Stoic movie review: The Martian

movie-The MartianThe 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.

Advertisements

18 thoughts on “Stoic movie review: The Martian

  1. So the idea here is that NASA add a course in stoicism when training future astronauts? 🙂 Just kidding. You realize, don’t you, that you’ve failed to address a common question when a movie is based on a book: Which is better, the book or movie?

    Like

  2. Great article and review! It puts a whole new slant to the movie. I realized the Stoic virtues while watching the movie but didn’t put a name to them as you have done. It really helped to clarify my thoughts about the movie. Great movie, by the way. Thanks, Massimo.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Massimo, this time I disagree with you. At least, I’m really worried in case you are right, because this would mean that Stoicism is used for totally diverted goals. In fact – as I see it – Scott’s movie (even if I’m a sci-fi fan and I love some movies of him as well: Blade Runner is definitely a masterpiece) is a mere conservative propaganda aiming for people to agree that these extremely expensive missions to Mars are more important than saving African childrem from ebola, helping Syrian refugees, letting Europe be democratic yet or supporting laws against free guns in the US … Save the “american” astronaut, guys!
    Un abbraccio.
    Sergio

    Like

  4. Thomas,

    “So the idea here is that NASA add a course in stoicism when training future astronauts? :)”

    Well, a number of military academies do teach cadets about virtue ethics, and sometimes specifically Stoicism, so…

    “Which is better, the book or movie?”

    The book, as usual. But I must say, they did a very good job at translating it to the big screen, and the choice of Matt Demon to play Mark Watney was perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sergio. It’s not an either / or question. Continuing humankind’s tentative steps out into the wider universe, with al lthe scientific advances this brings, has uncountable positive knock-on effects for life back here on the home world.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for your answer, dear 3dbloke (funny name, really). Well, 3dbloke… I’m 60, I wasn’t born… yesterday. I teach physics – so, I like science, the real science and sci-fi too… But I don’t know how many times I heard the reason you’re talking about, these benefits we supposedly are given back. Unfortunately, I don’t eat beautiful picture from the red planet or a distant comet. Not to say Kepler-452b… However, let’s pretend we are talking as ancient philosophers, like Gorgia and Cleanthes, for instance… You are Gorgia, obvioulsy! 🙂 So, I’m going to tell you: “Ok, dear Gorgia. Then, to people who’s dying because they are thirsty I will say: ‘Don’t worry, we’ve just found water on… Mars!'”
    Ciao.

    Like

  7. To take a more serious detour: “Well, a number of military academies do teach cadets about virtue ethics, and sometimes specifically Stoicism, so…” But what has this fact (?) to do with movie making or the evaluation of artistry or craft. Very little, I suspect. At the same time, I’m not particularly drawn to Sergio’s critique.

    For some perspective, let me say that your essay follows closely on the heels of my dismay upon hearing an acquaintance of mine suggest to another person at lunch that he should see movie “XXX” because it espoused Christian values. Look, I get what you are doing here. It’s relatively harmless and understandable given your personal orientation. But it is only a small step in approach between it and trekies who want to mine the Star Trek industry for parallels to Zen Buddhism or pantheism.

    Like

  8. We better Be All Stoic, Especially On Mars

    I have to die, and, probably, suffer. If now, well, nothing to do. If not now, then I may as well have fun, make fun, give fun and offer love.

    My integral of love, fun and games better be greater than my unavoidable integral of pain and suffering.

    “In the Martian”, the stranded astronaut is turning as much as he can, into a joke, or turning to good humor to move him into action. This is an everyday lesson. Action, by opposition to depression, requires to celebrate the animal spirits. Should we never celebrate animal spirits, what’s good being an animal? Moreover, never letting the animal spirits roar is contrary to the owner’s manual (as many philosophers have pointed out, including Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Abelard, Sade, Nietzsche, Foucault…).

    I remember once sneaking onto a mountain antelope. It was too busy having fun, it did not see me. Antelopes are not supposed to have fun. Their lives are supposed to be all about sex, supremacy, fighting for females, flight, survival, grazing, climbing impossible cliffs. To my amazement that chamois had found a suitable snowfield, and would slip on it on its back, as if it were skiing. Then it would rush back up, and repeat. It looked delighted, It’s all the more amazing, because the area is prowled by wolves and lynxes (and I have even seen a wolf hunting a chamois; it missed because I intruded).

    Thus fun is not restricted to primates and other advanced animals. All birds and mammals are more or less social, and many probably need to have fun, be it only to operate their brains properly.

