December 6, 2012Vol. 42, Issue 9

The Big Lebowski and Philosophy

Is The Dude a bowling-loving stoner or a philosophical genius living the good life? Naturally, it's the latter, and The Big Lebowski and Philosophy explains why. Enlisting the help of great thinkers like Plato and Nietzsche, the book explores the movie's hidden philosophical layers, cultural reflection, and political commentary. Contributors Troy Jollimore, Philosophy, and Robert Jones, Philosophy, discuss how they came to write their chapter, “‘That Ain’t Legal, Either’: Rules, Virtue, and Authenticity,” and then present a summary.

Robert Jones and Troy Jollimore with Walter Sobchak look-alike (center) at the Lebowski Fest in Kentucky in July.

Robert Jones and Troy Jollimore with Walter Sobchak look-alike (center) at the Lebowski Fest in Kentucky in July.

Jollimore: One night Robert and I were having dinner at Cocodine, as I recall, and we started talking about The Big Lebowski and at the end of the conversation one of us said to the other, “We really have to write a paper about this film.” The fact is that this film is extremely rich, philosophically speaking. The fact that it’s so silly on the surface leads people not to notice that, but this is something the Coen Brothers do a lot: even when they are at their most serious—maybe especially then—they are very, very funny. Fargo and Barton Fink are other examples that come to mind, or Burn After Reading, another very funny film, which, at its heart, is extremely bleak. Lebowski, in fact, is unusual for the Coens, because it’s not fundamentally bleak, and although there are nihilists in it the film itself is not at all nihilistic—indeed, more than anything else it is a warm, affectionate portrait of an unlikely friendship. It’s a buddy movie. (I’ve also been thinking about it lately as a kind of road movie, because of the importance of cars in the film, and because The Dude, who really just likes sitting in his tub and relaxing—or bowling, which is very stationery and repetitive as far as sports go—is in constant motion during the film. The reason we don’t think of it as a road movie is because his motion takes a more or less circular path—for the most part, his travels all take place within Los Angeles—in fact he never gets out of Los Angeles!)

Anyway, the next day, literally, a call for papers went out by email, looking for contributions to this book, and we both got it. I’m not a religious person, but I think I can safely say that if there is a God, He loves The Big Lebowski, and He wanted me and Robert to write about it.

Jones: Yeah, it was like a message from The Great Dude in the Sky imploring us to write the paper. Originally, we kicked around the notion that The Dude represents a kind of noble anti-hero in the spirit of other celluloid anti-heroes like Paul Newman's Luke in Cool Hand Luke and Jack Nicholson's R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The idea was that like Luke and McMurphy, The Dude serves as a beacon of authenticity and virtue in a morally corrupt society. In fact, the first draft of the paper focused a lot on that theme, though that aspect eventually got cut from the paper for word-limit reasons. But in the end, we really fleshed out The Dude-as-virtuous-character theme.

The Lebowski Fest

The editor of the book, Peter Fosl, a philosophy professor at Transylvania University, lives in Louisville, KY. As it just so happens, the founders of Lebowski Fest, Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, are also residents of Louisville. Russell and Shuffitt started the Lebowski Fest eleven years ago (and Fosl has been to all eleven!). Since then, the Fest has grown to over ten cities including one across the pond in London. When the book came out in May, the obvious place for the book-release party was the Lebowski Fest in Louisville in July. When Troy and I saw the announcement, we were like, "We gotta go!" And go we did.

As soon as we got there, we developed an instant connection to Peter. I was graciously invited by Peter to read from the book at Carmichael's Bookstore. Then, when Troy got into town a few hours later, the three of us hung out to the wee morning hours talking film, philosophy, and all things Lebowski. The next day we brought a box of the Lebowski books (and a bottle of wheated burbon) to the Fest where we set up a table and sold and signed quite a few books among all the Lebowski-ites. The Fest included unlimited bowling and White Russians, live music, various Lebowski-related contests, a menagerie of "characters from the film," and—of course—a screening of the film. As far as philosophy-related events go, I think I can speak for Troy when I say that this one was unforgettable.

The Summary

“‘That Ain’t Legal, Either’: Rules, Virtue, and Authenticity in The Big Lebowski

“What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?” the Big Lebowski asks The Dude. In posing this question, Lebowski expresses an anxiety about his own identity—an anxiety that afflicts many of the film’s characters. The most notable example is The Dude’s best friend, Walter Sobchak, whose anxieties about his identities as a convert to Judaism and as a Vietnam veteran—identity claims that are often mocked and undermined by those around him—frequently reduce him to a state of frustration and inarticulate rage. At the root of these crises of identity lurks a lack of authenticity. For example, protests aside, Walter's credentials as an "authentic" Jew are just as dubious as his ex-wife's dog's “Pomeranian” pedigree. Walter’s efforts to quell this existential anxiety lead him to embrace a rigidly rule-bound approach to morality: one of his favorite refrains is his aggressively rhetorical question, “Am I wrong?” This inflexibly deontological mindset is in marked contrast to the character-based, situation-sensitive ethical outlook illustrated by The Dude. The Dude, indeed, might well be seen as proposing an ethics of cosmopolitan virtue—with roots in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and with contemporary affinities to moral particularists and other neo-Aristotelians—that poses an implicit challenge to such rule-bound moralisms. Walter is largely defined by his terror of being excluded. (Witness his rage at Larry Sellers, who excludes him from conversation by refusing to answer his questions, or his stubborn refusal to leave a family restaurant after having exercised his first amendment rights by disturbing the other customers with his loud swearing.) This terror, ironically, gives rise to a corresponding desire to exclude, directed, in Walter’s case, mostly toward his friend Donny. We see the same pattern in other characters. The Big Lebowski’s antipathy toward “the bums,” for instance, expresses his shame at the fact that he himself has achieved nothing, and his fear that he will be found out. By contrast, The Dude, an achiever of eudaimonic well-being (rooted, ultimately, in his authenticity—The Dude, as the screenplay suggests, is “a man in whom casualness runs deep”) seems entirely comfortable in his identity as an outsider. Indeed, we suggest that The Dude can be viewed as a representative of virtue as understood by Aristotle—a man whose compassion, sense of perspective, and sense of humor make him a better moral exemplar than the rigid, angry, inauthentic individuals by whom he is surrounded.