Every movie is touched with at least a hint of philosophy – be it specific philosophical references and allusions or the own personal philosophies of the writers, actors, directors, etc. But few juggle the number of philosophical intricacies and viewpoints represented by the likes of Jeff Bridges and the Coen Brothers in the absolute masterpiece that is The Big Lebowski. For this week’s alternative education entry, I’ll guide you through a select few of the quite numerous philosophical inquiries explored in The Big Lebowski.
1. Just War Theory
The Christian tradition of just war theory is first attributed to Saint Augustine and was later expanded upon by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Now a worldwide diplomatic tool and topic of intense academic and political debate, the tradition of just war lives on. Naturally, there exists a wide range of opinions when it comes to war and engaging in justified violence. On one of the spectrum you have absolute pacifism, in which under zero circumstances is it morally permissible to utilize violence (think Quakers).
For this absolutist stance The Big Lebowski introduces us to Smoky – the timid, long gray-haired opponent unfortunate enough to step over the line in a bowling match against Walter Sobchak. For Smoky, the threat of Walter’s pistol is too much, and the match score isn’t worth arguing over. As the Dude explains later on, Smoky is a pacifist – a conscientious objector to the rules – to which Walter retorts, “Pacifism is not something to hide behind.” Walter represents a more widely held stance in regards to just war theory, but may not be willing to grant his potential enemies enough leeway in bending the rules. Walter, having gone through a strenuous tour in Vietnam, is now morally and ethically obsessed with adhering to the rules – whether they be of bowling, ransom, or Shabbos. Anyone who violates these principles has violated Walter, and thus renounces their right to self-defense, making Walter ethically justified in waging war against them.
2. Marxism & Exchange Value
Among Karl Marx’s many critiques of industrial capitalism, one prominent feature is his explanation and critique of exchange value. Exchange value, Marx argues, has replaced use value in how most humans measure goods. Money is clearly the facilitating factor here – the thing that can equate a baseball to a cup of coffee since they cost the same amount of arbitrary currency. Exchange value, while making trade and commerce easier in many instances, can also muddle things up – often times at the expense of the consumer if he or she isn’t paying attention.
In The Big Lebowski, Walter and the Dude are forced to visit a funeral home to retrieve the ashes of their beloved friend Donnie. Due to the phenomenon of exchange value, “the most modestly priced receptacle” is a $200 urn. Walter and the Dude, revolutionaries as they are, rebel against this capitalist perversity and return to the measure of use value, carrying Donnie’s ashes away in a Folger’s coffee can.
3. Epicurean Contented Poverty
While the Epicurean tradition is often associated with a meaningless hedonism, this does not accurately represent the Greek outsider. It’s true Epicurus and his followers considered themselves hedonists, but not in the extravagant or gluttonous manner we think of today. They were hedonists insofar as they basked in the simple pleasures of everyday life. With this mindset came a tradition of happiness, or at least contentment, in very simple lifestyles – lacking riches and needless excesses. The Dude is no prince. He has a slight inheritance that allows him to pay his rent and bowl, but that’s about as far as his portfolio goes. And yet, his is arguably one of the happiest, gentlest, and most relaxed characters in all of film. It seems he may have inherited at least a portion of the Epicurean tradition in contented poverty.
4. Nuanced Feminism
Maude Lebowski is arguably my favorite character in the film. A very intelligent artist of the female erotic genre, self-proclaimed feminist and lover of “coitus,” and by the end of the movie, single parent of the little Lebowski, Maude defies classification. She not only breaks down gender roles and barriers, but also defies the empty stigma and stereotypes some careless individuals associated with feminism. In an age where women are often portrayed as one of two extremes – sexy bimbo or ruthlessly empowered corporate-like shark – Maude embodies everything from sex to intelligence, kindness to cut-throat. A true emblem of 90s countercultural feminism.
And finally, we have the new branch of religion and philosophy that sprouted out of the film itself – Dudeism. A worldview drawing from Greek, Taoist, and modern influences, Dudeism may be the up-and-coming philosophy for modern age students and freethinkers. Books have been written on it, so you know it’s legitimate. Check it out and see for yourself.