    I read critics who were mystified by the stranded astronaut’s cheerfulness. Well they should not have: it was the key to his survival. It was either that, or depression, thus death. But not just that: the astronaut is not really alone. He is in a dialogue with posterity, even before he re-establish contact with NASA. Indeed, he records everything.

    That makes him just as the best thinkers ever were in the history of man: not working for himself, but for the ultimate patron, the ultimate boss, and power, humanity itself. No wonder he is cheerful: by working of the greatest moral “person”, the greatest moral entity, out there, one gets on our side the only god the existence of whom we can demonstrate.

    Like

  9. Sergij Fab,

    I guess I don’t share your take on this. First off, my comments here concern the (fictional, of course) figure of astronaut Mark Watney, who seems to embody some of the Stoic virtues during his ordeal on Mars. It is an entirely different question whether spending so many resources to rescue a single man would or would not be the ethical thing to do.

    Second, I think it is hard to substantiate that the movie is a propaganda piece, cynically (small-c) designed to divert attention to pressing real world problems. (Though I’m not sure that’s what you were, in fact, suggesting.)

    Third, while I do think it is worth having a discussion about funding priorities for science, and in particular concerning the space program, I also think it is a false dichotomy to say that we either fund space missions or solve world hunger. Setting aside that world hanger isn’t just (or even largely) an economic problem, if we need funds to solve it, by all means let’s slash the so-called “defense” budget of the US to a tenth of what it is (it would still be huge), and we would have plenty of money for all sorts of humanitarian projects.

    Thomas,

    “But what has this fact (?) to do with movie making or the evaluation of artistry or craft. Very little, I suspect”

    That was in response to your question of whether I suggest that NASA trains its astronauts in Stoicism, and it was partly in jest.

    “your essay follows closely on the heels of my dismay upon hearing an acquaintance of mine suggest to another person at lunch that he should see movie “XXX” because it espoused Christian values”

    Well, first off I never said that people should see The Martian *because* it espouses Stoic values. People should see it because it’s a good science fiction movie.

    Second, there is a well documented attitude of the ancient Stoics to bring up role models to emulate (because virtue is best taught by example), and several of those role models were fictional (e.g., Heracles). So I simply thought Watney was a good example in the same vein.

    “it is only a small step in approach between it and trekies who want to mine the Star Trek industry for parallels to Zen Buddhism or pantheism.”

    I think it’s a huge step, once we understand things as I explained above (ancient Stoic role models, etc.).

    Patrice,

    “My integral of love, fun and games better be greater than my unavoidable integral of pain and suffering.”

    That may be, but that’s definitely an Epicurean attitude, not a Stoic one. (Nothing wrong with that, of course.)

    “the stranded astronaut is turning as much as he can, into a joke, or turning to good humor to move him into action. This is an everyday lesson”

    Indeed, a sense of humor is a good aid to survival and eudaimonia.

    “That makes him just as the best thinkers ever were in the history of man: not working for himself, but for the ultimate patron, the ultimate boss, and power, humanity itself. No wonder he is cheerful”

    Indeed, and that *is* a Stoic precept: life has meaning if you engage in a project greater than yourself, for the benefit of humankind.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. In response to the post I started reading the book and I must say it is compulsively enjoyable reading. I am halfway through and I agree with Massimo’s sentiment that it exemplifies Stoic virtues. It is also a jolly good yarn that is more than worth reading for its own sake.

    It is notable how he meets every setback with a kind of irreverent, humorous disdain for the immensity of the obstacles he faces. With every problem he concentrates on the immediate, what he can do here and now while delaying concern about the future. He displays great ingenuity and resourcefulness. I would say his ingenuity and resourcefulness is liberated by his concentration on what he can do here and now, since it frees his mind from being overwhelmed by the totality of the disaster. That liberation of his mind from thought clogging emotion is further enhanced by his ever present humour. I suspect it won’t come through in the movie but the book makes it clear that he has a lively calculating mind. He can think and plan ahead, as he does when he calculates his food, water and oxygen needs.

    I’m not giving up. Just planning for every outcome. It’s what I do” (email to Martinez after first resupply probe fails).

    He then moves his attention to the present and focusses on what must be done immediately. For example

    There’s too much shit to think about all at once. So for now I’ll just think about power

    Examples of his humour
    potatoes are now extinct on Mars” (after the explosive decompression of Hab)
    I am the best botanist on the entire planet” (he is the only botanist and only person on Mars)

    Like

  11. Massimo,
    Well, a number of military academies do teach cadets about virtue ethics, and sometimes specifically Stoicism,

    They also, some years ago, launched a large and expensive programme to inculcate hardiness and resilience. They could now use The Martian as a training movie.

