Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pirates of the Caribbean and Philosophy

A couple of years ago, I taught a philosophy and popular culture course that focused, for the main of the semester, on Buffy, Harry Potter, and The Simpsons. It was a lot of fun, and I’m teaching it again this fall. The focus this year is on Buffy and The Wizard of Oz, with perhaps some Monty Python thrown in for good measure. But, that’s not what this is about – it’s about Pirates of the Caribbean.

That semester, I used Pirates as the final exam. With a full semester of literary critical and philosophical analysis of pop culture texts, the final was a viewing of the first Pirates movie followed by an exam that tested whether or not the powers of analysis of the students had matured a bit. The reason I used that movie was that, frankly, it’s both pretty easy to do the analysis if one has even a few literary frameworks at one’s disposal, and it’s got some very profound philosophical musings as well. Thus, whether one is rather a novice at pop culture analysis or a seasoned hand at it, Pirates of the Caribbean has something to offer.
There are questions of “keeping to the code” or not. There’s the psychological – “This is either madness… Or brilliance.” There are issues of friendship and of fairness and of identity – all tied up in a nice little swashbuckling bow.

Let’s start off with one of my favorites. Just out from Port Royal, Jack and Will have the conversation about Will’s “twice-cursed pirate father.” Will, you’ll recall, refuses to believe that his dad wasn’t an honest merchantman. He uses a variation of a line from his and Jack’s first encounter in Mr. Brown’s smithy shop. There, he accused Jack of cheating, to which Jack replied, simply, with upraised eyebrow as if to communicate the oddity of being accused of cheating, “Pirate!” In that one word, he tells Will that the “normal” rules of engagement don’t apply. Will doesn’t get it. On the Interceptor, he reiterates the “You cheated” and says that in a fair fight, he’d have killed Jack. To which Jack, apparently thinking the boy is thick (and perhaps rightly so) says, “Well, that’s not much incentive for me to fight fair, then, is it?” Swinging the yardarm around, he catches Will off-guard and tries to set the heretofore naïve Turner straight. Says Jack, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do. For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you can't. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you'll have to square with that some day. And me, for example, I can let you drown, but I can't bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesies, savvy? So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?”

To this point, Will has nibbled a bit at breaking the rules – he’s helped Jack escaped and commandeered a ship of the fleet. His justification would be that he’s trying to save Elizabeth. Jack’s little lecture, however, puts things in stark relief. It’s not a matter of breaking rules – there are only two to begin with. All the others are illusions.

So, the first question is, if we accept Jack’s statement as evidence of a philosophical view, what philosophical view is it that he holds. In one sense, we could suppose that there is an Hobbesian thread here – in a war of each against all, there is but rule (or two, or a rule and its corollary) – what a man can do and what a man can’t do. This is a statement of political and physical limitation. In one sense, it reflects a lack of communal solidarity – there is only what a (single, solitary, alone) man can do. Given the pirate code, as it is presented later, this is not surprising. When asked what the code to be kept to in the case the worst happens, Jack responds, that the one who falls behind is left behind. When Will suggests that this reflects a lack of honor among thieves, Jack defends the practice not by justifying it, but by suggesting that Will, himself, is well on his way toward becoming a pirate. This doesn’t answer Will at all.

One might suppose that it is easy to keep to the code when one is not the one left behind, that perhaps Jack might feel differently if it were he who were left behind. Yet, after the Pearl is made off with by Will and Jack’s crew, Jack reacts consistently with his early view – even though it is now his ox that is being gored. He says, “They done what’s right by them. Can’t ask for anything more.” So, it seems reasonably safe to conclude that the pirate view of the world is indeed an “each against all” world in which self-interest and leverage are the currency of the realm.

