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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.4 (Fall 2016)
The Polis and Pop Culture
The Gotham Regime: Examining Human Nature from Al-Farabi to Batman
Josiah Shipley & Alexander Free
The renewed attraction of Batman, American pop-culture’s most enigmatic superhero, suggests a general awareness of various political dysfunctions identified by the medieval philosopher, Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi. One important lesson here is that human nature has not really shifted in the millennial flow of times and customs.
This paper attempts to examine popular culture through the lens of philosophy. Christopher Nolan’s recent interpretation of the Batman comics and the monolithic personalities of the various characters provides a fascinating context for this study. The popularity of these films and the nature of the villains in Gotham City demonstrate that the flaws in human nature are still the same as they were in the time of medieval philosopher Al-Farabi.
The former half of this text is dedicated to examining Al-Farabi’s non-virtuous cities and comparing them to their corresponding villains in the Batman universe. Ra’s al Ghul personifies the timocratic city and the city of domination. The Joker, in turn, displays the libertarian characteristics of the democratic city. Finally, the Scarecrow represents the depravity of the immoral city.
The latter half of this text explores what it means to be the Supreme Ruler as described by Al-Farabi, and questions whether the Batman is truly worthy of the illustrious title. In doing so, it investigates the paternal role of Alfred in the life of Bruce Wayne, and the ways in which he influences the outcomes of events in Gotham from behind the scenes.
The characters seen in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy personify the connection between Al-Farabi’s regimes that are not virtuous and the present way that the media portray villainous behavior. The Dark Knight Trilogy, much like The Political Regime, tells the story of a city that is constantly under attack from various forces, each representing a different character flaw that is endemic to human nature. By studying these villains—Ra’s al Ghul, Joker, and Scarecrow—and comparing and contrasting them to the various types of cities and regimes present in The Political Regime, we can observe the way that common human character flaws have been present throughout history and the way that public perception of these characteristics has adapted to changing social norms over the ages.
While Al-Farabi personifies the inherent flaws of human nature in the form of cities that pursue lower ends than the virtuous regime, Christopher Nolan chooses to present these abstract concepts in the form of villains that constantly threaten the proper order, or telos, of the city of Gotham. By examining the similarities between the fictional universe in which the Dark Knight trilogy takes place and the metaphorical regimes of Al-Farabi, we can observe the progression of philosophical thought. Human nature remains constant from antiquity to the present, yet the looking glass through which it is viewed continually adapts itself to the community in which it is present. The fundamental concepts presented by Al-Farabi are so ingrained in the consciousness of man that they persevere throughout time.
Al-Farabi’s Non-Virtuous Cities
Al-Farabi’s non-virtuous cities are those in which the citizens, for one reason or another, fail to achieve unity with the active intellect. Cities can be contrary to the virtuous city by being ignorant, immoral, or errant (Al-Farabi, 2015, p. 76). Ignorant cities may be categorized in the following ways, depending on the character flaws of the inhabitants: 1) The Necessary City, 2) The Plutocratic City, 3) The Hedonistic City, 4) The Timocratic City, 5) The City of Domination, and 6) The Democratic City.
Citizens of the necessary city are solely dedicated to addressing their base needs or, “what is necessary to constitute and safeguard bodies” (p. 77). These citizens are so concerned with the day-to-day requirements of existence that they function at the level of automatons and fail to exercise their humanness. Citizens of the plutocratic city seek wealth above all things. The hedonistic city is a city dedicated to the enjoyment of all manner of pleasure (p. 77-78). Citizens of the timocratic city pursue honor at the expense of all else (p. 78). Citizens of the city of domination seek power over others (p. 81). Finally, the democratic city represents the ideal libertarian utopia in which there is neither rule of law, nor social hierarchy (p. 86-89). In the democratic city, the social contract has failed.
