Saturday, August 23, 2008

Anarchy and Chance Part 2: The Small Laws

(This is the second part of my ramblings concerning The Dark Knight movie. The first part dealt with the Joker, and here I deal with Two-Face. Just as with Part 1, I will treat the character, not as a realistic human being whose psychology could validly be analyzed, but rather I will treat him as a philosophical object. In the Part 1 I used Joker as a model of what the atheistic world view rationally leads to in terms of morality. Here in Part 2, I will use Two-Face as a caricature of someone enslaved by sin. I do this to describe my thoughts on certain concepts, not to describe actual people.)

"When you break the big laws, " says the philosopher G.K. Chesterton, "you do not get freedom; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws." This succinctly describes, I think, the central philosophical problem posed by the character in The Dark Knight film named Harvey Dent, also called "Two-Face". The villain Two-Face is a mad-man obsessed with little impromptu coin-toss-related laws that govern and dictate his every big decision. Yet even as District Attorney Dent, the White Knight of Gotham, he was already tainted with the seed of his future madness. For all his righteousness and courage and integrity, Harvey Dent already had a dent long before The Joker twisted him completely.

When Chesterton says "the big laws", he means Divine Law, specifically Christian doctrine. It is called big, not just because we believe it to come from The Big Man himself, but because it is always broad, all-encompassing, "catholic". For example, when we say "human life is sacred", we do not just mean the life of good Christians, or the life of decent law-abiding citizens, or the life of those who just so happened to be no longer dependent on their mother's womb. We mean all human life. Christian doctrine is also big in the sense that it is not limited by the ignorance, prejudices, and environment of its followers. An orthodox Catholic from the 21st century and an orthodox (and time-traveling!) Catholic from the 15th century might argue endlessly about politics, cosmology, music, and proper attire, yet their orthodoxy could still remain intact. A 27th century Vulcan might land his time-traveling spaceship in front of them, exhibiting vast knowledge and scientific insight, yet none of that could threaten their Faith one bit (the Vulcan might even become Catholic! Hello Bishop Spock!). When we call Christian philosophy a cosmic philosophy, we mean it!

Lastly, Christian doctrine is big because it is something that is whole. Like Health and Sanity, it is a balance and an intertwining of things in a way that one part cannot stand without the rest. And here we return to Harvey Dent. The problem with Dent, the problem of any typical heretic, really, is that he lost sight of healthy thinking because he was obsessed with one tiny part of sanity, breaking it away from the whole as if it was self-sufficient. Harvey Dent's obsession was basically the doctrine of Free Will, which in his hands degenerated into egotism and the irrational disregard for outside forces.

"I don't leave anything up to chance, I make my own luck."
Chesterton said in his book Orthodoxy that the act of believing in oneself, far from being an indication of future success (as so many self-help books claim), is rather often the first sign of a rotter. And the reason for thing is illustrated by the story of Harvey Dent's rotting. He poured all his hope and passion into a single sane idea, the idea that he has the power to change his environment, that he is not just a passive leaf going with the flow of the river. But he forgot two things. First, that we are all part of a bigger Plan (generally of God, though in this case, the movie makers are the gods :P), and just as there are things we can change, there are also things that are beyond us, no matter how much will we have. And so we have the prayer "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." Secondly he also forgot that other people have Free Will as well. He fell in love with his own Free Will, which is another way of saying that he's fallen for himself, which is simply the sin of Pride. And with Pride comes th Fall. Believing completely in himself, Dent was blindsided by the Free Will of an evil clown, and by the time Joker was done with him, that tiny piece of sanity left in him blew up in his face. The Worship of Oneself wasn't so self-sufficient, after all! And in his despair, he took the rest of what was left of his sanity, and smashed it to pieces, leaving behind a bunch of tiny laws and ideas centered upon the complete reversal of his first obsession:
  • We are all slaves of Chance. Our will, our choices and beliefs mean nothing once the coin has been tossed.
  • Chance dictates who is punished and who escapes to live another day. It is the only kind of Justice: "unbiased, unprejudiced, fair".
  • Right and Wrong are merely the opposite sides of the same coin. An action becomes considered right only by Chance.
And all it took was, as the Joker said, "a little push".

The half-baked belief, Free Will becoming mere worship of Self (the "I believe in Harvey Dent" motto comes to mind), shattered into even more fragile pieces, simple truisms that only the insane would call "beliefs". For example, the "slave of Chance" claim is useless because it is simply a sophistic restatement of something that isn't even an argument in the first place: the truism that "things happen" (which is just as insightful as another common truism used by some who enjoy small laws: "I like doing the things I like"). Or in another sense, calling yourself a "slave of Chance" is so useless that it becomes too useful, because just as it explains nothing, it explains everything away. Once you base your philosophy on a truism, all your thoughts can be excused, for you have already excused yourself of Thought itself. Why bother thinking of Ethics, when your best friend Chance has already showed you the way to what you want? Yet whatever sense of freedom such a philosophy gives, in the end it only enslaves the mind.
You think I want to escape from this? There is no escape from this!
For a man who embraces the small laws for everything will discover that everything has become so much smaller. Like a triangle that broke from the bonds of its three sides, he finds himself free from far too much. Having freed himself, for example, from the "chains" of Free Will, he is startled to discover that he can no longer say, among other things, "Thank you", "Please", "I don't like what you're doing", "Sorry", "I forgive you", and "I love you"... at least not without contradicting his philosophy. The man of Chance binds himself with polished, refined, high-class chains that will not even let him pass the salt-shaker if he pleases, and to be thanked for it. Is it any surprise that it won't let Harvey Dent kill a traitor? Chance, after all, is a two-faced friend.

And thus Harvey Dent became Two-Face, the mindless murderous peon of an unthinking coin, somehow imagining himself to be Enlightened, like the atheistic Brights of today who laugh and sneer at believers whilst trapped in their own little prisons.

Yet the Truth shall set you free.

Edit: Changed the title of the post to reflect the Chesterton quote. It's what I originally intended, but writing at 2am in the morning can be really bad for one's focus.

Edit: Added stuff to the last few paragraphs in a futile attempt to improve coherence.

Edit: After re-reading Orthodoxy, added another classic Chesterton saying.