    Sergio,
    this would mean that Stoicism is used for totally diverted goals.

    We left East Africa about 60,000 years ago. Since then we have, step by step, expanded outwards until we have explored nearly every part of this planet. This 60,000 year experience was long enough to have indelibly imprinted itself on our nature and we have become an explorer species. Now that we have explored our own planet we feel compelled to continue exploring in our near neighbourhood of space. This entire genre of movies is a natural expression of our deep underlying need to continue exploring. We will continue to do this, using vast amounts of treasure, for the simple reason that it is in our nature. Our explorer nature is ignited by our intense sense of curiosity, which is the other defining aspect of our species.

    As our species expanded around the planet, it did so under conditions of great hardship and adversity. In response we became a resourceful, hardy and resilient species. Our present lifestyle of great comfort tends to mask this aspect of our nature but this fictional account is a natural expression of who and what we truly are.

    This explains why we thrill to accounts, fictional or real, of overcoming great adversity and hardship.

    I will go further and claim that we need the challenges of hardship and adversity to discover the best of who we are. I also claim that our present lifestyle of comfort and surfeit is deeply harmful. It enables the worst parts of our nature, making us selfish, entitled, lazy, inconsiderate and obese.

    Stoicism is not only an attempt to meet the challenges of life, it is also an attempt to reclaim the best we can be under conditions that promote the worst we can be.

    Like

  12. Hi Thomas,
    my dismay upon hearing an acquaintance of mine suggest to another person at lunch that he should see movie “XXX” because it espoused Christian values…, … it is only a small step in approach between it and trekkies who want to mine the Star Trek industry for parallels to Zen Buddhism or pantheism

    This is not unusual. Literature both records our values and transmits our values. It is impossible to write about social behaviour without encoding values. In fact I would say that this is one of the vital roles of literature. These values are most often not transmitted explicitly. Rather, they are discerned in the behaviour of the characters. Even if we just read for pure enjoyment we are still touched in some way by the values encoded in the account.

    It is our literature that provides the continuous thread of values from the Greeks, Romans and Hebrews to the present day. It is this continuous thread of values that defines our present Western society.

    I highly recommend Touching the Void(http://bit.ly/Kjb5Jm), the true story of what must surely be the most incredible account of mountaineering survival ever written.

    Like

  13. Dear labnut,
    first of all thank you very much for considering so seriously my opinions and explaining me so exaustively your own opinions too. This means that you normally listen to what others say. Thank you, really!
    However, I decided not to continue to follow this thread or the host website… Not because I agree with no one of other commenters here – I didn’t agree with you too, but in a different way: you discuss, you sincerely discuss, you neither are annoyed nor show a vague contempt toward different opinions like mine…
    Actually, I’m really worried seeing such an indifference for the subject I advanced… Come on, guys! All those crowds in “The Martian” filling squares all around the world, the Chinese – that is the actual enemy of the US – who help the same US (are we in the 60s or in the third millennium?), the rescue of an American (sorry… a man?… or an astronaut??… or perhaps a soldier? why not a starving African child?), so that after such an iconic movie I can imagine 90% of people will say: YES, MISSIONS ON MARS ARE OUR PRIORITY! LIKEWISE SECURITY OF OUR COUNTRY! GO ON… SAVE THE “MARTIAN”! (This is not economy, Massimo: it’s “real politik”! Don’t you remember the hollywoodian movies during the Cold War? Weren’t most of them… mere propaganda?)
    So, I was told – and I’m strongly convinced – that Stoicism doesn’t mean such a lack of “emotion” (or “passio” if you prefer) I saw here. Consider this, labnut, if really human “curiosity” (like the probe on Mars at the moment: it is “curious”, isn’t it?) is – as you said – “in our nature”. Perhaps it belongs to a “too human” nature. Ulysses lived more the 2000 years ago: meanwhile human culture didn’t reach anything new and… more humane?
    Adieu.

    Like

  14. labnut,

    “his ingenuity and resourcefulness is liberated by his concentration on what he can do here and now, since it frees his mind from being overwhelmed by the totality of the disaster”

    Precisely.