Citizens of the immoral and errant cities may behave the same way as citizens of the ignorant cities, but they differ in their intent. Immoral cities are made up of citizens who understand the way to achieve happiness, but they choose to reject it. Instead, they willingly pursue their baser instincts. Citizens of the errant cities find themselves in the perpetual quagmire of being well-intentioned but misguided (p. 90).
The city of domination and the timocratic (Honor-Seeking) City
The city of domination and the association of domination are the ones whose inhabitants assist one another so that they have domination. They are like that when they all have love of domination in common. Yet they diverge from one another… with respect to the kinds of domination and the kinds of things for which they dominate people. Some, for example, love to dominate to spill a human being’s blood, some love to dominate him for his money, and some love to dominate over his soul so as to enslave him.
Their ruler is the one among them who is most powerful in governing well by using them to dominate others, the one most excellent at using stratagems, and the one most perfect in opinion about what they ought to do so as always to be seen as dominators and to prevent others from dominating them. He is their ruler and their king. (Al-Farabi, 2015, pp. 81-82)
The honor-seeking city… is the one in which they aid one another to arrive at being honored in speech and in action…. There is another thing that is very beloved of man of the inhabitants of the ignorant cities, namely, domination…. For according to them, the most exalted thing a human being is to be honored for is to be well-known for domination over one, two, or many things; not being dominated either due to himself, because his supporters are many or powerful, or both of these; and not being subjected to what is loathsome, while subjecting someone else to what is loathsome when he wills. (Al- Farabi, 2015, pp. 78-79)
The villainous character Ra’s al Ghul displays the characteristics of the city of domination. Ra’s al Ghul explains that, prior to his ascension to head of the League of Shadows, he served as a mercenary under an unidentified warlord. During this time he fell in love with, married, and impregnated the daughter of that warlord. Upon discovery, the warlord exiled Ra’s al Ghul and imprisoned his pregnant wife, who gave birth to their daughter in the prison known as “the Pit”. After several years of imprisonment, his wife was brutally raped and murdered by the other prisoners after the prison doctor neglected to lock her cell (Nolan et al., 2012). The grief that Ra’s al Ghul suffered upon hearing of this event was enough to corrupt both his mind and his heart, driving him to seek dominion over his fellow man, and a restoration of his own honor. In describing the timocratic city, Al-Farabi says, “Their love to dominate others is directed at their blood [so as to spill it] and their spirits [so as to extinguish them], their souls so as to enslave them…” (2015, p. 82). In expressing these characteristics, Ra’s al Ghul represents facets of both the city of domination and the timocratic city. Ra’s al Ghul seeks to destroy the city of Gotham in order to subject them to what he considers his moral authority, demonstrating the characteristics of the city of domination. Furthermore, this lust for dominion is largely driven by his desire to restore his own personal honor, taken from him at the time of his exile, fulfilling the role of the timocratic city.
Serving as the head of the League of Shadows, Ra’s al Ghul makes several statements that strongly suggest that he does not personify an immoral regime, as might be initially assumed. In a conversation with Bruce Wayne, he says, “… I showed you a path…. It should be you standing by my side, saving the world” (Franco et al., 2005). In doing so, Ra’s al Ghul reveals his personal belief in the goodness of his efforts. He truly believes that his personal goals are aligned with the ultimate telos of politics, which is to serve happiness. In his case, he believes that the destruction of Gotham city is imperative to the advancement of society, as he does not believe that the existence of a virtuous regime is possible as long as it is corrupted by the presence of immoral people like those found in Gotham city. In another conversation, he says, “You yourself fought the decadence of Gotham for years, with… all your moral authority, and the only victory you could achieve was a lie. Now you understand. Gotham is beyond saving, and must be allowed to die” (Nolan et al., 2008).
