What can Batman tell us about the deficiencies of democracy, and the need for Guardians as outlined in Plato’s Republic?
Among the neo-pagan American Pantheon of the Justice League, Batman has always had a unique place. He hails neither from a crystalline alien planet of supermen, nor from an equally exotic hidden island utopia. He certainly was not raised in Kansas, like Clark Kent, and he does not work in the hallowed halls of Washington, like Diana Prince. Bruce Wayne is a native son of the grittiest, most powerful, and most corrupt city-state on Earth, Gotham – the archetypal image of New York City, a modern Babylon or Rome. He was not endowed by birth with the magical powers of a cryptic super-race that render him virtually invulnerable. His extraordinary abilities are born of long, hard training and self-discipline, and many confrontations with an all too palpable mortality. Finally, Batman is not a star-spangled, heaven-sent Apollonian emissary of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. He is of one cloth with the benighted world in the shadows of which he stealthily works. His work often pits him against the authorities as an elusive bane of those who have proclaimed themselves officers of Law and Order. The atmosphere of his world is that of our own – a milieu where the difference between organized crime and legal order is rarely clear, so that even the noblest man must resort to mass deception and terrorism in his thankless task of protecting the decent.
Like any tale that taps into symbols and themes of archetypal power and significance, the Batman mythos has developed a life of its own. In my view, however, its many iterations culminated in the masterpiece trilogy of Christopher Nolan. During my doctoral studies, a Marxist colleague of mine who dressed up as Bane for Halloween claimed that Nolan’s “Batman is a fascist.” I immediately understood what he meant and replied that he was paying a great compliment to fascism. Perhaps he will think otherwise of Ben Affleck’s rendition of Batman, given that the actor’s stance on Islam is closer to Bane’s than to that of the Dark Knight. The release of Dawn of Justice is an opportunity for those of us who have protested that “Ben Affleck is not our Batman” to reflect on the ethos of an übermensch willing to be hated because he is something more than a hero.
When Bruce Wayne, still in his Chinese prison cell, first hears of the League of Shadows from Ducard and dismissively identifies them as vigilantes, Ducard replies,“No, no. A vigilante is a man lost in his quest for gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.” Later, during the final test in Bruce’s training, Ducard says, “You have to become a terrible thought. A wraith. You have to become an idea!” What Nolan is referring to here is “Justice” – with a capital J – as a Platonic ideal or idea (Greek eidos) above or beyond the plane of transient worldly manifestations.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman films sketch out the broad contours of a multi-tiered organized crime syndicate that has effectively become a de facto world government. At the lowest level are old-time mafia bosses like Carmine Falcone and Salvatore Moroni and a variety of new wave gang leaders and drug dealers who each manage their own territories, and who are grouped in some cases according to race or ethnicity. Lacking any real economic expertise, the first tier of organized criminals must turn to experts in high finance in order to manage their collective investments. Mr. Lau of Hong Kong represents this financier class, and it is significant that he is in turn trying to invest in Wayne Enterprises on their behalf. If a CEO like Earl had still been running Wayne Enterprises, Lau’s business deal with the corporation would probably have gone through. While Earl was at the helm of Wayne Enterprises, he had departed radically from Thomas Wayne’s philanthropic vision for the corporation by becoming involved in heavy arms manufacture, as represented by the microwave emitter chemical agent dispersal unit designed for desert warfare. At the same time, Earl tried to take the company public so as to raise capital from big investors in the arms industry. Bruce ultimately saves his family business from taking this course, but only after Nolan has given us an idea of the second tier of organized crime: the military-industrial corporation, who views the first tier of organized criminals as legitimate, “no questions asked” investors.
These first two tiers consist of weak-minded people who lack a fearless commitment to principles that they would not violate at any cost. Their ultimate aim is lining their wallets. Most organized criminals hatch their plots to gain something, but this also means that they live in fear of all they have to lose. Both the gangsters and the military-industrial corporatists are glorified thieves. Consequently, more disciplined and intelligent men with well-considered plans and long-term projects find them easy to manipulate. Among this third class of organized criminals are experts in mind control and psychological warfare, such as Dr. Crane (Scarecrow) and his handler Henri Ducard, as well as Ras Al Ghul’s daughter and the disciple who was her protector, Bane, and the Islamists that he recruits as his “liberation army.”
