Rand’s view, if the rich man chooses to keep his wife alive (even though she has long since decided it's time to quit) because he couldn’t face the grief of switching her off, he acts in rational self-interest regardless of her feelings. And if he chooses to let her die because he can’t bear to watch her suffer and would rather she was at peace then he acts in rational self-interest even if she want to soldier on for a few more months. Forsooth, if he honestly decides that he would derive more deep private joy from a world cruise, a private jet, or a younger mistress than from a long stay in a cancer ward then he would be quite justified in spending his money how he wants to.


Yes, I think that he ought not to value the jet more than the old lady; or that even if he values the plane more he ought to mortify that pleasure because helping his wife is the right thing to do. But all those oughts came from the tao. They can't be extrapolated from Rand's rational morality. 

But the great lady has one more arrow in her rational quiver. 


Rational morality, she says, tells the man to save his wife's life if, and only if, her continued existence is a necessary part of his happiness. 

"But suppose (the rich man) let (the wife) die in order to spend his money on saving the lives of ten other women, none of whom mean anything to him — as the ethics of altruism would require. That would be a sacrifice. Here the difference between Objectivism and Altruism can be seen most clearly: if sacrifice is the moral principle of action, then that husband should sacrifice his wife for the sake of ten other women. What distinguishes the wife from the ten others? Nothing but her value to the husband who has to make the choice  nothing but the fact that his happiness requires her survival."



I agree that this is a genuine moral dilemma which ever kind of morality you follow. It's a particular problem for utilitarians. You have a million pounds. And only a million pounds, and no way of getting another million pounds. Your wife’s operation will, by coincidence, cost a million pounds. But ten other people need operations each costing, by coincidence, a hundred thousand pounds each. And they have no way of begging or borrowing or earning that hundred thousand and obviously there is no such thing as medical insurance. And the surgeon will not work pro bono. 


Do you save your wife, or all the other wives?


It seems to be pretty clear that Rand, sincerely or as a debating tactic, is conceptualizing conventional morality as a sort of evil dark-side reflection of her own rational selfishness. Since the rational person believes that they should always act in their own interest, she affects to believe that the altruistic person always acts against their own interest — that an action is moral if, and only if, it harms the person doing it. 

But in the real world altruists — people with basic human empathy; people who are not psychopaths — think that in some cases you ought to act not only in you own interest but also in other people’s interests. And this may sometimes mean denying yourself some particular good. Often it means nothing more than sacrificing your desire to have two chocolate biscuits so everyone else can have at least one; occasionally it might mean throwing yourself on the grenade so the rest of your platoon has a fighting chance. Rand falsely concludes that it's not having the biscuit and getting blown up by the grenade which are the point of the exercise. Since her morality consists in asking "what outcome would be best for me?" she imagines that traditional morality must consist in thinking “what outcome would be worst for me?"

It is true that Jesus Christ told his followers that they should aim at being completely self-sacrificial — to give all their stuff away, to act as if they were slaves and everyone else was their boss, to always make for the least prestigious table in the restaurant. But this is a specifically Christian idea: it’s not the tao. Perhaps Rand had imbibed the idea that all morality was Christian morality and concluded that to attack morality meant attacking Christianity?

It is also true that some religions say that self-denial is sometimes good. Particular people should give up particular nice things under particular circumstances or at particular times. You might fast because it is Ramadan, abstain from chocolate because it is Lent, or give up sex because you are a monk. So it is possible that Rand thinks that because altruism and asceticism are both things which Christians approve of, altruism and asceticism must be identical?

I am prepared to bet that at least one person reading this essay has experienced a life-threatening house fire. Perhaps one of you has even been in a boat which got into difficulties and had to call out the coastguard. (There were a hundred and forty two shipwrecks in 2016.)  I do not believe that anyone in this room has ever been in the position of having to choose between their true love's life and the lives of ten strangers. But according to Rand, it is illegitimate — decadent and amoral and lazy and lethargic — to create thought experiments based on rare and unusual events. It doesn't matter if objectivism breaks down when the ship hits a lifeboat and there are three people rushing for the same iceberg, because you are never likely to encounter this situation in real life. So: why is it legitimate for Ayn Rand to invoke the fantastically unlikely circumstance of being faced with the mutually exclusive choice between saving your own spouse and saving ten other spouses in order to prove that objectivism works, but illegitimate for me to imagine myself on S.S Titanic in order prove that it doesn't?

"But Andrew you are avoiding the question."

Very well: I shall answer it directly. 

If you can, with a sufficiently complicated set of trolley cars and levers, generate a circumstance where I have to choose between saving the life of one person I love or the lives of ten people I do not care about, then I ought to save the strangers. I don't say this because I think I would have more rational happy happy joy joy with the grief of having lost a friend than with the guilt of having killed ten innocent persons. I say this because if I was the one tied to the railway line, and it was a choice between saving me and saving the ten kids whose steam train was about to careen off the edge of cliff, I think that I ought to be prepared to lay down my own life. I assume that anyone I loved would feel the same way. I think that if I were the only surgeon in the world capable of operating on ten children who would certainly die without my skill, and if someone rushed into the operating theater and said "Doctor, doctor, you wife has just been shot by a one armed man and you are the only surgeon in the world with the skill to remove the bullet and if you do not come now she will certainly die before the next commercial break" I would say "I am sorry, but I cannot come until I have saved the lives of these ten kids. Because it is the right thing to do." 


Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:19

Rand owns that you should rescue your nearest and dearest from the shipwreck, although she frames this as selfishness rather than generosity.


She concedes that you should rescue friends from the shipwreck, although here she invokes a new value called “integrity” that she hadn’t mentioned before: if I wasn’t prepared to rescue you from the shipwreck then I had no right to call you my friend. 

She even admits that there should be a presumption towards helping strangers, because they might, at some point in the future, become your friends and be a component of your selfish, rational, personal joy and happiness. 


“The generalized respect and good will which one should grant to a human being in the name of the potential value he represents — unless and until he forfeits it….A rational man does not forget that life is the source of all values and as such a common bond among living being (as against inanimate matter) that other men are potentially able to achieve the same virtues as his own and thus be of enormous value to him.” 


This seems to leave us very much where we would have been if we had stuck with the old fashioned moral law. Prof. Lewis’s reading of the tao distinguished between a law of general beneficence and a law of special beneficence.We should help one we have promised to help rather than another, or a benefactor rather than one who has no special claims on us, or a compatriot more than a stranger, or a kinsman rather than a mere compatriot.Be nice to everybody, but be specially nice to people you have a special reason to be specially nice to. Objectivism seems to say very much the same thing. We ought to help our loved ones; we ought to help our friends; we ought to help strangers unless there is a good reason not too. 


But Rand drops in one rather massive qualification:


“For instance a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck should help to save his fellow passengers. … But this does to mean that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save.”


“Suppose one hears that the man next door is ill and penniless….One may bring him food and medicine if one can afford it (and as an act of good will, not of duty) or one may raise a fund among the neighbours to help him out. But this does not mean that one must support him from then on, nor that one must spend one’s life looking for starving men to help.” 


As usual, I don't know where her rules come from. I don't know how you get from “There is a presumption that we ought to help people in distress” to "We ought to help individuals in distress who we happen to come across, but not distressed persons in general.” The implication would be that the obligation to help someone increases the closer they are to you physically which seems to me to be neither moral nor rational.

It is true that if everybody in the world always helped people who were physically close to them, then everyone who was in trouble would always get help. But that is only useful if we have already agreed that we want to create in a world where everyone who needs help gets helped. Why do we necessarily want to create such a world  apart, obviously, from its being the right thing to do? 

A particular person might get rescued from a shipwreck and decide to change their career and become a coastguard or a lifeboat man. "I was very pleased that there was someone to fish me out of the sea when I was drowning, so I have decided to spend the rest of my life fishing other people out of the sea when they are drowning" is as far as it goes a pretty logical, rational and praiseworthy attitude. But a different person might equally well say "I am personally no sailor and no swimmer, but I was glad that someone was on hand to help me when I needed it, so I would like someone to be on hand to help other people when they need it, so I am going to give some of my money to the lifeboat service each month and go door to door selling those little flags once a year." 

But what about the impoverished neighbor? If it is rational for me to give money to Mr Smith, who is out of work; and even rational for all Mr Smith's neighbors to get together and give money to Mr Smith, why is it irrational for people in general to get together to give money to unemployed people in general? If you find an abandoned infant you should certainly take care of it. You should not necessarily neglect your own child in order to take care of it. I don't think that faced with a zero-sum choice of looking after the foundling or looking after your own child you should necessarily prefer the foundling, or that you should positively seek out abandoned children in order to neglect your own. But it might be that some of the money you might have spent on nice things for your own kids will have to go on keeping the orphan alive. And I think that is true even if the orphan was not dumped on your doorstep, but is in some other part of town or some other country. I think that some kids may have to make do with a bit less cake so that other kids can have some bread.

I don’t think the question about killing one person to save ten arises very often in real life. The one about giving your own kinds a few less sweets and video games so that someone else's kid can have basic nutrition and education comes up literally all the time.

Rand tells me that, if I want to, I can go along the street collecting money to help out Mr Smith at Number 19 who has fallen on hard times. But if I admit that I have any kind of responsibility to impoverished people and sick wives and drowning men and orphaned children who I have never met, I may be tempted to organize a city-wide or nation-wide whip-round to pay for their basic needs. And that, Rand fears, could lead to a system of general taxation, state schools and hospitals, welfare, and from there to collectivism, socialism, communism and the end of civilization as we know it.

This is what I have learned from reading Ayn Rand. 

It is a good thing for individuals to help other individuals, and even for groups of people to get together to help one person in particular. But it is a bad thing for groups of people to try to help people in general. 

Charity good, welfare bad. 

I wish I hadn’t bothered.

So: what does any of this have to do with Spider-Man?





How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man

A shudder of the loins engenders there, 
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, 
and Agamemnon dead.
W.B Yeats