The democratic city
The democratic city is the city in which every one of its inhabitants is unrestrained and left to himself to do what he likes. Its inhabitants are equal to one another, and their traditional law is that no human being is superior to another in anything at all. Its inhabitants are free to do what they like. One has authority over another or over someone else only insofar as he does what heightens that person’s freedom. Thus there arise among them many moral habits, many endeavors, many desires, and taking pleasure in countless things…. Its inhabitants consist of countless similar and dissimilar groups. In this city are brought together those that were kept separate in all those other cities – the vile and the venerable ones…. The one who rules them does so only by the will of the ruled, and their rulers are subject to the passions of the ruled. If their situation is examined closely, it turns out that in truth there is on ruler among them and no ruled. (Al-Farabi, 2015, p.86)
The Joker, in contrast to Ra’s al Ghul, represents the democratic city, as evidenced by his statement, “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules” (Nolan et al., 2008). His repeated ravings against authority figures and societal norms give further evidence to his desire for an idealistic libertarian society of total freedom without the constraints of responsibility. His disregard for money as anything more than a means to an end is made apparent when he burns the remaining cash in his stolen fortune after using only what money was required to properly accomplish his end goals. In describing the democratic city, Al-Farabi says that “of the ignorant cities this city has both the most good and the most evil” (2015, p. 87). The Joker being one of the most bi-polar characters, presenting both a lack of greed and a disdain for the value of human life, a parallel between his character and the democratic city seems to leap from the page. Alfred Pennyworth, the longsuffering butler of Bruce Wayne, seems to recognize the true character of the Joker when he advises his employer, “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money…. Some men just want to watch the world burn” (Nolan et al., 2008).
Identifying whether the Joker represents an ignorant regime or an erring regime is more difficult. His opinions regarding the hierarchy of Gotham city considered along with his disdain for government initially suggest that he represents an erring regime. Al-Farabi, much like Aristotle, distinguishes between the ignorant and the erring. As Mary K. Leigh explains, “The first type fails to do the right thing… because of a mistake…. This person is redeemable because a correction of this mistake can allow him the ability to move forward in pursuit of virtue…. The second type is the truly vicious. This person will often do right things but always for the wrong reasons…. With full knowledge, and with intellectual excellence, he chooses the wrong thing simply because it is wrong” (2011).
Attentions to specific details regarding the Joker’s backstory suggest that he in fact personifies the ignorant regime. On multiple occasions during the film, the Joker asks his would-be victims his signature question, “Want to know how I got these scars?”(Nolan et al., 2008). He then tells various tales about the event in question. Only one of these stories, the one in which he recounts his alcoholic father cutting his face with a kitchen knife after attacking the Joker’s mother, is repeated to more than one person. This suggests that this story may be valid, and that the Joker is a victim of childhood abuse, which partially explains his mental instability. His later claims that he lacks the ability to understand the consequences of his actions conform to canon, which assigns an inexact level of insanity and criminal psychopathy to the Joker. Considering these factors, the Joker fits the profile of the ignorant regime, as he lacks the psychological ability to understand and hold opinions over a length of time. Due to his traumatic childhood, the Joker is unlikely to have had the occasion to learn about perfection and happiness, leading to his random and chaotic path of criminal destruction.
The immoral city
The immoral cities are the ones whose inhabitants believed in, and form a concept of, the principles [of the existents]. They had an image of happiness and believed in it. They were guided toward, were cognizant of, and believed in the actions by which they could gain happiness. Yet they did not hold fast to any of those actions, but through their passion and will inclined toward a particular feature among the purposes of the inhabitants of the ignorant cities – either status, honor, domination, or something else – and they established all of their actions and faculties to be directed toward these purposes.
The kinds of these cities are as numerous as the kinds of ignorant cities, because all the actions of their inhabitants are the actions of the inhabitants of the ignorant cities and their moral habits are the moral habits of those inhabitants. They are distinct from the inhabitants of the ignorant cities only by the opinions in which they believe. No one at all among the inhabitants of these cities gains happiness. (Al-Farabi, 2015, p. 90)
The Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy includes only a single clearly identifiable personification of the immoral regime. Dr. Jonathan Crane, a psychiatrist who goes by the villainous moniker, “Scarecrow”, commonly performs sadistic experiments on his patients at Arkham Asylum. Unlike Ra’s al Ghul and Joker, Scarecrow is a highly educated medical professional who suffers no illusions concerning the morally questionable nature of his practices. Despite his knowledge of psychiatric care and his ability to provide legitimate care, he chooses instead not to act in accordance with that knowledge. By willingly going against what he knows to be correct, he accurately represents the immoral regime in the narrative of this trilogy.
