Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (pt. ii)

January 4, 2013

The Hobbit and the Monomyth:  Joseph Campbell taught that all myths are basically the same story with different details.  They originate, as dreams do, in the unconscious; but myths are communal, so they represent the collective rather than the personal unconscious.  They are tales made from symbols and plots that represent universal life events, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood; and these universal psychological events themselves reflect the great metaphysical unity of all existence.  The Story of the Hobbit is in some ways a myth, and in some ways more like a dream.  Like a dream, it is the creation of a particular individual, not the historical product of a culture; but it was an attempt to write a myth in new form, and given its widespread resonance it would seem to have succeeded.  Now it has become as widely known as many “real” myths today, and has even reached the stage that it is being retold and reinvented by new generations of storytellers.

Campbell writes:

 

 

 

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage:  separation—-initiation—-return:  which might me named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder:  fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won:  the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[1]

 

 

How does The Story of the Hobbit fit into the form of the monomyth?  First, let us consider our hero.  Tolkien begins:

 

 

            In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.  The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel:  a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—-the hobbit was fond of visitors.[2]

 

 

With the first sentence, Tolkien sets up a distance between the reader and the hero.  He is not a human, he is a “hobbit,” whatever that is, and he lives in a hole as might a badger or mole.  But immediately after that, Tolkien sets a scene to show that the hobbit is in fact very much like you or me; he enjoys comforts and visitors, bright colors and polished furniture, and he lives in a hole very much like one we would want to live in, if we lived in holes.  Despite being called “hobbit,” he is Everyman, so much so that he is even more a blank slate than that, and we can come to him with no preconceptions beyond what the writer himself tells us.  And Tolkien tells us that he is a well-to-do person, from a very respectable and unremarkable family, famous for their conformity and predictability, with no magic about him.  He is so far from being “heroic” that he is smaller, shier (his country is even called “The Shire”) and more soft and self-indulgent than most of us.  And having established that, Tolkien pointedly says, “Now you know enough to go on with.”[3]  He leaves his canvas blank for the moment and lets the story reveal the rest; we know what we are meant to know:  that this is a very unremarkable person, an unportentous and reluctant hero.

As Campbell points out, the hero is often unexpectant and even reluctant.[4]  Some seek a quest, and others have the quest thrust upon them.  Bilbo’s unexpected quest is not so different than that of the princess who loses her prized golden ball and encounters a talking frog, the Arapaho girl who chased a porcupine, the knight who chased the white deer or a thousand other examples.  And insofar as the hero’s story is meant to be our own, it is fitting; we are not expecting any momentous transformation, but life will generally send us one.  The only question will be whether one embraces destiny and opportunity, or attempts to flee it; one can refuse the god and end up birthing a monster (as Minos did the Minotaur when he tried to cheat Poseidon), or one can answer the call to adventure and become the hero who slays his monsters.

The hero is called out of his former life into a higher existence, often by an old wise man or woman.[5]  And often, the hero has companions as well:  Heracles and Iolas, Jason and the Argonauts, Jesus and the Twelve.  Bilbo goes Jesus one better (or worse) and has the Thirteen:  dwarves, that is.  Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, is a hero in his own right already, and thus considers Bilbo a mere hanger-on in The Tale of the Returning Dwarves; but as Gandalf points out in the book, Bilbo is essential since otherwise the group will consist of thirteen members only and that is an unlucky number. Thus, in the original version of the story, the wizard is not really a member of the group, but rather a protective and advisory figure (as Campbell says, more a symbol of a protective destiny than a colleague).[6]  The dwarves will strike any reader as “different” and special, and Thorin in particular shows that the dwarves represent those who have already crossed the line between Ordinary and Hero worlds and now have come to accompany the soon-to-be hero as he takes up the call to adventure.  There are always thresholds to cross, symbolizing the departure from the ordinary world into the supernatural or transcendent realm, and usually several thresholds showing still deeper penetration into the great mysteries.  However, the first threshold is the most important, as it symbolizes the real beginning of the hero’s journey.  It is the point where before the hero was just one in the crowd, the undifferentiated social/cultural womb, and now is both born and laboring to give birth to himself or herself as an individual.  It is hard to say where the first threshold is in The Story of the Hobbit.  His first brush with the really fantastic seems to be the encounter with the trolls; the dwarves are mysterious and Other, but still depicted as people more or less like the hobbit himself—-a tiny bit taller and more experienced in the ways of adventure, but not truly alien.  Meeting them is only a call to adventure.  Trolls are so fantastic and alien to the normal world that even the merest touch of it—the least glimmer of sunlight—-turns them to stone.  But if this is the first threshold, then Bilbo fails to cross it; he is caught with the dwarves and must be rescued.  In the original story, Gandalf must intervene to magically rescue the party so the adventure can continue (“benign, protective power of destiny,” as Campbell would say); in Jackson’s version, it is Bilbo who keeps the trolls quarreling and thus stalls for time, which gives him a part in their eventual rescue.  However, they still are only saved by the deus ex machina of a timely arrival of the wizard.  The real threshold, then, seems to be the Descent into the Underworld, again a common mythological theme—-here, a capture by goblins.  The dwarves are rescued by the wizard, but Bilbo must save himself, by his own wits and luck.  As Oedipus had to answer the riddle of the Sphinx (to give one mythological example of the riddling monster motif), Bilbo can only escape from the dark underworld by defeating its guardian, Gollum, in a riddling contest.  In the course of his escape, Bilbo finds a magic ring that gives him the ability to become invisible; as Campbell wrote in describing the monomyth, “the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”  The movie ends before Bilbo has actually used the Ring to bestow any boons; but clearly he now has a magic power that even Gandalf does not display.  He was recruited by the group as a “burglar” (the book also allows the euphemism, “expert treasure finder,”) but he vigorously denied any qualification for that task.  Now, he is a burglar par excellence; an invisible person can go anywhere, take anything, and never have to worry about capture or even blame.

The book continues on through many more adventures, but Jackson has saved those for future films.  There is also the visit to Rivendell, which Jackson has greatly expanded from the original book, but which serves the same main purpose:  to give the adventurers secret knowledge that will enable them to fulfill the quest.  At each step, Bilbo is venturing further into the realm of the Other World:  from dwarves (only a little taller, scarcely more magical, but experienced in the wider world) to trolls (stupid but definitely magical, if only magically vulnerable) to elves (wise, ageless, and naturally magical, even beyond the wisdom and power of Gandalf).  But still, the most important threshold is the one he has crossed alone, symbolically escaping from the power of Death and capturing magical power for himself.

To be continued…..


