Stoicism was meant from the beginning as a living philosophy, something to practice throughout your life, not just discuss from the armchair. Accordingly, I have recently started to apply a Stoic perspective on a number of things I do or experience. One of these is watching movies and documentaries. What follows, then, is an attempt at a “Stoic” review of the 2015 documentary “Amy,” centered on the tragic figure of British singer Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011 at the age of only 27.The documentary — directed by Asif Kapadia — is, in my opinion, well done, though it includes a lot of low quality footage of Winehouse’s childhood and, at 2 hours and 8 minutes, is arguably unnecessarily long.
It is a Greek style tragedy of sorts: Amy’s beautiful voice and physical attractiveness are her tickets out of a mediocre existence in North London, but a combination of early childhood scars (especially her father leaving the family for another woman when she was 9) and deeply flawed supporting characters (again, her exploitative father, as well as her troubled and selfish boyfriend-then-husband) quickly led her to spiral out of control into drug and alcohol addiction, and, predictably, to an early death.
Of course, from a Stoic perspective death — even a “precocious” one — is an “indifferent,” but that means that it is irrelevant to one’s moral character and virtue, not that it is not “dispreferred,” as the Stoics would put it.
“Under no circumstances ever say ‘I have lost something,’ only ‘I returned it.'” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 11)
Indeed, Amy’s death can be understood as an extreme example of why some “externals” are preferred or dispreferred: it is tragic in part because it cut short a life of excellence (as a musical performer), which could have been beneficial to others not only in terms of direct enjoyment of Amy’s music, but because of the inspiration she might have provided to other young girls, as well as the good she might have been able to do as a result of her wealth (all indications are that Amy was a kind and generous, if deeply troubled, human being).
In a sense, Amy’s life is a textbook illustration of the Stoic idea that externals such as fame and money are not, in themselves, conducive to eudaimonia. There are plenty of examples of people who do enjoy a considerable share of such externals, and yet are not happy (like Amy), as well as others who do not have them, and yet are happy.
Nonetheless, Amy’s life seems to provide support to the peripatetic (i.e., Aristotelian) notion that virtue by itself is necessary but not sufficient for a good life: one also needs certain other conditions, which for Aristotle include a degree of wealth, health, nurturing environment (family and society), and even good looks. From an Aristotelian perspective, then, Amy did not achieve eudaimonia because of a character flaw that was likely the result of a bad family environment, as instantiated by her father first, and both her father and her husband later.
(To give you a flavor of what I’m talking about, in the documentary we hear her father at one point saying that Amy can go on a tour because she doesn’t need rehabilitation therapy — which she clearly did; and her husband, who enabled her addictions and was an addict himself, later insisted in going into rehab together, something that one of the doctors interviewed clearly said was both a very bad idea and unethical to boot.)
The Stoic point of view is, in a sense, harsher and more demanding than the peripatetic one: once reached the age of reason (about 14 years old), and certainly beyond that, Amy was a rational being, capable of making her own decisions, regardless of circumstances (prior or contemporary). This doesn’t mean that her death was her fault, but simply that she was not equipped — character-wise — to properly deal with her realities: she “assented” to “impressions” (such as the conviction that she could get relief by imbibing huge quantities of alcohol, or by injecting drugs into her veins) in an irrational manner, and paid the price for it. It is hard not to wonder whether Amy Winehouse would not have benefited from the Stoic-inspired cognitive behavioral therapy.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Stoicism may go easier than one would expect on the above mentioned villains of the story: Amy’s father and husband. They are clearly deeply flawed human beings, and it is hard to have any sympathy for them throughout the documentary. Then again, the Stoics insisted that nobody does evil on purpose, only out of ignorance (a clearly Socratic concept), and that we should be tolerant of other people’s faults, reminding ourselves that we cannot fully know why they do what they do.
“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, II.1)
What we can say, however, is that a number of characters in the documentary were definitely lacking in virtue, far more so than Amy herself. This certainly includes the paparazzi who just couldn’t get enough of shooting pictures of a distraught and troubled Amy, in order to sell them to the highest bidders among tabloids and other media.
I thought that Jay Leno, the comedian and late night host, came across pretty badly, even though I’m sure he thought he was simply doing his job. Early on in the documentary he is seen hosting Amy on his show, displaying his usual charm and praising her abilities. But once things go bad for Amy, he vilifies her in front of his audience, indulging in jokes of questionable taste concerning her drug addiction. So much for comedy “punching up” rather than down (i.e., being aimed at the mighty and powerful, not the troubled or downtrodden).
By contrast, one of the most sympathetic figures in the documentary is the singer Tony Bennett. At some point he invites Amy to record a duet with him, a recognition of just how good she is, being called by one of the people she repeatedly refers to as her idol (the Stoics would say role model). Bennett is seen comforting and encouraging Amy during the taping session, and after she dies he makes a sad but wise remark: she had not yet learned how to live, something that life itself teaches you, if you manage to live long enough.
Finally, one has to consider the filmmakers themselves, as well as us as members of the audience who actually goes to see this sort of documentary. At a dinner I had afterwards with friends the question was raised whether both shooting and watching “Amy” isn’t really indulging in a version of what we found so despicable in the paparazzi and the related media circus: aren’t we guilty of the decidedly unvirtous attitude of exploiting (the filmmakers) or relishing (the viewers) a human tragedy for purposes respectively of financial gain and pleasure?
Maybe, but a more benign interpretation can be offered, from a virtue ethical perspective: “Amy” and similar documentaries can be presented (by the filmmakers) and understood (by the audience) as instructive tales about human life, just in the way in which the ancients attended theatrical representations of both fictional and biographical stories used as either positive models or cautionary tales from which to learn lessons to be applied to their own lives. Bennett is surely right that one way to learn how to live is to live long enough; but a complementary way is to indirectly learn from the lives of others, incorporating into our existence the lessons that the universe taught to them.
Categories: Stoicism & pop culture