    Sergji,

    “I decided not to continue to follow this thread or the host website … you discuss, you sincerely discuss, you neither are annoyed nor show a vague contempt toward different opinions like mine”

    So you are leaving a site where people engage in genuine discussions, respecting other people’s points of view, because…? At any rate, thanks for visiting, may your journey be a eudaimonic one.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Sergij,
    Actually, I’m really worried seeing such an indifference for the subject I advanced … the rescue of an American (sorry… a man?… or an astronaut??… or perhaps a soldier? why not a starving African child?)

    You raise a difficult question and I wish that more people were as sensitive to suffering as you are. You are right, there is great suffering, especially in Africa, where I have lived for the greater part of my life. I have seen this first hand in the three African countries where I have lived(South Africa, Zambia and Kenya).

    From this experience I have come to the conclusion that traditional aid programmes do not solve the problem but entrench the problem. It feeds dependency, it feeds corruption and diverts attention away from the systemic causes of the problem. Traditional aid is needed only as a bridging measure to buy time to address systemic causes. For the problems to be solved we Africans must take responsibility for our fate. What we need are teachers, lecturers, schools, universities and educational grants so that Africans can be given the skills to, overcome their own problems. We need people to invest in the creation of businesses and factories so that Africans can learn these skills and become entrepreneurs, thus generating gainful employment for Africans. What we do not need is chequebook charity, which is too easily misused.

    I also worked in Shanghai as a so-called ‘foreign expert’. I saw the astonishing transformation of China and saw how it was built by first educating the people and then calling on foreign experts to assist in creating the industry that gave employment to the newly educated populace.

    I am filled with admiration for the intelligent way in which China bootstrapped itself in the 21st Century. The Chinese formula is a model for what should happen in Africa.

    But I don’t see any of this as being in opposition to our need to create mythic stories that celebrate our capacity for immense resilience. These stories help to define and maintain a nation’s values. We needs these stories to counteract the crotch obsessed narrative of Fifty Shades of Grey.

    If you want a real story consider the marvelleous work done by Sister Ethel Normoyle, a mere five km from where I now live – http://www.missionvale.co.za/history.html. Our parish church funds the university education of bright but poverty stricken township youngsters. I could go on but these examples tell the story.

    I greatly appreciate your concern, indeed your passion, for the suffering and wish that many more people were like you.

    Like

  16. I think some of the replies here are frankly overblown. My original comment was intended as humor. Heck, I even used an emoji to help emphasize this intent. And followed it with the standard query that usually follows this sort of fare in casual conversation.

    No, I understood what Massimo’s aims were in writing this piece. And he further elaborated on his intent in his replies. What I had a minor problem with is trying to imagine how I might have felt if we were having a conversation on the book and/or movie and he had said, “Gosh, the character Watney is a nearly perfect exemplar of the utility of stoic virtue when in difficult situations, like being stranded on Mars.” Frankly, I probably would have just laughed. But, okay, one can do a whole series along these lines: “Stoic Values as Exemplified in Film and Literature.” We could start with “Slumdog Millionaire” or maybe “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Thomas,

    So the idea here is that NASA add a course in stoicism when training future astronauts? 🙂 Just kidding.

    I think some of the replies here are frankly overblown. My original comment was intended as humor.

    It seems to me to be a rather excellent and very serious suggestion, not at all risible – in risu veritas or perhaps, if you prefer, in vino veritas.

    I am sure the resurrected hero of the novel, Marcus Watney (Aurelius), would concur.

    Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” Meditations VII.8

    Like

  18. I was in the process of preparing a very thoughtful answer to “Sergjj” (that’s why it’s taking time). However Sergij decided to “leave the site”, without bothering to explain why, This sort of behavior is tantamount to flaunting that one does not need to present any reason for alienating oneself from others. It’s tantamount to saying alienation is a moral imperative (a really weird, yet common, concept).

    Sergij: “I decided not to continue to follow this thread or the host website … you discuss, you sincerely discuss, you neither are annoyed nor show a vague contempt toward different opinions like mine”
    Massimo: “So you are leaving a site where people engage in genuine discussions, respecting other people’s points of view, because…? At any rate, thanks for visiting, may your journey be a eudaimonic one.”

    Methinks the Internet enables new forms of expression and communication. Out of them, a morality will appear. It has not been formed yet (it needs time and sensitivity). Stoicism is about learning to handle suffering with fortitude and mitigation (bracing for Massimo’s correction). Another way to handle suffering is to lessen its causes. Alienation is often the root cause of suffering, because it’s the modus operandi of de-humanization. Thus, to make alienation a sacred cow of behavior goes against the very mood leading to stoicism.

    Like

Comments are closed.