Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Is your favorite crime fiction hero Kantian, or Aristotelian?

Don't be bad because
that would feel good
Be good, but not too good
My current reading, Moshe Halbertal's Maimonides: Life and Thought, has nothing to do with crime fiction. Or does it?

Maimonides has to be one of the more fascinating humans who ever lived, and reading about his life is good mental exercise. He was a 12th-century Jewish sage infused with Aritotelian philosophy and Muslim learning, and he sought bold and controversial syntheses and reconciliations among those systems. He wrote in Hebrew. He wrote in Arabic. He wrote treatises on Jewish law and on philosophy, and, in his capacity as court physician to Saladin's vizier, on hemorrhoids and asthma. He was among the early advocates of good nutrition as a pathway to good health. He, in other words, rather than that guy on the beer commercials, may be the most interesting man in the world.

Halbertal discusses two moral traditions with which Maimonides grappled as he sought to define what constitutes a good man. One, of long standing but later exemplified in Immanuel Kant's work, is that morality consists in doing one's duty. "Kant's philosophical position," Halbertal says, "reflects in many ways a venerable approach that sees the moral life as one in which a person successfully resists his desires."

The alternative is to develop one's character to the point that "one will act virtuously by reason of his personality and will have no need to use his will to suppress his inclinations," to develop a middle way between extremes, a la Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

This got me thinking that modern crime-fiction good guys, at least in hard-boiled crime fiction, are more Kantian than Aristotelian, and Chandler's man walking down these mean streets may be more Aristotelian. Fighting demons seems more in tune with the times than does striving for a balanced character. (Think Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor or Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder fighting their own demons as much as or more than they fight crime.)

What do you think, readers? Is your favorite crime-fiction hero a fighter against his or her own urges, or a well-balanced human being? What does being a good person mean in crime fiction? And do readers even care about good guys anymore?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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10 Comments:

Blogger Matthew E said...

Hmm.

I would say that most of my favourites are Aristotelian. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Spenser, Jack T. McGurk, Perry Mason, Fletch, Hilary Tamar... they're all doing just what they want to do.

Nero Wolfe is more Kantian. He doesn't really want to solve crimes, but he knows he has to if he wants to pay the bills. (But Archie Goodwin is Aristotelian.) Izzy Spellman, likewise.

Peter Wimsey is sort of an unsuccessful Kantian. He does want to solve crimes; he just doesn't think he should want to... but he does anyway.

February 18, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

By "doing what they want to do," do you mean those chararacters have developed their, er, character to the point where doing good comes naturally to them?

Nero Wolfe might well be said to fall short of that ideal of the middle way. He is not known for abstaining from his appetites.

I haven't read stories featuring all the protagonists on your list, but I do notice that they are not overly hard-boiled as a group, which might support my tenetative initial connection between Kant and hard-boiled heroes who fight their own demons.

February 18, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter, you know where I come down here. To me, "Be good, but not too good" pretty much sums up my definition of a hero. They're flawed, but not so much the flaw becomes their defining characteristic. They'll do what they perceive needs to be done to finish the job. Marlowe, obviously. Elvis Cole, Patrick Kenzie, Ed Loy, Charlie Parker. Those guys.

February 19, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

I guess I am partial to both. Given my enjoyment of the Michael Gregorio books, as an example, I would have to say I am partial to Kantian detectives. For readers of those books, the reasons will be obvious. On the other hand, Holmes and his descendants rank high with me. So, I guess I schizophrenic. People who know me would not be surprised about that diagnosis. They might even have less benign diagnoses.

February 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I've naturally been thinking about Chandler since I put up this post. I wonder if one could argue that the air of disappointment that pervades some of his stories amounts to an excess of emotion that an expert might call un-Aristotelian. (I'll have to consult Aristotle on the matter.)

At its best, this amounts to a moving portrayal of shock at the depravities of which humans are capable, as in The Big Sleep. At its worst, as in The Little Sister, it amounts to whining. When it's just plain good, as in "Trouble Is My Business," it amounts to a kind of amused world-weariness that may be most characteristic of Chandler.

February 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, I guess I schizophrenic.

Or else you have achieved a middle way, a path between the two extremes.

February 19, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

And I am obviously a lousy typist, which explains the tortured syntax of the sentence fragment that contains the word "schizophrenic/"

February 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: Blogger, again proving it's worth every cent I pay for it, ate the following comment:

No, you merely omitted a comma from the title of your fictionalized autobiography, I, Schizophrenic.

February 19, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Yes, the autobiography is 2 volumes.

February 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To be read at the same time.

February 19, 2014  

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