The Philosophy of Fight Club.
Spoiler alerts ahead. If you haven't seen fight club, then go and watch it, and then watch it again straight away – it's a 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, which didn't include any fighting. Then, I enjoyed all the action scenes in the second half of the movie.
Being eight years old, I completely missed the wealth of philosophy and double meaning infused throughout the movie. Funnily enough, Fight Club is not about fight clubs, although it can appear that way.
It's 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 of 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 incredibly 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: 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.
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 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 Fight Club. 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 to 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 made me decide to take a more in-depth 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 relatively 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 significant skyscrapers.
However, being charismatic is not a prerequisite for having a coherent philosophy of life and the world around you, as is shown by practically all politicians.
Perhaps the questions to ask are what philosophy is and then what is a coherent philosophy. Only then can we view Fight Club and compare it to our checklist to see if we can find something that resembles a cohesive 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. A life that is mostly free from negative emotions and character traits such as envy, anxiety, nervousness, anger, etc. The definitions of 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. Still, that argument had 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 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 today has managed to lift humankind to previously unthinkable levels. 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 supercomputers 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).
The majority of us in the economically developed world are still not happy regardless of the incredible luxury that we have. Even someone who is regarded as poor in an economically developed country such as American or England still has a better life with more luxury than 99.9% of all humans that have ever lived.
The problem is that we assign value to the wrong things.
We also end up deriving our own personal value from other people's opinions of the things we own, 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 Luddism, the idea that we need to destroy modern machinery because they are harmful to humans in various ways. One obvious way is the existential threat to humans due to a super-intelligent artificial intelligence. Still, another possible threat, which is far more real, is that of 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. 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 utopian ideal was the economist Keynes' dream, but it didn't work out like that.
The world is becoming less mediocratan and far more extreme, to borrow the Nassim Taleb terminology from the Black Swan. Far fewer people are making far more money, and there will be increasing unemployment levels, which is excellent for the people at the top because it keeps working wages artificially low.
Of course, this disaster is also our fault. We need to realize that it has been engineered. Could we 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 exact reason to decide what to do. Of course, we are encouraged to waste our time with entertainment and not think because thinking makes us dangerous. That's we have 500 channel TV, gambling, mobile apps, pornography, blockbuster movies.
If we think about how our society should be run, it's easy to see how we could improve things. It's also easy to see how these types of improvements are being blocked. It's fascinating how Fight Club, the organization, eventually morphs into Project Mayhem. The end goal is to destroy the debt, which is a reasonably 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 into 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. This institution 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 modern life. Our brains and general physiology has changed little in the last 200,000 years, and yet our environment, especially in the previous 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. This 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, 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 any one person to inflict on another, we could pose the question 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 be considered a humane thing to do.
It reminds me of a passage in Cicero's On Duties, where Cicero discusses moral right and wrong and how the same action in different situations can have various 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 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 savior, and 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.” If we believe that we in a democratic country 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 study the way society works and runs the numbers, even if everyone were 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, 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 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 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 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:
• Anti-Consumerism • A big “Fuck Off” to the system • Freedom • The Ability to Let the Chips Fall where they may. • Finding Ourselves
In many philosophies, there is an idea regarding self-examination or knowledge of the self. The idea is that if you do not know yourself, then how can you know anything else. In Fight Club, one of the most protracted 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 in a unit you don't understand. Accurate measurement and understanding are impossible unless we know ourselves well. However, what does this 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 this has not been the case for most of the humans who have ever lived. Was your father a farmer? Well, guess what? You are going to be a farmer too! There was little choice, but more importantly, there was little expectation of 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. In some ways, we are trying to find that version of ourselves that will take us there without sacrificing everything we care.
It is incredible how we can fool ourselves. I used to be a slim teenager, then I got obese at the age of 19, and then I was slim again at 22. At 25, I looked in the mirror and suddenly had a revelation that I was fat again. At no time before that moment did I believe I was overweight, I felt I might have temporarily have gained a few pounds from my slim baseline, but the weight had 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 can 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 regularly. And this is not just about the body. I would go as far as to say that our bodies' state is purely a reflection of our minds. So, for a young man, a far and unathletic physique tends to suggest a mind that struggles to make right long-term decisions, assuming that nobody 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 fortunate to be alive in the first place. We shouldn't forget that this is an extreme privilege. Think of all the billions, perhaps trillions of human beings that never were, that, by a chance occurrence, never ended up existing. Their story (or lack of one) is perhaps more tragic than the most heartbreaking 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 other terrible situations overshadow those.
In poorer countries, where there is more hardship, they are 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, has much to do with the population explosion during the Century, but it also shows how larger, more organized societies are far safer than smaller societies.
Before large civilizations, 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 incidents for society to deal with, and a large reduction in the amount of devastation inflicted on countries. 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 merely die of illnesses at a reasonably old age. Personally, I don't know anyone that was murdered or killed 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?