Summary: Like all myths, the Batman saga about the dystopia of Gotham City has a philosophy. Of course, it’s quite dark. The popularity of these stories proves that they’re a dark mirror showing that we sense the decay of our society as it drifts away from its roots. Here we turn for analysis of these things to the late Allan Bloom. This post was revised in June 2015.
- A new era of chaos.
- The Joker, the ambassador of Chaos.
- Bruce Wayne decides to be Batman.
- What is Bruce Wayne fighting for?
- For More Information.
(1) A new era of chaos
We live in a time when the forces of chaos again threaten to break loose. Madmen like those of the past — Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot — again gain control of nations and kill in pursuit of irrational ends. Violence breaks out in the name of the Hindu and Muslim gods. Our once poor but culturally rich inner cities — such as New York and New Orleans — have rotted into ghettos, almost ungoverned zones with cultures alien to the rest of America.
Under stress people turn to fantasy not just for encouragement but also to help process these trends. Most such stories tell of transcendental saviors (an alien Jesus) and regular people given magic powers to right wrong. The Batman saga is different. Bruce Wayne has everything — intelligence, looks, wealth — but gives up a life of ease, instead honing his physical and mental skills in order to personally — and painfully — wage war on the forces of disorder that have engulfed his city.
Why does this story have such appeal during the past 70 years both to adults and children? I believe it evokes our fears about the weak foundations of our society, as it totters against threats both foreign and domestic. Allan Bloom helps us to better understand this in his Closing of the American Mind, as shown in these excerpts — which have been paraphrased and re-combined.
(2) From where comes the Joker, an ambassador of Chaos?
Rousseau and Nietzsche destroyed the intellectual basis of the Enlightenment, and the West’s self-confidence in itself. Replacing that in the minds of the intelligentsia is contempt for the bourgeoisie — that is, the self-satisfied, morally blind, materialist middle class — and beneath that fears that our values (their Christian roots discredited) have no foundation. It leaves few grounds for hope.
So a darkness on top of a void is the condition of life, no longer illuminated by rational analysis. The rise of the bourgeoisie results in a spiritual entropy or an evaporation of the soul, which weakens us in face of the unlimited choices made possible by the death of God in our souls — and the disappearance of His rules.
That is the basis of Max Weber‘s science, which was at best a doubtful dare against the chaos of things, with values certainly beyond its limits. That is what the precarious, not to say imaginary, distinction between facts and values means. Reason in politics leads to the inhumanity of bureaucracy. Weber found it impossible to prefer rational politics to the politics of irrational commitment; he believed that reason and science themselves were value commitments like any other, incapable of asserting their own goodness.
He believed that politics required a dangerous and inherently uncontrollable semi-religious value positing, and Weber was witnessing a struggle for possession of man and society, the results of which were unpredictable. Everything is up in the air, and we have no theodicy to sustain us. Weber, along with many others in Germany under Nietzsche’s influence, saw that his insights threatened all that we care for, and we lacked the intellectual and moral resources to govern the outcome.
We require values, which in turn require a creativity that is drying up and in any event has no cosmic support. Scientific analysis reveals reason to be powerless, and dissolves the protective horizon within which men can value.
This astonishing Americanization of the German pathos can be seen in the smiling face of Louis Armstong as he belts out the words of his great hit “Mack the Knife”, a translation of the “Mackie Messer” from The Threepenny Opera, a monument of Wiemer Republic culture. Less known is its origin in an aphorism in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra entitled “On the Pale Criminal”, which tells of story of an insane murderer, eerily resembling Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who does not know, cannot know, that he committed murder out of a motive as legitimate as any other: he lusted after “the joy of the knife.”
Our stars are singing a song they do not understand, bringing America into a world where anything is possible for people who sing about the joy of the knife in cabarets.
(3) What is the significance to us of Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman?
Since values are not rational and not grounded in our natures, they must be imposed. They must defeat opposing values. Rational persuasion cannot make them believed, so struggle is necessary. Producing values and believing in them are acts of the will. Lack of will, not lack of understanding, becomes the crucial defect.
Commitment becomes the moral virtue because it proves the seriousness of the agent. Commitment becomes the equivalent of faith when God has been supplanted by self-provided values.
Nietzsche was a cultural relativist, but he saw what that means — war, great cruelty not great compassion. War is the fundamental phenomenon. Peace can sometimes produced by force, but always precariously. Cultures war with one another. They must do so because values can only be asserted or posited by overcoming others, not by reasoning with them.
Cultures have different perceptions, which determine the nature of the world for peoples. Cultures cannot come to terms with each other because there is no communication about the highest things. Communication is the substitute for understanding when there is no common world men share.
Seeing a world in terms of cultures means wars against chaos and a war against other cultures. To live, to have any inner substance, a man must have values, must be committed or engaged. Therefore a cultural relativist must care for culture more than truth, and fight for culture while knowing it is not true.
———————- End paraphrases from Closing of the American Mind. ———————-
(4) What is Bruce Wayne fighting for?
Each reader gives his own answers to such questions. I believe Wayne does not fight for any higher values, or any abstractions. He fights to buy time for the people of Gotham to reorganize, and then reclaim their city from the forces of chaos.
We live in a time when the police spend a disproportionate fraction of their time writing tickets for traffic violations and arresting people for minor drug use (and children for running lemonade stands). Our elites devote themselves to conspicuous spending and collecting art. Our government devotes itself to gathering power over all things great and small, foreign and domestic. Disillusionment (literally) is a logical reaction.
The story of a man voluntarily devoting his life to healing our broken society — even by the most arduous and dangerous public service — has great appeal. It’s consistent with the admiration of Americans for the US military, despite their many failings the most trusted of our institutions.
Unfortunately, as Bloom explains, our problems have deep conceptual roots not fixable by heroic acts. We see this when we look behind the black hat – white hat comic book myths of the Batman story. Gotham City appears as one future for the post-modern America we are building, a rich high-tech society that has lost much of its social cohesion because it abandoned its roots in Western philosophy. All that remains are greed and power. The rich read Ayn Rand and feel superior, while inequality reaches Latin American levels that destroy the government’s legitimacy — so that crime skyrockets. The shrinking middle class suffers impotently between the upper- and under-classes.
This is a compelling analysis of our problems. Our heroes provide entertaining stories but point to a dead-end road for America (more about this in the posts listed below). To successfully go forward we must find a foundation for our values (since recovering the religious basis seems unlikely). Perhaps we should look to priests and philosophers for leaders, or even heroes
(5) For More Information
- The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes,
- Our choice of heroes reveals much about America,
- Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
- Why don’t our dreams of a better world inspire us to act?
- Captain America: the Winter Soldier – high-quality indoctrination for sheep.