Some friends of mine were discussing why it is that modern tellings of old stories (like Robin Hood) are always disappointing. One put forward the theory it’s because they can’t just tell the story, they have to modernize it. He’s right, but I think it’s important to realize why it is that modern storytellers have to modernize everything.
It’s because they’re Modern.
Before you click away because you think I’m joking, notice the capital “M”. I mean that they subconsciously believe in Modern Philosophy, which is the name of a particular school of philosophy which was born with Descartes, died with Immanuel Kant, and has wandered the halls of academia ever since like a zombie—eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.
The short, short version of this rather long and complicated story is that Modern Philosophy started with Descartes’ work Discourse on Method, though it was put forward better in Meditations on First Philosophy. In those works, Descartes began by doubting literally everything and seeing if he could trust anything. Thus he started with the one thing he found impossible to doubt—his own existence. It is from this that we get the famous cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am.
The problem is that Descartes had to bring in God in order to guarantee that our senses are not always being confused by a powerful demon. In modern parlance we’d say that we’re not in The Matrix. They mean the same thing—that everything we perceive outside of our own mind is not real but being projected to us by some self-interested power. Descartes showed that from his own existence he can know that God exists, and from God’s existence he can know that he is not being continually fooled in this way.
The problem is that Descartes was in some sense cheating—he was not doubting that his own reason worked correctly. The problem is that this is doubtable, and once doubted, completely irrefutable. All refutations of doubting one’s intellect necessarily rely on the intellect being able to work correctly to follow the refutations. If that is itself in doubt, no refutation is possible, and we are left with radical doubt.
And there is only one thing which is certain, in the context of radical doubt: oneself.
To keep this short, without the senses being considered at least minimally reliable there is no object for the intellect to feed on, but the will can operate perfectly well on phantasms. So all that can be relied upon is will.
After Descartes and through Kant, Modern Philosophers worked to avoid this conclusion, but progressively failed. Kant killed off the last attempts to resist this conclusion, though it is a quirk of history that he could not himself accept the conclusion and so basically said that we can will to pretend that reason works.
Nietzsche pointed out how silly willing to pretend that reason works is, and Modern Philosophy has, for the most part, given up that attempt ever since. (Technically, with Nietzsche, we come to what is called “post-modernism”, but post-modernism is just modernism taken seriously and thought out to its logical conclusions.)
Now, modern people who are Modern have not read Descartes, Kant, or Nietzsche, of course, but these thinkers are in the water and the air—one must reject them to not breathe and drink them in. Modern people have not done that, so they hold these beliefs but for the most part don’t realize it and can’t articulate them. As Chesterton observed, if a man won’t think for himself, someone else will think for him. Actually, let me give the real quote, since it’s so good:
…a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy…
(From The Revival of Philosophy)
In the context of the year of our Lord’s Incarnation 2019, what Christians like my friends mean by “classic stories” are mostly stories of heroism. (Robin Hood was given as an example.) So we need to ask what heroism is.
There are varied definitions of what hero is which are useful; for the moment I will define a hero as somebody who gives of himself (in the sense of self-sacrifice) that someone else may have life, or have it more abundantly. Of course, stated like this it includes trivial things. I think that there simply is a difference of degree but not of kind between trivial self-gift and heroism; heroism is to some degree merely extraordinary self-gift.
If you look at the classic “hero’s journey” according to people like Joseph Campbell, but less insipidly as interpreted by George Lucas, the hero is an unknown and insignificant person who is called to do something very hard, which he has no special obligation to do, but who answers this call and does something great, then after his accomplishment, returns to his humble life. In this you see the self-sacrifice, for the hero has to abandon his humble life in order to do something very hard. You further see it as he does the hard thing; it costs him trouble and pain and may well get the odd limb chopped off along the way. Then, critically, he returns to normal life.
You can see elements of this in pagan heroes like Achilles, or to a lesser degree in Odysseus (who is only arguably a hero, even in the ancient Greek sense). They are what C.S. Lewis would call echoes of the true myth which had not yet been fulfilled.
You really see this in fulfillment in Christian heroes, who answer the call out of generosity, not out of obligation or desire for glory. They endure hardships willingly, even unto death, because they follow a master who endured death on a cross for their sake. And they return to a humble life because they are humble.
Now let’s look at this through the lens of Modern Philosophy.
The hero receives a call. That is, someone tries to impose their will on him. He does something hard. That is, it’s a continuation of that imposition of will. Then he returns, i.e. finally goes back to doing what he wants.
This doesn’t really make any sense as a story, after receiving the call. It’s basically the story of a guy being a slave when he could choose not to be. It is the story of a sucker. It’s certainly not a good story; it’s not a story in which a characters actions flow out of his character.
This is why we get the modern version, which is basically a guy deciding on whether he’s going to be completely worthless or just mostly worthless. This is necessarily the case because, for the story to make sense through the modern lens, the story has to be adapted into something where he wills what he does. For that to happen, and for him not to just be a doormat, he has to be given self-interested motivations for his actions. This is why the most characteristic scene in a modern heroic movie is the hero telling the people he benefited not to thank him. Gratitude robs him of his actions being his own will.
A Christian who does a good deed for someone may hide it (“do not let your left hand know what your right is doing”) or he may not (“no one puts a light under a bushel basket”), but if the recipient of his good deed knows about it, the Christian does not refuse gratitude. He may well refuse obligation; he may say “do not thank me, thank God”, or he may say “I thank God that I was able to help you,” but he will not deny the recipient the pleasure of gratitude. The pleasure of gratitude is the recognition of being loved, and the Christian values both love and truth.
A Modern hero cannot love, since to love is to will the good of the other as other. The problem is that the other cannot have any good beside his own will, since there is nothing besides his own will. To do someone good requires that they have a nature which you act according to. The Modern cannot recognize any such thing; the closest he can come is the other being able to accomplish what he wills, but that is in direct competition with the hero’s will. The same action cannot at the same time be the result of two competing wills. In a zero-sum game, it is impossible for more than one person to win.
Thus the modern can only tell a pathetic simulacrum of a hero who does what he does because he wants to, without reference to anyone else. It’s the only way that the story is a triumph and not the tragedy of the hero being a victim. Thus instead of the hero being tested, and having the courage and fortitude to push through his hardship and do what he was asked to do, we get the hero deciding whether or not he wants to help, and finding inside himself some need that helping will fulfill.
And in the end, instead of the hero happily returning to his humble life out of humility, we have the hero filled with a sense of emptiness because the past no longer exists and all that matters now is what he wills now, which no longer has anything to do with the adventure.
The hero has learned nothing because there is nothing to learn; the hero has received nothing because there is nothing to receive. He must push on because there is nothing else to do.
This is why Modern tellings of old stories suck, and must suck.
It’s because they’re Modern.