Crane, an unethical scientist, manipulates the drug-dealing activities of the first level of criminals in order to carry out nefarious psychological experiments. Crane is, in turn, Ducard’s pawn. Ducard controls at least part of the international trafficking that brings various illicit substances from Asia to Gotham. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of Gotham has been so badly corrupted that Ducard’s men can infiltrate every level of it, to the point of stealthily acquiring classified special weapons designed and manufactured by the military-industrial corporatists. The League of Shadows is not merely after profit. In fact, Bane’s rabble-rousing leadership of the Occupy Wall Street movement in The Dark Knight Rises demonstrates the essentially anti-capitalist character of the cult. Although it skillfully makes use of mobsters, militarist corporatists, and unethical scientists and technocrats, it is ultimately a cult of “true believers” who reject materialism and creature comforts. That is also what lies behind its thinly-veiled association with radical Islam. This means that even these Assassins can be manipulated. Only The Joker cannot be.
The Joker is not after money, or for that matter any other logically comprehensible advantage or materially definable gain. In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan shows us this through both Alfred’s anecdote about the bandit he chased in the forests of Burma and The Joker’s own dramatic decision to burn his half of the laundered money. The former clearly foreshadows the latter. Alfred explains to Bruce that Batman hammered the underworld “to the point of desperation, and in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” Bruce then echoes what Ducard said about criminals in Batman Begins, namely that, “Criminals aren’t complicated.” Bruce thinks that they are all after something and they just need to figure out what The Joker wants. Alfred disagrees: “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man you don’t fully understand, either.” He then tells the story about the Bandit, a thief who was stealing precious stones that belonged to the government from caravans that were passing through the forests, but who, rather than trying to sell them like an ordinary thief, was simply throwing them away. Bruce asks Alfred why the Bandit would have stolen the stones just to throw them away. Alfred replies, “Well, because he thought it was good sport, because some men [Nolan focuses the camera on The Joker’s face on TV] aren’t looking for anything logical like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Later, when, in the predawn hours, Bruce, still half-dressed as Batman, is sitting by the window of his apartment overlooking Gotham and contemplating whether he is responsible for Rachel’s death, he asks Alfred, “That bandit, in the forest in Burma, did you catch him?” Alfred replies, “Yes.” Bruce asks, “How?” Alfred’s ominous response once again references fire: “We burned the forest down.”
The two references to the Bandit who wanted to watch the world burn and who forces his pursuers to burn a forest down to apprehend him, frame the scene where The Joker sets fire to the money he’s extorted from the mobsters and gangsters that he has turned into his playthings. As he burns the mountain of cash The Joker says to one of the gangsters, “All you care about is money, this town deserves a better class of criminal. I’m gonna give it to them. Tell your men they work for me now. This is my city.” The gangster retorts that his men “won’t work for a freak,” whereupon The Joker delivers one of his most revealing lines in The Dark Knight: “Why don’t we cut you up and feed you to your pooches? Then we’ll find out how loyal everybody really is. Its not about money, its about sending a message: EVERYTHING BURNS!”
The word “mob” has a dual meaning in Nolan’s Batman films. It is not only a reference to the organized crime syndicate that rules Gotham, but also to the masses who allow it to do so. As The Joker recognizes, the people of Gotham are utterly hypocritical. Even though they want law enforcement to hunt down Batman as an outlaw vigilante, and are ready to put him in prison once he turns himself in, they are happy to use him when they really need him. Most of them view him as just as freakish and “crazy” as The Joker, and moreover as the catalyst for the “craziness” that has come over Gotham. They share the mob’s wish to just go back to the way things were in the old days. Harvey Dent’s impassioned plea at the press conference, to the effect that while things are indeed “worse than ever,” it is “always darkest just before the dawn” has no effect on them. They do not appreciate him reminding them that although the Batman is an outlaw, the people of Gotham, who have so far been happy to let Batman clean up their streets, are really demanding that he turn himself in because they are scared of a terrorist madman.
The Joker’s “social experiment” with the two ferries rigged with explosives is an attempt to demonstrate the validity of his thesis that “when the chips are down, these uh, these ‘civilized’ people, they’ll eat each other.” Although this appears to fail, The Joker still makes his point through his “ace in the hole.” Both Gordon and Batman agree that The Joker was right to think that if the people of Gotham were to find out what he had turned Harvey into, their spirit would break and they would give up all hope in the good. The only way they can avert this outcome is to cover up the truth that the public cannot handle. This shows that even Harvey Dent’s criticism of Democracy is too weak. Recall the exchange between Bruce, his Russian ballerina date, Rachel, and Harvey in a restaurant towards the beginning of The Dark Knight:
Natascha (prima Russian ballerina): How could you want to raise children in a city like this.
