Obviously, spoiler alerts ahead. If you haven’t seen fight club, then go and watch it, and then watch it again straight away – it’s an absolutely fantastic movie, and of those few instances where the movie enhances the book instead of ruining it.
I vaguely remember watching Fight Club as a kid, and being really bored and quite disappointed with the first part of the movie, that didn’t include any fighting, and then really enjoying all the action scene that occurs in the second half of the movie. Being eight years old, I completely missed the wealth of philosophy and double meaning that was infused throughout the entire movie.
Funnily enough, Fight Club is not actually about fight clubs, although it can appear that way.
It’s actually far more about the inner struggle that men face in the modern world, and it is also a story of a boy becoming a man. In many respects, there are similarities to Siddartha, the 1922 short novel by Hermann Hesse , which follows the story of a young boy, on the brink on becoming a man, all the way to old age.
Fight Club is a movie that can be watched at a superficial level, or analyzed to death – like I am about to do in this essay. It’s also extremely quotable – I can think of at least five of my essays that include a Fight Club quote.
Before we start, I’d like to state the obvious, and that is the fact that there is no philosophy of Fight Club per se, but just what one can interpret from it. It is a fictional story with fictional characters, but that doesn’t mean that studying the underlining themes can’t help us create a coherent life philosophy for ourselves.
So this is what it is about, looking at the – fictional – mistakes of the main characters, and learning from them, because we may find ourselves in somewhat eerily similar situations, even if less extreme.
In this manner, we follow on from the tradition of the ancient Greek tragedies and also the Shakespearian plays.
A Thrill-Ride Masquerading as a Philosophy?
The first question we must address is whether there is a coherent philosophy somewhere in the midst of Fight Club.
Obviously, there is no clear written philosophy, otherwise, an analysis of this kind would be stupid, but there are plenty of scenes that expound some type of sentiment about how humans should live, and it’s up to us to piece this all together and try to make sense of it.
Fight Club is a complex, layered story, and it covers a lot of themes that are also touched upon by established philosophies and religions, and that’s what actually made me decide to take a deeper look in the first place. There is something about the lines spoken by the charismatic Tyler Durden that make you want to believe that he is right. It’s quite easy to imagine how, in the Fight Club universe, Tyler was able to build Fight Club from the basement of a bar on a Saturday night, all the way to a terrorist organization capable of simultaneous attacks on major skyscrapers.
However, being charismatic is not a prerequisite for having a coherent philosophy of life and the world around you, as is shown by essentially all politicians.
So perhaps the questions to ask, is what is a philosophy, and then what is a coherent philosophy, and only then can we view Fight Club through and compare it to our checklist to see if we can find something that resembles like a coherent philosophy of life.
What is a Coherent Philosophy of Life?
A coherent philosophy of life is a philosophy that enables us to live what can be generally considered a good life. This is a life that is mostly free from negative emotions and character traits such as envy, anxiety, nervousness, anger, and so on. The definitions of what is a ‘good life’ vary from culture to culture, and era to era. Currently, the mainstream view regards a good life as one with financial and material success, but that argument has already been defeated a couple of thousand years ago, and we don’t need to fight it again. In a nutshell, material and financial wealth that are over the basics you need to survive won’t make you happier.
A Critique of Modern Life
If we stop to think about it for even a few minutes, the society we have at the present days has managed to lift humankind to levels that were previously unthinkable. We’re slowly getting a foothold in space, we can send messages to the other side of the world in an instant, and some of us are lucky enough to have super computers in our pockets. However, we are also harming the environment, driving certain species towards extinction (and some would argue that includes the human species too), and the majority of us in the economically developed world are still not able to be happy regardless of the incredible luxury that we have.
Even someone who may be regarded as poor in an economically developed country such as American or England still has a better life with more luxury that 99.9% of all humans that have ever lived.
The problem is that we assign value to the wrong things.
The issue that we also end up deriving our own personal value from other people’s opinions of the things we own, and so we spend a lot of time and effort chasing material goods.
One of the clear philosophical ideas found in Fight Club is the rejection of the materialistic consumer society in favor of something else. What that something else is perhaps not clearly stated in the movie, but Tyler gives us his vision of stalking elk in abandoned superhighways.
In a way, this is a form of Ludditism, the idea that we need to destroy modern machinery because they are harmful to humans in a variety of ways. One obvious way is the existential threat to humans due to a super intelligent artificial intelligence, but another possible threat, which is far more real, is that of the mass unemployment.
In the 1950s, there was this idea that the working week would become shorter and shorter and that by the end of the 20th Century it might only 15 hours long because machinery would make production far more efficient. In fact, we now work longer hours than we did back then and for less money. In those times a man could work a blue-collar job and provide for a family and pay a mortgage, now that is a pure pipe dream, and often both parents will have to work and will still get into debt.
