The philosophy of the Joker

Summary: Joker’s opening weekend shattered the record for an October release (despite its R rating), and brought in an incredible $234 million worldwide. Films do not hit those numbers by skill alone. The film must speak to us and our deep concerns.

The Joker

We live in a time when the forces of chaos again threaten to break loose. Violence breaks out around the world 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 often turn to fantasy, not just for encouragement but also to help process these events. Many such stories tell of transcendental saviors (an alien Jesus) or regular people given magic powers to right wrongs. 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 to the very limits in order to personally and painfully wage war on the forces of disorder that have engulfed his city. His greatest opponent epitomizes the forces of disorder: the Joker.

Why does this story have such appeal both to adults and children? It gives form to 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, from which this material is taken. Some of this summarizes what he says; some is a close paraphrase of his words.

The Joker burning cash, from "The Dark Knight"
From “The Dark Knight.”

The foundations of society have been burned away

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 we live in darkness on top of a void, 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. It leaves only a weak basis for any rules.

That is the basis of Max Weber‘s science (i.e., modern philosophy), which was at best a doubtful dare against the chaos of things, with values certainly beyond its limits. That is what the precarious, or 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 were just value commitments, and so incapable of asserting their own goodness.

Weber believed that politics required a dangerous and inherently uncontrollable semi-religious value positing. Our era is the struggle for the emergence of new values, with unpredictable or unknowable results. Everything is up in the air, and we have no theodicy to sustain us. He, along with others who understood Nietzsche’s insights, saw that everything we care about was at stake, 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 has no cosmic support.  Scientific analysis reveals reason to be powerless, and dissolves the protective horizon within which men can value.

Artists project our fears onto stage and screen

This struggle emerged in the fires of WWI, and then in its result: Weimar Germany. The West’s cultural wars are louder echos of the forces unleashed then. This is best known in the descendants of Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autographic Goodbye to Berlin (1939), such as the play and film Cabaret. But a more powerful example is a monument of Wiemer Republic culture, The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht. It became known to America by the smiling face of Louis Armstong (later Bobbie Darin and Frank Sinatra) singing “Mack the Knife.”

Few today remember the story that is the context for the song. Even less well-known is its origin in an aphorism in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) entitled “On the Pale Criminal.” It tells the story of an insane murderer, eerily resembling Rodion Raskolnikov in  Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) – a man who does not and cannot know that he committed murder out of a motive as legitimate as any other: he lusts after “the joy of the knife.”

This is the philosophy of the Joker. Few will understand it, for it lies beyond the vision of the bourgeoisie. That is why the tide of madness will continue to rise, and efforts to stop it will prove futile. 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. And who find villains such as the Joker more exciting than heroes who protect us from them.


Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Available at Amazon.

“He now saw himself always as doer of a single deed. Madness I call this: the exception now became for him the essence. …The line he followed bewitched his meagre reason. Madness after the deed I call this. Hear me, you judges! There is yet another kind of madness: and this is before the deed. You have not crawled deep enough into this soul!

“Thus speaks the scarlet judge: ‘But why did this criminal murder? He wanted to rob.’ But I say to you all: his soul wanted blood, not loot; he was thirsting for the joy of the knife! But his meagre reason was unable to grasp this madness and it won him over. ‘What is the point of blood!’ it said; ‘Do you not at least want to steal something too? Or to take revenge?’ And he listened to his meagre reason: like lead did its speech lie upon him – and so he robbed when he murdered. He wanted not to be ashamed of his madness. And now again the lead of his guilt lies upon him, and again his meagre reason is so stiff, so lamed, so heavy.

“If only he could shake his head, his burden would roll off: but who can shake this head? What is this man? A heap of sicknesses that reach out through the spirit into the world: there they want to catch their prey.

“What is this man? A ball of wild snakes that are seldom at peace with each other – so they go forth singly and seek prey in the world. Behold this poor body! What it suffered and desired, this poor soul interpreted for itself – and interpreted it as murderous pleasure and greed for the joy of the knife. Whoever now becomes sick is overcome by the evil that is evil now: he wants to hurt with that which hurts him. But there have been other times and another evil and good.

