Justice, Order, and Chaos: The Dialectical Tensions In Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

In this post I am going to explore the moral themes from the first two films of the Dark Knight trilogy. This post gives away nothing about The Dark Knight Rises but assumes knowledge of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In a subsequent post I will explore how The Dark Knight Rises picks up, advances, augments, and culminates these folllowing themes from the first two films of the Dark Knight trilogy. For a spoiler-free preview of my reading of The Dark Knight Rises, see my review from earlier.

First I want to frame what follows with an insight from Nietzsche.

One of Nietzsche’s more fundamental criticisms of morality is that it is “immoral”. One of the things he means by this is that historically moralities have implemented themselves by resorting to the same sorts of abuses that they explicitly claim to curb and destroy. Specifically the most formal, idealized, and absolutist moralities which allow the least deviations from a strict rule of conduct dominate people using tactics that break their own rules. If we imagine morality to be about autonomy, then the ways that moralities use lies, fear, brute force, and other forms of manipulation to ingrain themselves in people’s minds and to enforce themselves make morality a deeply hypocritical thing. Looked at this way, moralities are especially insidious forms of immoral coerciveness because they wrap themselves in a self-righteous sanctimony that allows those who ruthlessly enforce them to indulge in all their worst instincts with a clear conscience. They are also, among systems of domination, potentially the most oppressive because of the leverage their halo gives them.

I don’t think that this means we should do away with moralities altogether (for reasons I try to make clear in a dialogue I wrote last fall) but Nietzsche’s criticisms are worth keeping in mind when dealing with morality. Moralities cannot occur outside of, or somehow above, power relationships. All relationships are implicitly constituted by power dynamics. There is no escaping, denouncing, or demonizing power, in my view, but only accepting the responsibility to develop our own power in the most constructive way possible. Ultimately our own maximal flourishing is in our ability to  empower people and institutions beyond ourselves.

The Dark Knight trilogy deals with these themes in intricate ways. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, like his magnanimously generous father Thomas before him, wants to be a great force of empowerment in Gotham City. Thomas Wayne used his personal fortune strategically to singlehandedly try to counter the economic devastation that had been brought on through systemic (deliberately fostered) governmental corruption. He also hoped his exemplary priorities would inspire other wealthy people to do the same. Where the violently moralistic and self-righteous League of Shadows was trying to purify Gotham by exacerbating and accelerating its corruption so that the people would suffer their just consequences, Thomas Wayne was trying to role model the aspiration to nobility.

Bruce Wayne sets out to inspire people similarly. But his goal is to not be simply an inspiring human. He thinks he can be an even greater force for good if he can create himself into incorruptible and “everlasting” symbol. He thinks, essentially, that the people of Gotham need more than good human role models—they need the myth of an eternal and omnibenevolent god. The League of Shadows embody and explicitly embrace all that is evil about the way moralities function. They represent morality as mercilessly vindictive vengefulness, the sort of violence and ruthlessness that Nietzsche warned us about. And they trained Bruce Wayne to embrace fear, deception, and mythic theatricality as his means of combatting evil. They taught him to think of improving people as a process of manipulating them, by exploiting what was worst in them and catering to what was weakest in them.

Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham and created the Batman without a goal of reforming criminals but rather of terrorizing them and breaking their spirit. He explicitly wanted to turn their own ability to inspire fear against them. In doing so, he embraced what they were and what they represented and tried to use it to his own advantage with a good conscience. And though he wanted to inspire the average person he did not respect their intelligence to deal straight with them. In fact, throughout the three films, he repeatedly fails to trust the people of Gotham with the truth or with any power. He condescends to them by giving them noble lies to have faith in, instead of trying to convince them to believe in justice while knowing the truth.

Things get especially mythic and dialectical in this regard in The Dark Knight. As Batman begins to establish order and justice only by terrorizing the criminal underworld, this practically summons into being his dialectical antithesis—the fearless agent of chaos, the Joker. The Joker represents the inevitable pushback against the tyranny of orderliness. He represents the irremovable element of untamable chaos in the world. He represents the pushback of primeval instincts when they no longer have anything to lose. Against someone trying to stifle the human spirit in a shortsighted and destructive attempt to save it, the desire for liberation would choose no rules at all rather than continue to be so tyrannized.