Bruce: Well, I was raised here, I turned out ok.
Dent: Is Wayne Manor even in the city limits?
Bruce: The pallisades, sure. You know, as our new DA you might want to figure out, uh, where your jurisdiction ends.
Natascha: I’m talking about the kind of city that idolizes a masked vigilante.
Dent: Gotham city is proud of an ordinary citizen standing up for what’s right.
Natascha: Gotham needs heroes like you, elected officials, not a man who thinks he is above the law.
Bruce: Exactly, who appointed the Batman?
Dent: We did. All of us who stood by and let scum take control of our city.
Natascha: But this is a democracy, Harvey.
Dent: When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city, and it wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service.
Rachel: Harvey, the last man that they appointed to protect the Republic was named Caesar, and he never gave up his power.
Dent: Ok, fine. You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Look, whoever the Bat Man is he doesn’t want to do this for the rest of his life, how could he? Batman is looking for someone to take up his mantle.
Natascha: Someone like you, Mr. Dent?
Dent: Maybe, if I’m up to it.
He is not up to it, and since both Gordon and Batman agree that Dent is Gotham’s finest, it turns out that no one is up to it. For most of The Dark Knight, Batman believes that Dent is the “real hero” that he “can never be.” Bruce sees his own fight against organized crime as provisional, and hopes to be able to create the conditions whereby a public official of a democratic government can take up the struggle through more legitimate means. Rachel clearly influenced Bruce into taking this view. Towards the opening of Batman Begins she preaches the virtues of an impartial Justice system over vigilante vengeance, and while Bruce initially responds that “your system is broken,” he ultimately tells Ducard that the man he is supposed to execute “should be tried.” Ducard replies, “By who? Corrupt bureaucrats? Criminals mock society’s laws. You know this better than most.” This was Bruce’s view, but he has come around to seeing things Rachel’s way.
Yet in the end we see that Rachel makes excuses to break her promise to Bruce, betraying him to be with Dent – whose character she grossly misjudges as being superior to that of Batman. When Alfred explains to her why Bruce and Dent agree that Batman should not turn himself in, she completely misses the point of what he means by saying that Bruce is not being a hero. She leaves a letter with him whose contents consist of an appalling betrayal of Bruce. Alfred decides to withhold the letter and then ultimately to burn it altogether, which Nolan shows us as one of the montages over Gordon’s closing narration in The Dark Knight. The juxtaposition of that image together with this narration is intended to suggest that Rachel was just another member of the mob. Bruce blinded himself to her true character (or lack thereof), because without his love for her, he would be so alone. Alfred burns the letter so that this sudden realization of almost total loneliness will not endanger Batman’s compassion for the people of Gotham.
Whether or not Nolan will admit it publicly, one moral of his film is that a Caesar is not only justified under certain circumstances, but that the suspension of democracy need not be temporary. Lucius Fox was mistaken to believe that it is wrong for one man (or a few) to have as much power as the sonar cellular spying system has given Batman, and Bruce Wayne was wrong to think that he had to delegate this power to Fox and then allow him to destroy the machine after only a single use. The Dark Knight explores why Democracy is a misguided political system altogether. In this closing narration, we see the total inversion of Gordon and Wayne’s initial belief that Dent is the true hero and Batman only a temporary stopgap. Dent’s heroism is a lie that Batman, who is far more than a hero, decides must be maintained for the citizens’ own good. Ras Al Ghul was right that “theatricality and deception are powerful weapons,” and Batman learns that it is sometimes necessary to use both. Here is the dialogue and narration of The Dark Knight’s devastating last scene:
Gordon: Thank you.
Batman [after having fallen]: You don’t have to thank me.
Gordon: Yes, I do. The Joker won. Harvey’s prosecution, everything he fought for, undone. Whatever chance you gave us of fixing our city, dies with Harvey’s reputation. We bet it all on him. The Joker took the best of us and tore him down. People will lose hope.
Batman: They won’t. They must never know what he did.
Gordon: Five dead. Two of them cops. You can’t sweep that up.
Batman: But the Joker cannot win. Gotham needs its true hero [he turns Two Face’s head over to the Harvey side]. You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain. I can do those things, because I’m not a hero, unlike Dent. I killed those people. That’s what I can be.
Gordon: No, you can’t, you’re not.
