The Philosophy of Batman: Schopenhauer Edition

“Haha, now I REALLY want to know what The Dark Knight has to do with Schopenhauer.” –mlawski Alright. You asked for it. Mlawski’s own fine post on utilitarianism and The Dark Knight, “The Philosophy of Batman” inspired me — can … Continued

“Haha, now I REALLY want to know what The Dark Knight has to do with Schopenhauer.”
mlawski

Alright. You asked for it.

Batman, Schopenhauer Style

Mlawski’s own fine post on utilitarianism and The Dark Knight, “The Philosophy of Batman” inspired me — can we delve deeper into the philosophy at the heart of The Dark Knight? I figured I’d go to the well and hash out some German philosophy for this one, partially because I thought it fit, and partially because, like Bruce Wayne, I’m just that crazy.

Now, that time is upon us, and you can decide whether or not I was wise.

Find out about more about the WIll-to-Batman and the Will-to-Joker, after the jump —

Are you there, God? It’s me, Batman.

To me, Batman origin stories have always seemed forced. Something about them didn’t quite fit. So, I’m very glad The Dark Knight didn’t reference Batman’s origin story at all.The Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Smoke Bombs and Jump Kicks

Okay, raise your hand if, the first time you encountered Batman, you thought, “You know, there’s an orphan who’s gone through considerable ninja training!”

I can’t count the hands, and if they’re all up right now I’m kinda screwed, so I’m going to assume there aren’t a lot of hands out there right now and run with it.

Most of us were introduced to Batman midstream. The old Adam West show. Superfriends. Batman the Animated Series. A comic. A pair of our own underpants. He didn’t come with an explanation, but we understood him immediately.

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher who came out of the Kantian school but ended up carving out his own little niche that was then carved up by Nietzsche. But before that happened, he talked about the Will a lot. The Will-to-Life, and the Will as distinguished from Representation.

Schopenhauer is complicated and difficult to explain. Kinda like Batman. He’s like the Dark Knight of early 19th century Berlin philosophers. Like the Batman to Hegel’s Superman. Sort of.

A Batman In Full

Batman doesn’t need explanation (even though I’m going to go to great lengths to do it anyway), because the story of Batman does not aspire to explain a person. He is also not an allegory. What is Batman? Batman is a hero for a civilization that has cast aside external agency as a first principle. He’s a superhero who is his own cause in a world of supervillains who are their own causes, but they’re all vaguely aspects of the same drive.

Batman is an intuitive, but not simple, symbol of an aspect of Will.

Batman doesn’t have to do the things he does — nothing really causes him to do them. He does it “Because he can take it” — because there’s a quality of him that is inherently motivated, that is driven to survival in an extraordinary way and that strives alongside the other projections of Will in the universe. Bruce Wayne didn’t “make” Batman. He is Batman on a deep level not even he truly understands — because sure, there’s the representation of it, the suit, the batarangs, the batmobile — it’s more than adequately represented. There’s the image. But there’s also the Will of it — not the Batman-in-itself, separate from and bossing around Batman and controlling everything he does (Alfred is a servant, not a master), but the guy actually out there in his suit with nothing but his wits, his batterangs, and maybe his Bat shark repellant.

Robin Gibberish

Hang in there, old chum.

Let’s talk about the difference between Kant and Schopenhauer for a hot second. Kant argued that for each person there was a “thing in itself” that was separate from the universe we could perceive with our senses and that is the ultimate cause of what we think and do. Sort of like a soul, but not really. More like a mind. (I’m boiling this way down, and so forgive me and flame me in the comments if you like) Schopenhauer argued that there was no reason to separate this function — the part of us that makes decisions and adds value to things — from what was already in the universe. That the thing in itself wasn’t distinct, its functions were just an invisible, separate aspect of ourselves. The subjective versus the objective. The will vs. the representation.

Ra’s Al Ghul’s in Batman Begins is like the Kantian thing-in-itself — he stands separate from the League of Shadows, invisible, undetectable, indestructible, immortal, not subject himself to any of the demands of the universe, but he expresses his own authority over all material and immaterial truth surrounding the League of Shadows and is its ultimate cause. (And here I am saying I’m not getting into origin stories! Sheesh!)

Bruce Wayne is similar — he is masked, undetectable, powerful, unrecognizable as himself, but still Batman’s ultimate arbiter. But Bruce Wayne, or, more precisely, the expression of Will that makes Batman happen, is not distinct from Batman. He’s in the suit, you just won’t be able to take his mask off. When Batman punches somebody, that’s the same as Bruce Wayne punching somebody, that’s the same as Bruce Wayne’s desire to be Batman striving for justice.