[1] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1973) p. 30

[2] The Hobbit, p. 15

[3] The Hobbit, p. 16

[4] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 49-58

[5] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 69

[6] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 71-72

Review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (pt. iii)

January 4, 2013

The Hobbit as Fairy-Story:  Campbell’s interest is to find the similarities between seemingly disconnected myths and fairy-tales, in order to find the unified reality he feels underlies them all.  Tolkien himself, by contrast, rejects the argument that the common elements are the most important.[1]  Instead, he says we should look to the particularities of the story at hand.  After all, behind ever story there was an original storyteller, and each successive storyteller has made some changes.  Of course there will be common elements in traditional stories; what matters is understanding how the storyteller has used those elements to make his or her unique point.  Dwarves and trolls and wizards are common elements of European folklore, of which Tolkien himself was an expert; many details (such as the trollish vulnerability to sunlight) came directly from such sources.  The Ring seems most closely based on the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic, which also was a ring granting invisibility, political power and moral corruption to its owner, but the similarities are stronger in the Lord of the Rings than in The Hobbit.  In this prequel, the evil of the Ring is not fully worked out, and it seems simply to serve the purpose giving Bilbo a sudden magical power, which he uses to thwart enemies and help his friends.  Dwarves, dragons and their common love of gold are likewise fairytale clichés.

What is the point of the story as Tolkien has offered it?  And what is the meaning of the changes Jackson has introduced?  Bilbo is a good, prosperous, bourgeois Everyman.  The most distinguishing thing about a Baggins is said to be his predictability.  Suddenly, a magical figure enters his life.  This figure is not a total stranger; his name and something of his powers are known, even if he has been long absent.  He used to make life “interesting,” which is something that Bilbo apparently secretly yearns for (secret even from himself) but also fears.[2]  Most of us, too, are basically caught up in the world of creature comforts and social respectability; but Tolkien believes that there is a small part that still yearns for something more.  Gandalf is that “more.”  As Tolkien writes, “fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”[3]  “Fantasy” is the element of imagination, of breaking away from the ordinary and the expected and the all-too-human.  Gandalf is that call to imagination.  Bilbo initially seeks to escape the wizard’s call; as Tolkien says, Fantasy has a bad name these days.[4]  But Gandalf does not take “no” for an answer; in fact, he seems to scarcely take an answer at all.  He issues the call, issues the invitation to the dwarves, and plans the adventure.  But in the end, Bilbo must decide whether to cooperate, which is the only thing that turns this from a kidnapping into an adventure.  Jackson’s version gives a bit more freedom to Bilbo, who chases after the dwarves and Gandalf rather than being hustled along by Gandalf after the dwarves.  But in both versions, there is the theme of two forces pulling at Bilbo:  the Baggins side of his nature, all respectability and comfortable, versus his mother’s side of the family, those Tooks, with their family history of adventure and courage and being just a little odd and distrusted because of it.  The Tookish side wins out as Bilbo listens to the dwarves’ song of gold and great deeds of the past, and he answers the call to adventure.

In the book, Bilbo is even less suited to adventure than in the latest movie.  His first attempts at burglary nearly get all the dwarves killed, and they are only rescued by Gandalf’s timely return.  Still, he does his best and endures the hardships of the trail, until the party is captured by goblins.  In the book, Gandalf rescues the party single-handedly, with poor Bilbo getting lost during the escape; in the movie, Gandalf and the dwarves fight their way clear together, with Bilbo getting separated much earlier due mostly to his good luck and small size.  And here is where Bilbo’s fortunes really change:  the meeting and defeat of Gollum.  I have always thought the character of Gollum resembled Tolkien’s understanding of Grendel.  As he wrote in his essay on Beowulf:

 

 

If the dragon is the right end for Beowulf, and I agree with the author that it is, then Grendel is an eminently suitable beginning.  They are creatures, feond mancynnes, of a similar order and indeed significance.  Triumph over the lesser and more nearly human is cancelled by defeat before the older and more elemental.  And the conquest of the ogres comes at the right moment:  not in earliest youth, though the nicors are referred to in Beowulf’s geogoöfeore as a presage of the kind of hero we have to deal with; and not during the later period of recognized ability and prowess; but in that first moment, which often comes in great lives, when men look up in surprise and see that a hero has unawares leaped forth.[5]

 

 

Like Grendel, Gollum is “more nearly human,” or in this case, more nearly hobbit.  In this story, we know nothing about Gollum’s origins or nature, except that he is nasty and dangerous.  The movie vividly depicts his schizoid personality, without explaining it.  But at the same time, he is no larger than a hobbit.  He is nearly bestial, bent and largely quadrupedal, and more a creature of the darkness and water than of the sunlit world Bilbo calls home; but still, the two are alike in more than just size.  They understand one another’s language, and they both understand the notion of riddles and contests.  Neither is a master of magic like Gandalf, or of arms like Thorin.  They are two like minds, one twisted, dark and malicious while the other is lost and far from home and basically decent, contending with each other for the secret Gollum holds of escape from the world of darkness and return to the light.  The only element of magic here is the Ring, which Gollum does not realize he’s lost and Bilbo does not realize he’s found.  It is his defeat of Gollum that allows him not only to return to his world, but to perform his first real act of burglary:  the successful theft of the magical power, the Ring, which will allow him to overcome his later obstacles.  As Tolkien writes, this is not at the beginning of his adventures, since he has been on the path of adventure for awhile now; but it is at the first moment when he emerges as a hero “unawares.”[6]

Fantasy is the work of sub-creation, the human echo of the divine creativity, creating a Secondary World that the reader or hearer can share in for a time.[7]  This experience of another reality grants us the opportunity to see our own from a new perspective—-or rather, from the old perspective, to see it as if for the first time, without the dulling effects of habit.  It allows us to experience “Recovery,” which is “re-gaining of a clear view.”[8]  In stepping away from our own world for awhile, we recover our sense of our world and the wonder and possibilities therein.  It also allows us to “Escape” from the triteness, the blandness, the conformism and the despair that crushes the hopes and individuality of so many.[9]  The last of Tolkien’s list of functions of the fairy-story, “Consolation,” relates particularly to the end of the tale; and this is obviously where the book and movie diverge the most.

What Tolkien has given us in this part of his tale (roughly the first six chapters, or one-third of the book) is an ordinary person who is called (or dragged) to a more than ordinary destiny, and who begins to be something more than ordinary by conquering a monster that is his own nature twisted by darkness and hate.  He does this without the help of Gandalf, for once.  The movie contains some elements that seem included merely to strengthen the connection with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Of the elements that seem to add meaning, some seem to be speeding up the emergence of Bilbo’s heroic side.  This is necessary, given Jackson’s expansion of the story to three films; in the book, Bilbo does not begin to come into his own until events that aren’t even depicted in the first film, so without some sort of foreshadowing Bilbo would remain a terrified, squeaking dead weight (literally; in the book he has to be carried by the dwarves since he is too slow to keep up while they flee the goblins).  Other elements link the events of The Hobbit to the coming apocalyptic struggle against Sauron, setting the whole story in a more menacing context.  But most interestingly, Gandalf reveals his reason for shanghaiing Bilbo into this adventure in the first place.  In a conversation with Galadriel, queen of the elves, he says that he and his fellow wizard Saruman have a philosophical difference as to how to oppose evil.  Saruman believes that one must fight the power of evil by having greater power.  Gandalf, by contrast, asserts that it is simple, humble acts of kindness, and a generous and unpretentious heart that matter most.  Bilbo was chosen precisely because he was unheroic and knew it.  He has a good heart, a better heart than he himself realizes; his sympathy for the dwarves leads him to abandon his own home for a time, and to risk his life, to help them return to their own home.  He lacks power of magic or of force, but he has the power of conscience.  And in the movie, this power leads him to charge a much larger goblin and defeat him, saving Thorin’s life and finally winning his respect.

