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mysteriouslila
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I've considered writing something like this for a while now. I have had various opportunities to do that kind of exercise when in the company of people who knew comics well, but didn't know too much about philosophy, though they were interested. Likewise, I've had various opportunities to do the reverse with pals from the faculty of philosophy who didn't know too much about comics and super heroes and the likes. I want to do it specifically for Batman because I think that, for various reasons, Batman's universe makes it an excellent philosophical fiction. Now, I'm not saying Batman series -either the comics, the animated series, the films or the outstanding video games- were made for philosophical reasons at all. All I'm saying is, provided one takes this kind of entertainment seriously enough, stunningly accurate parallelisms may be made with major philosophical theories and authors. If you've ever bothered reading a bit of philosophy, you've noticed that even the good old greek ones had a strange habit: picking very boring, down-to-earth, everyday-life examples to illustrate their theories, or using famous examples from mythology to make their concepts and notions and abstractions come to life. I love spotting philosophical questions in comics, because it shows that these questions and problems aren't foreign to society as a whole, they are, on the contrary, at the center of debates and discussions and concerns. So here it is: for my own entertainment, and I hope for yours too, philosophy meets Batman.

BATMAN AND BECCARIA (WITH A LITTLE BIT OF KANT ON TOP)

Batman is a complicated hero, because he's not really "super". Sure he's really clever, but in a rather realistic way. He's not bullet-proof, he doesn't have super strength and as far as we know he aches when he's hit. He has, it's true,a lot of devices and gadgets to make his job easier but not to the extent of Ironman's armour. So, Batman and all his friends have something in common: they can die rather easily. They take big risks hardly diminished by the superior level of physical training and technological support they have. Yet, Batman does not kill. Cesare Beccaria is the father of death penalty's abolition, among other things. He wrote On Crimes and Punishments in the middle of the 18th century and made a significant contribution to philosophy of law there. His idea was that death penalty - and all cruel treatments - are neither ethically sustainable nor efficient. They're not ethically sustainable because, Beccaria said, if society is disgusted by barbaric actions and murders, it is rather unlogical that it should use murder and barbaric treatments to keep people away from resorting to said murder and barbaric treatments. Furthermore, he warned against the dangers of being ruled by a state that has a power of life and death upon its citizens. And secondly, Beccaria didn't think public executions were much good. "What keeps people away from crime?", Beccaria asked. Is it the possibility that they'll get caught and put to death? He doesn't think so. He says that what keeps criminals away from crime is the anticipation that they will most likely get caught. The punishment need not be extreme, it must be certain. It's exactly what Batman is about, isn't it? An all-seeing vigilante, prompt to react, who is always behind criminals' backs, reading to strike, observing them in the dark. That's exactly Beccaria's idea of what Justice ought to be. He says that crime seems profitable if you can take a bet, there's an advantage to it if you think you stand a chance to escape punishment and enjoy your theft-rape-murder-whatever without being troubled. If you know for a fact you'll be put to jail the minute you smoke a joint or steal a bike, it is going to look seriously less appealing. Beccaria is not an all-sweet optimist who believes there's good in everyone, as you can see. He can even be quite scary at times. He was in favour of a "perpetual enslavement" in replacement for death penalty, just that. Like Batman, Beccaria didn't sympathize with criminals and outlaws much. But there's one thing he really liked more than he hated crime: the Law. Here's why Batman's a bit kantian too. Because the reason why he doesn't kill has nothing to do with external reasons, such as sympathy for those he's beating up, but with obeying a moral rule. We're dealing with categorical imperatives here, and those don't really mind what they're applied to. If the content of the categorical imperative is "you shall not kill", then you don't. Not even child molesters who plot genocides while eating their grandmother alive. Not even them. If your rule is "you shall not lie", then you don't. Not even to save someone's life... Yes, it can be a bit terrifying  like that, being kantian. That's exactly the meaning of duty, duty is the source of its own principle. It has a tautological sort of definition, such as "you must because you must". In this situation, not killing the Joker isn't respecting the Joker's life, it is respecting Batman's own rule. 

 