The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Batman is not cause-and-effect. The Will expressed through Batman is present with and in Batman all the time — you just can’t see it; or rather, you see aspects of it through Batman’s actions, but there’s a facet of it that remains mysterious and outside perception.

Peter Fenzel is a writer, editor, podcaster, and improv comedian based in Arlington, Massachusetts. He’s a strategic communications professional in the financial industry and a resident company director at ImprovBoston’s Harold Night. Follow Peter on Twitter: @fenzelian.

39 Comments on “The Philosophy of Batman: Schopenhauer Edition”

  1. Jimbo #

    Great stuff, mate! Absolutely. Thank you for this

    Reply

  2. Ashley #

    I didn’t understand half of this, but I really loved it. The Dark Knight will hopefully prove to movie-makers that the masses really do love a movie that makes them think as well as entertains them!

    Reply

  3. Gab #

    Two things I’d like to ask:
    1) What about Kant’s Categorical Imperative?

    SPOILER POTENTIAL

    2) Is The Assassin in “Serenity” more like Batman or The Joker?

    Reply

  4. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Thanks, Pete! This article actually gets at the heart of my main problem with Bill’s superhero speech in Kill Bill 2. In that speech, he claims that Superman was unique in that, whenever he woke up in the morning, he was Superman–Clark Kent was his costume. But you’re right and Bill’s wrong; it’s the same thing for Batman. When Bruce Wayne wakes up in the morning, he is Batman. His character of “Bruce Wayne” (the playboy) is more of a mask than his batsuit.

    Reply

  5. Josh #

    My head just asploded…

    Reply

  6. fenzel #

    Thanks Josh and Ashley!

    Gab, to answer your questions —

    1. Batman still shouldn’t treat people merely as a means. Compassion, putting aside total egoism, and recognizing the value of others around him is a good thing. If Batman ignores the value of others, he turns into the Joker.

    But Batman certainly doesn’t only want to act insofar as much as he could will his act to be a universal law. He likes that his will and representation in the world inspires a certain hope and imitation, but he also recognizes that not abandoning the Will causes him to suffer.

    That’s kind of the point at the end of The Dark Knight — “I’m going to do this thing because I can, and because I don’t want anybody else to have to do it.”

    Batman pretty much rejects the categorical imperative and slaps a big hypothetical in front of it —

    “IF YOU HAPPEN TO BE BATMAN, then do X”

    2. Sadly, I have no seen Serenity, although everybody keeps saying it is awesome. I should put it on my queue. What do you think? You probably have your own answer if you asked the question :-)

    And Mlawski —

    I initially had a big section in this article EXACTLY ON THAT! A link to the YouTube speech and everything! But I cut it for length.

    Suffice it to say I agree completely.

    And Josh —

    Sorry about that. I’ll get a mop :-)

    Reply

  7. Gab #

    Ashley: I guarantee you that not nearly as many people as you think left the theater waxing philosophically in their heads like the crowd on this site. Consider yourself made of awesome for doing so, though. ;)

    fenzel: First, I had a feeling your answer would be something like that; and if that’s what Batman does, it sort of makes anything Kantian about him crumble. The whole point of Kant’s philosophy is that everyone should be doing the same things because we’re all connected via that Higher Power (God, God is such a copout in philosophy!), and we should not act outside the realm we think others should: if we wouldn’t want someone else to do it, we intrinsically cannot do it ourselves, and vice versa. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is the antithesis of Kant. So Batman is, thus, Kant’s archenemy, NOT The Joker’s (if you want to go back to the comic book lingo)– they sort of double-team, roundhouse kick him in the eye like twin Chuck Norrises. I rather like that.

    Secondly, about “Serenity.” I was asking because I HONESTLY DO NOT KNOW. I think in some ways he’s closer to Batman, but in others he’s definitely more Joker-esque. But I can’t esplain it to you cuz you gots ta see it fer yerself– AND “Firefly,” the series: both are Joss Whedon. And they have resulted in all sorts of fandom stuff: comics (written by Joss!!!11!!111!), a roelplaying system/world, books… Anyway, there is a lot you could pick apart and “Overthink” in that universe. Oh, and I meant “The Operative.”

    Reply

  8. fenzel #

    Hey Gab,

    If you want to see Batman fight Kant, just Netflix _Batman Begins_.

    Reply

  9. lee OTI Staff #

    If you want to see Batman fight a shark (and pick up the “Bat Shark Repellent” reference if you missed it) just go to:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=X0UJaprpxrk

    and fast forward to about the 2:50 mark. You won’t be disappointed.