And hence the Joker, Batman’s perfect antithesis emerges as a mythical representation of all this. Whereas we saw Batman painstakingly create himself and got intricate explanations about how he pulled off all his stunts, the Joker appears fully formed like a force of nature and all his plans are carried out with unbelievable precision and no explanation. Where Nolan totally demythologized the Batman in Batman Begins and highlighted the artifice and creative process that created the Batman, with the Joker we never get any reliable information on his origins but just stories the Joker tells to terrify people. We get a backstage pass to how Batman’s theatrics, so we are in on how the magic is done. With the Joker, Nolan just wants us to be dazzled by the illusions and marvel at them.

He counters Batman’s stifling seriousness with a defiant mockery. Where Batman tries to coddle and cower people in a fragile attempt to keep them in order, the Joker constantly is trying to push them to their breaking points. When he rigs two boats with explosives and gives each boat the detonator to blow up the other boat and warns them that if they do not do so he will blow them both up, he is trying to expose the selfish limits of the ordinary person’s virtues. He is trying to exacerbate the ways that moralities are rooted ultimately in self-interest. He wants to prove that moral principles are ultimately matters of self-serving convenience and will be abandoned when the social contract fails and people return to Hobbes’s state of nature.

Whereas the League of Shadows ostensibly wants to send purging fire from which a more just society might emerge, to the Joker the fire is the justice. Fire represents flux. Fire is not a fixed thing. It is constantly changing its shape and its constituent molecules. It is symbolic of change. When Heraclitus talked of fire as the most basic element of reality, he was talking about change as the essential reality. This view, that all things are always fundamentally changing in all respects, sees all universals and all permanence as impossible.

There are no fixed eternal ideal beings in total opposition to each other. There is no absolute Good which is not on a scale with the evil, with which it is in dialectical tension and in mutual interdependence at all times. Rather, as heat and cold are on the same scale of temperature, all opposites are of the same basic reality, just in dialectical tension with each other. Just as I discussed earlier—it is never fundamentally a matter of “morality vs. power”. Morality is one kind of power in dialectical tension with immorality as another. Only power can create good and only exercises of power can destroy it.

To the amoral nihilist who embraces the chaos as all there is and who denies all universals and all ideals for how nature would better be transformed, might makes right is the eternal principle of fairness. The sheer ability to ascend and dominate earns a being the right to dominate. The fairness in this is that should any other being seek to displace that being there is nothing in moral principle standing in its way of forcefully displacing that other being. The eternal, natural contest of beings, including human beings, is fair: all may struggle for victory with no restraints and to the victors go the spoils.

The Joker embodies this ideal. Numerous times he psyches himself up in the face of death and other forms of pain. It’s all fair to him. It’s all good to him. All the chaos is good. Chaos is generative of greatness. The petty selfishness and low aspirations of the ordinary civilian and the ordinary criminal alike, so controlled by fear and desire, is all that bores and disgusts him. He embraces the Batman as someone at least willing to impose himself and his ideals on others, as someone willing to fight and sacrifice and commit to something. He delights in having Batman to serve as his dialectical opposite in tension with him. He recognizes that order and chaos are ultimately degrees on the same scale, in constant dialectical tension with each other. In the grand tug of war of things, he needs the Batman to pull the rope towards order so his tugging towards chaos has the resistance to make it meaningful. Joker’s affirmation of chaos and might makes right allows him to affirm his enemy in a way that Batman cannot. It allows him to fearlessly embrace what he sees as true in a way that the order creating, lying, fear-reliant Batman cannot.

And the Joker wins the soul of Harvey Dent by disillusioning his belief in a morally just world—one where every coin flip can be rigged to come up heads as one wants.

In a serendipitous coincidence, in the comic books Harvey Dent’s nickname when he was Gotham’s DA (before transforming into Two Face) was “Apollo”. In Nietzsche’s reading of Greek mythology the god Apollo is the avatar for belief in form, order, moderation, morality, social structure, beauty, and reason. The god Dionysus represents formless chaos, indulgence, violence, sensuality, and the blurring of all the distinctions upon which morality, social order, and reason depend until all things are one and there is no good and evil. In Nietzsche’s writing the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian is central. Nietzsche is often superficially read as encouraging a Jokeresque sort of nihilistic submersion in complete Dionysianism, whereas I think the most constructive reading of Nietzsche has him encouraging us to avoid dualistic oppositions and think about how to embrace what is chaotic and untamed and generative of new possibilities that are not easily boxed in into something constructive, rather than to extirpate it as inevitably the stuff only of decay.