This was the dream of the economist Keeynes, but it didn’t work out like that. The world is becoming less mediocratan, and far more extreme, to borrow the terminology of the Nassim Taleb from the Black Swan. Far fewer people are making far more money, and there will be increasing levels of employment, which is great for the people at the top because it keeps working wages artificially low.
Of course, this disaster is also our fault, but we need to realise that is has been engineered. However, if we could somehow fight back against the $500 billion marketing juggernaut.
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.
I’ve written about this before, and even the most powerful and well-funded marketing campaign cannot win over a person who uses clear reason to decide what to do. But, of course, we are encouraged to waste out time with entertainment, and not to think,because thinking makes us dangerous. That’s we have 500 channel TV, gambling, mobile apps, pornography, blockbuster movies.
If we think our society should be run, it’s easy to see how things could be improved, and it’s also to see how these types of improvements are being blocked. It’s really interesting how Fight Club the organisation eventually morphs into Project Mayhem, and the end goal is to destroy the debt, which is actually a fairly accurate picture of what keeps people enslaved. But it’s not credit cards, it is done at a far higher level.
I’m not going to go in a lot of details – I’ll save that for another essay another time – but I recommend you research a little about the Federal Reserve Bank of America, an institution that is not Federal, that doesn’t hold any reserves, and in fact is not even a bank.
But let’s turn our attention to the personal issues of the modern life. Our brains and general physiology has changed little in the last 200,000 years, and yet our environment, especially in the last few hundred years, has changed massively.
We’ve gone from what is called an Immediate Return Environment, one where nearly every decision you make provides an immediate benefit to your life, to what is called a Delayed Return Environment, which is an environment where your decision may bring benefits but at some unknown point in the future, and you still can’t be sure of that.
Raymond K Hessel
There is quite a terrific and tense scene in Fight Club where Tyler Durden holds up a convenience store, Raymond K Hessel, and drags the clerk to the garage in the bank, and points a gun at the clerks’ head and tell him he is going to die. I felt that this was such a powerful scene that it required its own section in this essay, as it touches on a few topics that are close to my heart.
Tyler asks a few probing questions to the sobbing convenience store clerk and discovers that he has abandoned his dreams of becoming a veterinarian because he needed money and it was too much study. Tyler pointedly asks if he would rather die instead.
The clerk then runs away and presumably went to enroll back to college the next day. While obviously this is a cruel and inhumane treatment for anyone one person to inflict to another, the question could be posed as to whether the results justify the means.
If we believe that Raymond was indeed throwing his life away, and was as good as dead anyway, then perhaps scaring him into action in that manner can actually be considered a humane thing to do. This reminds me of a passage in Cicero’s
This reminds me of a passage in Cicero’s On Duties, where Cicero is discussing moral right and wrong, and how the same action in different situations can have different moral justifications, both positive and negative.
There could be no more terrible crime than to kill someone who is not merely a fellow human being but a close friend. Yet surely someone who kills a tyrant, however close friends the two men have been, has not committed a crime.
So perhaps we need to weigh up the actions above to understand if they were morally justified. If you see someone who you feel is wasting their life, do you have the right to interfere? Perhaps what to you is a waste of a life, to another person is a dream.
I’ve noticed this in Italy where many people pine for stable jobs for life in some obscure government department because they know that they can work in the same office for thirty years and then retire quite comfortably.
To me, this would feel the epitome of giving up on life, and yet to other people, it’s a dream come true.
Tyler Durden sums it up nicely to the narrator when he says:
Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day in Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.
And there is probably quite a lot of truth in that statement, as that is what life-defining moments are there for, to make you think. While I’ve never had a close call with death, I bet that you wake up the next day far more appreciative of the simple fact that you’re still alive.
So the action by Tyler is something that polarises people, some feel he is a saviour, others would say he is a psychopathic bully.
One strong argument is that we all have personal responsibility, and if you want to throw your life away, then other people should let you do so. The personal responsibility argument is comforting for those who think they have “made it”, because if we believe that we in a democratic country we live in a meritocracy, then everyone deserves what they have.
So you’re stuck in a dead end job?
Then you must either be lazy, irresponsible, or just plain stupid. Of course, if we actually study the way society works and runs the numbers, even if everyone was super-intelligent and worked very hard, we would still need people to clean toilets, make coffee, serve at tables, and clean the streets. So it’s inevitable that someone, somewhere, ends up a convenience store clerk, and we should understand that this is natural.
What Does Tyler Durden Represent?
Tyler Durden is a fictional character in what itself is a fictional story. So he is abstracted by two degrees from the real world, and yet many men yearn to be like him.
So what gives?
I think Tyler himself puts it well when he says:
I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I'm free in all the ways that you are not.