THE JOKER AND NIHILISM

If one character was to be used to help understanding one of the most eclectic, complicated, rich, and confusing philosophical tendency ever, it was the Joker. Nihilism is a very very general term. For the sake of etymology, let's just mention that it is derived from the latin word "nihil" which means "nothing". Nihilism is characterized by an absence of purpose, meaning and coherence, whether it is in the metaphysical sphere, historical, political, or at the individual scale. The Joker is a shady, mysterious character. Many times, his identity and his origins and motives remain unknown and his actions seem to be rather cahotic. Nihilism is, strangely enough, not born from too little logic but from too much of it. The source of nihilism is to be found within Logic itself, as it was primarily the result of a logical paradox. Gorgias is often considered the source of nihilism, since he found that reality was a logical paradox. Here is the paradox: one of the fundamental principles of classical logic is that "if, for a thing that can be said true, its opposite cannot be said true as well, then the truth value of the first thing is nonsense". Seems weird, but think of it that way: if you want "true" to mean something, you also need "false" to have a meaning. If "false" doesn't exist then "true" is absurd and devoid of meaning. No light without darkness, no good without evil, etc... This logical rule might seem silly but it is probably one of the most powerful logical principle ever. Well, here's what Gorgias says: nothingness doesn't exist, because if it did, then it wouldn't be nothingness anymore. Since nothingness (or non-beings) can't be called "true", then "being" (the opposite to "non-being") makes no sense either and cannot exist. Hence reality is a logical paradox, it is absurd, and cannot exist. Or if it does exist, it is nothing we can understand since our intelligence is bound to logic. Nihilism, as you can see, originates from the feeling that reality is illogical. There are two reactions to that: first, you could assume that reality is meaningless. None of the codes you apply to it are going to work. It will only pretend to be logical. The second reaction is: logic is useless. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, had a deep interest for logic. Alice in Wonderland appears as a logical fiction, illustrating logical rules and paradoxes. That's why it seems a bit crazy. From this feeling that reason amounts to nothing in a world that is not making any sense, several powerful philosophical theories were born. I guess Nietzsche comes to everyone's mind, that's why I'll say a few things about his main source of inspiration: Arthur Schopenhauer. Just for the anecdote, Schop' hated Hegel with a passion. Hegel was the most logical philosopher in 19th Century Germany. Dialectics is a method he adapted from Plato, and Plato himself followed a logical pattern there. Hegel believes in positive knowledge, he says History has a direction and his areas of interests are so rich and diverse we can say he pretty much "gave meaning" to about any field philosophy can get focused on. He is the source of two contradictory political philosophies, meritocratic republicanism and... marxism. Now, Hegel, francophilic, optimistic dear old Hegel was the most popular philosopher of his time. He had people crowded in a room during his lectures. Schopenhauer decided to schedule his own lectures at the same time as Hegel's. Of course, nobody came. Schopenhauer's first philosophical essay is his thesis On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (you can show off with that now) which nobody ever read though it was the basis for a very big later book that eats a lot of space on my bookshelf: The World as Will and Representation . Now, the "principle of sufficient reason" is a big fancy name for "cause". Causal chains are the "world as representation". It is what science can understand. Now, Schopenhauer says: the world isn't that. Science can only see it in terms of causes and consequences and that is, he says, exactly what the world isn't. It's a representation of the world. What the world truly is, is governed by Will. Now, you can forget about Hegel's view of God's will and direction. To him, Will is a powerful, transcendant, and completely not godly instance. It has no subject. And it's invisible. Except to the genius. Genius, for Schopenhauer, isn't a scientist. It's an artist. Someone who can see beyond representation and whom nobody will listen to because "it makes no sense". Well, the world makes no sense. Will makes no sense. Will just goes on willing. Now I hate Schopenhauer. He hated women, he hated jews, he hated mankind, he hated revolutions, he smirked at mathematicians. But I've rarely come accross anything that powerful. Schopenhauer had the greatest composers and musicians of the century come play on his mama's piano when he was little. Goethe hired him to work on his Theory of Colours after reading one "On the Fourfold...". If there's one thing he understood better than any other it is art. If you like music, what he says about it is brilliant, hurry up and go read it. Back to the topic: the Joker is an artist. His motives don't seem to be greed. There is no "causal chain" to explain his criminal actions. He just points and laugh at the paradoxes of a grim, predictable world. Another important thing: The Joker dies. He dies in the Animated Series, in the Dark Knight comics, in the video game Arkham City. Nihilism does that: when logic fails, when existence amounts to the same as non-existence, the greatest question that arises is death. According to Plato, Socrates said that "to do philosophy is to learn to die". Philosophers are very concerned about death, not in a religious way. Philosophy successfully conceives the destruction of about anything, from God, to logic, and even reality. What it fails to conceive, however, is the destruction of thought. Or rather, what it fears to conceive. Idealisms tried to protect thought from destruction. What nihilism anxiously begins to grasp is that ideas, thoughts, axioms, all of that can die too. Nietzsche and Heidegger, and to an extent Adorno, are all concerned about self-destructing thought. The Joker is a bit of that too, a powerful, fascinating character actively rushing to its death, mocking Batman's strict rules and rationnality and ultimately negating  Batman's utimate non-killing rule by dying on him. Now here is the thing, nihilism is a mirror held out to philosophy. By highlighting its contradictions, its paradoxes, and its destructive potential, it forces philosophers out of their little world of books and ideas and moral codes and questions both the organisation of the world and their understanding of it. It's not so to speak the enemy of philosophy, it is, on the contrary, what keeps the machine going. Just like the Joker is not really Batman's enemy. He's the dark side that keeps questioning Batman's certainties. By being a monster, the Joker probably is what keeps Batman from being one too...

 

 


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