Thursday, March 1, 2018

Aristotle and Dickens

Speaking of villains (as I did nearish the end of the previous post), I promised in the last post of January that I would have to write someday about Aristotle and Dickens’s three types of villain. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me when I wrote that post that my opportunity would arrive in the very next weeks.

In book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about why people do bad things. He does this in part to combat a mistake his mentor, Plato, makes through most of his career: assuming that a person will act righteously if he simply knows the right thing to do. (Did Plato never go to a middle school? Or to a college faculty meeting?) Aristotle analyzes mistakes that even good people make in their moral reasoning (not seeing contradictions between the universals of knowledge and the particulars of appetite and other such Aristotelian explanations). But he finds three kinds of fault causing evil action that have nothing to do with syllogisms: vice, incontinence, and brutishness. The vicious person knows all about ethics but simply doesn’t care about the pain or happiness of others anywhere near as much as he cares about his own comfort. The incontinent person wishes she could be better but finds herself too weak to resist temptation. The brute on the other hand doesn’t think at all, acting merely to satisfy hunger and anger by the most direct means.

At some point over the years, it occurred to me that Dickens’s villains often come in threes, and that they usually fall into three types. Maybe I first noticed the pattern with the Defarges and their horrifying partner, The Vengeance, in A Tale of Two Cities. Mme Defarge coolly knits the record of her victims, plotting and planning her private Revolution all the way, while her husband, who appears at times to have a good heart, often simply glides along with the bloody tide. On days of execution, Mme Defarge looks on with grim satisfaction, and M Defarge with sad resignation. But The Vengeance cackles with delight: she loves the sight of blood whether it drips from the neck of a nobleman or his innocent charwoman.

In reviewing Aristotle’s taxonomy of evil this year, I saw a clear parallel. Mme Defarge fits neatly into the Philosopher’s category of vice, M Defarge represents the incontinent quite well, and The Vengeance is a paragon of brutishness. And the pattern seems to hold in other novels, as well. In Oliver Twist, Fagin (Vice) uses children in cold blood to line his own pockets, Bumble the Beadle (Incontinence) finds himself unable to act contrary to the law that he calls “a ass,” and Sikes (Brute) beats Nancy to death in animalistic rage. The baddies in the Dickens I read this year, The Old Curiosity Shop, also fit the mold. Sally Brass (Vice) knows just what she’s doing as she calculates to bring misery into the lives of those around her. Her brother Sampson (Incontinence) isn’t smart enough to do any calculation of his own but acquiesces in his sister’s schemes. And Quilp (Brutishness) – okay, Quilp thinks and plots, but his primary motivation is just a kind of bloodlust.

Dickens’s funny heroes don’t succumb easily to categorization; each is uniquely hilarious. This post has gone on long enough already for me to spend much time on the humor of The Old Curiosity Shop. But before signing off, I want to take the opportunity to promote one of the funniest characters I’ve ever come across. Dick Swiveller may be overlooked becomes he appears in a book whose allegorical melodrama hasn’t suited English-language reading fashion for 150 years. But anyone of the weird few who have read this far in this post will be rewarded by becoming acquainted with a character who, in the serious business of making readers laugh and feel happy to be a part of Dickens’s world, stands tall beside the more well-known Sam Weller and Wilkins Micawber.

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