Gladiator and Ethical Paradox

November 19, 2010 — 1 Comment


For research on my thesis, I just finished working through Brian Godawa’s Hollywood Worldviews. I may post a more thorough review at some point, but in one of the closing chapters on spirituality in the movies, he makes a very good point about what many people talk about today concerning non-religious ethics.

He quotes at length David Franzoni (writer of Gladiator, King Arthur, and Amistad):

The film [Gladiator] is about a hero who has morality, but that morality is a secular morality that transcends conventional religious morality. In other words, I believe there is room in our mythology for a character who is deeply moral, but who’s not traditionally religious: I loved that he was a pagan, not Christian or any other traditional/established religion.

This may or may not be news to you, but by the writer’s own admission, he was seeking to portray Maximus Decimus Meridius as a quintessentially virtuous pagan who has a “transcendent secular morality.” Usually, we as Christians are a bit unaware of these kinds of agendas, so it is useful to see them come to light. I don’t think it should cause you to disparage Gladiator as pagan propaganda or refuse to watch it. But just as a side point, if you draw on Maximus as an ethical example, you cannot really do so without compromising a true Christian ethic. Something of course, to keep in mind when you’re going to the movies.

Let’s go back though to what Franzoni was self-consciously trying to do: illustrate a transcendent secular morality. This is basically the burden on the new atheist movement. While they are attempting to desconstruct God and traditional Christian morality, they have to create some edifice in its place that can dictate morality in satisfactorily binding way. No one however though, has been able to do so in the entire history of philosophy. Kant has probably come the closest to articulating in principle a transcendent secular morality, but even his attempt, upon closer analysis, fails to prove satisfactory (for reasons that would take their own post to explain).

Here’s how Godawa explains though in his footnote:

“Transcendent secular morality” is an oxymoron. Secularity cannot be transcendent, because by definition it is immanent, that is, of the world rather than of the transcendent spiritual realm. From Aristotle to Wittgenstein, if there is one thing that the history of secular philosophy of ethics illustrates, it is that when people reason “secularly” (from themselves), rather than from the transcendent God, they can only end in subjectivism (each person decides for himself or herself), and that is certainly not transcendent. (p. 207)

Oops. So, in other words, you can create a “transcendent secular morality” but it will fail to be (a) transcendent, unless you reason from something transcendent (like God or another absolute person/principle) or (b) secular, unless you eliminate any transcendent qualities and thereby make it entirely immanent  and so lapse into relativity.

If it is truly transcendent, then it is binding upon all, but if it is purely secular, to be found among ourselves and immanent in our own world, it can’t really be proven to be universal and binding. Godawa, while seeming to make a sweeping generalization, comes to precisely the same conclusion that John Frame does in his Doctrine of the Christian Life after conducting a survey of all the major thinkers and traditions in secular philosophy. Godawa then goes on to describe the effects this approach to ethics has:

Without a transcendent absolute standard, this secular moral relativity reduces to the will to power [as Nietzsche prophetically saw] – whoever is in power (the majority) defines what is right and wrong for the rest (minority). This will to power is the essence of Rome, and it is the same will to power that was embodied in the German Nazi state of the 1930’s and 1940’s. The director Ridley Scott understood this, and that is why he modeled the look of the Roman cult in Gladiator after the fascist imagery of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.

There are numerous observations we could make about this quotation. In short, this another way of saying that secular ethics, in the absence of some kind of transcendent standard always reduces to statistics. Whatever the majority agree on and has the power to legislate becomes “right.” This however is not transcendent, nor can it ever really be since it is moving from what is (what most people agree is moral) to what ought to be (what you must do to be moral). But even David Hume pointed out that this kind of observation (what people agree about) can never yield a necessity (a moral ought).

I think it is interesting as well to note Scott’s use of Triumph of the Will for imagery. I won’t get into the implications that might have, but you can google it if you like and draw your own conclusions. It was however the most successful use of propaganda in film, so it may just get used because it works so well for its purposes.

To draw this to close though, it is more or less impossible to actually create a transcendent secular morality. You can have a transcendent moral principle apart from God, but the more authority it has, the more vague and unhelpful it will be. This is the problem Plato ran into with form of the Good, which was so vague it couldn’t really help you make moral decisions in everyday life. The less vague you make it, the less transcendent it becomes.

Or, you can have a purely secular morality, but to actually achieve that, you need to keep transcendence out in order to maintain secularity. But by negating any transcendent authority or binding principle, you can only produce a relative one. While it may be moral, it cannot be universal and binding on all people, for that would make it transcendent. All that is left is tallying up personal opinions and oppressing the minority report.

Fortunately, for the Christian, it does not have to be this way. But to explain that, I’ll need another post, so stay tuned.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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