Sunday, August 19, 2012

Repairman Jack: the Strengths and Weakesses of Mankind

These days, my favorite hero – you can call him an anti-hero if you want -- is F. Paul Wilson’s literary character, Repairman Jack. Jack “fixes” things and people those in the legal system cannot or will not fix.

Jack is not perfect. He embodies a lot of virtues but also some sins. It’s too bad the words “sin” and “virtue” even exist, because they don’t get across what the words really mean.

“Sin” comes from the archery word “hamartia” and means “to miss the mark.” It means to miss the mark for your self, but has come to mean some sort of moral condemnation from God, usually for reasons defined by modern-day Pharisees.

“Virtue” comes from words that mean “strength” and “power” and also “man.” It’s also related to the Greek word “arĂȘte,” which means “excellence.”

What sin and virtue really mean, then, are weakness and strengths that people have within them, that help or hinder.

Jack’s biggest weakness, his biggest flaw, is his wrath. He’s a hater, and so angry he sometimes kills people – all of whom deserve it, I’ll add. He is, fortunately, never out of control.

As an aside, another reason I like this guy is because he uses handguns, rifles, shotguns, grenades and flamethrowers -- not only against the bad guys, but monsters! What’s not to like?

What’s Jack’s biggest strength? Here’s where things get interesting. At first glance it appears to be Justice, but a few thousand years of thought and experience on the subject puts Prudence first.

In fact, without Prudence, the other four main strengths – Justice, Temperance and Courage – cannot exist. All of them are interconnected.

And Jack is prudent, which can be defined as wisdom, or better, right reason. The shortest definition of prudence I’ve encountered is recta ratio agilbilium – “right reason about things to be done.” Right reason is that which conforms to reality.

Jack, then, is prudent – he has knowledge and right reason about things to be done. He not only takes care of himself and his family, but also problems in the world that need to be fixed.

Justice has been defined as “the virtue whereby we give to each person what is due to him, and we do this consistently, promptly and pleasurably.” Jack believes in justice; in fact, it’s his life’s work. But without the prudence – the right reason about things to be done – he could not be just.

Jack is also courageous, or brave. This is a delicate one. A person can be brave for the wrong reasons – reasons that don’t conform to truth, or reality ("It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare..." - Mark Twain). Many men are brave in war, but almost all wars are for the wrong reasons, so their bravery is wasted. It doesn’t “conform to reality,” to the whole truth, to what is “really real.”

True bravery must be based on justice and prudence – giving people their due, based on right reason about things to be done, things that conform to reality. The easiest way to see if bravery is wasted, and not based on prudence and justice, is through the existence of large standing armies, separate from the public, unlike, say, in Switzerland, where the entire public is armed and part of the military.

Jack, of course, wants nothing to do with militaries or armies.

Then we have temperance, defined as that which governs our appetite for pleasure. . Temperance requires us to train ourselves and prepare ourselves even when we are not faced with an immediate temptation.

Temperance is not opposed to pleasure, but since the pleasure of the senses, and especially touch, are so powerful for us, temperance should govern them. Temperance, then, is opposed to lust.

Here’s where things get delicate again. How do you define lust? I define it as using the other person, seeing them as just a thing for your use. In fact, what all “sins” have in common is not seeing the other person as fully human, and what all virtues have in common is seeing them as people who exist in their own right.

Jack engages in the pleasure of the senses – he drinks, he enjoys movies, he loves his girlfriend and her daughter – but he is temperate, He is not a glutton, does not go overboard, does not let his life ruled by pleasure. And as the ancient Greeks noticed, those who let their lives be ruled by pleasure end up degraded.

The interesting thing about pleasure – and this has been noticed by people as far apart as the Buddha and Freud – is that it goes up and down. It is a roller coaster – it is never permanent. People who are not temperate about their pleasures, who are ruled by them, become addicted to them, and, as addicts, end up requiring larger and larger doses. They are never satisfied with what they have.

People who are temperate enjoy their pleasures, but never become addicted to them, are never ruled by them. Jack in that sense is temperate. And prudent, and just, and brave.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out that all heroes have a flaw, sometimes a fatal one. It’s why Anakin Skywalker turned into Darth Vader – he became consumed by his hate, his greatest “sin.”

Jack has his flaw. As I mentioned, it’s wrath – his hate and anger. But it never took over his life, even though it does damage him. But it never consumed him, never destroyed him.

The Repairman Jack novels, more than anything else, are horror stories. They’re fun ones, unlike say, H.P. Lovecraft, who no fun at all.

All horror stories conform to the same archetype – Order, or Goodness, invaded by Chaos, or Evil. That chaos, or evil, is always associated with the Deadly Seven Sins, or, as I prefer to call them, weaknesses.

Pride (what the Greeks called hubris) is always associated with violence, and is considered the worst of sins. Lust, envy, wrath (hate) ennui (boredom), greed, gluttony – every villain, every monster, embodies one or more of these weaknesses. These weaknesses are the cause of violence, chaos and evil ("Five great enemies to peace inhabit within us: viz., avarice, ambition, envy, anger, and pride. If those enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace.") - Petrarch).

I define good as that which makes us whole (and “whole” is related to the words “healthy” and “hale”) and evil as that which makes us unwhole (as in unholy), or unhealthy. Our strengths make us healthy and whole; our weaknesses do the opposite.

These strengths “conform to reality” in the sense they see others as beings in their own right, meaning they make us connected to them. These strengths are what give us community, meaning and importance to our lives. Power over our selves, as opposed to power over others.

Good novels are modern mythic retellings of old stories, the same stories seen in the Bible. They entertain and educate about human nature, and the human condition. And that is what Repairman Jack does – he tells us about ourselves, our lives, and our strengths and weaknesses.

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