Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Midknight & Philosophy, Part IV



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


Part IV: Plato's Eudaimonism

Both Plato's Republic and his vision of the ideal and eternal Good turn on the proposition that we have within us an extraordinary potential that we do not all achieve, and an end state toward which we can and should aspire, a just life. So how do we achieve that good, just life and why should we be so quick to obtain and keep it?

Most philosophers say achieving a "good, just life" is a matter of sacrifice -- along with the ability to make sacrifices; self-discipline; and using our talents, knowledge and experiences for the good of others (friends, family, anyone) as well as ourselves. Plato believed that unless we are blocked from seeing what is good and appreciating it for what it is, what is good will draw us in its direction. It will motivate us and direct our steps. More importantly, a just life includes high morals (leaving a lasting, truly good impact on the world). It is this "good life" that Jesse struggles to find throughout the story that is also found in Plato's Republic -- the ascent of a person from darkness and confusion to enlightenment.

Once we feel this goodness, or happiness, within ourselves, why should we struggle so much in a sometimes harsh world to remain good and not give up? Most people's answer would be because it's what's right or they might even start spouting off words of religion and Heaven and Hell. However, the answer that is given in The Midknight can be seen in Plato's moral structure of eudaimonism -- a mode of ethical thought in which the fulfillment of human nature is the standard by which we recognize what is good. The word "eudaimonism" comes from the ancient Greek term eudaimonia, which is usually translated as "happiness." To put it briefly, eudaimonism arises from two premises that people will always do whatever they think will make them happy, and that it is therefore the job of moral theory to show that the morally good life is also the happiest life. Eudaimonistic moral theories argue that human nature is ordered such that people are happier if they live morally good lives.

Early in the Republic, Plato describes a magic ring, the Ring of Gyges, which will render its wearer invisible (an inspiration for the ring in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga). Such a ring could be used to commit any crime with no chance of being caught. Plato depicts the human soul as divided into three parts: (1) reason, the source of contemplation, logic, and judgment; (2) spirit, the source of anger, courage, and pride; and (3) the appetites, the source of almost all our wants and desires. To reduce the account to a simple version, we can say that a just person listens to the voice of reason and controls the appetites (like Vanessa, who knows that it would be an overall good for Jesse to save Mark even though Mark is the one who got Jesse into the entire mess, and she's also the first who mentions that Jesse couldn't come to the prom and endanger hundreds of people's lives just so she and him could have their night together), while an unjust person follows his appetites without control (like Jesse, who ignores Vanessa's pleads to not retaliate against her abusive father, and who comes back to find her months after separating, placing her in danger just so he and she can be together).
Plato's most important argument is that the just person is most happy because all the parts of his soul are under control and in harmony with one another. This harmony provides happiness for both internal and external reasons; it is a state of psychological peace and serenity, and it also facilitates the discipline and self-control necessary to achieve greater happiness in the world. The unjust person, by contrast, follows his appetites without control. He is miserable because he is constantly torn by the internal conflict among his uncontrolled appetites. He can never be at peace with himself, nor does he have the self-restraint necessary to live a truly happy life. No matter who is with him, he will always be miserable. If he is cunning, he can gain power, money, and influence by unjust methods, but his very injustice will make him far unhappier than those rewards can compensate for. Though he is master of all he surveys, he is a slave to his passions; the more powerful he becomes, the more miserable he will make himself. "The real tyrant is, even if he doesn't seem to be so ... in truth a real slave." Deep in his heart, he knows it and detests himself for it.

Plato's main argument is to imagine two people: a perfectly just person who is mistakenly believed by everyone around him to be a perfectly unjust person (that is, a master criminal), and a perfectly unjust person who is mistakenly believed to be a perfectly just person. Plato luridly describes the fate of the just person mistaken for a criminal: he "will be whipped; he'll be racked; he'll be bound; he'll have both his eyes burned out; and, at the end, when he has undergone every sort of evil, he'll be crucified." Next to this he places the fate of the unjust person mistaken for a just person: "First, he rules in the city because he seems to be just. Then he takes in marriage from whatever station he wants ... he contracts and has partnerships with whomever he wants, and, besides benefiting himself in all this, he gains because he has no qualms about doing injustice. So then, when he enters contests, both private and public, he wins and gets the better of his enemies." Who wouldn't rather be king than be painfully tortured to death?

Plato wouldn't and neither would most classic morally just people. Like Vanessa in The Midknight, Scotsman William Wallace, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars or even Jesus Christ, Plato reaches the conclusion that the just person, punished for crimes he didn't commit, is happier than the unjust person who has everything he desires. Vanessa accepts that she can't be with Jesse, not only for her benefit of a healthy lifestyle and moving on to better herself at college, but also for Jesse's sake (he worries too much about her and she becomes a distraction to him from saving others during the final fight); William Wallace chose death over praising allegiance to the King of England, a corruptible, wicked ruler who only cared about power; Obi-Wan Kenobi chose death to Darth Vader so that a greater good (in the form of Luke Skywalker and his friends) could overthrow the evil Empire and bring peace to the galaxy; and Jesus Christ chose his own crucifixion over lying to his people, and thus forsaking his God, or taking the Devil's "bargain." At the end of The Midknight, Jesse is alive but very alone while, at Vanessa's funeral, she has several friends and family who truly cared about her and love her. This final chapter exposes the love and adoration of Vanessa's life against Jesse's life of loneliness (which he chose for himself). And it makes the audience come to terms that Vanessa, although dead, had a much better life than Jesse ever will alive (if he continues down the path that he has chosen). Even though Jesse does gain a new view of the world around him, it is not as enlightened or optimistic as Vanessa; she was happier.

Jesse's disgust with himself is reminiscent of another story from Plato's Republic. A man walking along the city wall came upon the dead bodies of criminals, left there to rot by the public executioner as a warning to others. The man wanted to stare at the mutilated, decaying bodies, but was ashamed of this desire, so he turned away. However, the temptation to look overcame him, and so he looked. As he did, he angrily rebuked his own eyeballs, saying, "Look, you damned wretches, take your fill of the fair sight!" Plato's point in telling this story is that it is a key feature of morally good personalities that they are ashamed and angry with themselves when they do wrong. To master one's own desires requires discipline and self-control, which is achieved not by seeking a state of pure logic, but by harnessing the emotions of anger and pride on the side of reason and against the disorderly passions. And that is exactly the gist of Jesse's journey: to master his negative emotions (passion, anger, pride, greed) and gain a better understanding of his life and with the world around him.

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