For Tolkien, Consolation is the most salvific function of the fairy-story.[10]  It is the Eucatastrophe, the unexpected happy ending.  It is the affirmation that despite all the evil and pain and hardship and darkness of the world, it is still possible that good can win through.  This is the highest function of the fairy-story, says Tolkien, and is what gives us its particular Joy.  Even in the face of dyscatastrophe, in the face of undeniable tragedy and disaster, we can have hope for Joy.  We can see it in the fairy-story, in this work of sub-creation, so we can envision it as a possibility here in the Primary World as well.  After all, we are sub-creators, ourselves made in the image of a Maker, whose creative actions are only an extension and imitation of the Creator’s own work; what we can do in our Secondary Worlds the maker of the Primary World can also do there.

Since Jackson has not really presented us with the end of the story, a viewer who had not known the books would not know whether this will end as eucastastrophe or dyscatastrophe if we had only the tale itself.  Since Jackson has added a prelude, showing Bilbo working on his book in the future, we see that Bilbo does make it home.  At the time, all Bilbo had was Gandalf’s reassurance that if he went on the adventure, when he returned he would be changed, and for the better—if he returned.  Eucastastrophe and dyscatastrophe seemed equally possible to Bilbo at the time; he risked his life to answer the call to adventure.  Considering the end of An Unexpected Journey alone, without the other two films to finish the tale, what we see in that conclusion is the beginning of the fulfillment of Gandalf’s promise.  At the start of the adventure, Bilbo was a rather fearful and petty bourgeoisie, insisting as the adventure began that they would have to return so he could retrieve his pocket-handkerchiefs. But by the end of the tale, his love of his comfortable home has been transmuted by sympathy for the dwarves, who have lost their home.  Where once his greatest fear was that his unexpected houseguests would break his dishes, and he does not even want to touch a sword, by the end he is willing to throw himself into combat to save Thorin’s life.  He does so, he says, because he loves his home, and he understands the pain they must feel, and therefore he vows that he will do whatever is in his power to help them regain what they have lost.  He has truly been changed, as the goodness and generous sympathy that Gandalf saw as latent within him has replaced middle-class Epicureanism as the ruling force in his life.

As a fairy-story, it seems to me, the movie is incomplete by Tolkien’s standards; which is not surprising since the story is not finished.  We know that a happy ending is coming, but we haven’t seen it and can’t really predict it.  And with all the foreshadowing of the great War to come, our eucatastrophe will really have to wait until The Return of the King.  For now, it is an unfinished tale.  Is it a successful movie, in its own right?  By the standards of today, the answer is, “Yes;” it has made a lot of money.  But the market does not choose whether a movie is good or bad, in either the aesthetic or moral senses; it only counts how many people will shell out cash for a ticket.  More interesting would be the question, why has it been so successful financially?  It seems that the reason is that Jackson has done his work as a sub-creator well.  People who have visited his Secondary World want to return again and again.  I would like to believe that this is not just because his world is so convincing and beautiful, with the striking New Zealand landscapes combined with cutting-edge special effects to make everything seem so strange and real simultaneously.  I hope it is also because the underlying theme, that it is little things done by little people with good hearts that redeem the world, is a message that many want to hear and want to believe.  In our Primary World, we see hurricanes, wars, poverty, oppression, and pain.  There are two ways to fight it.  One, as Bill O’Reilly said is to affirm that “You have to make it to give it.”[11]  That is the logic of Saruman.  In the face of so much evil, the only way to accomplish anything is to accumulate as much power and wealth as possible.  Become an entrepreneur yourself, make a few billion dollars by any means necessary, and then you can turn around and do a lot of good—like Rockefeller did when he drove rivals into bankruptcy, worked employees to death and spent millions to buy the presidency for McKinley, and then used all that dubious gain to fund charities in his old age.  The other way is to first try to be good, and then to do whatever small thing you can do now, with the limited power you have, having faith that your good deed will call forth others and somehow things will turn towards the best.  That is the way of Gandalf.  Jackson’s movie ends with the affirmation that the least of the group can have the most conscience, and that this conscience is the most noble and salvific thing there is.


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf:  On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York:  Ballentine Books, 1966) pp. 45-48

[2] The Hobbit, pp. 18-19

[3] “On Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 68

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics;” in Beowulf:  A Verse Translation, translated by Seamus Heaney, edited by Daniel Donoghue (New York and London:  W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 2002) p. 128

[6] Since Jackson’s first movie ends well before the encounter with Smaug, we will save the comparison of Bilbo’s dragon with Beowulf’s for another day.

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 72-75

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 77

[9] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79-85

[10] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 85-90

[11] “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium 2012,” (http://www.therumble2012.com/index.html) accessed Jan. 4, 2013

Review: “The Men Who Built America”

November 13, 2012

The Men Who Built Americaa philosophical review

 

 

Scheduled to be released 2013, this series aired October 16 to November 11, 2012.   It thus began right as the 2012 series of Presidential debates was ending, and concluded the weekend after the reelection of President Barack Obama.  Interestingly, a note on the web site notes that, “Due to unforeseen circumstances,” the season finale was moved from November 6 (the night of the election) until five days later.[1]  One wonders if the “unforeseen” circumstance was to avoid the sort of political controversy that came to surround National Geographic Channel’s airing of a movie on the killing of Osama bin Laden.[2]  Had anyone wanted to accuse The History Channel of politicking with its programming, there would have been ample support.  It is this fact that makes this series so interesting and important:  it strives hard for editorial balance, and has lessons for anyone no matter one’s political leanings.

