Monday, September 17, 2012

The Midknight & Philosophy, Part III

NOTE:  The following essay contains spoilers to my book The Midknight. If you have NOT read the story, I suggest you read it first before reading the following essay.

Part III:  The Big Picture

One of my favorite philosophers, Augustine, contends that desire is the foundation of all evil that results from a person's disordered will: "Each evil man is the cause of his own evildoing." Augustine describes a person as having an "inordinate desire" when he focuses too much on "temporal things." Good persons live by "turning their love away from those things which cannot be possessed without the risk of losing them." While evil persons "try to remove obstacles so that they may safely rest in their enjoyment of these things." This description fits Jesse, who is unable to turn his love away from Vanessa.

It is passion that causes Jesse's inability to experience wisdom and "see the big picture." Like Soren Kierkegaard's Works of Love describes the life we humans are called upon to live as a life of universal love. He claims that we are not allowed to say that anyone falls outside the category of "neighbor." It is not easy to live such a life of love. To become loving in this way, we must overcome the natural selfishness and simple inertia that push us towards the satisfaction of our own desires when those desires conflict with the good of others. As mentioned earlier, the true meaning of the sacred journey of the hero is infinite love, it is a love for all of mankind and not simply one group or person.

One other example of this struggle to sacrifice our desires for the "bigger picture" and overall good is through Spider-Man/Peter Parker. Peter is a young man, like Jesse, who struggles with ordinary human temptations as well as the many travails of the teen years. Peter is deeply in love with Mary Jane Watson. His personal happiness to be with her, however, comes into conflict with his vocation as a superhero (again, like Jesse with Vanessa), in both small and large ways. At a more profound level, Jesse comes to realize how a personal relationship with him can be dangerous for those he cares about. It is during this realization that "the big picture" begins to materialize in his ways of thinking. It is this wisdom that emphasizes the claims of the bigger picture over the claims of the present moment.

We can find it in Plato's picture of the wise person as one who ignores the temporary objects of sense's perception in order to contemplate the eternal forms, as well as in the Bhagavad-Gita's injunctions to detach oneself from the objects of sense. The problem can be (and is exhibited in The Midknight) that our senses have a natural power over our actions, and so we need to be trained to put them into whatever wisdom deems to be their proper perspective. In exalting the larger picture over the smaller, wisdom not only requires that we learn to resist the natural pull of the senses, it also requires us to resist the natural pull of the emotions. To avoid being overcome by strong emotions, Aristotle recommends that we have the right balance of virtue -- the "Golden Mean." It's a balanced action responding to a particular situation at the right time, in relation to the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way. For instance, you can fear something either too much or too little. Fearing too much may lead to cowardice, as when Mark chooses his girlfriend Amanda to be sacrificed over himself. Fearing too little, as was the case when Jesse ignored Vanessa's pleas to not savagely beat up her father in retaliation to Mr. Strummer beating her, may lead to rashness, both undesirable traits. The balanced trait, that is, the virtue between fearing too much or too little, is virtue.

Emotional control has always been important to the classic wisdom traditions and it is Jesse's inner struggle with his own emotions that highlights the story's plot. Most people would argue that one's own emotions are more important than any "big picture," but to believe in this train of thought is the same as saying that Jesse is right to show up to the prom and put his girlfriend and the entire student body in dire danger. No, he should not place anyone in danger, especially if it is his own moral stand he has to make; no one should be sacrificed at the expense of his own emotion and satisfaction. While someone like Aristotle might applaud Jesse's decision to save his girlfriend and take his stand as a courageous act, he would probably label Jesse's decision to place everyone in danger as a rash one. For Aristotle, the act of confronting danger or risk becomes courageous if and only if both decision and just cause enter the picture. And there is no just cause in placing hundreds of innocent people in mortal danger.

If there is any reason that our society has been brought up to indulge in our emotions and desires (and thus make our senses focus on the smaller picture) it's because these senses present us with the here and now from our perspective. Our own perspective is essentially involved in our natural emotional reactions to the world. Your sudden anger, for example, at some perceived insult involves more than the objective fact that someone has said something to you, and the fact that you perceive what was said as offensive, it also essentially involves your feelings about this fact. Also, when someone rejects you, your anger and/or sadness result not from the mere rejection that someone has passed onto you like some flu but essentially the feelings you feel. In placing the bigger picture above the smaller, wisdom denigrates our natural emotional reactions to the world as reliable guides to action. Even a superhero who acts out of anger rather than reason is always an individual setting himself up for trouble. One of the greatest examples (that is not a superhero) of someone seeing "the big picture" is in Casablanca. When Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman that, "The problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." The audience is meant to feel it's something of a tragedy that the Bogart and Bergman characters' love has to take a backseat to the larger picture, but those characters know that what the Bergman character (and Victor Lazlo) is doing is more important than a relationship; we aren't meant to have any doubt that the claims of the larger picture should trump their personal concerns.

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