More than a feeling

Andrew Terjesen on why Watchmen’s Dr Manhattan is a Stoic sage for our times

watchmen200When people hear the word “stoic” today, they tend to think of a person who shows indifference to pleasure and pain, repressing all feeling. And that seems to fit Watchmen’s Dr Manhattan to a T. He seems indifferent to the emotions and needs of those around him, even the people he claims to care about. When he whisks Laurie to the moon for a conversation, and she begins to suffocate and stagger about because of the lack of atmosphere, he says, “Please forgive me … Sometimes these things slip my mind.”

Emotional indifference was indeed one of the things that the ancient Stoics recommended. The goal for Stoics was to achieve a state of apatheia, which literally means to be “without passions”. But when we associate “stoic” with “dispassionate” today, we do a disservice to Stoicism, because we omit the reason the Stoics advocate a state of apatheia.

Consider Seneca’s observation: “Our first need is not to become angry, our second to stop being angry, our third to cure anger in others.” This is not controversial – we often encourage people to get rid of (or at least manage) their anger. But why is anger a disfavoured emotion? Because of what we do when we’re angry. Consider the Comedian. When the Vietnamese woman he impregnated gets angry at the fact that he is abandoning her and cuts him, her action enrages him to the point where he shoots her. Both of them acted in anger and did things that we would deem wrong.

The Stoic’s point is that negative emotions lead us to do bad things because they are based on a misunderstanding of the world. But negative emotions aren’t the only emotions that do this. The Stoic view is that all emotions are irrational judgments about the world. Janey’s love for Jon leads her to treat Laurie very badly when she first meets her. Positive emotions like love also give a distorted view of the world. So, we should seek to cure ourselves of the delusions of emotion.

If we are going to label our emotions as “delusional”, we need to have a sense of what reality is. For the Stoics, there is only one obvious candidate for reality – the natural world. Therefore, a Stoic needs to focus on what is found in nature, as opposed to what is put there by human beings. Dr Manhattan’s reaction to the death of the Comedian is an example of this Stoic perspective. He says simply and stoically, “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there is no discernible difference.” This statement may be unfeeling, but it’s also true.

Our emotions often lead us to believe that a particular person is special and should not die like everyone else. Epictetus offers various bits of advice in order to help people see nature for what it is. One of his gems is “Never say of anything, ‘I have lost it’; but, ‘I have returned it.’ Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned.”

This may seem pretty harsh, but Epictetus’ point is that everything in the world lives and dies, and there is nothing we can do to change that. By coming to terms with the fact that we cannot control who lives and who dies or when they die, we can avoid unnecessary anguish. And instead of worrying about when our loved ones will die, we will take pleasure in them while we can and savour every moment with them.

That last part may seem contradictory, since the Stoics have made it clear that all positive emotions are irrational judgments. However, there is a difference between taking joy in a child because it is your child, and taking the perspective of nature and recognising that it is “good” to see the species continue. We see Dr Manhattan react this way when Janey gives him a ring. He says, “I like it very much. Its atomic structure is a perfect grid, like a checkerboard.” This response bothers Janey because it seems so unemotional. But Dr Manhattan is appreciating the object as an object – and the pleasant symmetry in nature – and not appreciating it through the lens of sentimentality.

For Stoics “the goal of life is to live in agreement with nature, which is to live according to virtue. For nature leads to virtue.” Stoics go so far as to claim that the only truly good thing is virtue and the only truly bad thing is vice. Everything else in the universe is simply “indifferent” – neither good nor bad. So, for the Stoics, seeing the death of the Comedian as part of a natural cycle is good, refusing to see his death as inevitable is bad, and the death itself is neither good nor bad.

Based on the description so far, however, it does not seem that Dr Manhattan acts very stoically. Aside from his petulant refusal to help the Earth, there are a number of other times where he seems to act emotionally. When he first hears that several of his former associates, including Janey Slater, have developed cancer, he seems very upset. And when he finally “learns” that Laurie slept with Dan Dreiberg, he is angry and hurt. On the face of it, these seem like very unstoical reactions.