The series covers the time period between the end of the U.S. Civil War to (briefly) the entry of the U.S. into the First World War a mere fifty years later.  In that brief time, the country rose from ashes and the near collapse of its still-novel democratic political system to become a world superpower.  The series asks, How? and answers, Through the achievements of entrepreneurs.  One resource which the United States had in abundance was opportunity.  A ferryboat operator like Cornelius Vanderbilt could work his way up to become The Commodore of merchant shipping, and then of a national, continental network of railroads as well.  While he ruthlessly (and by today’s laws, illegally) crushed his competition whenever he could, he also made deals with the likes of John D. Rockefeller, another self-made man in the oil business.  This process of deal-making and competition also allowed Andrew Carnegie to rise from impoverished immigrant to the world’s leader in steel production, and the already wealthy J.P. Morgan to become even wealthier and more powerful as the nation’s first and greatest modern financier.  The series tells the stories of their innovations, their achievements, their defeats, and their mutual rivalries in an entertaining and dramatic fashion; but this alone would not really distinguish the series from any other well-made documentary.  A large part of the series’ appeal comes from the insights offered by some of today’s entrepreneurs, including Mark Cuban, Donald Trump and T Boone Pickens.  The historian and scholar can recount historical events, but the living entrepreneurs bring insight into what goes through the mind and heart of a tycoon.  They genuinely admire and hope to emulate the men history often labels “the Robber Barons.”  They see the novel and ambitious business strategies these men invented and discuss how they play out today.  They give a livelier sense of what it is to be what is, for most of us, unimaginably rich.  Listening to them discuss the essence of entrepreneurship, together with the historical discussion of what these men overcame, of the struggle and cleverness and willpower and victory and the changes they brought to the world, it is impossible not to admire them.  I am sure that this is part of what drew so many billionaires into this project:  it represents a genuine attempt to show the beneficial side of the “robber barons” in the age of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism (not that it takes that much to lure Donald Trump out of his shell_)

I could thus understand why some Obama supporter, watching this series, could have seen it as homage to venture capitalism and, by extension, to Bain, Romney and the Republican Agenda of reduced regulations and free markets.  I am not sure anyone did so complain, but if a movie about killing bin Laden could be labeled “political” (when we all remember the event pretty clearly anyway) then an eight hour miniseries describing the strengths and accomplishments of free-range capitalists as the men who built America certainly could be seen as political.  Who better to rebuild America after the Great Recession than a President who is cut from the same cloth as those men who rebuilt it after the Civil War?

But at the same time, as the history unfolds, one begins to wonder about the advantages of this unbridled capitalism.  On the one hand, Vanderbilt connected the nation from coast to coast with a single rail network.  Rockefeller unleashed the oil boom, which provided cheap kerosene to light American homes.  When J. P. Morgan turned his fortune to providing every American home with electrical power, Rockefeller turned his attention to finding new uses for his oil, and in the process turned what had been considered a waste product of kerosene production into the gasoline that powers our economy today.  Andrew Carnegie took steel, which had been so expensive that it was only used for small items such as tableware, and began producing it on such scale that it could be used to construct skyscrapers.  But on the other hand, the workers who toiled to build those railroads or produce that steel could barely survive on the dollar-a-day they earned.  One out of eleven steel workers died on the job—-a higher mortality rate than many armies suffer in wartime.  When they struck for better wages and working conditions, factory owners could turn to private mercenaries or to local police to shoot down the strikers and protect the property rights of the tycoons.  And the wealth and power these five men commanded was astounding.  Throughout most of this time, any one of the great titans of American industry had more money than the U.S. Treasury, and could singlehandedly make or break the economy.  Millions toiled in hunger, danger and misery, without any hope of anything better for themselves or their children, while a handful of men had wealth and power to rival entire nations.  This in turn led not only to labor and social unrest, but also to domestic terrorism.  Finally, the people had had enough of the vast wealth gap (gap?  More like “chasm”), and a new breed of politician arose:  William Jennings Bryan.  Today, he is most often remembered for his anti-Darwin crusade, which ironically is now generally the province of the same Republican party that championed then and now the free market and the rights of the tycoon.  In his lifetime, though, Bryan was the leader of the Progressive movement, combining his moral crusade against atheism and secularism with an even more vigorous crusade against Big Business.

If I were a Republican, I would have been outraged if the season finale of The Men Who Built America had aired in time to influence voting.  In reaction to the rise of Bryan and Progressivism among the farmers and workers of America, the titans of industry met together and decided to literally buy the Presidency.  They used money for campaign contributions and flat-out bribes.  They planted anti-Bryan stories in the press, which ranged from distortions to lies.  They threatened to fire employees if Bryan won the election, claiming that this wasn’t an attempt to intimidate but simply because Bryan would make it so expensive to do business that they would have to cut labor costs.  In short, they did everything that the Romney backers tried in the most recent Presidential election.  The difference is that in 1896, the combination of tycoon-controlled press, the threats of layoffs and general financial support won, and McKinley became President.  In his second term, the Progressive mantle was taken up by a new politician:  Theodore Roosevelt.  The American tycoons decided to get rid of this threat by arranging for him to become Vice President.  Normally, this was a dead end job.  However, when McKinley was assassinated by an Anarchist (radicalized when he lost his job due to J. P. Morgan’s financial machinations), Roosevelt became President, and implemented a rigorous policy of monopoly busting and prosecutions for unfair business practices.

The mixed heritage of these early entrepreneurs is reflected in the career of the last one mentioned, Henry Ford.  Ford is used as the exemplar of the new generation of inventor-entrepreneurs.  Ford came up with a way to produce a car that could be afforded by most Americans; prior to that time, automobiles were terribly expensive, built almost entirely by hand and available only to the very wealthy.  However, a cartel owned the patent for the car, and refused to allow Ford to produce his Model A.  Ford went ahead and did it anyway, and in the era of trust-busting went to court to win his right to produce automobiles.  If the old guard of entrepreneurs had held onto power, we might never have developed an automobile industry.  But without those early entrepreneurs, Ford could never have invented the Model A at all.  They ran on gasoline, made from Rockefeller oil after his scientists discovered that gasoline could be used as a fuel for internal combustion engines.  They were made from Carnegie’s steel.  All of these resources traveled on Vanderbilt’s railroads, and the whole work was financed by the banking system Morgan had founded.

In the end, America was built by the entrepreneurs, but it could only progress by breaking their power.  The wealth and power of those very few men was built on the absolute poverty of millions.  There could be no middle class as we understand it until employers started paying a living wage and offering safe and healthy working conditions.  Furthermore, having risen to power in the land of opportunity, the 19th Century tycoons sought to crush any rising rivals as they appeared.  The national monopolies were as oppressive to the free market as any socialist takeover ever was.  Once the power of the monopolies was broken, it was possible for new inventors and innovators and investors to enter the market; and the renewed competition between rival companies helped hold costs down for consumers.

