Plato and THE DARK KNIGHT

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a grad student currently working on an M.A. in Philosophy. For my undergrad, I did a Joint Honors in English and Philosophy. So, for giggles I like to apply ideas from the canon of Philosophy to various cultural products: literature, art, music, film, etc. I’m actually planning on writing my thesis on Poetry and its relationship with Platonic philosophy. Recently, I did a guest lecture for an Intro to Philosophy course. I spoke about the tangly matter of Plato’s metaphysics and how it informs his ideas on ethics and politics. To make it more accessible for the students, I tried applying it to everyone’s favorite movie, The Dark Knight. The students seemed to be into and people with whom I’ve spoken are also keen. So, I decided to write it in my Blog and share it with the interwebs.

Oh, I’m very serious. I tried making the Platonic stuff as lay as possible and included everything you need to know so don’t worry if you don’t have any background in Philosophy. Anyways, first I’ll do a quick and dirty exposition on the relevant Platonisms and will then get on with Batman.

In his metaphysics, Plato distinguishes two different worlds/realms: the material and the rational. On the one hand, we have the physical world, which we experience with our senses. It is the world we see, touch, smell, taste, and hear. More importantly, it is the Heraclitean world of constant change and flux. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Everything we experience physically changes and decays; there is nothing permanent in this world. On the other hand, there is the intelligible world we experience rationally. This is the world of Parmenidean unity and infinity. Here we get universal ideas or forms. Plato asks, what is Justice? Well we know what is Justice by its form, which resides in the intelligible realm.

(this looks like shit, but click it and it’ll be clearer)

Thoughts concerning the sensible, according to Plato, cannot be knowledge because it is constant change and flux; therefore we can only have opinions (doxa) about the material world. Philosophers are those who think beyond the sensible and engage with the intelligible real of forms and ideas. Because this realm is infinite and unchanging, we can have knowledge.

So what is this intelligible realm of forms and ideas, exactly? This is arguably the most difficult and important question at the heart of Plato’s philosophy. The short answer is that the forms are universals. Justice, for example, is a universal. We have many instances of justice: there are just people, acts, and constitutions; but what binds them all together under the umbrella of justice is the universal form. Another form would be beauty. There are beautiful songs, pictures, people, etc. But they are all beautiful because they participate in the form or idea of beauty.

Plato also talks about The Good. The Good is the supreme creative principle in Plato’s metaphysics, however he can’t really talk about it, which makes it difficult to explain. He uses the metaphor of the sun. The Sun, Plato explains, is that which gives life and allows life to be perceived. Think about it. Everything that lives on this planet lives because of the energy provided by the sun. On top of that, we are able to see because of the light provided for by the sun. Everything that is is because of the Good. And we can experience everything because of the Good.

It is difficult to render these things into language, because language belongs to the realm of opinion and belief. Words are signs or abstractions representing objects or ideas. Words are tricky because they do not directly transmit what they represent. A lot of things can get lost in interpretation or translation. This is where the Sophists come into play. The Sophists are basically who Plato’s calling out as the poseurs of real philosophers. Sophists paid people to teach them rhetoric and argue any position they wanted. The Sophists deal with opinion and belief, according to Plato, because they deny the intelligible real of universals. “Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras, a famous Sophist.

Another problem with The Forms and The Good is that in the sensible the Good becomes divided against itself. The sensible world is multifarious and chaotic. It’s like being sucked into a blackhole: the unified Forms are stretched out and fragmented. A great example of this is Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone and Creon become deadlocked over Creon’s treatment of Antigone’s brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices. Long story short, Polyneices raised an army against Thebes and fought Eteocles over the right to rule. Creon deemed Eteocles a hero and was given a proper burial; Polyneices, however, was considered a traitor and thus left to rot, a pretty big deal back then. If you’ve been through the equally tragically flawed High School system, you know how it all turns out in the end. The point is that Creon and Antigone are both right but they simply represent opposing camps; Creon speaks on behalf of the state whereas Antigone champions the good of the family. Such is the dilemma of our existential condition, so says Plato.

So, what the hell does this have to do with Batman?

You can map the main characters of The Dark Knight onto Plato’s Line. Specifically, we can put Harvey Dent on the intelligible realm and the Joker on the sensible. Why? Let’s start with the Joker. The Joker claims to be an “agent of anarchy.” I have a quibble with this because I think anarchy, as a political system, is a legitimate and nuanced model, and quite at odds with chaos and Hobbesian, pre-social contract disarray. The Joker’s modus operandi is to introduce chaos into the social order. He wants to prove there are no rational forms of Justice, Truth, etc. In the opening scene of the movie, after the bank heist, the Manager says to the Joker, “Criminals in this town used to believe in things – honor, respect. Look at you! What do you believe in?” To which the Joker replies, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger.”

According to the Joker, all our ideas of justice and ethics are contingent upon our social milieu. He tells Batman people “are only as good as the world allows them to be…When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” He, like the Sophists, deny the transcendental forms and affirms only the sensible world of flux and change. The Good is dead, so all is permitted – if I may pinch a line from Nietzsche.

Now, the Joker’s foil is Harvey Dent, District Attorney of Gotham. Harvey is The White Knight, an idealist, and represents the upper half of Plato’s line. Initially, he believes in the Forms of Justice, Order, and Truth. This is represented by his trick coin. Harvey claims to make his own luck and flips a coin that is the same on both sides, thus showing he firmly believes what is right is right. The Joker’s project is to drag Dent down into void and purge him of all his notions of the Good and the Forms.

oh hi. so how’s your sex life?

If you’ve seen the movie you know what happens and that the Joker is successful. What’s interesting is what happens to Dent once he’s transformed. Dent becomes Two-Face a man literally divided against himself. This, of course, speaks to Plato’s claim that the Good becomes divided against itself when it is entrenched within the material. Two-Face, like the Joker, denies the Forms and, with his new coin, affirms only chance.

We are now left with Batman. Batman manages to both affirm the Forms and exist within the material world without succumbing to the angst of being divided against himself. How? He’s the goddamn Batman, that’s why. Actually, he’s The Dark Knight, not The White Knight. That’s to say, Batman understands the condition of The Good and the material. He understands that in order to achieve The Good is not a straightforward task. That’s why, at the end of the movie, he must take on the crimes of Two-Face so that Justice may prevail. He will play the role of the villain so that he may do the job of the hero. But he’s cool with that.

Batman straddles that gap (students of Dr. John Scott, take note!) between the intelligible realm and the material. That’s why he’s the Dark Knight. Dun Dun Dunnnnnnn.

I know this doesn’t exhaust the subject but I wanted to keep it fairly light and quick. If you got questions, queries, beefs, come at me, bro! I’ll do my best to address your concerns.

cheers,

B

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~ by braddunne on February 9, 2011.

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