“Once doubting was evil and the will to self. At that time the sick became heretics and witches: as heretics and witches they suffered and wanted to inflict suffering. But this will not enter your ears: it would harm your good men, you tell me. But what do your good men matter to me! Much about your good men disgusts me, and verily it is not their evil. How I wish they had a madness through which they might perish, just like this pale criminal! Verily, I wish their madness were called truth or loyalty or justice: but they have their virtue in order to live long, and in wretched contentment. I am a railing by the torrent: grasp me, whosoever can! Your crutch, however, I am not.

“Thus spoke Zarathustra.”


For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  See all posts about heroes, about reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these…

  1. Our choice of heroes reveals much about America.
  2. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
  3. We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
  4. “Justice League” is the film we need, not the one we deserve – Esp. see the role of Batman.
  5. We need better heroes. They are there, in our past.
  6. Inspiration. The missing element that can reform America.
  7. Where we can find the inspiration to fix America?
  8. Let’s make 2019 great by seeking leaders instead of heroes.
  9. The sad reason we love superheroes, and the cure.
  10. “Joker” is a film of our time, but not the film we need.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Available at Amazon.

The big book about superheroes

The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

By Joseph Campbell (1949).

This is the book that sparked serious research in to the function and significance of myths. See Wikipedia. From the publisher.

“Since its release in 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces has influenced millions of readers by combining the insights of modern psychology with Joseph Campbell’s revolutionary understanding of comparative mythology. In these pages, Campbell outlines the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world’s mythic traditions. He also explores the Cosmogonic Cycle, the mythic pattern of world creation and destruction.

As relevant today as when it was first published, The Hero with a Thousand Faces continues to find new audiences.”


19 thoughts on “The philosophy of the Joker”

  1. Yep. Been saying something like this for a while. Although I’d throw in that nietchze seas reacting to the erosion of his culture rather than accelerating it. Also, I’ve kind of wondered if parts of the enlightenment also allowed for the destruction we have seen.

    PS (please respond to this) Did you get my question asking email the other day? Also there is a comment on yesterday’s post that, if you would be ameanable, I would like to have a discussion upon.

    Thank you
    I hope you are doing well

  2. Way back in 1966 Philip Rieff, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud wrote:

    “Every culture has two main functions:

    (1) to organize the moral demands men make upon themselves into a system of symbols that make men intelligible and trustworthy to each other, thus rendering also, the world intelligible and trustworthy.

    (2) to organize the expressive remissions by which men release themselves, in some degree, from the strain of conforming to the controlling symbolic.

    The process by which culture changes at its profoundest level may be traced in the shifting balance of controls and releases which constitute a system of moral demands.”

    Rieff adds that a cultural revolution occurs when the releasing symbolic grows more compelling (in Weimar and now in U.S,) than the controlling one; it is then that the inherent tensions reach a breaking point. Roman culture may have been moving toward such a braking point when Christianity appeared as a new symbolic order of controls and releases.

  3. Wow! Such a beautiful post! I thought it was just yet another thoughtless blockbuster. I will watch it now, perhaps on the weekend. I would also like to say that I’m glad I found this blog: brilliant content!

    1. John,

      Thanks for pointing to that. I thought it was from The Onion, but I see that he is serious (albeit delusional). I wonder where he gets so much misinformation? Apparently he doesn’t read the news in either Europe or the US.

      Still, it was a fun read.

      1. John,

        Yep, it is funny. While America is not Heaven, it is a magnet for people from all over the world seeking a better life.

        Most of the things described there are happening across the west – the global village. For example, most of those trends are more developed in Europe (or Britain and Europe) than the US. Especially new controls on speech.

        Crime is skyrocketing in Sweden. Frances has persistent large-scale rioting by both natives and immigrants (only the former is reported). Synagogues in German are burning, and getting armed guards. Britain is dismantling its universities and public health care system. Across Europe, actual facsicst parties are gaining power (not just the anything-not-left that gets called “fascist” here). The Japanese have given up child-rearing. Etc, etc.

        It’s a cycle. We have been through these before, and we will again.

        But Heaven is open to all. Just live a good life and die – then you will be in a better realm from which you can sneer at the world!

    1. John,

      People like Hanson are always with us, whining that the now isn’t as wonderful as the good-old-days that exist only in their imagination.

      That ignorance of history is esp pitiful in a professor of history like Hanson. I wonder if this is affected for political purposes. I wonder if he is really that ignorant of America’s past.