But having laid out this sordid history of political corruption, unethical (if not always illegal at the time) business dealings, violence, oppression, suffering and social turmoil, the series moves back again to point out the truly beneficial effects of these “robber barons.”  First, they were men of vision and daring as well as ambition.  They saw new industries where there were none, and founded them.  In the process, they strengthened the nation and changed the world.  Had Carnegie not invented the process to mass produce steel, Rockefeller mass produced refined oil fuels, Vanderbilt united the country with merchant shipping and railroads, and Morgan devised ways to finance everything from Edison’s light bulb to the Federal government itself, there would have been no “arsenal of democracy” in 1917 to bring an end to World War One.  And second, as the Twentieth Century was dawning, the Rockefeller/Carnegie competition to be the richest man in America became a competition to be the most generous.  Each gave hundreds of millions of dollars away to various charitable institutions, amounts that would be billions today when adjusted for inflation.

The overall lesson of this miniseries, then, would seem to be that the world would be poorer, in every way, without the entrepreneur.  At a time when the United States might well have drifted into oblivion, the energy of ambitious and imaginative men instead turned the United States into a world leader.  This could only have happened in the United States; every other major country of the day was too dominated by inherited aristocracies and authoritarian governments to allow an immigrant or pauper to rise to the very pinnacle of society.  In their desire for wealth, power and world significance, these individuals fostered innovation and development that reshaped the world.  But at the same time, they were hated in their own day, and not without reason: their wealth was built on the largely unrewarded toil of many others, and their power was often used for short-sighted and selfish gain regardless of the harm to others.  In generating wealth, they also generated poverty, which in turn led to frustration and violence.  And having won the competitive game themselves, the 19th Century’s titans of industry sought, as the Titans of mythology had done, to swallow up and crush all would-be gods who might challenge them.  Monopolies, business practices that today would qualify as “racketeering,” and political corruption were also the fruit of these first entrepreneurs, as much as were invention and construction.  It was necessary to limit their power, if only to make room for more entrepreneurship, invention, and the free exercise of popular sovereignty.  “Limit,” however, does not mean “eliminate.”  As today’s entrepreneurs persuasively argue, there is still much good that can be achieved only by the forces of the free market and the individual capitalist, within an overall structure preserving access to the free market for new investors and protecting the rule of law and the political sphere from corruption.  In the end, the massive wealth gap of the late 19th Century was socially unsustainable and incompatible with democracy; but the overall economic system created by the “men who built America” requires not revolution and replacement so much as ongoing maintenance and fine-tuning.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Men Who Built America, A&E Home Video, January 2013

The Men Who Built America The History Channel website, http://www.history.com/shows/men-who-built-america (accessed Nov 11, 2012).

 

 

 


[1] “Series Finale Moved to Nov. 11,” The History Channel website, (http://www.history.com/shows/men-who-built-america/articles/series-finale) accessed Nov 11, 2012

[2] Leigh Ann Caldwell, “Amid Controversy, Film on bin Laden Death Airs,” CBS News, (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57544880/amid-controversy-film-on-bin-laden-death-airs/) accessed November 11, 2012

UPDATE: Rumble 2012 review

October 18, 2012

UPDATE:  Rumble 2012 review—-fake news vs. real news

 

Last night I was watching the Nate Silver interview on The Daily Show (10/17/2012, see http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-october-17-2012/exclusive—nate-silver-extended-interview-pt–1 and follow the links for the web-only portions as well), and heard an Actual Guy Who Knows Things making the same point I reached by the end of my review of the O’Reilly/Stewart debate:  that the 24 hour news cycle has erased the distinction between “fake news” and “real news.”  I think I can safely say, read my review:  there’s something worthwhile in it.

As a philosopher, I’m interested in the whole process of distilling “truth” from “facts,” and how we can, should and do navigate our way through the Disinformation Age.  Any thoughts?

The Rumble in the Air Conditioned Auditorium 2012: O’Reilly vs. Stewart (review)

October 17, 2012

The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium:  O’Reilly vs. Stewart 2012

A Review

 

 

When I realized that I was one of the few people who had actually managed to watch the entire debate when it was broadcast live, I decided I should write something about it in my blog for the benefit of those who didn’t get to see it.  But then I couldn’t get it to download or to re-stream, and I hadn’t taken notes during the first showing, so I waited until I could watch it again.

First, let me provide a little background for anyone who might read this and not know what the heck I’m talking about.  On October 6, 2012, FOX News pundit Bill O’Reilly and The Daily Show’s fake news anchor Jon Stewart held a live debate in the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University.  Anyone expecting a real spoof of politics and debate would probably have been disappointed; while both disputants showed considerable humor, the debate was real.  It was moderated by E. D. Hill, currently an anchor for CNN and formerly a reporter for FOX News, who seemed determined to keep a tighter reign than did Jim Lehrer at the Presidential debate three days earlier.  The first hour was done in (relatively) formal style, with both disputants standing at podiums responding to questions posed by the moderator, as well as replying to and rebutting one another.  Following precedent established with candidate Michael Dukkakis in the 1988 Presidential debates, the shorter disputant was allowed a boost; O’Reilly is somewhere between a foot to a person taller than Stewart, so he had a powered platform behind his podium to allow him to appear as tall or taller than O’Reilly at will.

It would be pointless to simply describe the debate, and beyond my powers of recall, and also a bit immoral.  The interview is still for sale at $4.95 (go to http://www.therumble2012.com/index.html for details), and half the profit goes to charity; so telling all the jokes would possibly spoil the experience for anyone who might purchase the download, and if it served as an alternative to purchasing then it would deprive those charities as well.  So I will confine myself to an evaluation of the three major participants, and their positions.

E. D. Hill took her role about as seriously as she should.  Yes, she introduced Jon Stewart as “a hobbit-like 5’7” tall,” but she also posed the questions and sought to hold the disputants to the time allotted for each topic.  This was before the Vice Presidential debate, but after Jim Lehrer had been trampled by Romney and Obama both; she was more assertive than Lehrer and perhaps less so than Martha Raddatz.

O’Reilly and Stewart showed their moderator more respect than did Romney and Obama, even when mocking her; in the context of the “real” debate O’Reilly’s expressions of contempt seemed more like parody than disrespect.  Both of them ignored the first question in order to give their opening statements; and in many ways I found the opening statements the most telling part of the evening.  O’Reilly is a staunch conservative, but is also a fairly independent mind.  He did not attempt to ignore or support Romney’s “47%” statement, but instead modified it; and that modification lies at the heart of his overall position.  O’Reilly stated that in fact there is about 20% of the nation who truly are lazy, feel entitled to free stuff, and couldn’t care less about the consequences for others.  He also said that number was growing, and that this represents a significant danger to our nation.  His primary concern, therefore, is irresponsibility.  He feels that Democrats should stop whining about Bush, who has been out of office for four years; after the first two years, you need to own up to your own responsibility for the state of affairs.  He claimed that liberals are fostering an entitlement mindset, and that it is necessary to curtail government services to force everyone to take personal responsibility.  Taking from the rich to give to the poor means taking from the responsible people to give to those who might not be responsible; and if the poor are to be helped, those that have should take responsibility to do so without being compelled by the government.  If the government gets involved, it will simply foster irresponsibility while delivering goods inefficiently and for political ends, and ultimately destroy the very producers it was counting on to fund things.