Scarecrow seems to be entirely aware of the effect that his experiments have on his victims. Furthermore, he seems to take pleasure in inflicting harm on his unfortunate patients. In a meeting with his incarcerated employer, mob boss Carmine Falcone, he asks, “Would you like to see my mask? I use it in my experiments. Probably not very frightening to a guy like you, but these crazies, they can’t stand it. They scream, and they cry. Much as you’re doing now” (Franco et al., 2005). This interaction shows that Scarecrow not only understands the effect of his actions, but also receives sadistic pleasure from watching their effect on his victims. These experiments, which involve powerful psychoactive and hallucinogenic drugs, are not typically performed for any kind of monetary or power gain. Scarecrow appears to be motivated only by his sadistic desires, and the pleasure that he receives from watching his victims experience unmitigated terror at his hands. The absence of monetary motivation paired with his lust for perverse pleasures indicates that Scarecrow is in fact the pure embodiment of the base city, uncorrupted by the influences of the vile city.
The Supreme Ruler
Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego, Batman, is the protagonist character in the Dark Knight trilogy. While Batman initially appears to take on the role of the supreme ruler in the city of Gotham, there are several characteristics of the supreme ruler that he fails to fulfill. Any leader must meet several requirements in order to be truly qualified to be the supreme ruler. He must be a remarkable person, with an extraordinary ability to interpret the law. He must possess both the ability to understand difficult concepts and to translate them in such a way that the common people can understand them. He must be able to direct the community toward happiness, and have an understanding of what must be done here and now. Finally, the supreme ruler must not need guidance from any other man, but must instead be excellent at guiding others in what must be done and leading by example. While Batman possesses an understanding of what must be done here and now, he acts only in the short-term interests of the residents of Gotham city. Batman’s frequent conflicts with the city’s villains address the immediate threats at hand, but do nothing to improve the overall wellbeing of the city. The supreme leader must be able to lead the community to happiness through reason and faith, which Batman fails to accomplish. Batman, in fact, makes no attempt to better the city as a whole, or to impart his knowledge to the citizens and allow them to actively participate in the betterment of their community. Furthermore, far from being able to interpret the law and establish the firm legal foundations of a community that will persevere in his absence, Batman contents himself with temporary solutions to the problems of human nature. Rather than helping to create a society that does not foster criminal behavior, Batman masquerades as the embodiment of the virtuous regime while succumbing to the temptation to pursue lower ends. His actions may provide a small benefit to the community, but he performs them in order to fulfill his own desire for vengeance after the tragic murder of his parents. As Kershnar states, “Batman’s hatred has led him to be so focused on crime fighting that he can’t indulge in other things that make a person’s life worthwhile” (2008, p. 35). Truly, batman’s façade of righteous fury barely cloaks his lust for vigilante justice.
Despite his best intentions, Batman fails to truly understand the laws given to him by the supreme ruler in the proper way. It is not that he is ignorant or feels immune to the laws, but rather that he is not aware of the most resourceful way to use the knowledge to the betterment of society as a whole. Batman simply interprets the knowledge of the supreme ruler in the wrong way and acts according to his interpretation of the knowledge rather than what the supreme ruler actually meant. In this sense, Batman is the prototypical example of an apostate as described by Al-Farabi. This notion is due to the fact that his misconceptions of the intent behind the laws of the community lead him to a path that is ultimately oriented to his own self-fulfillment, rather than the proper end of the polis. The end goal for Batman is his desire to eliminate crime, not to bring true happiness to the city, which should be the primary goal of the supreme ruler. However, while Batman gains personal pleasure through his many acts of vigilante justice, the city itself arguably suffers as a whole due to Batman’s destruction thereof and his creation of an environment that allows crime to flourish. As Spanakos says, “Life in Gotham is scary, tenuous, and cheap; danger lurks everywhere” (2008, p. 59). Instead of proactively fostering the creation of a virtuous city, Batman reactively targets individual criminals. By exploiting the chaos of Gotham city, Batman is able to justify his vengeful tendencies to himself.
