[24 February 2010]
Freedom is on everyone’s lips in the US these days.Then again, the concept is a fixture in American political and popular culture. From Thomas Jefferson’s much-quoted “tree of liberty” needing revolutionary blood to Joni Mitchell’s swooning for David Geffen’s Paris vacation, “freedom” is everywhere, all the time. Do we really understand what freedom is, though?
I think Joni and the Woodstock generation had a clearer idea than today’s Jefferson-quoting tea partiers. It takes imagination to see bombers in the sky turn in to butterflies, but only gullibility and fear to see an elected president as a foreign agent seeking to brainwash his citizens with socialist mantras. Even Jefferson saw that one coming. A mere 12 sentences before his “tree of liberty” bit (in his famous letter to William Smith), he recognized that “the people cannot be all, and always well informed.” They don’t like to quote their heroes in full, either.
Here’s what I don’t like about “freedom”. It’s usually just another word for criticizing things you don’t like; as in, “My English teacher stole my freedom and my ski-weekend by making me read books.” Real freedom, however, is something else entirely, as I was reminded by Court Lewis’ chapter in Mr. Monk and Philosophy: The Curious Case of the Defective Detective. Real freedom is not merely the freedom to choose among the available options before you, but the freedom to determine what’s available to you in the first place and to determine for yourself what those options are worth.
I think this is one reason people find Detective Monk so alluring. Yes, there’s his quirkiness and irrationality, as if the world will end if the pillows are not aligned on the couch just so, if an antenna on a car he’s passing by is not touched, or if there’s a glass of milk nearby, but the real, perhaps subconscious appeal, is Monk’s confidence in his nonconformity and freedom from what others think of him. As Lewis sees Monk through the lens of Sartre and Nietzsche, Monk is just possibly something epic, historic, and long ago forecast by this equally quirky philosopher: the arrival in human history of the Übermensch, or superman. In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche famously proclaimed:
Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting.
And those with any hope of crossing over the abyss will fear milk.
Just kidding about the milk, but not about the “danger”—a word Nietzsche uses four times in that sentence. What’s so scary about this tightrope walk? It means forswearing the comforts of routine, habit, conventional wisdom, the teachings of others (including philosophers) and even Facebook itself in order to find your authentic self. Monk is up to the task. When it comes to freedom, he’s the guy—utterly unafraid to live by his own obsessive lights.
To understand Nietzsche’s Übermensch, we first need to know a little about existentialism. Jean Paul Sartre (1905–1980) coined the term ‘existentialism’ to describe the idea that your choices determine who you are and what sort of meaning your life has. For Sartre, humans are born without an essence or meaning, and it is not until we begin making choices that our essence, meaning, and purpose comes into being. In other words, as Sartre describes it, ‘existentialism’ means “existence precedes essence.”
Sartre’s claim might not seem that radical, but it is. Take the wipes that Mr. Monk is always using. Even though they can be used for a variety of unintended purposes, they are created with a specific purpose in mind. In other words, some inventor had the idea for portable little pieces of paper or cloth that are capable of killing germs and preventing disease, and then took the time and energy to create such a thing. Sartre says of such artifacts that their essence is defined by a creator prior to their creation, and therefore their essence precedes their existence. The essence of what it means to be a wipe existed in the mind of a creator before it actually existed as a physical wipe.
Humans, as opposed to created artifacts like wipes, exist prior to having an essence. For Sartre, humans are not created by a God with any specific purpose in mind, so humans must determine their own essence. They do so by making choices, and it is these choices that fill one’s life with meaning and determine what the essence of each particular person is. Monk, for example, found himself in a situation where the love of his life and the one person who seemed to understand him was brutally murdered. This caused Monk to mentally breakdown, and for several years he was unable to make any choices.
Eventually, however, he imbued his life with meaning by choosing to find out who was responsible for Trudy’s death. His life, now, is driven by and guided by his desire to find Trudy’s murderers, and living a well-ordered life helps him achieve this. Monk chooses to clean his home, sanitize himself after touching others, straighten things, and ensuring things are balanced and numerically even. These are not simply side-effects of his obsessive compulsive disorder, for we see he chooses to overcome his “disorder” all of the time.
For instance, he chooses to keep his coffee table at an angle because it reminds him of Trudy (“Mr. Monk and the Very Very Old Man”); when he tries to make friends Monk is surprisingly capable of “dirtying” his house and “hanging-out” (“Mr. Monk Makes a Friend”); and he chooses (with some persuasion) to drink water from a stream in the woods when he is lost (“Mr. Monk Gets Cabin Fever”).
“I’ve been smokin’ THE TRUTH, MAN!”
