Admit it–you’ve always had a suspicion that Batman, the Terminator, Hitchcock, Schlink, and the Greek philosopher Diogenes (NOT the one searching for one honest man–the other one) were related–but you didn’t know how or when to introduce this grouping to your social set–well here is your Thanksgiving table conversation starter.
I was a philosophy major in college and I was also an English major and this combination of disciplines found its most complete academic expression in my dissertation: a study of utopias and mythologies. So, philosophers who write literature like Plato, Augustine, and Thomas More bump shoulders with novelists who are invested in philosophy like H.G. Wells, William Morris, Ursula LeGuin, and Margaret Atwood. While many of the utopians are read through the prism of political philosophy, others—particularly Jonathan Swift and George Orwell—are read through a lens of epistemology.
From my time as an undergraduate I have believed that “serious” ideas can also be found in pop culture such as The Dark Knight or The Terminator. So, here’s a serious question inspired by The Dark Knight—should the Batman kill the Joker knowing that the Joker will escape Arkham prison and kill scores—maybe hundreds of innocent people; in the comic book stories he has killed one Robin, rendered Commissioner Gordon’s daughter a paraplegic, and killed countless others. From a utilitarian perspective I suppose the answer is yes, Batman should kill the Joker; from a deontological perspective where we’d consider the intrinsic act and not its consequences, probably the answer is no. Why would we take one of these views over the other? Can we apply another ethical system to this problem? Do we even know what we are doing when we think about this? Is this something we actually argue about when we are discussing the torture of a captured terrorist to prevent more deaths? Should we torture the terrorists’ wife or infant child to get him to tell us information that will save more innocents? These are really BIG questions that, incidentally, students want to talk about and it is our moral obligation to give them a language and place to do so.
How about The Matrix or The Terminator—are those movies trying to get at questions about our relationship to machines, the nature of reality, the essence of time, the mutability of the past and future. The Matrix with its numerous tips-of-the-hat to the “Allegory of the Cave” and the “Apology of Socrates” seems to suggest that the unexamined life is not only NOT worth living, it is, in fact, the moral equivalent of being a battery in a machine—“Coppertop” may be the worst insult you could address to someone on the Nebuchadnezzar, the ship where the “enlightened” dwell. When we replace part after part of ourselves at what point are we a machine and not a human? Certainly that seems to be part of the arc of The Terminator series where some of the machines become more human and the humans act more like machines to save themselves. Steven Pinker (Language Instinct, The Blank Slate) says that in ALL forms of transplant and organ donation you should WANT to be the recipient—until we get to brain transplant and then you should want to be the donor!
Two of my favorite commentators on philosophy are Woody Allen and Steve Martin. Woody Allen’s short essays, “My Philosophy”—which incorporates elements of Hume, Kant, Plato, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer—and “My Apology”—a contemporary rendering of Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” that ends with a version of the “Allegory of the Cave” that has the philosopher get out of the cave, see the truth, open a meat market and marry a dancer—are wonderful. When Steve Martin (an actual philosophy major) announces that he has read all the greats like Plato (/plat-eau/) and Socrates (/so-krats/) and has concluded that philosophy teaches you just enough to make your conscience uncomfortable for the rest of your life—we laugh because we genuinely understand. I highly recommend his autobiography, Born Standing Up.
The last three philosophy books that I have read are Michael Sandel’s Justice (the finest nonfiction book I have read in many months), The Terminator and Philosophy, and Batman and Philosophy—the last two are collections of essays. I notice, too, that I rarely read the great system builders, Plato, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel anymore–though I have a keen desire to read and know more about the great American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce to help me with my study of semiotics. Instead, I read more and more of the epigrammatic philosophers (Herakleitos, Diogenes, Marcus Aurelius, La Rochefoucauld, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche). In fact, I have a theory that the history of philosophy is the dialogue between system builders and epigrammaticists—though that’s the topic for another blog (one I doubt I’ll ever write). It’s possible that my current reading reflects a belief that the truth often manifests itself in brief flashes that occasionally contradict each other.