This is why the Joker appeals to us so viscerally even as we disapprove of his actions so unequivocally. There is something about his spirit which is exciting and worth preserving. Nietzsche forces us to face the hard question of how to harness what is admirable in someone like him without the heinous consequences.

Two-Face’s psychological fracture between his Apollonian “good” side and his Dionysian “bad” side remains dualistic. He does not sublimate the chaos within himself into something constructive but he succumbs to it. His decision to flip a coin to determine who lives and dies represents his total loss of conviction in any truth to morality beyond chance. He embraces the fatalistic philosophy that whatever happens is what should happen because nothing else can happen.

Bruce Wayne had invested his hopes in Harvey Dent as Gotham’s White Knight  before the Joker broke Dent’s belief in morality. He was hoping that if the people could see the justice system working properly, there would be no need for him to circumvent it and hypocritically impose lawfulness through his lawlessness. A reformer from within the system could represent the resiliency of the system. Wayne seemed to understand that his fear-based terrorizing was limited in its abilities to inspire confidence in the virtues of the system, of the law itself. Wayne wanted to believe that theatrics and manipulation and brute force could be put aside and that an honest system could deliver fairness without all these immoral compromises.

But even when Wayne was still believing in Harvey Dent’s possibility to save Gotham within the rules, Dent was still corruptible. Wayne caught Dent using coercive tactics on a suspect who he believed had information that could save his girlfriend. Wayne nonetheless wanted to preserve the image of Dent as the White Knight. And in the end, when the White Knight crossed the line into undeniable lawbreaking to avenge those who treated him unjustly, Wayne judged that a noble lie was necessary to protect the White Knight’s reputation. It was (mostly) true that Dent acquired his many convictions of mob players fairly. It was just that they be locked up. They truly deserved it. But the system, with its numerous protections for the accused, would allow appeals when Dent’s violent criminality was revealed. It might cast a shadow on all his just accomplishments from before his mental break.

So, Wayne decided to tell a noble lie—a story which is literally false but philosophically true. Dent, at least before going insane, had done things by the book and the system had worked. The legal process could acquire justice. The ideal of the White Knight was not pure fiction. There was a truth to it that the people were entitled to but which would be obscured from them if they knew the literal facts about Dent’s descent into brutal madness. And the lie of the Dark Knight as the killer of Dent’s victims expressed a philosophical truth too—Batman was a lawless vigilante who was ultimately responsible for numerous deaths through his recklessness. He did regularly resort to the very coerciveness that he ostensibly existed to oppose. And so even though he usually adhered scrupulously to a principle against crossing the line into killing (and becoming barely distinguishable from his foes) which kept him still a hero, he was nonetheless, in philosophical truth, a Dark Knight and not a hero to be embraced in a morally uncomplicated way.

Wayne tried to uphold faith in the legal system when he did not in truth believe in its ability to withstand manipulation should the truth about Harvey Dent come out. So, he decided to make himself the bad guy if that was the way to be effectively most successful in actually creating good. In this way, Wayne is deeply noble and deeply committed to a true good. He wants people to actually flourish due to his actions rather than to get credit for them. He would even go so far as to become demonized if the result were that in truth he would be effective in doing actual good. He properly keeps his eye on the goal of genuine achievement rather than glory and honor for their own sakes. When forced to choose between what he sees as the actual creation of good and getting the credit for it, he is a true role model.

But as admirable as his intentions and priorities are in this respect, he still is paternalistic towards Gotham and he still does not value the intrinsic value of truth or see any hope in using truth to inspire people. Like a true, hypocritical moralist, he resorts to noble lies. Initially, he relied on the noble lie that he was an incorruptible god. He readily switches his mask to be that of the devil. He’ll do whatever gets the job done to keep people believing that there is no devil in God and no god in the Devil but that they are dualistically separate.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Alverant

    So why not just blame the Joker for the deaths Dent was guilty of? Joker was killing people left and right, what’s easier to believe, the Batman killing Dent or Joker killing Dent?

    • kagekiri

      Mm, yeah, but Dent kidnapped Gordon’s family after Joker was captured, right? And the police had surrounded the area so they knew no one else could’ve been responsible.

      So to keep Dent as the good guy (as the only others there were Gordon and his family, who Dent had kidnapped), Batman had to act like he’d killed Dent, and the Gordons would lie about why they were there (I guess saying Batman kidnapped them…?). Still doesn’t make total sense, but yeah, can’t blame the Joker for stuff he’s not present at.