Arguably, the truest personification of the supreme leader in the Dark Knight trilogy is Bruce Wayne’s family butler, Alfred Pennyworth. In the absence of Bruce’s parents, Alfred fulfills the role of the father figure in his life. While Alfred is technically subservient to Bruce Wayne, in practice he serves as his moral compass, source of reason, and physical protector (Drohan, 2008, p. 187). From a spiritual standpoint, Alfred attempts to direct him toward his proper end. “Alfred possesses a superior wisdom that only comes with age, and so his judgement is always ahead of Wayne’s, guiding his young apprentice toward a kindred inner peace” (p. 187). Rather than dedicating his life to an abstract concept, Alfred dedicates it to the care of Bruce Wayne. In doing so he accomplishes two things: the vicarious preservation of justice, the realization of love, which Drohan defines as “justice made tangible in the instant” (p. 192).
Alfred exhibits other necessary traits of the supreme leader when he inherits control of Wayne Enterprises after the suspicious disappearance of Bruce. Not only does the company experience success under his leadership, but Alfred also sets the company on a path towards continued prosperity, which becomes apparent upon Bruce’s return from self-imposed exile. After reclaiming control of the corporation, Bruce Wayne largely abstains from the day-to-day operations, allowing it to continue its success, which was made possible by the plans set forth by Alfred. As Bruce Wayne embraces the role of Batman, Alfred continues to provide him with valuable guidance as he struggles to understand the community and his own proper end therein. While Alfred does not typically exercise political power in Gotham city, he does provide essential leadership and council to Batman and other major characters in the Dark Knight trilogy. His measured and considerate approach to the issues that plague Gotham in the form of stylized villains both contrasts and tempers the reactions of police officials and Batman.
While times and situations have changed, the overall struggles that are inherent in human nature remain relatively the same. The inner conflict that man must deal with in his ultimate quest to fulfill his proper end has not changed. Only the lens under which it is examined has changed. There is no better evidence of the staying power of these human problems than to look at the common struggles that appear in seemingly dissimilar works. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and Al-Farabi’s The Political Regime both examine fundamental flaws in human character, but do so through two different microscopes. This phenomenon appears in the connection between the personalities of the villains seen in Batman and the characteristics of the regimes pursuing lower ends. The objective need for an all-knowing and morally superior ruler is also present in both works. In The Political Regime, this leader is called the supreme ruler. In Gotham city, he is personified as Alfred Pennyworth. For these reasons, it is clear that the while political philosophy has changed throughout the years, its fundamental ideals continue to remain inherent in human nature and will be so for years to come.
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- Kerhsnar, S. (2008). Batman’s Virtuous Hatred. In Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul (pp. 28-37). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. Print.
- Leigh, M. (2011). Virtue in Gotham: Aristotle’s Batman. In K. Durand & M. Leigh (Eds.), Riddle Me This, Batman!: Essays on the Universe of the Dark Knight. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Kindle Edition.
- Franco, L., Roven, C., Thomas, E. (Producers), & Nolan, C. (Director). (2005). Batman Begins [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Brothers.
- Nolan, C., Roven, C., Thomas, E. (Producers), & Nolan, C. (Director). (2008). The Dark Knight [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bros.
- Nolan, C., Roven, C., Thomas, E. (Producers), & Nolan, C. (Director). (2012). The Dark Knight Rises [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bros.
- Spanakos, T. (2008). Governing Gotham. In Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul (pp. 55-69). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. Print.
Josiah Shipley and Alexander Free are undergraduate seniors at the University of Texas at Tyler.