Guy Davenport’s translation of Diogenes renders Fragment 99 in the following way, “Why not whip the teacher when the pupil misbehaves?” Again—“Why not whip the teacher when the pupil misbehaves?” There have been times when I have read this as a rhetorical question and times when I have read it as a sarcastic indictment of pupils. More and more I treat it as just a question that requires an answer. I now think that it is asking something profound about the relationship between a student and teacher. How much of the way we turn out is dependent on others? As teachers, how responsible are we for our students? What parent hasn’t felt that sense of responsibility for a child and a concomitant certainty that we cannot control another human being?
I have probably been ruminating about this question in one form or another for many years. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, two “students” kill a classmate in appreciation of a charismatic teacher’s rendering of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Jimmy Stewart plays the teacher and at the end he repudiates all that he has taught and claims that the students have distorted his message. I have taught Rope numerous times and Stewart’s defensive protestation that his students have misunderstood and misused his teaching at the end has always bothered me. He was the teacher. Should he have known that what he said might cause the students to act in a particular way? To say, “No, it makes no difference,” and deny that a teacher has any bad influence seems to say also that there is nothing good that a teacher does. But to admit to responsibility for all of your students all of the time…. Wow…. No wonder I have reflexively rejected Diogenes in the past–who could absorb that kind of responsibility? Oscar Wilde has observed that “all forms of influence are evil” because they alter the “natural” way one would develop. I wonder about that, too. Isn’t that what teachers do? Influence people, I mean. I certainly have been influenced by some great teachers and some dreadful ones, though I would be loath to blame any of them for my shortcomings.
For the past ten years I have been teaching Bernard Schlink’s The Reader. The narrator, Michael Berg, tells of his affair with a woman some 20 years older than himself that began when he was 15 and that ended abruptly when she left with no warning or message. Some years later as a law student he sees her on trial for crimes committed when she was a Nazi guard during the Shoah (or holocaust) and he watches Hanna, that is her name, barely defend herself and end up taking the blame for her co-conspirators. He eventually realizes that most of her life has been an attempt to hide the fact that she can’t read. In fact, she broke off their affair because she couldn’t read and her bosses wanted to promote her. She had become a Nazi guard because she was going to be promoted to a job that required reading. After Hanna is imprisoned, Michael begins to read books into a tape player and send her the tapes. She teaches herself to read and write through his reading and begins to correspond with him. He never corresponds with her except to read stories and send them to her. After many years she is to be released from prison and, as her only correspondent, the warden asks him to come and help her. Michael makes a perfunctory appearance and then, when Hanna kills herself the morning of her scheduled release, he is distraught with the idea that he has educated her to understand the enormity of her crimes and that, because of this, she has killed herself. Is he responsible? Had he left her with her protective stupidity would she be better off? He also denies to himself that he has treated her badly—another question for another day.
I tell my students occasionally of the responsibilities that one can feel as a teacher for taking students places that they haven’t been. Some, or maybe many, of them seem to like that because it seems to absolve them of any responsibility for themselves. But often, when I have them in a good mood, I remind them that they have been teaching me all year, too—and I ask them if they are responsible for me? Those who want me to be responsible for them, for their grades, their success or failure, seem never to want to believe that they are responsible in any way for me. In fact, how responsible is each one of us for all of us? Certainly the teacher bears greater responsibility than the student does, but can any of us avoid responsibility to or for each other? Would any of us say that we are acted upon but that we NEVER act in such a way as to be responsible for our actions towards others? So, why not whip the teacher when the pupil misbehaves? For the same reason we shouldn’t whip ourselves—we play both roles so often—you’ll remember all teachers are students and that all students are also teachers Finally, the merely punitive is never good pedagogy.
Let’s give thanks for all the great teachers in our lives. Back next week with some ideas about introducing Japanese literature and culture.