  • Rory

    Fascinating post. I don’t wish to derail, but I wonder if it affects your thoughts on the Joker at all to contrast his espoused embrace of chaos with the high degree of planning that was necessary to achieve it. Is that contradictory, or does it make him sort of a mirror image of Batman: a man who claims to believe in the transformative power of chaos, but who is highly ordered in service of that noble lie?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      That’s a great question, Rory, I think that’s right. I should have mentioned Joker’s meticulous planning and his commitment to message sending. I think you’re on the right track in interpreting it. I never fully bought his claim to Two Face that he doesn’t plan things.

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      …I wonder if it affects your thoughts on the Joker at all to contrast his espoused embrace of chaos with the high degree of planning that was necessary to achieve it.

      That’s easily explained by lazy, incompetent scriptwriting, and total disregard for even the most rudimentary element of realism, technical or human.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Or, just maybe, the filmmakers were more interested in making the Joker larger than life than realistic because that was thematically more interesting and did greater justice to the powerful symbolism people have long found in the character.

  • Alverant

    I don’t get how Batman’s “noble lie” was true on any sort of level. Telling the truth, that Dent went insane and murdered people, would have been hard but we get let down by our heroes all the time. Saying that the Joker killed Dent would have been closer to the truth in the same way Obiwon was telling the truth when he told Luke that Darth Vader killed his father. IE that it was the death of what made Dent/Anikin a good person and replaced him with a villain.

    On a side note, thinking back to the scene where the Joker is hanging upside down and 4 SWAT team personel are pointing guns at him; I keep wishing they cut to an external shot of the structure and one of the cops yes, “Knife!” followed by a whole mess of gunshots. That way the Joker would be dead and we’d be left wondering if he really had a knife or if the cops were dispensing their own justice (or vengence).

    • Rory

      When I saw TDKR last night I must admit I wondered whether the film might have been different if Heath Ledger was still alive to reprise his role as the Joker. I don’t imagine Nolan would have made him the major villain in a second film, but he would have made for good window dressing. I’m not spoiling anything to say that TDKR had a lot of good callbacks to the previous two films, so it definitely would have worked.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      While I fantasized about how the Joker might have fit into DKR also, ultimately I don’t see how he’d fit. It trivializes the character to give him a cameo (as Scarecrow was trivialized in both the sequels). The spotlight didn’t have room for both the Joker and Bane, unless the Joker had a significant role to play in confronting him or being used by him.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    This is why the Joker appeals to us so viscerally even as we disapprove of his actions so unequivocally.

    Define “us.” It sure as hell doesn’t include me. Seriously, do you have any sort of evidence that the Joker “appeals” to anyone other than yourself in the way you describe?

    Your entire discourse is so airy, arbitrary and abstract that it could just as easily be applied — and, in fact, HAS been applied — to huge numbers of other stories, including cartoons like Speed Racer and some of the most ridiculous and disgusting slash-and-splatter movies ever made. Take a character, map it to some archetype or other abstraction, and then just pretend the character is therefore something more than what we actually saw on screen — an easy, arbitrary, and, in most cases, purely subjective exercise.

    (BTW, your understanding of Dionysius is NOT the same as mine. IIRC, Dionysius has generally been portrayed as representing dreams, hallucination, altered states, wild revelry, shamanism, and unfiltered feelings, NOT social chaos or violence. So your attempt to elevate the Joker to something more than a bogus caricature from a lazy scriptwriter kinda fails there. The Apollo/Dionysius dichotomy is between reason and unreason, cold logic and emotion, not necessarily between social order and social chaos.)

    That’s the problem with “analyses” like this: they’re too often used by hack reviewers to justify piss-poor movies and make themselves, and the movies, look insightful. Remember “Antichrist” and “No Country for Old Men?” Two horrifically bad movies fluffed up after the fact by similar helpings of text-salad. Each such analysis sounds intelligent on its own, but after the tenth helping, it kinda loses its credibility.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I’m talking about Nietzsche’s reading of Dionysius. The drunken orgies and human sacrifice represented a disintegration of everyday “Apollonian” social order that Nietzsche seems to think represented pent up psychic energies suppressed in every day life.

      If the Joker didn’t appeal to many people viscerally on some level people would not enjoy dressing up as him and gushing about how great he is as a character.

