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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Gattaca and the Problem of Nobility

Spoilers ahead. Go watch Gattaca if you haven’t already.

Earlier this week, I was wondering about the division of all human knowing into two: theoretical philosophy and political science. It’s a division Maimonides uses in his Logic, a work which seems to be about the recovery of political philosophy. I remarked to Nathaniel that maybe such a severe distinction – where almost everything is political science – brings about the concept of the noble. The bridge between these types of knowledge has to cater to our vision of the highest, but vision alone becomes the key. What is noble often concerns self-sacrifice with the hope of a greater good for others.

Enter Gattaca. At least one genetically engineered super-human, Jude Law’s character, cannot abide his place in life. He takes his death wish and creates a new ambition. Give his name to someone else who can use it, help them get what they want, then kill himself. It’s hard to call what he’s doing vengeful because of the contrast with Ethan Hawke’s Vincent and Gore Vidal’s bash-your-head-in-with-a-keyboard director. Vincent definitely wants to get the hell off this damn rock. He’s not explicitly vengeful, but he is moreso than the original Jerome Morrow.

So what are Jude Law’s motivations? I think we can identify two:

  1. He has decided that the most rational thing to do in a world which is utter crap is kill himself. Before dismissing this as arrogance and saying that people lived through worse, consider how powerfully Gattaca itself makes this argument. Would you really want to live in a world where everything is genetic testing to absurd, consistently extra-legal degrees? Jude Law sees right through all this. He declares, rightly, that people are going to see who they want to see. This was never about perfection in any sense, not even about utility. This was all about the feeling that we could try to guarantee success and would be better off trying to do so. This was all about the fear of fear itself: panic, in a word.
  2. The only way to truly not be second-best is win a competition no one would dare enter, not even in the future. What is left for a genetically engineered superhuman who can compete at nearly everything? You’re going to have to use all your advantages in the service of a powerful cause and be ready to give it all up at the drop of a hat. In short, you have to earn your identity for yourself by destroying your own DNA, perhaps even all connection to this world. The privacy and ultimate willingness to give up his own name are crucial to Jude Law’s character.

On that last point: it is true that we don’t know, say, who “Homer” was. We just have a name. Did Jude Law figure out that working for your name is actually a fruitless endeavor, the sort of thing that relentless genetic enhancement is supposed to aid? He certainly is defensive about his name early on in the film.

I’m not sure how to resolve any of these difficulties. A general comment on the rational and the noble is in order because what’s happening in Gattaca, unwittingly, is the science of perfect gentlemen. We’re going to create “noble and good” people, a class with higher desires and trappings who gets what they deserve. And that class, to some degree, will figure out that this is the most worthless sort of life. Who doesn’t want to earn and fight for what is good? Who doesn’t want to learn, and more importantly, learn how to learn?

Then again, we’ve tried to create aristocracies before. Early on in Herodotus (I.30-33), Solon discusses two examples of happiness. One is Tellus the Athenian, who has a beautiful large family, wealth, land, is in a time where his city is prosperous. He dies nobly on the battlefield, is given a great funeral. Tellus is first in happiness. Second are twin brothers who carry their mother to the temple for miles like oxen would. She asks the goddess to give them what is best. They die in their sleep. Is it better to never have been born at all? Is a natural basis for nobility our simply dealing with the ills of Fortune?

The trouble with going that route is where “nature” finally leads – not so much to nobility, but to rationality. This is true even if nature reduces to (and disappears with) physics in the sense we have it. Nature somehow ends up characteristic of a higher or necessary sort of knowledge, not just our will. Nobility ends up almost entirely artificial. Almost. The two problems of the soul Aristotle identified, how it is both a source of motion and knowing, are on display. Good luck solving them – only with that “solution” could the conventional be entirely displaced. Jude Law says there might be nothing on Titan. He knows for sure there is nothing on Earth.

3 Comments

  1. Hello! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Happy Birthday:)

  3. I’m really looking for movies that would stir my brain. Thanks for referring Gattaca. Who’s the main actor? I will watch it later.

    -Elves

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