As a physical matter, the Sparrow Principle, shall we call it, addresses a sort of Machiavellian “might makes right,” as well. It’s not just physical strength – strength of personality, quickness of wit, etc., count as well. Indeed, Jack is a sort of Loki character, at times (a character sort that Depp was born to play). Returning from that brief digression, we know Jack can’t crew the Interceptor into Tortuga all by his onesies. Will is both deckhand and leverage. It is not clear that Will is much more than leverage for Jack at any point during the tale, but whether a friendship blossoms by the end of the movie or not, at this stage, Will is a pawn in Jack’s powerplay. Will, although significantly more naïve than Jack, learns quickly enough how the game is played and that either by strength of will or strength of body, he is both willing and capable of playing the game. It is a character that continues to develop into the next movies (e.g., rolling the bones with Davy Jones), but the focus here is the first movie, so I’ll say little else about that later development.

This is a reasonably nice segue into the psychological limitations as well. Clearly, there are limits on the quickness of wit, for example. Norrington could no more talk himself out of a dilemma than Jack could give up pirating his weasley black guts out. But, that’s not so much the psychological limitation to which I refer. Jack’s chiding of Will points out a truism that often goes unremarked. It’s not so much in the principle itself as it is in the explanation. Either Will can accept that his father was a pirate and a good man, or he can’t. To what extent is his mind capable of expanding to incorporate new realities and new perceptions of old beliefs? Can he face beliefs revealed to be false and not suffer mental breakdown, or can he not? If the latter, if he cannot face new challenges and obstacles, then helping Jack crew the Interceptor and serving as leverage is the extent of Will’s usefulness to anyone – including himself. However, if he can acquire a certain flexibility of mind and perceptions, then he just might survive, and might even thrive. Jack’s apparently simple observation provides considerable grist for the philosophical mill.

Another of his reflections does as well, although in a different way. What is a ship? What is a person? What defines identity over time? What is essential to a being, and what is merely accidental? Jack’s discussion with Elizabeth over rum about the nature of the Black Pearl is a wonderful jumping off spot for this discussion. You remember the famous line, I’m sure… “Wherever we want to go, we'll go. That's what a ship is, you know. It's not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that's what a ship needs but what a ship is... what the Black Pearl really is... is freedom.”

To some, it would seem that all a ship amounts to is the hull and rigging and deck, etc. Jack makes an important distinction – between a necessary condition and a sufficient one. All of those physical features are what are required by a ship. Similarly, blood, flesh, bone, brain – all of these are required for a human being to be a human being. But are they enough. Sparrow, perhaps a bit romantically, declares that the cold physical realities are insufficient for true identity. The Pearl is not only the sum of her parts, she is also the Eternal Object in which she participates – she is not freedom itself, but she points to freedom, she participates in freedom, it is her telos or teleological cause. Similarly, whatever a person truly is is not solely a matter of physical stuff, but of cause and purpose and aim and telos. It’s an intriguing jumping off point for philosophical rumination as well.

I’ve left off conversation of Governor Swann’s discussion with Elizabeth, where he says that even a good decision, if made for the wrong reasons, can be a wrong decision. I’ll say only this here and mayhaps we can return for further reflection. On a virtue picture of ethics, a person is a virtuous person if, and only if, he does the right thing at the right time in the right way and for the right reasons. So, simply put, if one makes what, in other circumstances and in another time might have been a good decision, it does not entail that it is currently. There is an interesting return to this notion at the conclusion of the movie, again in the words of Gov. Swann. Addressing Norrington, he suggests that there might be certain circumstances in which an act of piracy is even the right action. While Norrington accepts that for the moment, the fact that he later pursues the Black Pearl suggests that perhaps Jack was right earlier – one good deed is not enough to redeem a man, and may be enough to condemn him. However, Swann’s notion that even something that in almost all circumstances is wrong might, at one moment or another, be the right action suggests that a virtue model is what is ultimately at stake here, and, further, serves as an apt criticism of the rigid legalism that might be found in the Gov. Swann of the opening of the movie.

Whatever else the case, it is a fascinating movie with plenty of jumping off points for philosophical conversation. The notion of the code and a Kantian autonomy/heteronomy distinction is ripe for the plucking, for example. I leave with this – there’s what one can do, and what one can’t do.