Thursday, March 01, 2007

My Proposal for the volume: Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy

Gaius Baltar and the Image of the Tyrant in Plato and Boethius

Villains in popular genres like science fiction, horror, or superhero fiction are generally written to thrill the audience with their image of power and freedom from petty conventional morality. This can lead the audience to identify with them more than with the putative heroes of the story. The late character actor John Calicos, who played the evil Count Baltar in the original Battlestar Galactica, specialized in playing this sort of bad guy. When Ron Moore re-envisioned the series, he gave Count Baltar a first name, Gaius, that also belonged Roman Emperor commonly known as Caligula, setting up the idea that this new Baltar would also be a larger than life villain. But the character that has evolved from the writers and the twitchy performance by James Callis is hardly likely to impress audiences with his dark power. The new Gaius Baltar is a traitor and a liar, to be sure. But he is also cowardly, vain, easily manipulated, and a prisoner of his passions.

The new Baltar shows the audience a less Manichean picture of evil, one that is more in line with classical philosophers like Plato and Boethius. Both Plato and Boethius were anxious to show that the unjust person was a miserable wreck who brought more harm to himself than he ever could bring to his victims. For Plato, this point is crucial for justification for being moral; for Boethius, the explanation of God’s ways to man. They were particularly focused on the image of the tyrant: a powerful person who gets what he wants, and who wants a lot. Many people envy this life, just as many wind up identifying with supervillains. Plato and Boethius want you to see that the tyrant is not someone we want to be, and in fact, the more apparent power they have, the less we should envy them. Plato describes the tyrant as someone who is actually himself tyrannized, because he is totally enslaved by his own lusts. And lust forces him into a truly miserable life. He is so afraid of being killed by his own slaves that he must fawn over them constantly. He lives “like a woman, confined to his own house” (Rep. 759c) for fear of assassination, and has no friends, only allies and enemies. Boethius accepts Plato’s psychological vision, and raises it to a metaphysical level. The evil person, for Boethius, has no real power and is not even really human. In fact, he doesn’t even really exist. “You could say a corpse is a dead man, but you would not call it a man pure and simple; in the same way, I grant that corrupt men are wicked, but I refuse to admit that they exist in an absolute sense” (Consolations 4.2)

This essay will illustrate the idea of the tyrant in Plato and Boethius using examples from the life of Baltar we are presented—clearly a life ruled by lust and hounded by fear. This will lead to some Platonic observations about identification and moral instruction.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. And with the end of season 3, have you heard anything from the editor?

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

I haven't yet. I can't see a decision date in the announcement for the volume, either. The trail of Baltar obviously puts a new spin on things, but that is the danger of writing on a series in progress.

Also, this will be in the *Blackwell* pop culture and philosophy series. If my essay is not accepted, I may try to persuade another publisher to let me edit a similar volume, like Open Court.

Anonymous said...

Open Court is (was?) considering this volume. An excerpt from a piece of correspondence I had with Open Court about this topic (before Blackwell put out a CFP):
“Yes, we have been considering this topic for some time. I fully agree that it is ripe for inclusion in the series. We have not, however, determined who the best editor for the volume would be.”
Don’t know if Open Court still plans on working this (both series have put out a South Park volume).