Stewart’s statement did not reply either to Ms. Hill or to Mr. O’Reilly.    Instead, he presented a long monologue describing “Bullshit Mountain.”  Its inhabitants, he said, live in a world where normal rules of facticity and logic do not apply.  On Bullshit Mountain, everything was wonderful until about four years ago, when a Kenyan-Fascist-Muslim-Socialist-Communist-Radical Racist was elected President and began destroying everything.  Before Obama, Congress and the President were bipartisan and effective and the economy was solid and we were respected in the world and every individual wanted nothing more than to work hard and lift himself up by his own bootstraps, and he could; now, totally because of one man, we’re polarized and paralyzed and lazy and worthless.  The real problem, Stewart argued, is a failure of our problem-solving mechanisms and the ability of the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain to perceive or acknowledge reality.

In short, the two men were talking across each other.  O’Reilly was arguing ethics and Stewart epistemology; O’Reilly was arguing values and virtues while Stewart was arguing facts and history and practical solutions to the nation’s problems.  When they began to give real solutions, the two actually were fairly close on a number of issues.  O’Reilly was asked about partisanship, and blamed “haters and assassins” in the media who know they can make a lot of money simply by saying inflammatory things, regardless of truth.  He didn’t name any names and didn’t state any one ideology to which the haters belong.  I’m sure Stewart would agree; he has said much the same thing.  O’Reilly was specific enough to denounce the people who hate Obama and think he is evil and traitorous; he claimed himself to like Obama, while thinking his policies are misguided.  In this, he is clearly distancing himself from Hannity, Limbaugh and most other right-wing pundits, as well as the left-wingers he would describe as equally close-minded.  Stewart would agree with O’Reilly that the profit motive in news broadcasting has created a toxic atmosphere, where truth is second to showmanship and illuminating minds less important than enflaming passions.  Likewise, both men support our military and have taken concrete steps to help the troops in the field and after their return.  When I was a child, a “liberal” was someone who referred to our own soldiers as child-killers and rapists.  By those standards, there are almost no “liberals” left.  There are definite differences between the two; O’Reilly supports trickle-down economics, while Stewart supports a single-payer medical system.  But compared to the ideological schism of the 1960’s, today we hardly seem to be divided at all.  Both liberals and conservatives are patriotic, and at least some on both sides are God-fearing people.  Many of the liberal ideas of today, like the individual mandates in the Affordable Health Care act, were conservative ideas yesterday.

But the real difference between them was their agendas.  O’Reilly wanted to talk about values; on those grounds, he and Stewart were not identical but were not very far apart.  Stewart wanted to treat O’Reilly as “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain,” as if he were identical with everyone else at FOX News and the right-wing echo chamber.  O’Reilly sought to distance himself from some elements of the Right, but Stewart wanted to have that conversation and used O’Reilly as his target.  Stewart’s claim is that the Right exaggerates the problems America faces while simplifying the solution.  While America faces serious problems, they are the same sorts of problems we have always faced:  economic challenges, enemies abroad, questions of social justice and the nature of the social contract.  We have always had a large “entitlement” culture, from the time Europeans arrived in America and thought they were entitled to land occupied by other people.    But the Right speaks as if this never happened before, as if the world has gone completely to Hell just in the last few years, as if we are two weeks away from complete national collapse; and that if we simply give tax cuts to millionaires all these problems will be solved.  It is a combination of factual falsehoods about the past and present, and dubious (or magical) predictions and hopes for the future.

This strikes me as typical of the political debates today.  The so-called Left talks about solving problems, based on what has and what has not worked in the past.  Paraphrasing Stewart, I’m not for smaller or bigger government; I’m for better government.  The “Left” is the party that believes the government can solve problems, and that its job is to solve problems.  For this reason, Stewart emphasizes the need to know facts, to face facts and to act on them.  The Right is not really interested in the facts; the primary problem is not a problem of information but of values.  If we have the right values, we will solve our problems; therefore, we should have good values and then believe those truth claims that support our values.  O’Reilly is not really “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain.”  He does seem to choose to ignore the past failures of supply-side economics because it is most consistent with his ideal of individual responsibility; but in many cases, he is more interested in facts than many conservative pundits, and he is quite aware of this.  The leading citizens of Bullshit Mountain are people like “the assassins and haters,” birthers, paranoid conspiracy theorists, and the congressmen who sit on the House Science Committee while disbelieving science, and openly state that the reason they reject science is because it contradicts their values; for example:

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell,” U.S Rep. Paul Broun said in an address last month at a banquet organized by Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia. “And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”[1]

 

It’s not that he has different evidence; it’s that he’s chosen to ignore evidence.  Like a good postmodern nihilist, he’s choosing which language-game he wants to play; and it isn’t the Science Game.  He is choosing what will count as believable based on what supports his religious values, not on the laws of cause and effect that govern in science or in normal daily experience, or the opinions of the vast majority of scientists.  That is the real key to “Bullshit Mountain.”  In Harry Frankfurt’s definitive tome on the subject, “bullshit” is defined as the assertion of facts in order to win arguments or status or some other reason, but regardless of whether what is said is true or not.  It isn’t a lie; the liar knows what the truth is but seeks to hide it for some reason.  The mistaken person thinks he or she is asserting the truth, but is simply wrong.  The bullshitter doesn’t care what the truth is.  I’m not sure what Paul Broun is engaged in qualifies as “bullshit.”  Is he trying to persuade, or to score points?  Or is he engaged in some other, completely unrelated activity?  It does seem clear that he is not making his judgment that these scientific foundational beliefs are “lies” is based on his superior knowledge of physics or biology; it is based on a theological/dogmatic judgment.  He wouldn’t say he was oblivious to truth; he would say that science is oblivious to real truth, ethical-dogmatic truth, while he is concerned with these important truths.  He wouldn’t say he is uninterested in solving problems facing the nation and world; he would say the most important problems are not nuts-and-bolts questions like what government policies will give the best possible lives to the most people, but rather the question of how to please God.  When Pat Robertson blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on feminism and Hurricane Katrina on legalized abortion, he clearly had a different strategy for solving the problems of protecting our nation from terrorism and natural disasters.  While the “liberal” believes that these things happen for strictly natural reasons and can only be addressed by a government that is robust enough to muster the physical resources required, Rev. Robertson believes these problems have a supernatural cause and can only be fixed supernaturally.

