By Kurt Messick
Faculty Member, Humanities Program at American Public University
Every good story includes philosophy at some level. That is because, whether we acknowledge it or not, philosophy underpins all that we do and believe. Socrates believed we are all philosophers, but not often explicit about it. So, it should come as no surprise that philosophy shows up in movies and television shows.
One of my earliest memories of philosophical puzzles comes from Star Trek episodes. Science fiction has long been a way for exploring philosophies without seeming to overtly challenge the established order of things. Artists, musicians, writers, choreographers, and other creative people have always known that their choices can cause their audiences to reflect and perhaps reinterpret.
One film where the philosophical content hit me over the head was The Matrix. Keanu Reeve’s character Neo was through the looking glass, a Lewis Carroll kind of character. But this goes further back to two philosophers, Descartes and Plato. Descartes worried in his meditations that he could never be sure of what he knew. Senses can fool us; we might even be deliberately misled by a deceiving demon. In The Matrix, the deceiving demons were digital. Plato came alive in that his Allegory of the Cave is present in the development of the story. Even when free from the chains, the inhabitant of the cave might not be able to convince others of the real truth of the world. They might not even want to know the truth (I’m remembering here the character who, upon eating a steak in the digitally-enhanced world, acknowledged that he knew it wasn’t real, but that didn’t matter).
As long as there have been movies, there has been a philosophical foundation. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times deals with issues of individualism vs. corporate identity. The Wizard of Oz presents characters who are never quite what they seem, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Society forces us into roles, and sometimes our individuality is sacrificed or even unknown because of our place in the community.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking both highlight theological principles. Beloved incorporates the idea of both prophetic witness and judgment. Dead Man Walking draws upon the ideas of atonement, punishment, and forgiveness. Voltaire said that philosophy, to be worthwhile, must make a difference in your daily life, on the street where you live. Both of these films touch us to the core, but also show how we interact with others to maintain our common life.
Perhaps my favorite philosophical film of all would be one you might never guess: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There are so many bits in this that the mind boggles at making selections. There are political philosophies at play — “you don’t vote for kings!” We see questions of value and aesthetics — “bring me a shrubbery!” We have logic — “how do you determine that someone is a witch? Well, she must be made of wood (since witches burn and wood burns), and since wood floats as do ducks, if the woman weighs as much as a duck, she must be a witch.” One can immediately see why the argument is wrong, but one can spend a good deal of time figuring out precisely why it is wrong. Lest we think this is an absurd thing to do, be aware that modern political speech is often full of just such problems with logic that get masked by the enthusiasm of the listeners to reach the desired conclusion.
Philosophy is at the heart of what we do. Becoming more aware of how it is demonstrated around us makes us more likely to live up to Socrates’ desire that we all live an examined, and therefore worthwhile, life.
About the Author
Kurt Messick attended Indiana University, where he received a B.A. in Political Science and Religious Studies, with a minor in Mathematics. He then got a Jewish Studies Certificate. Kurt studied in the graduate program at the University of London while also working in Parliament for Margaret Thatcher during the mid-1980s. He served as an election agent, campaign manager, office manager, and policy analyst. He received a Master of Divinity degree at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, graduating Summa cum Laude, and served as the seminary’s Director of Communications for two years while pursuing his degree. He is currently in the process of finishing a Doctorate in Theology and History through the South African Theological Seminary.