Batman: I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be. Call it in.
Gordon [giving a speech before Dent’s portrait]: “A hero, not the hero we deserved, but the Hero we needed, nothing less than a Knight, shining.”
[Gordon’s closing narration, over images of him breaking down the Bat signal, and the cops chasing Batman…]
Gordon: They’ll hunt you.
Batman: You’ll hunt me. You’ll condemn me. Set the dogs on me, because that’s what needs to happen. Because sometimes Truth isn’t good enough [OVER THE IMAGE OF ALFRED BURNING RACHEL’S LETTER], sometimes people deserve more, sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.
Gordon’s son: Batman. Batman! Why’s he running, dad?
Gordon: Because we have to chase him…
Gordon’s son: He didn’t do anything wrong.
Gordon: …because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it, because he’s not our hero, he’s a silent Guardian, a watchful protector – a dark knight.
Beautiful, terrible – but only the way a myth, a modern legend can be, right? On the contrary, that is what the mob believes and what The Cosmic Joker who manipulates them wants you to believe. Nolan gives us a hint that he knows otherwise. The card Joker tacks to corpses of the Batman copycats reads, “Will the real Batman please stand up?”
In the closing narration of The Dark Knight, with its reference to the “guardian” and the noble lie, it becomes clear that Nolan is promoting a new interpretation of the idea of Guardianship that we find in Plato’s Republic – the most antidemocratic political text in the history of philosophy. The basic problem of the Republic is set forth in the parable of “the Ring of Gyges,” from 358a–362b in Book II.1 This thought experiment is provided as a means to strengthen the argument of Thrasymachus that might makes right, with which Republic opens in Book I before going on to counter this view for the rest of the text. Gyges is a Lydian shepherd who, in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm and earthquake, finds the subterranean tomb of a giant in a crevice that has just cracked open in the Earth. There are many marvelous things in the tomb, but the giant himself is naked except for a ring, which Gyges removes and slips onto his own finger before leaving the chamber. Later, he discovers that whenever he turns this ring inward he becomes invisible, because others discuss him as if he is not there. He uses this power to have sex with the Queen and murder her husband, installing himself as the King of Lydia.
Plato asks, if there were two such rings, one being given to what we take to be a just man and the other to an unjust man, would not nearly everyone at least privately think of the just man as a fool if he did not go about raping and plundering with impunity – if he did not, in effect, behave exactly as the unjust man does (and would do even more efficaciously with such a ring)? In an annex to the Gyges parable, Plato sharpens the question. Putting aside the ring, what if the state of affairs in the world were such that the man who only seems just in order to profit thereby were to be rewarded for his veiled injustice at every turn, whereas the just man would be taken by the many to be unjust and on that account hunted down and subjected to every variety of torture before in the end being crucified, then who could honestly say he would prefer to be a just man rather than a man who, in the eyes of the many, only seems just? Bruce Wayne’s extraordinary wealth, honored position as “the Prince of Gotham,” and his cunning intellect, afford him something like the Ring of Gyges – he could be the seemingly just man, being celebrated as a philanthropist while getting away with all kinds of dastardly deeds or at least living the callow life of a playboy. Instead, he chooses to be a feared, hated, hunted, vigilant guardian who protects those who persecute him and who cannot expect a hero’s reward.
The famous or infamous passages on the so-called ‘philosopher king’ as Guardian of the city-state appear from 497b-503b of the Republic.2 I say so-called “philosopher king” because Plato (quite scandalously for his time) thinks that female philosophers are also fit to be Guardians. Three main points are emphasized in these core passages.
The first is that Plato is fully convinced that philosophers cannot quietly retire from politics because they disdain its rampant corruption. Philosophers will inevitably be victimized by unjust governments and perhaps martyred. Moreover, given that philosophers who contemplate ideals and are purified through long abiding in a transcendent state, if they turn their efforts to ordering the affairs of the world, they would tend to reflect the archetypal patterns within their soul in the re-structured city-state as if in a mirror. In the absence of this, Plato is fully convinced that men of lesser intuition and understanding will always make themselves miserable through bringing about one or another unjust regime as a reflection of their own inner discord. Although the philosopher would rather keep to himself and his peers in a life of quiet contemplation, taken together these two facts make it incumbent upon him or her to protect lesser men from their own folly, and to temper the violence that these men suffer at each others’ hands by taking up statecraft as a public service.
