Doubletapping Socrates: On How The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes IS the Philosopher-King

Halloween was a few days ago.

I had completely intended to write up few spooky-themed posts, but as nature has a way of making its own horror show, my plan was thwarted by an unusually strong bout of food poisoning.

I’m fine now.

But, had I been able to write before Halloween (instead of spending a week hovering over a… well, you know), this is what I would have posted:

For those who are unfamiliar with this image or the AMC Network television show The Walking Dead, this slightly rugged, gun-pointing fellow is Rick Grimes. Rick Grimes is a  sheriff’s deputy who awakes from a coma to find the world overrun by hordes (in the show they’re called “herds’) of flesh-eating zombies.

Rick played by the British actor Andrew Lincoln.

I mention this only because the show takes place in Georgia and Rick Grimes isn’t English.

I must say he fakes the accent rather well.

Anyway, the reason why Rick is such a big deal (besides the fact that he carries a gun) is because Rick is what we call a H-E-R-O. The famous writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes what a hero does as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

We like Rick because he is a hero. Rick is not only smart and capable, he is also loyal, not only to his wife Lori and son (the ever-annoying Carl), but to the other survivors who are looking to Rick’s abilities and leadership to guide them through the zombie apocalypse. Rick steps up to the plate when no one else is either willing or capable of doing so. It’s No doubt that, when zombie movie enthusiasts pick their fantasy zombie killing team, Rick Grimes is at the top of the list.

It’s a good enough reason to appreciate Rick Grimes for his action hero qualities, but there’s another reason why we should like Rick — moreover, there’s a reason why the philosophically inclined should like Rick Grimes — Rick Grimes is positively philosophic.

….at least that’s what I think after reading Plato’s Republic.

Most political philosophers will tell you that Plato’s Republic is the greatest and most influential political work ever written. Written around 380 BCE, Plato’s political treatise asks (and answers) the question “what is justice?”, but more importantly, Plato (through the character of Socrates) asks how does the state achieve justice?  Through the characters, Plato examines different ways of answering the question (what is justice). Through Socrates, Plato argues that the just state is one where the people value and are guided by reason and virtue. Socrates argues that when a person is acting in a virtuous manner, society (as a whole) benefits. Acting virtuously enhances the soul — and a good soul, according to Socrates, is the soul of a philosopher.* Socrates argues that we must be taught to obey the laws and to do good. When we are introduced to the character Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, we see that Rick is a police officer, the guardians and enforcers of the law (it is worth noting that, in Plato’s Republic, the just city also includes a class of guardians who are charged with keeping order in the city).

In fact, Rick’s coma-inducing injury (he’s shot) happens while Rick is attempting to apprehend suspects following a police chase.

Even after Rick awakens to find the world full of walking dead people (aka “walkers”, “geeks”, and “biters”), he does not abandon his sense of upholding the law. When Rick goes back to the police station to retrieve firearms, he puts on a clean police uniform, badge, and hat. We see that although though the world has gone to seed and lawlessness, Rick believes that the fact that civilization has disappeared does not give people the right to act uncivilized. He repeatedly cautions others to keep their heads and not to let their emotions dictate their actions. When the potentially threatening (and definitely shady) Randall must be dealt with, Rick tries to reason his way to the best solution for dealing with Randall, even though Rick’s best friend, former partner, and nemesis Shane Walsh wants to take Randall out back and snap the poor, doomed boy’s neck.

Speaking of Shane Walsh….

Just as ever hero has his nemesis, Rick Grimes has his. Rick’s is his former partner and wife Lori’s I-thought-my-husband-was-dead-so-I-started-banging-the-nearest-guy-with-dropped-trousers lover, the late and then late again, Shane Walsh (played by Jon Bernthal). Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that action heroes are the only people out there with arch nemesis but that assumption is incorrect. Like Rick Grimes, Socrates also has an adversary. Socrates’ nemesis is named Thrasymachus.

This is what Thrasymachus looked like:

Socrates and Rick Grimes have the souls of philosophers. They believe that reason, controlled emotions, and a sense of justice should guide our actions. According to the philosopher, right and wrong are not matters of opinion or taste, but perpetual and universal standards to which everyone should be held.

This is the way that philosophers should think.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ theory of justice is challenged by the sophist Thrasymachus (see above). As a sophist, Thrasymachus believes that rhetoric and persuasion (not well-reasoned logical arguments) are the prefered method of argumentation. Thrasymachus, whose name (in Greek) means “rash fighter” is depicted as intemperate and arrogant. He lacks virtue and believes that might makes right. Thrasymachus attempts to win his argument with Socrates by force rather than by logic. Thrasymachus is willing to do anything, including personal attacks on Socrates, to win the argument. In a verbal confrontation with Socrates, when Thrasymachus feels that he cannot defeat the philosopher’s logic, he aims his attack not at Socrates’ argument, but at Socrates himself:

Thrasymachus: “Tell me Socrates, have you a nurse?”

Socrates: “Why do you ask such a question, I said, when you ought rather be answering?”

Thrasymachus: “Because she leaves you to snivel, and never wipes your nose.”

In many ways Shane is like Thrasymachus. Shane is often guided more by his emotions than by reason. He believes (and more importantly acts like) might makes right. Shane never fails to remind Rick that his thinking man’s demeanor is unfit for a world filled with zombies and that Shane’s re-kill first, ask questions later philosophy is. Unlike Thrasymachus, who kept his attack of Socrates at the verbal level, the conflict between Rick Grimes’ Socratic and Shane’s Thrasymachean dispositions finally result in a physical confrontation between the two men.

Here are a few of Shane’s (other) Thrasymachean qualities:

  • When fellow survivor Carol Pelletier’s husband, Ed Pelletier, slaps his wife, Shane promptly beats Ed senseless (while telling Ed that he is going to beat him to death, no less).
  • When Lori tells Shane that their relationship is permanently over, Shane attempts to force himself on her.
  • While in the woods looking for “walkers” Shane aims his gun at Rick (however, it’s not clear whether Shane intended to shoot Rick or not).
  • Shane repeatedly engages in ad hominem (personal) attacks on Rick and his leadership style (but often has to admit that Rick makes the right decision).
  • Shane believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is the one to protect Rick’s wife and son (and unborn baby that may or may not be his).
  • When Randall is captured and brought back to the survivors’ farm, unlike Rick, who wants to reason his way to a proper punishment, Shane immediately concludes that the right and only choice is to kill Randall. Shane is so convinced that he’s right that when the group leaves Randall without supervision, Shane takes Randall out into the woods and kills him.
  • And, in an attempt to wrest the leadership of the group from Rick, Shane tricks Rick into looking for an escaped Randall with the intention of killing Rick. He fails to do so.

Shane’s failed attempt at unseating the philosophical Rick Grimes results in the Thrasymachean Shane Walsh winding up like this:

I’m pretty sure Shane has seen better days

…and Rick still gets the chick.

 

Oh wait, she just died.

 

* Socrates’ thinking on the soul of the philosopher (aka Socratic virtue) goes a little like this: through reason and controlling our emotions we attain wisdom –> wise people possess virtuous qualities such as courageousness and temperance –> when we are temperate we attain internal/intellectual harmony –> things that are in harmony function according to purpose (i.e. as they should) –> when things function as they should this leads to a good soul –> philosophers (esp. philosopher-kings) possess good souls.

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