Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Philokalon

A favorite scene from one of my favorite films, the wonderful philosophical poem that is Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day. A subtle moment, one that doesn't stand out on first viewing, but having seen the film several times and taught it in a philosophy class I now cherish it as central to the film's philosophy.
The scene in question is the first twenty seconds of this clip. Phil Connors, the main protagonist, has begun to attain a certain kind of humility towards his situation. He is starting to let go of his ego. This does not come about quickly but as a long process, entering into an awareness of self and others that is humble and compassionate, seeing one's own failings and that of others in light of mercy and the possibility of healing.

Perhaps the best philosophical representation of what is happening in this scene is Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. According to Aristotle our very essence, our innermost nature, is both noble and beautiful. Yet it is only potentially so. We must actualize our nature, make it blossom forth. We are to become who we truly are. To fail to do so is to fail to be fully human. The primary guide in this process is our appreciation of beauty, of what we find pleasurable. The base person is stuck in a cycle of suffering, pursuing fleeting pleasures as an end in themselves. This is Phil earlier on in the film, an egotistical hedonist. Paradoxically, such a person, the one who obsesses about pleasure, will never truly achieve it. The excellent person, on the other hand, the person who seeks to become virtuous, will gain true and lasting pleasure, not through struggle and strife but rather simply by being there, by recognizing what is good and noble and letting it fill their soul. The excellent person becomes philokalon, the lover of the beautiful.

Notice the peace in Murray's performance, the simple joy of sitting in a coffee shop with books filled with wisdom and grace, that moment when he realizes that there is beauty all around him. This is what it means to be truly human.

On a different note, it's remarkable how good the smallest performances in this film are. That little girl the piano teacher kicks out is hilarious. She looks as dejected as Charlie Brown.

1 comment:

Reido Bandito said...

A great couple of scenes. I have high hopes for this movie's place in the canon.