Many philosophies and religions in the world have the concept of the ideal man (this applies equally to women, so let’s from now on write ideal person). Tyler is the concept of the ideal person for the philosophy that is adhered to by the narrator of the story. So it’s worth taking some time to study him, because if we can understand Tyler, we can probably get a good understanding if Fight Club does actually have a philosophy, and if so, what this philosophy stands for.
The Narrator (the character played by Edward Norton – let’s call him “Jack”, to make things easier) wants to emulate Tyler and become him, and we see this over time in his change of attitude, his body, and his action. Of course, it helps that Jack is, at least physically, the same person as Tyler.
What Tyler stands for:
- A big “Fuck Off” to the system
- The Ability to Let the Chips Fall where they may.
In many philosophies there is a idea regarding self examination or knowledge of the self. The idea being that if you do not know yourself, then how can you know anything else. In Fight Club one of the longest scenes is where the narrator is trying to catch up to Tyler, visiting various cities in America, and he is, quite literally, trying to find himself.
It’s a little bit like trying to weigh a bunch of apples with a scale that is in a unit you don’t understand. True measurement and understanding is impossible unless we know ourselves well.
However, what does this actually mean? In the last few hundred years there has been an accelerating trend towards doing something in life that is your passion, or otherwise finding your true calling. While this may seem quite right and proper, it is worth remembering that for most of the humans that have ever lived, this has not been the case. Your father was a farmer? Well guess what, you are going to be a farmer too! There was little choice, but more importantly, there was little expectation if choice, and there was especially little expectation that the next day was going to be much different from the previous day.
This is in stark contrast to the modern philosophy of self improvement and the go get em attitude that prevails. We believe that the future will be better, brighter, and that we will be happier, and in some ways we are trying to find that version of ourselves that will actually take us there, without sacrificing everything we care about.
It is absolutely incredible how we can fool ourselves. I used to be a slim teenager, then I got very fat at the age of 19, and then I was slim again at 22. At 25 I looked in the mirror and suddenly had a relevation that I was fat again, and at no time before that moment did I believe I was actually fat, I felt I may have temporarily have gained a few pounds from my slim baseline, but the weight had actually sneaked up on me and I found myself overweight by 20 pounds at least. It took some self examination to change my frame of mind from a slim guy who an get away with eating junk and drinking to a fat guy who needs to exercise regularly, join a gym, get a personal trainer, and watch what he eats.
This wouldn’t have happened to me if I was used to doing a rigorous self examination on a regular basis. And this is not just about the body, in fact, I would go as far to say that the state of our bodies is purely a reflection of our minds. So, for a young man, a far and unatheltic physique tends to suggest a mind that struggles to make good long term decisions, assuming that nobody actually wants to be fat. This is because if we use reason towards the food we eat and the movement we make, we come to the obvious conclusion that we should treat our bodies well, they are the only ones that we have, and we are extremely lucky to be alive in the first place, and we shouldn’t forget that this is an extreme privilege. Think of all the billions, perhaps trillions of human beings that never were, that simply, by a chance occurrence, never ended up existing. Their story (or lack of one) is perhaps more tragic than the most unfortunate story of anyone who had ever lived, because at least you have lived. I don’t believe that anyone who had been alive has had a life that had been completely bad, there will have been happy beautiful moments, even if those are over shadowed by other terrible situations.
This is clearly shown by the fact that poorer countries, where you would assume that there is more hardship, are actually generally happier than more economically advanced nations. That’s because a good life is made up of the right mindset, not the things you own or the services you can consume.
The 20th Century, surprisingly enough, was the least violent century on record. Violent death per 100,000 people hit an all time low, and that is even if you consider the two major World Wars, the Spanish Plague, and the various conflicts during the Cold War. This, obviously, has much to do with the population explosion during the century, but it also shows how larger, more organised societies are far safer than smaller societies.
It is estimated that before large civilisations, that one in five people died a violent death, which is several orders of magnitude greater than today.
So, this is a positive thing, right?
Yes, of course it is, it means fewer families ruined, fewer people dying violent deaths, fewer incidients for society to deal with, and a large reduction in the amount of devastation inflicted on countries.
But, it also means that people are less used to death and violence, and so are perhaps less equipped to deal with it if it does cross their paths. Nowadays it is rare to know many people that didn’t simply die of illnesses at a fairly old age. Personally I don’t know anyone that was actually murdered or died in a war.
So perhaps, there is far more than we can learn from the ideas in this movie than first meets the eye. While not all the ideas presented are positive or will help you to live a good life, the ideas of challenging the status quo, changing yourself, and not being scared of taking each day as it comes, are strong philosophical ideas that have held in the passage of time.
So look at yourself in the mirror and ask, what are you going to do?