We’re returning to the Pop Culture and Philosophy series for this one, firmly cementing this series as good standbys to bust out whenever I can’t think of what else to read in time to get a post out. This time we’re looking at Spider-Man and Philosophy, whose first essay is given to us by Neil Musset, returning to us from D&D&P, where he wrote a pretty good examination of the philosophy of the origins of evil that was marred by his insistence that the definition of Chaotic Evil given to him by a guy he knew in high school was and should remain absolutely universal no matter how poorly it matched up not to just one, but to every philosophy of the origin of evil he examined. But really, if you’re going to get either the “Philosophy” or the “Dungeons and Dragons” bit wrong in Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy, you’re better off messing up the latter to get the former right, so while it is flawed, I still think Neil Musset’s previous essay was a good read. Also, I call it “previous,” but Spider-Man and Philosophy was 2012 and D&D&P was 2014, so we’re actually going back in time here.
Neil Musset is taking the same basic strategy here as with D&D&P, in that he examines multiple different philosophical interpretations of some philosophical subject through the lens of Spider-Man. As the title suggests, our philosophical subject this time is what it means to live a good life, and our lens is whether Peter Parker has one.
Philosopher number one is Paul Kurtz, who believes that the ancient Greek dispute between the hedonists – who believed happiness was pleasure – and the eudaemonists – who believed that happiness was excellence – was missing the point, and happiness is actually having both of those things. But Peter Parker is pretty short in the pleasure department, what with his financial troubles, his romantic troubles, his academic troubles, and so on. On Paul Kurtz’s count, Peter Parker isn’t living a good life.
I don’t know why Ayn Rand was included. She’s not generally well regarded in the philosophical community, anyone with the barest knowledge of her ethics knows that Spider-Man stands in more stark opposition to them than perhaps any other similarly popular character, and while you would still want to include her in an absolutely exhaustive analysis of philosophy, I double checked Wikipedia and it turns out there are more than five philosophers in history.
Epictetus is the most famous of the Stoic school of philosophy, whose fundamental belief regarding happiness is that only you can choose whether or not to be happy. Most people who parrot similar phrases today tend to shut up when you ask them whether they think Holocaust victims were just a bunch of whiners, but Epictetus was a slave taken from his homeland and hobbled in captivity, so while he never saw the industrial horrors of modern atrocity, he’s definitely had a legitimately difficult life and isn’t bullshitting when he says he believes that happiness is always a choice that someone makes for themselves. When he says “happiness is something you can choose to feel,” he doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions because his victims are ultimately responsible for the unhappiness he’s caused them, he means that he reminds himself every day that every pleasant thing he has, right down to his friends and family, could perish tomorrow, and ultimately he will be okay with that. Peter Parker, according to Epictetus, chooses unhappiness by wishing for a stable relationship with Mary Jane, wishing to keep his Aunt May safe, and wishing for academic (and perhaps financial) success.
On the other hand, Epictetus’ tales of stoically enduring having his leg broken in slavery are of unknown veracity (we know he was hobbled, but accounts differ as to how), whereas Viktor Frankl was verifiably a victim of the Holocaust. Viktor Frankl’s theory of happiness is an expansion upon the Nietzschean theory “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” a quote that Viktor Frankl was fond of. To Viktor, meaning is the root of happiness. Suffering with meaning is sacrifice, and makes life richer. Spider-Man is undeniably leading a good life according to Viktor Frankl, because he finds meaning in the good he does. If he didn’t, he would stop. There’s no outside force compelling him to keep going, after all. If he wanted to stop being Spider-Man he could. He’s even tried a couple of times, but he can’t stick to it, because using his powers for good is what gives his life meaning. He feels bad if he doesn’t.
Aquinas took Aristotle’s virtue ethics and swapped in medieval Christian virtues for the ancient Greek ones Aristotle used. Given how medieval Christendom worked out for all involved, you might think the result was pretty barbaric, but the virtues enshrined by medieval Christendom were things like “charity” and “humility.” Feudalism was more responsible for how much the middle ages sucked than Christianity (Renaissance Christianity, on the other hand, was so corrupt that 80s movie villains would find the level of cruel decadence to be distastefully gauche). Because Aristotle’s view is that being virtuous is living a good life, and because Peter’s right in line with the specific list of virtues Aquinas supplied to that system, Aquinas would argue that Peter Parker is indeed leading a good life. Also, Neil Mussett does a whole lot of fanboying over Aquinas in this bit, but it’s not so bad that it makes the philosophy impenetrable, so other than being a little distracting, it doesn’t really impact the experience.
Neil Mussett’s formula for these is really effective and a whole book that just relentlessly drove it into the ground would probably turn out better than FFP and D&D&P did, just because there’s enough philosophers and philosophical questions to ask that you could probably pump out fifteen essays in this format without running out of material. Using a fictional character to examine a bunch of different philosophers’ takes on the same basic question is pretty much exactly what these pop philosophy books should be doing.