Imperium is a well acted, deeply disturbing movie about the little talked about topic of domestic terrorism, particularly of the “white supremacy” type. It features an idealistic FBI agent, Nate Foster (played by the excellent Daniel Radcliffe, he of Harry Potter memory), who is enlisted in an undercover operation by higher level operative Angela Zamparo (played by the ever fascinating Toni Collette). Agent Foster is a good Stoic character, and the very end of the movie (minor spoilers ahead) could have been written by Seneca.
Foster is initially reluctant to embark in the operation, protesting that he just doesn’t have the physique and fighting techniques to get out of trouble, should the need arise. To which Zamparo answers that if he actually got himself in that sort of situation his mission would have already failed, and he would likely end up dead anyway. Being an undercover agent is not about fighting bad guys 007-style, it’s a game of intelligence and cunning.
There is no need to get into the details of the plot, since they are actually not relevant to my main point here. Suffice to say that our hero manages to infiltrate the white supremacy underworld, which is apparently divided into a number of distinct camps that fight amongst themselves for dominance — there are the juvenile skinheads vs the Ku Klux Klan vs the militarized neo-Nazis, and so forth.
It turns out that most of these people are more bluster and talk than action, human beings who desperately want to make a difference, to react against a system they see — with some reason — as oppressing them. But of course they lack wisdom, and therefore direct their anger toward the wrong targets: immigrants and minorities, rather than the moneyed elite who exploits them while laughing all the way to their offshore bank accounts and outsided villas.
One of the strengths of Imperium is that the “villains” — even the really dangerous ones, who eventually do make an appearance, after a number of dead ends pursued by Foster and Zamparo — are portrayed as three-dimensional individuals. They are highly deficient human beings, of course, but it becomes increasingly obvious that they need to be pitied, not hated. Indeed, one of the minor characters is the very young, and very angry, Johnny (played by Devin Druid), who undertakes exactly the sort of transformation that any good Stoic would wish on the rest of humankind.
Throughout the movie one is reminded of Marcus’ famous quote about encountering spiteful and angry people everyday, where he tells himself that they cannot touch him, deep down, and that they are just fallible fellow humans, like himself. Or of Seneca’s pious refrains about the fact that we ought to act in order to stop bad things to happen, but never hate the bad people who do them, because they are not really evil, just hopelessly misguided. (On the concept of evil being a form of ignorance, see here.)
Agent Foster displays a good range of Stoic virtues throughout the movie. He is obviously courageous — both in the sense of having physical courage, despite his inadequacy to the task at hand, and in the sense of moral courage to doggedly pursue what he believes to be right. He has a strong sense of justice, not in the sense of subscribing to some grand scheme of how things ought to be, but in the much more direct one of treating others to the best of his abilities — including his enemies and the very people he is bound to betray in the pursuit of his job as an undercover federal agent.
While there is not much occasion for Foster to exercise temperance in the movie (though there are a couple of scenes where he may be interpreted as doing so), but he shows himself capable of arguably the most important virtue: practical wisdom. Not only it is wisdom that allows him to defuse a couple of really tricky situations, but by the end of it all he has a conversation with Zamparo in which they both arrive at a profound insight on what has happened, and more broadly on human nature.
Zamparo tells Foster that “There is only one essential ingredient to fascism: victimhood.” To which Foster replies (quoting Lord Byron): “This should have been a noble creature: he hath all the energy which would have made a goodly frame of glorious elements, had they been wisely mingled.”
The back-and-forth reflects (unintentionally on the part of the scriptwriters, I’m sure) two fundamental Stoic doctrines. Zamparo is talking about lack of resilience and the sort of moral compass that comes from inner strength, deficiencies that lead to a culture of victimhood that — under certain circumstances — turns violent. We have seen this sort of mechanism in operation in Hitler’s Germany as much as in Mussolini’s Italy, and we are seeing it now again across the world, from the bewildering success of Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS to the equally astounding resonance of the message of Western politicians like Donald Trump.
Foster’s response, however, reminded me of the Stoic “developmental” theory of virtue. We are all humans, all made of the same cosmic stuff, and all capable of living according to nature — i.e., of applying reason to our own betterment and the betterment of society. But we develop into morally responsible adults in a variety of ways, with a corresponding variety of outcomes. The same glorious elements, but they do need to be wisely mingled.
Categories: Stoicism & pop culture