      The screenwriters for these movies were hardly lazy. They have flaws but they put a lot of thought into the movies. Just because in your mind Batman=Fascist and therefore everything related to him must be dogmatically denounced does not mean that they are superficial films.

      Finally, it does not matter whether a screenwriter intended a connection. There are associations that are simply there and illuminating to think about.

    • ACN

      I imagine he wouldn’t be such a ludicrously popular character if he didn’t appeal to anyone.

      As one of the most iconic and recognized villains in popular media, The Joker was ranked #1 on Wizard’s list of the 100 Greatest Villains of All Time.[3] He was also named #2 on IGN’s list of the Top 100 Comic Book Villains of All Time List,[4] was ranked #8 on the Greatest Comic Book Characters in History list by Empire (being the highest ranking villain on the list)[5] and was listed as the fifth Greatest Comic Book Character Ever in Wizard magazine’s 200 Greatest Comic Book Characters of all Time list, also the highest villain on the list.[6] On their list of the 100 Greatest Fictional Characters, Fandomania.com ranked the Joker at number 30.[7]

    • yemangycoyote

      Well, I guess I’ve made the mistake of assuming that movie reviews and other interpretations of pop culture/art were inherently, to some degree, a bit on the subjective side. I really don’t see the need to get so indignant about somebody having a different take on movie than you did.

      By the way, I am curious about what, in your opinion, made “No Country for Old Men” so horrifically bad?

    • http://www.bricewgilbert.blogspot.com bricewgilbert

      You must be fun at parties.

    • brenda

      @ Daniel – “I’m talking about Nietzsche’s reading of Dionysius. The drunken orgies and human sacrifice represented a disintegration of everyday “Apollonian” social order that Nietzsche seems to think represented pent up psychic energies suppressed in every day life.”

      There are no “pent up psychic energies” to suppress and no Apollo vs Dionysus conflict going on in our subconscious or society at large.

      There is no such thing as “catharsis” or “letting off steam”. Venting one’s rage and frustration does NOT “release” anything or serve as a stopgap to really inflicting one’s anger on someone.

      Nietzsche was full of shit, as was Freud and Jung. None of the mythologies any of them believed in represent anything other than their own fantasies inherited from reading bad attempts at explaining human nature by people who did not understand the world around them.

      Finally, there is no Hobbsian “State of Nature” that people revert to in times of crisis or extremis. People are not “essentially” selfish any more than they are basically good. People just are. Humanity just is. Morality is just whatever we decide it is or what works out best in that particular situation at that particular time for those particular people.

      That’s all it is and all it will ever be.

  • scotlyn

    Moralities cannot occur outside of, or somehow above, power relationships

    Thanks for putting power relationships at the centre of your discussion of morality.

    You find this paper tangentially interesting. Its exposition on the use of “play” in hunter gatherer societies as a social tool to enhance egalitarianism and minimise dominance is absolutely fascinating.

    As someone often tempted to despair over the question of whether we can overcome the damaging effects of power differences in our societies, this paper gave me both chuckles and hope.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    I’m glad that you have put so much thought into analyzing these films Daniel. I won’t get to see the third anytime soon ;(, but it is my fervent hope that for good or ill this wraps up the “Dark Knight” phase of the Batman character in popular culture.

    I’ve been a fan of Batman my entire life, the earliest memory I can dredge up is of me, my brother, and my Dad (miss yah Dad) playing “Batman and Robin” in the attic. I was Batman since I was a year older, and if course Dad was the Joker. The Batman I grew up with was many things, but the brooding Dark Knight character is a fairly recent invention, and in many ways it is my opinion that the Nolan films are actually a last hurrah for Frank Miller’s Batman (a writer who has fallen far imho). I hope when next we see him on the big screen we can see a return of the “Caped Crusader” character… or even Joker forbid the “Dynamic Duo”.

    • plutosdad

      I thought the Dark Knight was truer to the original batman who actually killed people? I believe the earliest origin story for the Joker was Batman himself dropped Jack Napier into a vat of chemicals and said it was “a fitting end” for him.

      Of course that is just an aside to your point. It is weird that gritty, cruel violence is so popular. That is why I liked these Nolan Batman movies, they did not really glorify violence like a Stallone action movie does.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I believe the earliest origin story for the Joker was Batman himself dropped Jack Napier into a vat of chemicals and said it was “a fitting end” for him.

