This is the first of a few reflections I plan to write this week on the movie The Hunger Games. This dystopian story, about a futuristic, totalitarian society where randomly selected adolescent boys and girls are forced to participate in an annual survival of the fittest competition (think the TV show Survivor, except the losers really die) broadcast for the amusement of the whole country, is rich with philosophical themes, and can be interpreted as a critical indictment of our hedonistic, media-obsessed culture.
The story made me think of a discussion I had with my students the day before I saw it on the existentialist philosophy of Nietzsche and Sartre. An atheist, Nietzsche understood prophetically the implications of a world without God, coining the phrase “God is dead” to describe a society in which the reality of God had become marginalized in the worldview of the culture. Here is an excerpt of his famous “Parable of a Madman,” the original source of this phrase:
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
How is it that God can die? Of course Nietzsche did not mean that a infinite, eternal all powerful being who sustains the existence of the entire universe has ceased to exist. As an atheist, Nietzsche did not believe in such a being. Nor did he mean that religion has disappeared from society. Rather, “God is dead” means that God (or at least the idea) has ceased to matter. For centuries, really since the Enlightenment and the Cartesian project to construct a system of certain knowledge using the individual’s thinking as a the starting point, the reality of God had ceased to occupy the center of society’s thinking, and was no longer the starting point of gaining true knowledge of the world. What began as confidence in man’s ability to attain certain knowledge of the world, independently of God, subjected to the doubting minds of Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, has become utter skepticism in our day that there is any real Truth apart from what we invent in our minds.
20th century existentialist, like Sartre, embracing the God is dead presupposition, attempted to construct a philosophy to guide mankind’s life in a meaningless universe. Sartre’s existentialist philosophy is preoccupied with how one can find meaning in an inherently meaningless universe. Since there is no Creator, mankind has no fundamental essence to define him – no inherent purpose to discover and live according to. Thus, we are free to define ourselves by creating our own meaning through our choices: “existence precedes essence”; hence, the title “existentialism.”
While I would not suggest that there is a singular logical outcome to this philosophy, or that Sartre would approve of all the outworkings of existentialist philosophy, I would claim that this thinking justifies an approach to life that values the emotional thrills of sensory experience above all other considerations, and that it is inline with the ancient philosophy of Epicurus, who believe that pleasure was our ultimate good and that therefore our goal in life should be to derive the maximum amount of pleasure before we die. The Apostle Paul alludes to Epicurus in 1 Corinthians 15, where he contrast the hope in the resurrection and faith in final judgement with the maxim “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” (15:32).
This philosophy is manifested vividly in The Hunger Games. After being selected for the games from “District 12,” the main protagonists of the story – Katniss Everdeen and her male counterpart Peeta Mellark – are sped away on a high-tech bullet train to the opulent capital city for preparation and training for the games. On the train, they are treated with an abundance of delectable foods and drink, which is jarringly contrasted with the meager provisions in their poor coal-mining district where Katniss illegally hunts for food in the woods. Katniss resists indulging herself, perhaps restrained by thoughts of her starving family, but is admonished by her extravagant hostess “to enjoy it while you can; you’ll only be here for a short-time.”
This statement really describes the mindset of the city-dwellers, all of whom are dressed in vivid, ostentatious fashions and watch teenagers slaughtering each other in these games with gleeful obsession. In a godless universe, they (and we) are just passing through, only alive for a short-time before we are extinguished forever by death: no heaven or hell, no fear of final judgement, no justice, nothingness. Who cares if others, even children, have to die to satisfy our lust for pleasure and need for meaning? There is no moral reality constraining us, beyond what those in power construct to maintain control and order.
This is how the citizens of this dystopian society approach life. And though it is impossible in our age for an event like the “Hunger Games” to happen, because our consciences are more constrained by an awareness of moral reality, this kind of event is the logical, if not inevitable, consequence of society in which people have lost faith in ultimate meaning and therefore seek sensory pleasure as the highest good.