Custos Custodis


There is a page in the graphic novel Watchmen in which Adrian Veidt—also known as Ozymandias—waxes autobiographical, and tells the story of his coming into manhood: how as a child, he was exceptionally bright and underperformed on tests in order not to arouse suspicion; how he was orphaned at age seventeen and gave away his parents’ inheritance in order to “do everything”; how he then traveled in the steps of his idol, Alexander the Great, whose grand plan of bringing illumination to the world he wanted to match. “Alexander of Macedonia. I idolized him. A young army commander, he’d swept along the coasts of Turkey and Phoenicia, subduing Egypt before turning his armies towards Persia … Ruling without barbarism! At Alexandria, he instituted the ancient world’s greatest seat of learning. True, people died… perhaps unnecessarily. Though who can judge such things? Yet how nearly he approached his vision of a united world!”

The passage anticipates, of course, Veidt’s grand plan for a united world: he will send a gigantic octopus-like brain to New York—a construction that will bring death to thousands and mess with the people’s minds for years after it has materialized. The plan is to blame the attack on extra-terrestrials, in order to thus unite the US and the USSR and save the world from the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction. The world will be united not in peace, but against a (non-existing) extra-terrestrial enemy. The pages in the novel’s twelfth chapter depicting the event leave no doubt: Veidt chooses to enact a veritable holocaust in order to bring about his vision of the world. “True, people died … perhaps unnecessarily. Though who can judge such things?”

This line—who can judge an action such as Veidt’s?—echoes a position reflected in Hegel’s Introduction to The Philosophy of History. Speaking there of the progression of world history, of the progressive coming-to-self-consciousness of reason or spirit, Hegel praises world-historical figures such as Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon, for being in touch with an inner spirit that is not limited by morality and religion but acts in concert, rather, with world spirit. It’s soul-leaders such as Caesar—whose De Bello Gallico speak to the genocide he committed in Gaul—that drive world history forwards. According to Hegel, common morality does not apply to them. “[M]oral claims must not be raised against world-historical acts and those who do them, as those claims do not apply here. The litany of private virtues—modesty, humility, love of humanity, charity—must not be raised against them. World history should altogether ignore the circle comprising morality and the oft-mentioned difference between morality and politics”. So what is the morality that is at work in politics? Is politics utterly devoid of morality? Does it have a different morality? And what possibilities does this leave for taking figures such as Adrian Veidt, and by extension our political leaders today, to court?

References: Hegel, G.W.F. Introduction to The Philosophy of History. Trans. Leo Rauch. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1988; Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 2005. Image: Dan Davis, Halcyon Days Are Here Again (Firebird), 2007.


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