The Martian, a movie directed by Ridley Scott, starring Matt Damon and based on the book by Andy Weir, is one that Stoics would want to see. (It’s good for non Stoics as well…)
I read the book last year, and immediately wondered why nobody had done a movie off it yet. It is a very geeky book (and a somewhat geeky movie), with pages after pages of detailed explanations of how “Martian” (actually a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars) Mark Watney manages to hang around by himself on the Red Planet until he can be rescued by another mission.
Spoiler alert: contra the late fashion of action movies, nobody dies here, and there is a completely happy ending. Deal with it. More importantly for my aims here, though, Mark comes across as a quintessential Stoic. He manages to control (not suppress!) his emotions in the face of the very slim odds he has to make it through his ordeal, and he calls on his “ruling faculty” (as Marcus Aurelius called it) and his knowledge of botany and practical engineering to, as he puts it in one scene, “science the shit of out this.”
Mark is always very aware of the fact that he is likely to die, but takes things one at a time, day by passing day, individual problem by individual problem. He lives in the hic et nunc, the here and now, because of course there is nothing he can do about the past (he never once regrets that things didn’t go a different way), and he is not too concerned with the future, because he knows that he needs to focus on the many tasks at hand if he hopes to actually have a future.
The Martian never blames anyone else for his precarious condition, and is, on the contrary, constantly elated by the fact that he can continue to solve puzzles (from which his survival strictly depends), in part because of the ingenuity and forethought of others (for instance, NASA’s insistence for redundancy in engineering and supplies).
The title character in the movie is a study in Stoic virtues. He obviously has practical wisdom, the ability to take the best course of action given the (often dire, unpredictable) circumstances he finds himself in. He displays courage, not just in the physical sense of the term, but in the broader one of facing adversity to the best of his abilities, come what may. He also has the virtue of justice, which he exercises repeatedly when he keeps reassuring NASA that his companions, and particularly his commander, are not to blame for having left him behind after the accident with which the movie begins. And his survival very much depends on his temperance, particularly his self-control, without which his scant supplies of food and other necessary resources would never last him the long time he has to wait to be rescued.
And yet — refreshingly — Mark Watney, played exceedingly well by Damon, is an engaging human being, not at all the cold and distant caricature of the popular Stoic. For instance, he has a keen sense of humor, which is arguably one of the major reasons he makes it through alive. At several points he reminded me of Epictetus, for instance when the latter said: “I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later” (Discourses I, 1.32).
He also very clearly has emotions, at different times displaying frustration (though never anger) at something that has happened, especially if caused by his own limited ability to foresee new dangers. But he equally clearly does not give “assent,” as the Stoics would say, to such emotions. He is capable of distancing himself from them, to evaluate them, and to regain control, resuming his path through his current difficulties.
Even more crucial from the Stoic point of view, Mark is well aware that he has limited control over his situation, and at one point in the movie he is preparing himself for what looks like a negative outcome after all his endeavors. He knows he is likely going to die, and he has made peace with that idea, knowing that he has done all he could, but that one always approaches life with a reserve clause, “fate permitting” (of course, Mark doesn’t utter those words, but he might as well had).
The Stoics were prone to learn from role models, and where not shy of referring as such not just to real people (Socrates, Cato the Younger) but to imaginary ones as well (e.g., Heracles). That’s because virtue isn’t best learned by reading about it, but by practicing it and seeing it practiced. Mark Watney has very good credentials to be considered a modern (imaginary) role model for Stoics.
Categories: Stoicism & pop culture