Sunday, June 24, 2007

Battlestar Paper Part III

Here is the third and final part of the rough draft of my Battlestar Paper. Part 1 is here, part 2, here. This is all fairly light in terms of what is possible with philosophy and popular culture. I'll have a review out soon of this book, which will get deeper.

“Are You Alive?”: The Half-life of the Unjust as Seen in Boethius and BSG

The first line spoken in the reenvisioned BSG is “Are you alive?” The question is unsettling: it is asked by a robot (a Six) to a human being (a Colonial officer sent to meet with the Cylons at the remote Armistice Station.) Clearly if anyone is not alive here, it is the robot, right? Yet the Six is asking this question of a human, and when he, tremblingly, says, “Yes,” she says “Prove it,” and gives him a long open-mouth kiss, as two centurions look on stoically, their eyes going “wrrrrom wrrrrom,” before the whole station is annihilated in a Cylon attack. This opening scene is mirrored in the episode “You Can’t Go Home Again,” when Starbuck, marooned on a planet without oxygen, finds a Cylon raider that has crashed. Opening a hatch, she finds living tissue underneath. Realizing that the spacecraft has no pilot, but is itself a robot, Starbuck whispers with wonder, “Are you alive?”

The Cylons and the humans have difficulty recognizing each other as alive. They don’t fail to recognize each other as organisms of some kind. They each see that the other can bleed. But they don’t recognize the other as a living person. This brings out another important theme in Western philosophy, the question of what it means to be a person. This issue touches both on ethics, which as we’ve seen is the study of right and wrong, and metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of existence, what existence is, and what sort of things can be properly said to exist. When humans and Cylons fail to recognize each other as persons, they are making an ethical decision, because they are saying they don’t have ethical duties to the other side. It is also a metaphysical decision, because they are putting limits around a category of reality. Reality contains persons, but it also contains some other things like look like persons but aren’t really, because they’re robots. (Or, if you are a Cylon, because they are not robots.)

One philosopher who took seriously the connection between ethics and metaphysics in understanding the idea of a person was the Roman philosopher and theologian Boethius. Boethius was a senator, and proud of his Greco-Roman heritage. But he was also a Christian, a monotheist who believed the world was a product of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God. A major project for him was reconciling the wisdom of Greek philosophers like Plato with Christian teachings. Boethius also was in a position to think seriously about the nature of a tyrant. The Roman Empire had essentially collapsed and broken in half. The western half, where he lived, was ruled by a barbarian, the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Theodoric persecuted Boethius, believing him to be a traitor. At the time Boethius wrote his greatest book, The Consolations of Philosophy(3), he was under house arrest, waiting to be executed. The opening problem for that work is “how could a just God allow this to happen? Why do I suffer while a tyrant like Theodoric prospers?” Boethius’s answer looks to his Greek heritage, to Plato and his treatment of the tyrant. Boethius accepts Plato’s psychological vision, and raises it to a metaphysical level. The evil person, for Boethius, is not only enslaved, he isn’t even really human. In fact, he hardly exists at all. Thus an explanation of God’s ways to man: the tyrant does not really prosper. In fact, at the moment that Theodoric’s thugs break into Boethius’s house and club him to death, Boethius is better off than Theodoric.

Boethius begins this remarkable argument by agreeing with Plato that a villain like Baltar or Theodoric has no real power, even with they hold an office like President of the Twelve Colonies or King of the Goths and Italy. Boethius’s focus is on happiness. He argues, like Aristotle (384–322 BCE) that the goal of life for all people is to be happy. Why does Baltar sleep with every woman he can? Because he thinks it will make him happy. But happiness is also identical with goodness. Things that seem to bring you happiness, like wealth, power, fame, or pleasure, will only hurt you in the end without goodness, for all of the reasons we saw with Plato’s tyrant. Baltar’s lusts only bring him misery, because he pursues them so dishonestly. True pleasure, and thus true happiness, can only be obtained in honest relationships, the sort of friendships Plato shows the tyrant can never have. But now wait, power is the ability to get what you want. People want to be happy, and men like Baltar are simply not happy. Therefore they have no real power. Thus Boethius writes, “They fail in their quest for the supreme crown of reality, for the wretched creatures do not succeed in attaining the outcome for which alone they struggle day and night” (75).