      That’s a 1989 innovation. The Killing Joke gives the Joker a different (non-Batman related) origin. I don’t know if he had an origin before the Killing Joke. Batman stopped killing early on in the comics and his stance against it is by now pretty integral to the logic of the character. A great many key story points hinge on it. Whole characters exist to play contrast to Bruce Wayne on this position of his.

  • jnorris

    Too soon for me to give a rat’s ass about who’s the better captain of the Enterprise, can Mighty Mouse beat up Superman, or which Batman is better than Adan West.

    • John Morales

      Bah.

      Picard is cerebral and employs masterful inaction, Kirk is macho and employs masterful action.

      (If you think neither is better, surely you must have reasons for that. What are they?)

    • ‘Tis Himself

      which Batman is better than Ada[m] West.

      The correct answer is “all of the above”.

  • Tyler

    It’s bad enough that Nietzsche sucks so comparing him to Batman is stupid but I am sick of these stupid articles stretching things to fit somebodies analysis of philosophy in a movie. Most people are not consistent. Batman is also no consistent. Stop making stupid articles like this. Teach through writings of your own if you’re going to teach, not trying to take other peoples visions and interpreting it as your own.

  • http://nirmukta.com/author/arvind-iyer/ Arvind Iyer

    Some instructive instances of the interplay between morality and power can perhaps be found in the evolution of concepts such as moral authority and moral support.

    The way the phrase ‘moral authority’ seems to be typically employed seems to suggest that morality bestows power rather than the other way round (power endorsing morality as in Nietzsche’s herrenmoral. For instance, Gandhi or Dr. King are said to have exercised tremendous moral authority despite an obvious lack of political power (as distinct from popular support). So what then is the ‘active ingredient’ in ‘moral authority’ which, at least in this usage, seems something that occasions power than something emerging on account of power?

    The phrase ‘moral support’ too is interesting in that it is commonly understood as different from ‘material support’. It is material support in terms of ‘supplies’ (The army marches on its stomach after all, and money is the sinews of war.) that can be thought of as underlying what is traditionally considered an exercise of power, by the State or a Corporation or any sort of ‘establishment’. Can the concept of ‘moral support’ therefore be thought of as an act of human expression to distinguish morality from power and hence an illustration that the two may not be as inextricable as in the Nietzschean conception?

    • Kilane

      Although MLK didn’t have political power given to him by the state, he most definitely had political power (same with Gandhi). Both were in a position to, and possessed the power to, influence huge numbers of people/followers.

    • http://nirmukta.com/author/arvind-iyer/ Arvind Iyer

      Kilane, Perhaps the question would have been better posed as : Were the crowds pulled by moral authority that stood on its own, or was their moral authority derived from the crowds? Perhaps this is better viewed as a dynamic of mutual interplay rather a linear causal chain. Neither Gandhi nor MLK were ‘populist’ or even ‘elected’ and so their moral authority seems to derive from a different source than strength in numbers. The notion of ‘soft power’ that is recently acquiring popular currency, maybe relevant here as it is a sort of power that is not ‘exercised’ but ‘evoked’. It will be interesting to see a fuller account of whether the Nietzschean paradigm accommodates and foresees the emergence of ‘soft power’ as an influence on value systems.

      A Nietzschean narrative raises another question. Are Gandhi and MLK more usefully viewed as an Apollonian force attempting to fulfill the true promise of their respective religions or as a disruptive Dionysian force attempting to overturn the world order of the time? Both the men fell to assassination, and there seem to be obvious moral hazards in explaining away such bloodshed as a foreseeable consequence of an Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic, which might in a way dignify an act of senseless violence as a reasoned dialectical outcome. Therefore, isn’t the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy which is undoubtedly a useful one in art history, fraught with some obvious pitfalls when applied to ethical questions?

  • brenda

    So…. the Joker is the true hero of the Dark Knight series? Not sure I got that right.

  • plutosdad

    Where are all these commenters coming from? I guess there is a link to your article from some site that has nothing at all to do with ethics or philosophy.

  • Ricardo

    Dan, thank you very much for your analisis. I’m a Law student here in Brazil and watching the Dark Knight I was impressed by how deep the dialogues are.

    In my opinion, Batman needs the Joker. He needs an enemy that can’t be defeated with the established rules in order to justify his unorthodox methods.

    We see this dialetic tension, as you perfectly call, through history. Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarism teaches how some of the worst regimes in the last century used the conflict to build their dreamed order. Only a strong opposition can justify the abandon of human rights to make the “good” triumph.


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