Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Anarchy and Chance - Part 1, The House of Cards

I finally got to watch The Dark Knight last Saturday with my parents and my little sister. Just as I treated Wanted as a comedy parodying its supposed genre, I ended up seeing The Dark Knight as something other than an action movie. The few combat scenes and the car chases were a chore to watch and were mostly forgettable. No, instead of an action movie, I saw a set of philosophy lessons (wrapped in a beautiful work of film art, but that's for everyone else to talk about).

Though there were many bossy bad guys in the movie (Salvatore was there, as well as the lame-ass Scarecrow), only one of them stood out, reigning over the rest, the one central villain-- I say he's even the central character-- the Joker. But there's also another character who's almost as important, a tortured man whose villainy emerged only near the end of this tragedy, the pitiful Two-Face. It seems to me as if Batman was just there to connect these two villains, to unite the two stories of evil together. It's as if the title misled us into thinking that the story is about Bruce Wayne's alter-ego, when it actually refers to two things: the laughing "knight" of darkness and the "dark night" of a poor soul. I see the movie as just a framework to present these two sides of a philosophical coin, painted on one side, scorched on the other. It is the Coin of Immorality, spinning madly forever and ever.


I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve.
Just some time ago I was debating an atheist friend about the proper justification for morality. I argued that while I had an a priori justification for morality in the form of a divine Law Maker, he did not. He only had the little random and selfish human commandments invented by sentimental men. None of his morality is real, not in any rational sense. Atheistic morality is the one described by Terry Pratchett's Death in his conversation with Susan in Hogfather:

You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
"So we can believe the big ones?"
Yes. Justice. Duty. Mercy. That sort of thing.
"They're not the same at all!"
Really? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act, like there was some sort of rightness in the universe by which it may be judged"
"Yes. But people have got to believe that or what's the point?"
My point exactly.

That is the kind of irrational morality that some sentimental atheists have. "I've got to believe in justice and mercy or else what's the point?" My friend, being a typical enlightened Bright, scoffed at my need to believe in a bearded man in the clouds to give meaning to my life, calling my belief system a house of cards, utterly dependent on one assumption that God exists. Yet one simply cannot justify moral conduct in a world where morality is not real in principle. You cannot consider Moral Law as objective if your Law Maker is nobody but yourself, certainly not if your Law Maker is the mythical Everybody Else, the muddled and chaotic collective opinions of the people around you.

In fact the real house of cards is the belief system utterly dependent on subjective individualist dogmas, improvised to fit the current needs, like a complicated magical house held together only by superstition, like a house of Joker cards held together by kieselguhr infused with nitroglycerine. And it only takes grief or fear or gullibility or even boredom to push one card and topple the house to the ground. It takes one flame to make it go boom.
When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other.
The Joker manages to demonstrate this multiple times throughout the movie, destroying one house of cards after another. Promising more wealth to his minions, they conveniently and systematically killed each other, eliminating the need to split up the loot. He knew that the mob bosses' plan to protect their money will fail, and used their fear to coerce them into irresponsibly hiring a madman-- him-- to solve their problems in the most destructive way possible. He made the people of Gotham agree to sacrificing Batman after he murdered the police commissioner and a judge. He threatened to blow up a hospital if a certain man isn't killed after a set time, leading a bunch of supposedly normal everyday people to go on a vicious manhunt. In the end, Joker drove Gotham's White Knight insane... but let's talk about that some other time.

The atheist would of course complain that even Catholics can be immoral, citing as usual the crusades and the inquisitions and the pedophile priests. But they miss the point entirely because while men can flip-flop and occasionally forget the philosophies they supposedly believe in, the philosophies themselves do not change, and the real test is how (and if) a person can be judged by his own philosophy.

There lies the victory of Christian philosophy: while a Catholic who has gone bad is a bad Catholic, an atheist who has gone bad is not a bad atheist. The Catholic can be condemned by his god because the god is bigger than the Catholic and can therefore be a proper judge. But what can atheism say to a Joker? Even if an atheist invents his own materialist moral codes (as they often do), those moral codes cannot condemn him because they are mere inventions of his, and are therefore smaller than him, changeable and disposable.
You have all these rules, and you think they'll save you.

The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.
And dispose of them he does. Joker calls himself "ahead of the curve" precisely because he's decided to live his atheism honestly and abolish all the illusory rules while his counterparts and enemies still continue to fool themselves with The Big Lies. In Joker we find the true atheist: amoral, hedonist, unreliable, deadly. And in him one finds at last the kind of atheism that cannot be reasoned with by any religious apologetics. He is an unstoppable force, because his philosophy is at the very least rational and consistent.
You have nothing—nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all your strength.
Just like anyone who has found an unassailable Truth to faithfully hold on to, there is absolutely no fear in Joker, not even the fear of death. Laughing gleefully as he falls down from a tall building, he reminds me of the stories I read as a child about certain Christian martyrs who died in ecstatic bliss, laughing as they were executed. The only difference is that the Christian martyr laughed knowing that he was about to experience the Beatific Vision of the God he truly loved, while Joker laughed thinking he was about to make the most wonderful dramatic and chaotic exit from the absurd and illusory world. One's Truth was in God, while the other's Truth was in Destruction even unto himself.

Meanwhile, the incomplete atheists and the lukewarm believers could only shake their heads in confusion at the sight of these madmen, the Dogmatist and the Anarchist. They walk away ignoring the warnings of one and the threats of the other, and go on living contentedly and happily in their colorful house of cards.

To be continued in Part 2.