Saturday, August 30, 2008

More on The Dark Knight as Post-Christian Myth

In this post I asserted that The Dark Knight is a post-Christian myth. I've also been defending the moral vision of The Dark Knight in response to comments made to this post.

In the end, however, I agree that the moral vision of The Dark Knight is problematic; I just don't think it is problematic in the way that Amos indicates in his comments. Neither the "good guys" nor their actions need be pure for their cause to be just, nor does their victory need to be permanent, for us to agree that their victory is a victory of good over evil. Mundane works are always a mixture of good and evil, of reality and illusion; thus we need the virtue of prudence to help us advance the good even in a world thoroughly tainted by evil.

But I do think there is a problem with the moral vision of The Dark Knight, and it follows from the film's nature as a post-Christian myth. What makes something "post-Christian?" When Christian sensibility lingers on in a context in which its foundation has disappeared or has been undermined, we are in the realm of the post-Christian. Without its foundation, Christian sensibility is at least incoherent and probably absurd; the dramatic arc of the post-Christian myth is the life of that sensibility in light of its ultimate incoherence.

I've been stressing in the earlier posts that Batman's victory flows from the virtue of humility. Humility is not a pagan (non-Christian) virtue; neither Plato nor Aristotle recognize it as one. Humility is the virtue that relativizes the secular scale of values in light of the divinely revealed scale of values. It became a virtue at the time of the Incarnation. In the light of the Divine Pearl of Great Price (Matt.13:46), revealed by Christ, all worldly pearls lose their value. Thus worldly honor, reputation, and glory mean nothing to the Christian, who only cares for the honor, reputation, and glory that is in the sight of God. 

It's not just that humility doesn't seem to be a virtue in a non-Christian world; it really isn't a virtue. It is self-evident that the better should not sacrifice itself for the worse. Christianity does not contradict this truth (or any other truth, for that matter.) Christ sacrificed Himself on the Cross for sinful men, but His Sacrifice is meaningful only in light of the Resurrection. The better sacrifices itself for the worse on the Cross because the better will nonetheless triumph in the end, in contradiction to all worldly understanding. In light of the Resurrection, the Incarnation is what Kierkegaard called the Absolute Paradox, a paradox being what is only apparently absurd. Without the Resurrection, the Incarnation is actually absurd. It is in the light of Faith that the Incarnation escapes absurdity.

The Christian can follow Christ in His humility because, united with Christ, he knows that he will obtain the Pearl of Great Price. The Christian seems a fool and a "loser" in the eyes of the world, but that is because purely secular eyes cannot see beyond the horizon of the world to the glory beyond it:

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice on that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven... (Luke 6: 20-22).

There is a mistaken understanding of Christianity that holds that Christianity holds suffering, per se, to be good. No, suffering is in itself bad; it is only suffering undergone in union with Christ that is good, for then is it suffering transformed into a redemptive act that has as its end ultimate perfection. Absent Christ, suffering can have at most instrumental value (e.g. in teaching virtues like courage and endurance.)

The pagan world does not have the virtue of humility. The sacrifice of the better for the worse cannot be relativized and is therefore always wrong. This made a problem for Plato in his Republic, for the best part of the city is the warrior class. Yet the warrior class is called on to sacrifice itself in war for the rest of the city, for that which is not as good as itself. Therefore Plato must resort to the "Noble Lie" as a means of convincing the warrior class to perform its duty. 

Socrates may be held out as a case of the better sacrificing itself for the worse, but the Apology teaches us better. Socrates did not hold death to be an evil; in fact, since Plato/Socrates see the body as an impediment to the philosophical life, which Socrates presumes will continue after death, death is actually something for which the philosopher longs; philosophy is nothing but a preparation for death. Furthermore, Socrates tells the jury at his trial that he will be victorious in the end; his death will redound to his own glory and to the infamy of the citizens of Athens. So Socrates not only expects death to be a boon to him, but that he will triumph in unambiguously secular terms as well.

The pagan analog to humility is the virtue of magnanimity. This is the best the better can do for the worse. In magnanimity, the "great man" condescends from his position of wealth and virtue to gratuitously assist the less fortunate; what he gets out of it is fame and honor. In no sense would the magnanimous man ever go to the absurd lengths of the Christian, selling all he owns and giving it to the poor. (And, again, notice the tag Christ puts on this command: Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and then come follow me. (Matt. 19:21) It is the relationship to Christ that makes the selling of all goods a morally sensible act.)

So what do we make of Batman in The Dark Knight? Batman is better than the citizens of Gotham; we may say he is the best part of Gotham. Like the warriors in Plato's Republic, Batman is called on to sacrifice himself for that which is worse than himself. Plato's warriors only do it because they are under the sway of the Noble Lie. But Batman is under no illusions; he himself is the author of the Noble Lie that will sustain Gotham. This is absurd and morally incoherent, for Batman is not Jesus Christ, nor does he act in union with Christ. Batman, in the pagan universe in which he exists, is duty bound to not sacrifice himself for Gotham, for with his destruction the best part of Gotham would be destroyed as well. Humility is not a virtue for Batman; it only lives on as an apparent virtue in the post-Christian sensibility of Gotham.

It is appropriate, then, that Batman is The Dark Knight, for his existence is absurd. As a film, The Dark Knight carries dramatic impact to the extent that the audience itself retains a post-Christian sensibility; that is, as long as it still retains some feeling of humility as a virtue. As lingering Christian sensibility recedes, films like The Dark Knight will become laughable, humility having lost all sense of virtue.

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