  4. I was hoping for something a bit more substantial than this given the kerfuffle around Joker. The Threepenny Opera (“Die Dreigroschen Oper”) owes nothing to Nietzsche. It’s an adaptation of the English 18th century Beggar’s Opera by Gay and Pepusch. Yes, Brecht makes Macheath a less sympathetic character (i.e. he’s more than just a thief, he becomes a murderer) and ups the class warfare angles, understandably given his Marxist bias, but Macheath isn’t insane; he’s basically just a whoring thug, not the leader of an insane clown posse.

    1. Fyodor,

      Professor Bloom disagreed with you. Given the eerie accuracy of his predictions about the evolution of western society, I take his analysis seriously.

      Also, you miss the primary point Bloom makes about our esteem for Mack the Knife. He isn’t one of the classic hero-criminals (eg, Robin Hood) attacking the rich. This is a killer, a force for disorder. Much like the pimps and drug lords who were feted at Manhattan cocktail parties in the early 1970s – and are the “victims” pitied by liberals today. People who in a better world would have their mothers’ asking for long prison sentences.

      The success of the film might be an indicator that Bloom correctly predicted this next step in our culture. Many in law enforcement worry that the Joker will become a figure that others will emulate. If that happens, it will definitely be another successful prediction for Bloom.

  5. The Man Who Laughs

    He’s not the hero Gotham needs or deserves,He’s the hero who can survive and thrive in what Gotham has become. He doesn’t really want to see the world burn, but if the people around him insist on playing with gasoline and matches, and won’t reach for a fire extinguisher, he might just decide to toast marshmallows. The Batman wants to save Gotham. The Joker knows that Gotham is beyond help and so, as the Red Pill guys say, he’s going to enjoy the decline.

    There’s a particular kind of American archetype that Jeff Cooper (Gun writer and firearms instructor) once described as the killer as hero. As Cooper described him, he did not prey on society and mostly obeyed it’s laws, but he held he lives of his enemies in little regard, and he was a dangerous man to thwart. The Joker deviates from this in that he doesn’t care about the law, because in his world there is no law or legitimate authority to respect. The Joker is an American hero for an America that people have given up on. In Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, (One of the great American crime novels) The Continental Op comes to Personville and finds that the forces of law have completely broken down. he takes on the criminals and wins, in part because he knows that somewhere outside the city limits there forces of actual law and order that can be appealed to and called in. Superman and Batman protected their respective cities. The Joker knows that they’re wasting their time. The Superhero fantasy is that a lone superpowered hero can save the day, and it would be cool to be like him. The Joker is for people who just expect to be victims.

    For what it’s worth, I liked the Heath Ledger Joker a lot better. part of his appeal was that he never had an origin story.

    1. The Man,

      I can’t make heads or tales of your comment since you don’t give a noun for “he.” The first paragraph does not seem to consistently describe either the Batman or the Joker.

      The second paragraph makes even less sense. The Continental Op acts as a kind of vigilante in Poisonville – stepping outside the law to restore order. The Joker is an agent of chaos.

  6. “This is the philosophy of the Joker. Few will understand it, for it lies beyond the vision of the bourgeoisie. That is why the tide of madness will continue to rise, and efforts to stop it will prove futile. 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. And who find villains such as the Joker more exciting than heroes who protect us from them.”

    To reinforce this cluelessness, I would offer the excruciating McDonalds commercials in the 1980s centered around this murderous song. I despised the ad campaign as a teenager, but assumed my elders had at least some minimal reason for the nostalgia the song evoked. Now after reading about the original in this post I understand how totally clueless they were.

    For added irony, here is a youtube video that nostalgically waxes for the campaign, while fretting that racists have sullied what was a fine upright moral message. You truly can’t make this stuff up.

      1. The movie is an origin story about the joker which can be summed up in the joker famed line about madness “it take one bad day ”
        In the movie more like “a life” instead of day .
        I recommend watching it .
        The general women response was quite interesting for me , because the lack of empathy and sympathy for the character . Why Arthur fleck “the joker” didn’t illicit the motherly instinct
        considering him being mentally ill , taking care of his sick mother ,fail as comedian , harassed regularly and abandoned by the gov. ( when funding for the psychiatric meds he is on discontinued by funding cuts)
        He is the quintessential disenfranchised.
        Most of those female critics have a voided watching it all together.
        Did the hatred for everything male centric became so high .

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