Secondly, to the contrary of the view of those who think that Plato is naively engaging in an idle meander through the land of make-believe, if one reads these passages, one finds several times both an insistence that such a regime should actually be implemented, and a repeated acknowledgment that although this would be very difficult, and would be vociferously opposed by the mob, it is nonetheless not impossible.
Third, and finally, one finds that Plato recognizes that the implementation of such a regime cannot be accomplished through reformist half-measures, but will require a radical revolution that wipes out the prevailing corruption before supplanting it with a more just social order. Like a master craftsman, the Guardian is a “painter of regimes” who will not accept anything less than a blank canvas or “a tablet…which, in the first place, they would wipe clean.” They “would rub out one thing and draw in another…mixing and blending…ingredients” for a new “image of man.”
Needless to say such a revolution will be resisted by the mob, who are incapable of understanding that it is for their own good, and that even those of them who are killed in the course of it will benefit by being reincarnated into a more just society. Therefore, a certain measure of deception will be necessary in order for the Guardians to advance their noble-minded project. This is the aspect of the doctrine of Guardianship in the Republic that is most evidently alluded to in Nolan’s use of the Batman mythos to critique democracy. In the course of the Republic, Plato offers us two principal examples of the role that a “noble lie” might play in establishing a just social order.
The concept is introduced at the core of the so-called “myth of the metals” recounted from 413a–417b, with the key passage being at 414c: “Could we…somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need, of which we were just now speaking, some one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?”3 The second reference comes at 457a–462c in the context of proposals as to how to coerce compliance with controversial eugenics and population control policies, with this striking pronouncement as its fulcrum at 459d: “Its likely that our rulers will have to use a throng of lies and deceptions for the benefit of the ruled. And, of course, we said that everything of this sort is useful as a form of remedy.”4
The content of these noble lies might not seem to have much in common with the noble lie that Batman decides to have Commissioner Gordon tell the people of Gotham, but their form is the same. In all cases, the noble lie is really about using deception or trickery as a way to fool people into becoming something that they would not otherwise have been capable of becoming. It is a way of crossing over and redefining the boundaries of the possible, like pretending to hold a child who is just learning to tread water in the deep end of the pool but holding him so lightly that he is already really keeping himself afloat but would still drown if he were made aware of this. Or, in a more sinister example, it is like forcing people you want to protect to face a false enemy so that they will build their strength in earnest and be more prepared for a real enemy that you know will arrive later.
The message of Hermes, the Trickster, may bring new boundaries decreed by Heaven, but only because he already crossed the old ones or brought people to cross them.5 He is the god of the threshold.6 Although he upsets the established social order, Hermes is most decidedly not the god of democracy; he will align himself with any number of different (and even opposed) political systems for strategic reasons.7 He is known to play both sides, perhaps to provoke them into a generative strife. It appears that the Hermes archetype is not only at work in The Joker, but also in the response that The Joker’s apparent victory elicits from The Dark Knight. In fact, the Batman and the Joker are an alchemical conjunction of opposites with tremendous transformative potential. A majority of New Yorkers and most of the police force want to go back to a time before Batman, and the city’s organized criminals think that the “craziness” the Joker has unleashed is just too much. Yet, as Alfred explains to Bruce, he “crossed the line first,” and as The Joker explains to Batman, “there is no going back.” Hermes has crossed the boundaries and calls forth a new order out of Chaos.
A good student of Plato recognizes that “do not do unto others as you would not want others to do unto you” is a principle as necessary for maintaining the cohesion of a gang of criminals as it is for governing a city-state. It is based on the lowest common denominator of self-interest, not on any contemplation of a moral ideal. Furthermore, it falsely assumes that most people are able to make a contract of their own free will, and to recognize each other as equal partners in such a contract.
When Batman decides that he must tell a Platonic noble lie, when he realizes that his proper role is as a republican Guardian and not as the hero of a democracy sustained through a social contract, something of the Trickster’s dynamism has transformatively insinuated itself into his character as well. To recognize this, in the compelling context of Nolan’s films, is to better discern the esoteric Hermetic dimension of the Platonic project. Truth lies beyond the limits of the possible, such that the instauration of Justice makes impossible demands of allegedly “conservative,” but unprincipled, hypocrites. “You must be joking,” they say – to which the only answer is for the real Batman to stand up.
- Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1991), pp. 36-39.
- Ibid., pp. 176-183.
- Ibid., pp. 93.
- Ibid., pp. 138.
- Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), p. 7.
- Ibid., pp. 7-8.
- Ibid., p. 215.