SOMETIMES IT’S EASY to dismiss a kids’ movie. After all, films featuring cute animated talking animals voiced by not-exactly-kid-friendly actors are easy to not take too seriously.
Existential dread isn’t exactly the kind of subject matter suited for a film geared towards the pre-school set.
But every once in awhile a kids movie goes and gets all philosophical on everybody.
Something you wouldn’t expect in a movie about a talking pig.
Aristotle wrote that all beings act according to their nature.
Aristotle calls it our characteristic function.
Aristotle says human characteristic function is the use of reason in accordance with virtue
What is the function of man? For as the goodness and the excellence of a piper or a sculptor, or the practiser of any art, and generally of those who have any function assigned to him by nature? Nay, surely as his several members, eye and hand and foot, plainly have each his own function, so we must suppose that man has some function over and above all these
(Man’s function then being, as we say, a kind of life — that is to say, exercise of his faculties and action of various kinds with reason — the good man’s function is to do this well and beautifully [or nobly]. But the function of anything is done well when it is done in accordance with the proper excellence of that thing.) Nicomachean Ethics, I 7.
Dogs, cats, bumblebees, frogs – According to Aristotle, nature not only designs a purpose for all beings, but also it is unnatural to deviate from that being’s designated purpose.
A fish’s characteristic function is to swim in water.
A bee’s characteristic function is to pollinate flowers.
A cat’s characteristic function is to be an asshole.
Aristotle states that thing’s characteristic activity (whoops, function), can be performed well or performed poorly.
Not only does a species have an characteristic function, but individuals do as well.
In humans, we can determine one’s characteristic function by observing one’s natural inclination, that is, your characteristic function is what you’re good at:
Mariah Carey’s characteristic function is to sing.
Rembrandt’s was to paint.
Mine is philosophy because frankly, I’m not good at doing anything else.
Aristotle attempts to define the Good in terms of characteristic function.
And by the capital “G” Good, Aristotle means Eudaimonia.
Loosely translated, eudemonia means “flourishing”.
Wait – I think I’m straying off topic. I was talking about characteristic function.
If you want to read all about eudemonia read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. You don’t even have to pay for it. It’s all over the internet in print and audiobook. FOR FREE.
Now, I’d like to think that I’m too old for kids’ movies, but truth be told, I’m not. I’d rather watch Daffy Duck’s Fantastic Island over The Seventh Seal any day of the week.
For the record, I think Daffy Duck’s Fantastic Island is a very philosophical movie.
The reason why, I think, I’d rather watch a kids’ movie is because unlike movies made for adults, where philosophical subtext is often handled with the subtlety of a pillaging berserker wielding a cudgel, kid-oriented entertainment can’t really overwhelm its target audience with deeper meaning.
Because they’re kids.
And most kids don’t know Hegel.
At least l hope most kids don’t know Hegel.
But kids do know about talking pigs.
This talking pig in particular.
The movie Babe, directed by Chris Noonan, based on the book The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith, and adapted for the screen by George Miller (yes, the guy who wrote Mad Max!) is the story of a pig… named Babe.
Orphaned as a piglet, adopted by Farmer Hoggett, and raised by Hoggett’s sheep herding dogs, Babe is condemned to the short (and inevitably tragic) life of a pig: to one day become the farmer’s next meal.
Babe, however, wants more for his life than to become Christmas dinner.
Babe wants to herd sheep.
Naturally, Babe’s efforts to redefine his role on the farm meets with opposition from the other farm animals (including his adopted canine family), and Farmer Hoggett, who does not believe that a pig is capable of herding sheep.
The farmer’s cat explains to the would-be sheep pig nature’s rules of life on the farm – that each farm animal has a purpose – and that pigs have no purpose.
The cat says this because cats are assholes.
It’s their characteristic function.
The small pig is not deterred by the cat or anyone else on the farm. He ignores the naysayers and strives to prove that a pig can indeed herd sheep. Babe follows his heart even though everyone around him, including Farmer Hoggett, doubts that he can defy the laws of nature.
Now, if we were following Aristotle, we might have been on the side of the cat; pigs serve no purpose other than to get fat and feed the farmer and his family.
Luckily for the piglet (and the audience), Babe isn’t Aristotilean; he refuses to allow nature or the expectations of others to define his place in the world.
That’s downright existential.
The late 19th – 20th century philosophy of Existentialism, most notably associated with French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, and the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (and also associated with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who is credited with being the first Existentialist philosopher).
According to the dictionary,
“Existentialism is the name given to the branch of philosophy which is concerned with the meaning of human existence – its aims, its significance and overall purpose – and the freedom and creative response to life made by individuals.”
If you’re in the mood to think philosophically, Babe can be a philosophical gateway to thinking about more than a couple of philosophical topics (brush up on your Peter Singer ‘cause you gonna be discussing animal rights). It’s pretty much undeniable that the philosophical undertone of the film’s major theme is essentially existentialist. Babe rejects the idea of purpose assigned by biology and society. He defines his own purpose.
His purpose is to herd sheep.
And more importantly, he’s good at it.
The existentialist French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote
Life has no meaning a priori… it is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that we choose.
Babe finds meaning in herding sheep. It’s almost like sheep herding is his characteristic function.
Take that Aristotle!
If Babe was a practicing existentialist, he would say that existence preceded his essence.
What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.
Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.
Babe did have a purpose. One that he determined for himself. Babe proves that he is capable of doing something other than his biological destiny.
All’s well that ends well, right?
Well, not quite.
Of course, with all things philosophical, there’s a glitch.
Existentialists hold that our true essence isn’t assigned to us by society or by our biology and we assign meaning to ourselves – we create our own meaning, purpose, and values in life. This means we are completely responsible for who we become.
Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.
See how Sartre says we’re “condemned to be free”? We’re condemned, Sartre says, because without God or biology to determine the meaning of our lives, we are solely responsible for creating meaning. This can be rather disorienting.
Lucky for us, we’re watching a kid’s movie. Babe is spared the agony of experiencing the existential dread of complete freedom. Babe‘s mind is as unencumbered as a pig satisfied.
He is completely happy and at ease once he becomes what he wants to be.
SO… we’re full of tears of happiness, cheers, and assumptions of lives lived happily ever after by the time the barn mice tell us we’re reached “The End”.
And we’ve just been given our first big lesson in existentialism.
There was, however, the inevitable follow up, Babe: Pig in the City.
I’m just going to leave it at that**.
** Babe: Pig in the City was criticized at the time of it’s initial release for being a darker, less family-friendly film. the film currently holds a 62% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is darker than its predecessor, however, it’s arguable that the film, directed by George Miller, is also a more philosophically developed film. The late film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel both praised the film, with Siskel naming the movie one of the best films of 1998.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. F.H. Peters. 2004 .New York: Barnes and Noble Books.
Mel Thompson. Teach Yourself: Philosophy. 2003. Chicago, IL. Contemporary Books. 184.
Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism.
Sartre. Being and Nothingness. (1943).