    Reply

  10. Stokes #

    Re: Batman vs. Superman.
    I happened to be clicking around on Wikipedia after watching ‘The Dark Knight,’ and I came across this tidbit. Apparently in one of the animated TV shows, Bruce Wayne had a brief fling with Lois Lane, who dumped him upon finding out that he was the Batman. Batman went to Superman for sympathy (must have been awkward) and during the conversation pointed out that for both men, Lois had only been interested in the fake identity.

    I don’t know how canon that is, but it’s an interesting take on it.

    Reply

  11. Stokes #

    Re: Serenity/Firefly

    Pete, you should watch Firefly before watching Serenity. Firefly is really tremendous – knowing you as I do, I think you’re going to take a dump when you get to an episode called “Janestown.” Serenity is a very solid scifi movie, but at the end of the day it’s more interesting as an appendix to Firefly than it is in its own right.

    Gab, that character is probably more Batmanish. 1) He’s a stupendous badass with some seriously dark urges, 2) he is at least nominally in the business of enforcing law and order, but 3) his methods are quasi-legal at best. That’s all Batman through and through. Also, there’s a strong suggestion – or is it stated outright? – that he is in the law and order business ONLY because it gives him an excuse to act out on his dark urges. One doesn’t get that sense from the Bale/Nolan Batman, but I do think it’s a place that the character has been taken in the past.

    Reply

  12. mlawski OTI Staff #

    The interesting thing about the Operative (Serenity guy) is that he is more self-aware than Batman, I think. He says outright that he wants to create a better world but will not have a place there. He knows he’ll probably die in the effort of bringing it to fruition.

    You kind of wonder if Batman realizes he’s not going to have a place in a peaceful Gotham. Luckily for audiences (and Batman, too), we’ll never have to know, because Gotham will always be the same. Otherwise there’d be no more comic/film series.

    Reply

  13. Gab #

    Dude, fenzel, you underestimate me: I so own the DVD already. I owned it the first day it was available. ;p

    With regards to the Operative, I thought what made him Joker-like was that he didn’t care how he did it, so long as he did. He kills many innocent people without flinching and yeah, totally admits that he has dark urges. Batman’s methods are quasi-legal, too, but I think the Operative’s are more blatantly IL-legal; still, both get the same treatment from the government, meaning they get ignored when doing REALLY naughty things and helped when it’s necessary (i.e. he “doesn’t exist” and then is commanding a fleet and a bunch of soldiers later). The stuff about a better world was what I thought made him like Batman, though: both realize they’re outsiders and must be excluded from what they are striving for. And I had used the same word for Batman that Anara uses to describe the Operative before seeing “The Dark Knight”: believer. Both have a vision, believe in it, and are willing to make sacrifices (although not necessarily their own) to see it come to fruition. That’s why I couldn’t decide which he was *more* like. Thanks for deciding for me, Stokes.

    Reply

  14. Gab #

    Oh, I have an idea for a post for one of you Overthinkingit bloggers, too, that’s related to this and some other past posts: “I Need a Hero.” I’d like to see why one or all of you think superhero movies have become so rampant in the past few years- and the YouTube videos you’d link to help explain ;p

    Reply

  15. Gab #

    One more thing that I just CANNOT contain any longer: Adam West graduated from the same college I just did.

    :-D

    Reply

  16. Grace #

    This explanation of the philosophy of Batman is almost as good as seeing the movie and absorbing the themes and ideas. But you know, words have nothing on Stuff That Blows Up. Well done explanation. Get yourself over to Nolan’s writing table and make sure number 3 is just as mind-blowing as the Dark Knight. :)

    Reply

  17. CppThis #

    Entertaining as always, keep up the good work lads. :)

    As for the Serenity guy, he’s definitely a Batman. Like Batman, he does what he does to try to make the world a better place, not just because he can get away with it (Joker).

    Reply

  18. Wishkas #

    Great article, loved it, altough I need to read it again. But since we are in a philosophical vein, I ask: what about Freud? Harvey Dent as Ego, Batman as Super-ego and Joker as Id? Sort of like that Psycho theory of the 3 levels in the Bates motel, the ground floor being Ego, upstairs Super-ego and basement as Id… Would love to read an article about it by someone who can handle the theme…

    Reply

  19. fenzel #

    I think if you want the Ego/Id/Superego trifecta, the Batman movie you want is _Batman Returns_.

    Catwoman – Id
    Penguin – Ego
    Batman – Superego

    It even has electroshock therapy!

    Reply

  20. Marbeque #

    Can anyone dumb this down more. Seriously I can’t understand. I liked the last one atleast it had charts.