Stewart appears to believe the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain are all willfully deluded for ideological gain; the world was wonderful, Obama ruined it, regardless of all possible facts to the contrary, so let’s get rid of Obama.  O’Reilly does not seem to be that deluded.  He doesn’t think Obama is a Kenyan or an al Qaeda infiltrator or anything of that sort.  He does have economic views that are disputable, but not insane.  He does believe small government and individual liberty are better.  But his initial impulse seems to be the moral concern.  That was his opening point and his recurring theme.  In that his primary interest is moral rather than factual or pragmatic, he has some kinship to the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain.  And he does work at FOX News.  Stewart is more concerned with establishing a shared reality, something he quaintly calls “facts.”  His argument with the Right is not whether or not America is worth loving.  To some extent, it is over just how to love America best.  But really, Stewart has made a value judgment, the judgment that facts matter and that objective reality trumps what we think “ought” to be true.  Again, when I was a kid in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the notion that there was one reality which we all had to accept was considered a conservative notion; but now, it is the liberals who seem to be demanding everyone accept “the facts” and the conservatives who say, “I have my truths and you have yours.”

I cannot end without remarking on the greatest oddity of this debate:  that it took place.  Technically, it is true that Bill O’Reilly is part of the “entertainment” programming on FOX News.  But that is still FOX News.  Jon Stewart is on Comedy Central.  The fact that these two are treated as somehow equivalent is truly bizarre.  The line between “fake” news and “real” news has been obliterated.  O’Reilly has a good sense of humor, but he is professionally described as a “pundit.”  The dictionary definitions of “pundit” are either an expert, or someone who speaks authoritatively as if he or she were an expert (as when a college dropout with a history of drug abuse becomes a pundit and an authority figure).  In O’Reilly’s case, he is educated and intelligent, though not really an “expert” on all the subjects he comments on.  But he is not a “comedian.”  A comedian is one whose job is not to be right, or to be authoritative, but simply to be funny.  Somehow, right-wing pundits working for news organizations (whether FOX News, talk radio or both) came to be seen as morally and functionally equivalent to comedians, without anyone reflecting on the fact that the latter are professional fools while the former supposedly are not.  When Rush Limbaugh is criticized for saying something stupid and sexist, he is defended by supporters who say, “Well, look what Bill Maher said.”  An honorary member of the Republican Congressional Caucus, whose bust is in the Missouri State Hall of Fame, called by Ronald Reagan “the Number One voice for conservatism,” among his many accolades and awards, more powerful than many Republican elected leaders, who have more than once been forced to publicly apologize after getting on his wrong side—-this man is compared to a stand-up comedian and the male lead in “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.”  This is considered a defense!  When one praises or defends one’s “pundit, i.e. expert and/or authority” by comparing him or her to a “comedian, i.e. a professional entertainer who uses various verbal and physical means to be amusing,” one really insults the pundit.  Or rather, one reveals that we no longer draw a distinction between those who speak from authority and expertise versus those who speak from ignorance and foolishness.

The O’Reilly-Stewart debate did show that when ideological disputants are willing to attempt to find and abide by the same reality, and who are willing to respect their opponents and to laugh at themselves and admit at least some fallibility (in their allies if not in themselves), it is possible to have a civil and substantive discussion.  In that case, it might be able to find solutions to problems that give both sides what they need, at least sometimes.  As Stewart said, the problem-solving mechanisms of our society seem to be broken; but this debate showed that is possible to fix them.


[1] Dan Gilgoff, “Congressman Draws Fire for Calling Evolution, Big Bang ‘Lies from the Pit of Hell,”, CNN, 10/16.2012 (http://www.abc2news.com/dpp/news/national/congressman-draws-fire-for-calling-evolution-big-bang-lies-from-the-pit-of-hell)

Review: The Avengers (2012)

May 14, 2012

The Avengers

Zak Penn and Joss Whedon; film, directed by Joss Whedon (Manhattan Beach, CA:  Marvel Studios, 2012)

            “It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”   Loki of Asgard

If, as Hamann thought, there is more joy in hearing five words of truth from a blasphemer than in a chorus sung by legions of angels, then there is little more delightful than finding philosophy in a Summer Smash’em Up Blockbuster Film.  That was the joy I found from this movie.  It makes the whole Ph.D. student debt thing totally worth it.

The movie revolves around a super-secret organization , S.H.I.E.L.D.  (for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) attempting to exploit an alien artifact of immeasurable power, and the trouble caused when beings who understand and can control that power far better arrive on Earth to claim it.  Thus put, the premise doesn’t sound much more exciting than the motivating force of the aliens in Plan Nine from Outer Space.  Human hubris leads to tinkering in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, which in turn attracts the attention of powerful beings who feel they were meant to know, and then the wackiness ensues.  The philosophy, however, is deeper than that, and involves the very essence of human nature:  freedom.  Freedom is the ultimate question.  Are we mere organic mechanisms seeking nutrition and procreation, material complexes with no more freedom than a rock finding its way down the hill?  Or are we beings that create ourselves at least as much as we are created, choosing our own goals and values?

Given that the movie is largely driven by the sibling rivalry of two Aesir, it is fitting to analyze it through the eyes of Teutonic philosophers.  Loki seems to be the most philosophically inclined character, or at least the most philosophically verbose; so I shall start with him.  Loki presents himself not as a tyrant, but as a savior.  He has come, he says, to bring peace and joy to all humanity.  And he will do that, he says, by taking away human freedom.  Freedom is a burden, an oppressive responsibility; surrendering freedom allows one to enjoy the pleasures of life while allowing others to make the big decisions.  In essence, Loki seems to have put his finger on the problem of anxiety.  As discussed by Vigilius Haufniensis, anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom.”[1]  When confronted with a real, significant choice, good/or evil, life/or death, salvation/or damnation, the individual is overwhelmed by his or her own sense of power—-the power to go wrong.  The individual may know what choice he or she ought to make, as Adam knew not to eat the apple; but all the individual concretely knows is that a possibility exists.  There is no rational reason why the individual would choose evil; there is only the vertigo of freedom, the anxiety of possibility, and the individual swoons.  When the individual realizes he or she has chosen wrong, it becomes all the more difficult to deal with the continued burden of freedom, compounded now by the actual knowledge of good and evil (as opposed to the mere possibility of freedom with no first-hand knowledge of the alternatives).  Most individuals, Haufniensis says, find the burden of freedom intolerable, and seek to give up their individuality.  Freedom becomes the very thing they flee; conformism, philistinism, determinism become salvation. Haufniensis calls this attitude “the demonic.”[2]

Loki is the very personification of the Kierkegaardian demonic.  Your pain, Loki says, comes from the unending, wearisome task of constantly making oneself, the burden of freedom.  I will take that burden from you, and I will tell you what you are and what you may become; then you will have peace.  Haufniensis would say that whether we know it or not, most of us take Loki’s offer.