This much is in Plato, but Boethius goes farther. The evil person isn’t even really human. The Colonial officer Armistice Station may be right to say he is alive. The Cylon raider may be alive in the way a smart horse or dog is alive. But Baltar isn’t really alive, not in the sense of being a living person and not as long as he continues his path of deception. How could this be? Human nature, according to Boethius, is to be good. We were all meant to be reunited with God. But evil men fail to realize this nature. “What follows from this,” Boethius says “is that you cannot regard as a man one who is disfigured by vices” (78).

Now here’s the weird part. Evil people in fact cease to exist altogether. Something ceases to exist if it looses its nature. Think about a Viper that gets blown apart by a Cylon missile. After the explosion, something still exists. Wreckage is flying everywhere. But the Viper doesn’t exist anymore, because no one can use it to do what a Viper does, fly around and shoot things. The Viper, in being blown apart, has lost its nature. But a person who has fallen into injustice has also lost her nature. She is no longer achieving the ends of a person, just as the wreckage of the Viper no longer serves the purpose of the viper. Thus evil people cease to exist. As Boethius says, “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” (76). And thus we have a lovely justification of God’s ways to man. In fact, God did not create a world where the unjust tyrants rule while good men suffer. Quite the opposite. He created a world where the unjust fade away while the just achieve their true nature.

I think it is pretty clear that Plato’s conception of the tyrant is present in the characterization of Baltar on BSG, but can we go farther, and say that Boethius’s radical claims are also present in the show? Well, I doubt that any of the writers have read Boethius (although they may have read Plato) or were thinking at this level of abstraction. But whatever the writers’ intent, the show winds up displaying Boethian themes. Evil in the world of BSG is not a simple dark force opposed to the noble warriors of goodness. Evil men like Baltar are clearly weak and pitiable and the nature of humanity itself is questioned. Who is alive, the humans or the Cylons? A lot of questions remain unanswered in the series, but I think we will find in the fourth and final season that humans and Cylons prove they are alive by acting justly. Remember how Six asked the Colonial officer to prove he was alive: she kissed him. If Boethius is right, it is though love that we show that we are alive. The gods lift up those who lift each other up.


(3) In this essay I will use the Oxford World Classics edition of this text. P.G. Walsh, trans. 1999. Boethius: The Consolations of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Numbers in parentheses after quotations refer to page numbers in this edition.

Update: advice and edits are no longer needed. I've gone through it all with the editors.


Mrs. Coulter said...

"The Roman Empire had essentially collapsed and broken in half. The eastern half, where he lived, was ruled by a barbarian, the Ostrogoth Theodoric."

Shouldn't that be "the western half," which is ruled by the Ostrogoth Theodoric?

Mrs. Coulter said...

Oh, and very interesting paper. :-)

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Oops! Directions are not my strong suit. Thanks for the correction!

Jonathan K. Cohen said...

I understand that Boethius's distinctions may lift his heart up at a time of dismay. They enable him, in his own human way, to act out in his mind what Mary said God would do: exalt the humble, lower the proud, upending hierarchies with his words.

Yet none of that affects the temporal power of Theodoric over his life or alleviates the contemporaneous persecution of other Christians. Boethius puts his trust in another world to right this one's wrongs -- a religious insight, but not an especially philosophical one. And in return, God sent not even a single legion of angels on His behalf to smite Boethius's murderers, to stop one of the truly great crimes of history.

I'll have to go back and read Chadwick again to remember all that we lost when we lost Boethius.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

You may have noticed that God never sends a legion of angels to smite wrongdoers. This is something theists need to deal with.

James F. McGrath said...

This is a wonderful project you are working on! I have been working on religion and artificial intelligence lately and am always delighted to find others who are working on philosophy/religion and sci-fi.

By the way, I found your blog when searching for pages about that first line of dialogue from the miniseries. It is also the title of my most recent blog entry at

ACW said...

Interesting, though I am not a BSG fan. So all I can offer you is a smidgeon of editing: "low and behold" should be "lo and behold" everywhere it appears, but the phrase is a little hackneyed and might be replaced by something like "indeed", or dropped entirely. Oh, and when it means "is deprived of", "loses" has only one "o".