    Reply

  21. mickey #

    mayhaps the joker was referring to himself as an agent that CAUSES chaos? besides, a person who causes chaos doesn’t have to be chaotic him/herself, as you can’t really ever have true chaos without order first–whether it’s born by it or from it.

    or maybe i’m full of shit? hey, that’s just me! :D

    this was a great read. i’m going to go back and get through it again for real understanding, but this is really awesome overall.

    Reply

  22. mlawski OTI Staff #

    OK, Fenzel. The boyfriend and I were discussing your post, and here was our question:

    What about Superman? Everyone acts like he’s the “light” or “good” superhero, but he’s willing-to-power as much as Batman is, right? I mean, there’s nothing in the law saying Superman HAS to be a superhero. He is genetically SUPER, but that doesn’t mean he ever had to dominate Metropolis as a superHERO.

    Reply

  23. fenzel #

    Superman kind of deserves a series of his own. The philosophy of Superman would be pretty complicated.

    I think when you’re talking about Superman, you have to start with the fact that, as far as we can tell, he can’t really die.

    I mean, sure Kryptonite can kill him, but Kryptonite is rare and story-driven.

    I mean, it varied by depiction, but if you were to sort of lump them, he doesn’t really seem to age past adulthood, he doesn’t seem to ever really get sick short of ridiculous alien viruses or whatever.

    He’s invulnerable and immortal, so a lot of the value we derive in our own philosophy and literature from extrapolating from death (like Book XXIV of the Iliad) doesn’t really apply to him.

    Yeah, I think any serious inquiry into what he’s about has to start there or something close to it (as in, maybe he’ll age and die, but he can’t be killed or caused die) and go from there.

    The implications would be far-reaching and probably lead to a very strange ethics.

    I think you have to go all the way back to Socrates — one conversation he provokes is the intersection between traditionalist approaches to morals and philosophical inquiry.

    But Edmund Burke would be another good writer to reference.

    Reply

  24. Gab #

    Superman proposal: His immortality is symbolic of our internal desire for perfection and a completely un-flawed existence.

    Reply

  25. Robert #

    This needs some serious copy editing. The typos and grammatical mistakes were too much to deal with. I’d love to read it, but only when it’s in a fit state to be read.

    Reply

  26. fenzel #

    You know, I thought I was pretty far up there, but you, sir, take your Batman SERIOUSLY.

    Kudos. Sorry about the typos. I was too busy mopping up chunks of exploded brain to properly fill out the form to submit to the OTI editorial department.

    Hopefully, you’ll keep reading, because if you’d really love to read the Schopenhauer post on Batman, then I think you’ve come to the right place and would be remiss to give up on us just yet.

    Cheers!

    Reply

  27. lauren r #

    This is an awesome post, as was your Joker’s Magic Pencil post.

    I feel like large portions of this philosophy would explain Watchmen too. Thoughts? Maybe when the movie comes out?

    Also, I’m not clear on why Firefly/Serenity came up in the comments, but if you really haven’t watched Firefly you should definitely allow D-Rock and I to subject you to it in the near future.

    Reply

  28. fenzel #

    LAUREN!!!! HI!!!!!

    An offer like that, I can hardly refuse. I’m up for it any time you and D-Rock are.

    There will _definitely_ be extensive discussion of Watchmen on this site as the movie approaches. I can pretty much guarantee it.

    I think that this philosophy definitely applies to large swaths of Watchmen in pretty complicated ways (the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam, for example), but Watchmen has so much else going on that I think it will take this site’s entire team all our efforts for a while to really delve into it.

    Reply

  29. Jim #

    Looking at TDK through the lens of greek tragedy, I have to disagree on a particular point. I see a lot of Nietzsche’s Dionysian and the Apollonian struggle.

    It stems from a basic question: Who won? Joker or Batman?

    If you’re asking me, I have to say stalemate (maybe with a slight advantage to Joker). It was the classic confrontation between established sobriety and excess of the individual. Always in constant battle, no one ever winning. The best either party can ever hope to achieve is to victory in small battles, but not the war (to use a cliche).

    Fight of Ideals Scorecard:

    The citizens not blowing each other up. Point Batman.

    Ruining Dent. Point Joker.

    Batman & Gordon lying about Dent’s fate? Batman kept the faith alive in Gotham, but in the process he pardoned the guilty criminal Two-Face… Something DA Dent built a career opposing. Point Batman & Joker.

    Otherwise, excellent analysis and application of Schopenhauer.

    Reply

  30. Gab #

    Jim: What about Rachel’s death? Wouldn’t that give another point to the Joker, since he knew how Batman felt about her?

    Reply

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