And in the scene where Loki makes this offer to a crowd of terrified Germans, who is the one individual who stands up and chooses to die rather than live as a slave?  It is the one who has first-hand experience with a previous offer of this sort.  This too fits the philosophy:  Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, drew on Kierkegaard’s explanation of anxiety and the demonic to explain the appeal of Hitler and Stalin in their own day.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the man did not die; his being saved by Captain America could seem to symbolize the idea that individual freedom is protected by the United States, and I don’t think that was the intention.  From the Kierkegaardian perspective, expecting any human agency to safeguard your personhood would be to surrender your personhood.  On the other hand, of course, Captain America doesn’t make the man free; he did that for himself.  All Captain America can do is show up later and try to shield the individual from the physical risks of having declared himself to be an individual.

But before I try to discuss the superheroes, I want to look at Loki himself.  He says of himself, “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose….  I come with glad tidings, of a world made free (from) freedom.  Freedom is life’s great lie.  Once you accept that, in your heart… you will know peace.”  This is from the opening scene of the movie, and it is the most Nietzschean thing he says.  In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes that freedom is a lie, invented to make men responsible for their actions—to make them guilty.  By telling them they were free and hence guilty, they could in fact be bound by their sense of guilt.  By contrast, the immoralists proclaim the psychological theory that there is no freedom, that all human action is determined by the instincts, and hence there is no guilt.[3]  Loki has come to free humanity from the burden of freedom, and thus to give them peace.  And in fact, he himself is not free, either.  He says of himself that he is “burdened.”  Banner says of Loki, “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you could smell crazy on him.”  He is not free; he is driven by forces beyond his control—-by the bargains he made to get an army, by his ambition, by his hubris, his envy, and in short, by his instincts and his will-to-power.  If he has come to free humanity from freedom, he has started by liberating himself from its burden; now he is in thrall to his “glorious purpose.”

This very lack of freedom is what gives Loki his strength, and what initially weakens his opponents.  As he describes them, “You were made to be ruled.  In the end, it will be every man for himself.”  Hobbes comes to mind here; the only escape from war of each against all, says Hobbes, is when all surrender their freedom to a greater power that will enforce peace between the rest.[4]  Without an absolute monarch or other overwhelming leader, there is anarchy; no one can trust another so none can cooperate.  Initially, that seems to be the truth of the so-called Avengers:  “we’re not a team, we’re a time bomb.”  As free men, they struggle against each other, each determined to be the High Alpha of all Alpha Males.   As Hobbes would put it,  “All men (are) by nature equal… From equality proceeds diffidence…. From diffidence (proceeds) war.”[5]

The turning point in this story of superheroes is the death of a perfectly ordinary person, Phil Coulson.  In fact, it could well be said that he is the one who saves Earth.  Everything up to that point has shown Loki pulling everyone else’s strings, either literally turning them into puppets through his mind control “spell” or metaphorically by playing them off against each other.  The superheroes have spent more time bashing each other, or spying on S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, than they have fighting their supposed enemy.  Loki’s plans come to fruition when he finally traps Thor, turn the Hulk loose to fight the others, and cripples S.H.I.E.L.D. ‘s command ship.  He seems to have won.  At the moment of his victory, he is confronted by a perfectly ordinary S.H.I.E.L.D.  agent with a more-than-ordinary gun.  He’s still no match for a god, though, and Loki mortally wounds him.  The scene continues:

[after dropping Thor to earth, Loki turns to leave but Coulson stops him]
Agent Phil Coulson: You’re gonna lose.
Loki: Am I?
Agent Phil Coulson: It’s in your nature.
Loki: Your heroes are scattered, your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?
Agent Phil Coulson: You lack conviction.
Loki: I don’t think I…
[suddenly shoots Loki through the wall with the Phase 2 weapon which blasts out fire]
Agent Phil Coulson: So that’s what it does.

Minutes later Coulson dies, but not before expressing his belief that his death would be the catalyst that would bind the superheroes together as a group.  And in fact, that is precisely what happens.  With his self-sacrificial death, the heroes gain a sense of unity.  They become a team, “The Avengers,” their proclaimed goal to protect the Earth but their more pressing motive to avenge Coulson.  His sacrifice, his willingness to do his duty even when all logic said it was hopeless, moves them to put aside their rivalries and to work together for a higher purpose.  They gain conviction.  Loki lacks conviction.  He has no cause, no “idea for which I may live and die.”[6]  It is not his nature to put anyone or anything first, to “get behind” a cause.  And ultimately, that means he will abandon any cause that seems to be failing in order to try to save himself.  It is thus in his nature to lose, rather than to take the risks or make the sacrifices necessary to win.  By contrast, the superheroes sacrifice their safety, and what is more important to them than safety; each sacrifices his own personal sense of his superiority and independence.  Each must sacrifice a little pride, a little sense of self-sufficiency, to become part of a team.  When each subordinates his pride to the higher cause, they are able to win as a group.

Ultimately, The Avengers is about two conflicting paths to unity.  Loki’s path is the abandonment of freedom.  In this conception, “freedom” is an intolerable burden for the individual and fatally divisive for the group; the only way to attain personal peace or group success is to recognize freedom as “the great lie,” and to instead subordinate the people to the unifying will of a leader who is himself only a pawn for forces he barely recognizes and cannot control.  The other path accepts the individual differences and disagreements, rivalries and conflicts, personalities and freedom; but these are subordinated to a conviction.  When individuals freely accept a cause for which each can live and die, they have a unity without slavery.  They can accept authority for the purpose of achieving a task, and the one with authority can accept the individuality of the other and join it to the group rather than treating others as threats to his (or her) own status.[7]

It’s not my purpose to write a review that will tell people whether to go or not go to this particular movie.  My guess is that whether or not one enjoys a film has more to do with individual taste; and in any case, enjoying a movie because it got a good review is like laughing at a joke because someone else told you it was funny.  And I don’t suppose it even makes much sense to tell you that if you do go to see this movie, you should enjoy it for the philosophy rather than for the special effects or clever dialogue.  But there is joy in finding truth where one did not expect it, and that is a joy that anyone may experience who is open to it.  When one finds that joy oneself, one wants to share the news of one’s good fortune; that is what I have done here.  And if reading this helps anyone to be more open to reflecting on the moral and philosophical values of his or her own experiences and entertainments, so much the better.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety:  a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; edited and translated, with an introduction and notes by Reider Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Nelson (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980) p. 61

[2] Concept of Anxiety, pp. 118-54

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Penguin Books, 1978) pp. 499-500

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan:  or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited by Michael Oakeshott, with an introduction by Richard S Peters (New York:  Simon and Schuster Inc.  1997) pp. 98-141

[5] Leviathan pp. 98-99

[6] as Kierkegaard writes of seeking for himself; it was this sort of conviction that Kierkegaard said led him ultimately to turn from egoism to the ethical-religious life.

[7] Even the Hulk can be a team player, when Captain America gives the proper order:  “Hulk:  smash.” I can think of no better example of a leader who recognized the individual strengths and needs of each team member, and who gave “orders” that allowed each to apply his or her uniqueness most appropriately.