Sophie's Choice

Introduction to Philosophy/Twentieth-Century Philosophy

The Moral Problem of Evil

Sophie’s Choice

One of the themes of this course will be how to recover lost memories in order to learn the truth about ourselves. There is a tremendous resistance to learning the truth about ourselves because it injures our idealized self-concept. It requires an ego strength and integrity of character not common among ordinary people, so traumatized individualsrepress the unthinkable.

In Sophie’s Choice, the class will see the two main protagonists of the film dealing with the ghosts of the past that create a living hell in their relationship. Layer after layer of the truth discloses itself to Sophie as she returns to a primal crime committed on her in Auschwitz, a process that is unequaled in the annals of film making. Sophie’s Jewish lover, Nathan, empathizes and at the same time cross-examines her throughout the narrative as to what compromises she had to make in order to survive. There is a third protagonist, Stingo, who articulates the story to the observer of this unfolding tragedy. He plays the role of the chorus (the audience). What observers helplessly witness is the very destruction of existence itself.

The setting is the summer 1947 in Brooklyn, with flashbacks by Sophie to her painful losses in Cracow, Poland, and then Auschwitz. She has to make choices that are not really choices in that the system is rigged to let death trump, no matter what decision she could have made. There is a struggle between Eros and Thanatos, redemption through love—or death.

There are several questions to ask while viewing the film.

1. Is character fate? Could there have been any other rational outcome to this story?

2. Sophie is Catholic—a fallen one. Can she be considered an exemplar of the Holocaust in which the primary purpose of the extermination factories was to annihilate the Jews? After all, she is only there for "criminal" and not "racial crimes."

3. In the final scene in the bedroom, has redemption of both Sophie and Nathan been attained? Or is the ending a statement that it is better not to have been born in the first place—an ancient Greek precept of the Cynics? The theme of death as an ultimate resolution of life’s conflicts shows itself in the poems of Emily Dickinson. It certainly raises the final question of whether philosophy is relevant for understanding profound evil.

4. The ancient Greeks had ways of defining evil. Plato thought of evil as taking the path of ignorance. Aristotle thought of evil as a life of viciousness and excess, which deviates from the ultimate golden mean of happiness; Epicurus defined evil as a life of pain. The most sophisticated version of evil was embodied in Augustine (really the early Middle Ages) in which your soul was damned because you chose to turn away from God voluntarily, even though the decision had been foreordained. Of course, there is the issue of free will, which does not exactly fit into a scheme of a life that has been set in stone by God. In sum, just how relevant are these four thinkers for understanding unimaginable events that were to happen fifteen to twenty centuries later?

The early Augustine condemned the world as Manichean in nature, a world in which good and evil are in eternal combat; hence most people, concerned with earthly matters, could not partake of the paradise intimated in The City of God. After Auschwitz, would not the earthly kingdom be completely devoid of any promise of redemption? Are there any characters in the film who might be worthy of consideration of God’s Grace, if momentarily you could assume the transcendent judgment of an Almighty Power? In fact, is there not a perspective that can really view all characters as pathetically tragic, hence needing the Grace of God to forgive earthly sins and weaknesses in character?

Also critique the characters from the standpoint of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus. How might they have written Sophie’s Choice and with what other possibilities? In recent political philosophy, Augustine had a profound influence on Hannah Arendt. In particular, he influenced her concept of the faculties of willing and judging.

Identify the following quotation, which demonstrates the radical evil being portrayed.

Did He not say, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me’?