I love cows.

Cows make me smile; they make me happy, and I don’t just mean in the hamburger or steak form, but as the real, living animal.

As a child on a farm that raised beef cattle, I was continually in the presence of these lovely, docile, frighteningly-powerful creatures. The mystique that surrounded animals that were taller than me, outweighed me by a factor of ten, and whose bellow struck terror into my eight-year-old heart explains why I jumped at the chance to go to the sale barn for a cattle auction.

It was truly magical seeing the parade of breeds that passed through the ring, including the mighty Simmental bull that seemed to fill the tiny sale pen. Moving down the bleachers to stand next to the metal fencing, I could almost touch the lovely group of black Angus moving through.

And then it happened.

Seemingly from nowhere, a tail flicked and instantly I had a stripe of fresh manure across my face.

As I turned to stumble back to my parents for cleanup assistance, most of the sale participants (including my parents) erupted in laughter. Looking back I can say it certainly was funny, but I must admit that at the time my liking for people took a serious blow. Not the cows, however; I still liked them.

What Makes Us Happy?

True happiness requires an awareness of the goods that one possesses (material and spiritual), as well as knowledge of just how good they are.

Nevertheless, no matter how much affection I have for the noble bovine, I am quite sure that I have never made a cow happy in the same way they make me happy; for the simple reason that they are unable to be happy. True happiness requires an awareness of the goods that one possesses (material and spiritual), as well as knowledge of just how good they are.

The cow has natural inclinations for food, sleep, and reproduction. If these are met the cow is satisfied, that is, it does not have any unfulfilled appetites that drive it to action. But it’s not “happy,” because it doesn’t meditate while it chews the cud. There is no reflection on the goodness of a full manger, a fresh salt block, or a blue ribbon hanging from the barn wall.

This lack of self-awareness is at the heart of the humor in one my favorite Far Side comics. The panel features a cow and a bull in an opulent home; the cow is wearing pearls and lipstick and holding a cocktail glass, while the bull holds a beer as he watches television in an easy chair. The caption gives the cow’s dialogue: “Wendell … I’m not content.” The scene would be an element in a drama if the characters were human, because we have all felt the need for intangible goods that go beyond the satisfaction of bodily desires, such as friendship and truth. The comic is only funny because we know cows cannot help but being content.

All of these thoughts came back to me recently when an eleven-year-old girl in my neighborhood told me she wished that she was a cow. When asked why, her response was that cows don’t have any obligations; they are “happy” eating, drinking, and sleeping whenever they wish.

I resisted the temptation to point out where the carefree lifestyle leads most cattle: the dinner plate. Instead I tried to guide her to the realization that cows are unable to do many things that make her happy, which would hopefully lead on to the conclusion that cows are not really happy because they don’t have reason or free will.

Yearning for Something Super

Superman is super not only because of his physical abilities, but even more so because his moral capacity exceeds our common experience.

I still don’t know how much success I had explaining this to my eleven-year-old friend, but the exchange led me to consider whether her perspective is all that different from many of our contemporaries. Indeed, it often appears that “bread and circuses” dominate daily life so much that we might as well be cows that watch television.

Yet at a deeper level, I think the very “circuses” we choose to watch reveal that not all hope is lost. One of the most beloved and longest-running stories in popular culture is Superman. His story has become part of the common cultural fabric of the United States, such that people who have never seen a Superman movie or read a comic still know the basic outline. Among men and women, old and young, the tale of this orphan from Krypton enjoys nearly universal appeal.

It’s not possible to explain this level of popularity with reference to spectacle alone. If that were the case, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” would not currently be sitting at only a 19% approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Superman certainly has strength, speed, flight, and a host of other abilities that are interesting to see, but what more is needed to become an intergenerational icon?

Virtue. Character. Integrity. Call it what you will, it is what gives human life a drama and value that bovine existence can never achieve. There is no such thing as a morally good or bad cow, but there are good and evil human beings. Superman is super not only because of his physical abilities, but even more so because his moral capacity exceeds our common experience, and compelling stories always play out on the level of character.

In order to be interesting and compelling, Superman’s power must be matched by his integrity; an imbalance in favor of power would be grotesque, as we see in the character of Superman’s nemesis, General Zod. An imbalance in favor of virtue without strength would be Steve Rogers before his transformation into Captain America. It inspires respect, but no one wants to watch a morally upright character get beaten up by bullies in the comics for 80 years.

A Desire for Virtue

[We] want to see virtue modeled in a pure form, because we don’t regularly experience it in our day-to-day lives.

It’s the unquestionable morality of Superman that means he cannot die (or at least stay dead) in our culture. Even though the comics introduced a death-of-Superman story in 1993, and the Crash Test Dummies sang a requiem for him in 1991 (which highlighted his virtue), the character of Superman will always be resurrected.

A cynic might point out that he will be resurrected because he is too profitable to let go, unlike a host of other minor superheroes that have come and gone through the decades. Nevertheless, there is a deeper truth here: Superman is profitable enough to resurrect because he is a compelling character that people pay to watch or read about.

This also explains why there was an outcry over the climax of the recent Superman movie, “Man of Steel” [Spoiler alert!]. Superman killing General Zod is reprehensible not because it is immoral; it is not. Christianity has always recognized that the defense of the innocent is a moral obligation and if it requires killing the aggressor to accomplish, this is permitted. But Superman is different. He is both powerful enough and good enough that he can and does protect others without killing the wrongdoer. If Superman kills an enemy, it is an admission of failure on his part.

Admittedly, Hollywood has trouble understanding and believably displaying such a high level of virtue. The 1978 “Superman” had our hero using X-ray vision to discover the color of Lois’ underwear, and “Superman II” showed him (and Lois) killing off General Zod and his henchmen after having stripped the bad guys of their powers.

In the case of “Man of Steel” the explanation from the director was that, in an origins story such as he was telling, he had to show why Superman was committed to non-lethal solutions. This betrays a lack of imagination or sympathetic awareness of what makes Superman great. He does not have to kill an enemy to conclude that he ought not to do so. He is not a mindless cow; he’s a highly intelligent alien with a keen moral foundation received from both his biological and adoptive parents. The public knows he’s better than was shown and rightly protested. They want to see virtue modeled in a pure form, because they don’t regularly experience it in their day-to-day lives.

A Call to Happiness

We are not happy unless we have something more than food and spectacle; we need moral goods to call our own.

Cows don’t need Superman, but humans do. We are not happy unless we have something more than food and spectacle; we need moral goods to call our own. Superman is a cultural call to this form of greatness. That’s why we invented him, that’s why we love him, and that’s why we will not let him die from our culture.

Final note: if you ever visit a sale barn, avoid the splash zone; it’s not nearly as much fun as the one at Seaworld.

Superman Image courtesy Warner Bros.