Even though Nietzsche lived and wrote before Sartre was even born, for most, he is considered an early existentialist. He is an existentialist because of the importance he places on how choices determine the meaning of each individual’s life. Also, like many existentialists, Nietzsche does not exactly rely on arguments. Instead he uses aphorisms: short, concise statements meant to convey a thought-provoking idea. Here are three examples from Kaufman’s The Portable Nietzsche:
The errors of great men are venerable because they are more fruitful than the truths of little men.
Shedding one’s skin. The snake that cannot shed its skin perishes. So do the spirits who are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be spirit.
Do you want to walk along? Or walk ahead? Or walk by yourself? One must know what one wants and that one wants.
These aphorisms are open to different interpretations, but even so, there is something in them that is intuitively truthful. As he put it in Twilight of the Idols, he used aphorisms to “say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book.” Nietzsche often achieves his goal, but sometimes at the price of consistency. Strict logical consistency is not one of his major concerns, and therefore, the reader must learn to engage the material subjectively by filling in gaps and interpreting how the material is to be understood and applied to one’s life.
But inconsistencies should not bother fans of Mr. Monk. Mr. Monk requires everything be straight and in its place, yet he refuses to straighten his coffee table. These sorts of things draw us to Monk and make us want to see and know more. By trying to understand him a little better, we indirectly challenge how we see others who are different, which in turn challenges our understanding of human nature. This Nietzschean way of stirring up personal passions about human nature is a key feature of storytelling, and it’s a more fruitful way of engaging viewers because it’s complex—just like real life.
One of Nietzsche’s greatest commands (and an inconsistent one at that) is that one must become what one is (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever”). What does it mean to tell us to become something that we already are? Inconsistencies aside, it commands us to make decisions about who we want to be, even though our choices are limited by the outside forces that corral us into to being something else, like society, morals, and physical impediments. But all this really shows is that, like Mr. Monk, we can be raised in a less-than-perfect home, where our father left, our mother died, and where our brother has his own set of crippling phobias; yet, our life is still shaped by the decisions we make: like going to school, dating and marrying, joining the police force, and becoming a private investigator. A simple look at Mr. Monk’s life shows us that he had a lot to rise above. So far, he’s made good, successful choices.
Nietzsche says that man is simply a tightrope between beast and Übermensch. In other words, man is a transition and must be passed over and left behind. What Nietzsche means is simply that most humans get caught up in the morality, values, and desires of their day without ever challenging whether or not such things should be accepted. Nietzsche maintains that we must challenge all of these things in order to achieve our full potential. Achieving this means that we become more than human, we become super-human. The type of life that the vast majority of people live doesn’t meet Nietzsche’s standards. Instead, most people belong to the herd. The herd is the court of public opinion, the mass of unthinking followers of trends, public figures, and fads. The herd is made up of common humans and must be transgressed in order to achieve the full potential of human greatness: the Übermensch. This superior existence brings freedom from the values, thoughts, and desires of the masses, who merely function according to a herd mentality.
But to achieve this freedom, we must reject all received values about what is right and wrong, institute our own value system, and then hold ourselves accountable for living according to those values. This is a major task, and only a few people have ever achieved such a state, according to Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, however, this re-evaluation of values is necessary for becoming the Übermensch. Monk seems to know how to do it.
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No, it’s Mr. Monk!
Unlike most of us, Mr. Monk has this super-human ability to establish one’s own values and then follow them. Consider his insane standards of cleanliness: he flosses his teeth hourly (“Mr. Monk Flunks Traffic School,” in Natalie’s blog), and he places used tissues in baggies within baggies (“Mr. Monk Stays in Bed”). Second, Mr. Monk has incredible mental abilities: he remembers everything that ever happens, and he is the greatest detective since Sherlock Holmes. Third, Mr. Monk is relentless in his search for finding truth, both in the case of Trudy’s death and for all other crimes he studies. All of these examples, and the many more that are not mentioned, show Monk’s super-human ability to set values for himself and then hold himself to those values.
Of course, being able to set one’s morals and values, and being able to abide by them, produces a side-effect: being separated from others. Separation causes the Übermensch to become a genuine individual who stands alone in relation to the masses. Monk renounces the ways of “normal” society in order to live in a world that is well-ordered, well-maintained, and truthful. He detests the ways of the world, because they are cluttered, dirty, and full of deceit. Monk is guided by his own set of standards, and because of this, he sets himself apart from the rest of society. Monk knows that he is different. He takes pride in it. In “Mr. Monk’s Biggest Fan,” after Natalie says, “After all, you’re only human,” he replies, “Hey, there’s no need for name-calling.”
George Reisch is the Series Editor for Open Court's series Popular Culture and Philosophy. He also edited Pink Floyd and Philosophy (2007) and co-edited Monty Python and Philosophy (2006) and Radiohead and Philosophy (2009).