I finally watched “Gladiator” the other day. This
news may surprise you. A guy who loves swords as much as I do, you would
think, would have leaped for “Gladiator” like a trout after a fly, the
moment it was released.
But in fact I found myself putting it off. I'm pretty sure I know
why I delayed, too. I'd read a review that told me what happens to
Maximus' wife and son. I knew that in order to enjoy the good parts, I'd
have to go through that scene, and whether it happened off screen or
on, it would poison the whole thing for me. I hope you won't think less
of me if I admit that I'm basically a pretty tenderhearted guy, with a
low tolerance for the suffering of innocents.
As a writer, I understand why they added that scene (and, according
to Wikipedia, it was added. It wasn't in the original script.
They put it in to increase Maximus' incentive for vengeance). You have
to raise the stakes, if you want to engage an audience and motivate a
character to dire and terrible deeds. People don't wake up one morning
and say, “I think I'll assassinate a dictator today.” They need (or so
This gets done all the time in movies, because movies require a
visual ignition. Some of my favorite movies do it. King Edward I's
massacre of the Scottish lords at the beginning of “Braveheart” didn't
happen historically. The real events were visually uninteresting, so
they punched it up. The massacre of the family at the beginning of “Once
Upon a Time in the West” is something that no white man ever did to
white people in the real Old West. But modern audiences find it
believable, and it enables us to learn to hate Henry Fonda. The young
companion wounded at the beginning of “The Outlaw Josie Wales” was not
shot in an evil Yankee massacre, but while robbing a bank, in the
original Forrest Carter novel. Action movies, though, demand something
with less nuance, more bodily fluids.
In a story, trouble and pain are necessary, so that the characters
can grow and learn. Those of us who believe in the Christian God believe
that He is Himself a great Author, that we are characters in His epic
drama, fighting our way through fire and water to be made stronger and
better, or to be purified by suffering and death.
But what of those who do not believe in the Christian God, or in any
God? How do they persevere?
The June 6 issue of the New York Times carries an
essay by Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, in which he ponders these
questions and concludes with a ringing, “I'm not sure.”
David Benatar, author of a fine book with an
arresting title: “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into
Existence.” One of Benatar’s arguments trades on something like the
asymmetry noted earlier. To bring into existence someone who will suffer
is, Benatar argues, to harm that person, but to bring into existence
someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her. Few of
us would think it right to inflict severe suffering on an innocent
child, even if that were the only way in which we could bring many other
children into the world. Yet everyone will suffer to some extent, and
if our species continues to reproduce, we can be sure that some future
children will suffer severely. Hence continued reproduction will harm
some children severely, and benefit none.
Singer himself, a man who is already on record as favoring the
euthanizing of unsatisfactory children, can't bring himself to go as far
as Benatar, but can only conclude:
I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient
universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if
that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that,
should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our
past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less
suffering than there is now. But justifying that choice forces us to
reconsider the deep issues with which I began. Is life worth living? Are
the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into
existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face
of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent
future human beings?
He has no confident answers to these questions, because his frame of
reference admits of no higher purpose or future hope. Life is a
perilous gamble, which we lose if our sufferings are greater than our
joys, in which case the only sensible thing to do is to cash out.
C. S. Lewis wrote in “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” in God
In the Dock:
Imagine a set of people all living in the same building.
Half of them think it is a hotel, the other half think it a prison.
Those who think it a hotel might regard it as quite intolerable, and
those who thought it was a prison might decide that it was really
I can understand, I think, how someone might determine, on the basis
of unregenerate reason, that life was not worth living, a game unworth
the candle. I'm not a cheery fellow. I'm prone to depression, and the
dark night of the soul is my familiar habitat.
What I don't understand is how someone can declare these ideas
without embarrassment. If the example of the great saints of old doesn't
impress you, what of the sages of the old pagan world, the Stoics and
Epicureans, or Hindu yogis, or Native American medicine men? They can't
teach you grace, but they can at least teach you courage. Are you not a
little ashamed, with all your education and accomplishments, to be less
manly than they?
In the end, there are only two choices—courage or suicide. Will the
sequel to the Postmodern Age be the Postcourageous Age?
Lars Walker is a Minnesota fantasy author. His most recent novel is West Oversea, published by Nordskog Publishing.