However, the Stoic understanding of “emotion” is narrower than our sense of the word might suggest. Seneca, for example, argues that an emotion only happens when we are consciously caught up in a feeling that misrepresents the way the world is. By defining “emotion” this way, Seneca excludes some states that we often identify with emotion. For example, to feel a desire to punish someone who has actually done you wrong would not be anger. Anger is when we refuse to be reasonable in our actions. As Seneca says, “If [the feeling] listens to reason and follows where it is led, it is no longer anger, the hallmark of which is willful disobedience….if it accepts a limit, it needs some other name, having ceased to be anger, which I understand to be something unbridled and ungoverned.” When the Vietnamese woman attacks the Comedian, she makes it clear that this is a form of punishment for dismissing her; she did not plan to do anything more than give him a reminder of what he had done wrong. This is in contrast to the Comedian’s entirely excessive response, which fails to recognise that she had a legitimate grievance with him.

Similarly, Dr Manhattan’s concern for those to whom he might have given cancer is not really the kind of emotion that the Stoics condemn. He may have been responsible for their cancer, and it is important for him to act on this information to see if he poses a continued threat. In addition, to be “saddened” at (or disprefer) the loss of someone due to cancer is not entirely irrational, as their companionship was preferred because we are naturally social creatures. The point at which Dr Manhattan’s feelings become unacceptable is when they segue into excessive impulses that cause him to act against the natural order (for example, if he had tried to resurrect them from the dead rather than looking for a new companion among the billions of still living humans).

Seneca describes the onset of anger in the following way: “the first movement is involuntary, a preparation as it were, for emotion, a kind of threat. The next is voluntary but not insistent – I may, for example, think it right for me to wreak vengeance because I have been harmed. … The third is really out of control; wanting retribution not just ‘if it is right’ but at all costs.” Our initial responses to things are out of control. Dr Manhattan cannot help but be angry when Laurie’s affair is first discovered. After that initial response, there is the moment when he thinks “she betrayed me.” But once he’s had that thought, the Stoics say he must submit it to reason and try to determine if it is a justified response. Dr Manhattan, upon reflection, realises all the ways in which he has failed Laurie, and so he does not retaliate against her for the affair. As a good Stoic, once the initial impulse has passed, he consults his reason and refrains from acting inappropriately.

By Seneca’s definition, Dr Manhattan’s initial feeling of betrayal is not an emotion, it is an impulse. But if he had chosen to keep feeling that Laurie had betrayed him, then he would be experiencing what Stoics mean by an “emotion”. Stoicism is a lot more accepting of human weakness – after all, that is a part of human nature and therefore the cycle of nature – than is generally realised.

Dr Manhattan’s Stoic attitude derives from the fact that he can see the workings of the world in a way that we cannot. He can see the complex interrelationships of particles in the universe. When he first reforms himself, he states that “It’s just a question of reassembling the components into the correct sequence.” The ability to see all the patterns of nature would make it much easier for one to conclude that nature has an intricate design that we should follow. The ancient Stoics saw nature as a rational animal, 17th century Neo Stoics like Descartes and Spinoza saw nature as the workings of God, but a Stoic today might choose to focus on what a good job natural laws do of keeping the universe going (without ascribing them to an intelligent being).

A modern Stoic might say that the universe is too well-structured to be ignored, and the fact that it has kept things going for billions of years suggests that we should pay more attention to its workings as we organise our life. We should definitely not let our feelings overtake us and cause us to lose sight of how well things can work out. Even when they don’t seem to work out, as when the Watchmen fail to stop Ozymandias from saving the world, the universe seems to correct for it. And the fact that the universe is governed by these laws does not make it any less “miraculous”. As Dr Manhattan observes, “We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. But seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”

Stoicism is about stepping out of our particular perspective and seeing the bigger picture. Once we’ve relaxed and abandoned our petty emotional hang-ups, we can appreciate the relatively harmonious operations of the universe as a whole. After his epiphany about thermodynamic miracles, it’s what the Stoic sage, Dr Manhattan can see and take joy in. Shouldn’t we all?

This article is abridged from Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test, edited by Mark D. White, and is part of a continuing series of extracts from the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series.

  1. What’s happening to TPM?
    If you’re not into TV cartoons, The Office or Watchmen, whatever that is, it would seem you’re out of the mainstream, or at least TPM mainstream. I like things-pop but in moderation.

  2. TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine | Popular culture week - pingback on November 19, 2009 at 11:39 pm

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