Aristotle, Locke, and the Disney/Pixar Divide

Aristotle once famously claimed that man is a political animal, by which he meant: “man is an animal whose nature it is to live in a political community.” He less famously followed that up by claiming that the few men who choose to do without a political community are usually very bad men indeed. This is because, so Aristotle thought, it is political community that perfects humans in justice and virtue. When that happens, man is undoubtedly the best of all animals; when it doesn’t, humans are just the worst. The worst of all animals, that is.

To call humans ‘political animals’ wasn’t just Aristotle’s neat turn of phrase; it was meant to invite comparisons between humans and other animals. If we were political animals, this made us unlike the solitary animals: the raptors, some types of fish and though they were unknown to Aristotle, the panda bears. On the contrary, it lumped we humans into a category that Aristotle called the gregarious animals: pigeons, cranes, and swans for example. Animals that typically flocked together. To be a political animal was more than just being gregarious, however; truly political animals don’t just live together, they work together for some common aims—like wasps, ants, and most importantly bees, which the Roman naturalist Pliny accorded first rank among all the insects, since bees, according to Pliny, “form themselves into political communities, hold councils together in private, elect chiefs in common, and, a thing that is the most remarkable of all, have their own code of morals.” This distinction between political and non-political animals led quite naturally to the conviction that for most humans, living together, working together for common aims, sacrificing individual goods for the sake of the community, and submitting to the group’s customs and laws all helped to develop the sort of virtues that led to the best kind of human life.

To call humans political animals invited another distinction: between political community as a natural state and political community as an artificial construction. To Aristotle, if it was right to call a living in a beehive the natural state of life for a bee or living in an ant colony the natural state of life for an ant, then it was quite right to call living in a political community the natural state of life of man. To sum up then, political community, for Aristotle, was both good and natural. We were all more fully human when we had it; we were all the worse off when we didn’t.

And that is what western thinkers thought for almost 2,000 years.

It is not the idea of political community that most people have today.

The blame for that (or credit, depending on your point of view) lay with many people, but probably with no two more than the early modern political theorists Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, whose respective Leviathan and Second Treatise of Civil Government, are two of the top three most influential works of modern political thought.

For Hobbes, the natural state of man was not political community; it was a state of war of “all against all”, which was, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” For Locke, the natural state of man, or state of nature, was a state in which man possessed perfect liberty to dispose of himself and his goods as he saw fit. Embedded in both of these notions was an implicit assertion that the only natural “unit” of mankind was the individual. Political community, then, is not natural; it an artifice created by individuals because our natural state is frightening and dangerous. Hobbes even goes so far as to call the state an “artificial man.” Though they disagreed on quite a lot, neither Hobbes nor Locke saw living in political community as “the natural state of mankind,” as it had been for Aristotle.

For Hobbes, the essential political problem was how to make people see that they were all better off for having surrendered their liberty in order to live securely in a political community. For Locke, the essential political problem was how to enter into the contract of civil society without bartering away the natural individual liberty that allows us to dispose of our persons and possessions just as we see fit. For both of them, then, society and individual are essentially antagonistic, with competing interests and claims

Which is all interesting, but what, exactly, has it to do with Disney and Pixar?

Well, I’d make the argument that if we compare the Disney Renaissance films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas) to a good swath of the early Pixar films (Cars, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc.), what we find is that the underlying social philosophy that informs the Disney Renaissance is essentially Lockean individualism. Again and again in these films, the stories proffer the idea that the irredeemable sin of community is that it stifles individual liberty and that humans are most fully human when they transcend the intolerable limits of social constraint. Pixar films, on the other hand, embrace a more classical, Aristotelean social philosophy; persons (often in the guise of huggable monsters or lively racing cars voiced by Owen Wilson) live most well by sublimating their own selfish desires to the needs of the community.

Take for instance the The Little Mermaid, which centers on a social misfit, fascinated by a human culture that is (quite understandably, considering their diet) forbidden to her. She rejects her father’s strictures at every turn, starts an interspecies love affair, and sells her soul in order to pursue her own happiness, thereby placing the entire ocean in danger. The takeaway: fathers are often inexcusable bullies, who need to let their daughters “live their own lives.”

Beauty and the Beast centers on a social misfit, who longs for adventure in the great wide somewhere because she finds the community to which she belongs intolerably stupid and provincial, and the eligible men just plain gross. She happens upon a magical castle, whereby she learns to see beneath the outward appearance of a cursed beast whom those same townspeople misunderstand and fear. “We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us”, the townspeople sing on their way to literally take him out with pitchforks. The takeaway: your local community is probably full of people too dumb to understand you or your unique spirit; go become your true self elsewhere.

Aladdin centers on not one, but two social misfits; one, a princess, who runs away from home because her prospects for personal autonomy (that is, choice of whom to marry) are undercut by the responsibilities of wealth and privilege. The other is also a social misfit, with the opposite problem, a street rat whose prospects for personal autonomy (that is, the choice of whom to marry) are undercut by his lack of wealth and privilege. The whole Disney Renaissance is basically just a series of Jane Austen novels.

The common elements (and we could add Pocahontas to this trio quite easily) resolve into an almost formulaic script: a misunderstood heroine figures out how to become her “true self” by rejecting the role that society has cast her in, even if it means she has to trade in her fins for a pair of legs. The fact that so many of these movies contain transmogrification is perhaps no accident, illustrating in a tangible way the unbridgeable gap between the authentic self and the social self.

The Pixar formula involves the exact opposite: self-centered or self-important characters learning to become more complete persons by navigating the demands of community: whether it be a bigshot racing car finding his true self in the close-knit small town community in which he finds himself stuck (thanks for the plot, Doc Hollywood), two monsters preparing to sacrifice their careers for the human child whom they’ve come to love almost as surrogate parents, a toy cowboy who must learn to share his position at the top of the toy hierarchy with an outsider who happens to be a delusional space ranger, or an ant (incidentally, one of the most political animals in classical philosophy), who finds himself not by leaving his community, but by saving it.

The brain behind the Disney Renaissance, and so the one person most responsible for its philosophical preoccupations, is most assuredly lyricist Howard Ashman, who has been described as the driving creative force behind The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. On the other side of the aisle, early Pixar is usually credited primarily to the creative mind of John Lasseter, who directed Toy Story, Cars, and A Bug’s Life and served as Executive Producer on Monster’s Inc. So I guess we might say that this split reveals not so much a difference between the two corporate cultures of Disney and Pixar but the difference in basic social orientation between Howard Ashman and John Lasseter. (Smack dab in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, for instance, is the decidedly un-Lockean fantasy of a young prince who must learn to accept the responsibilities incumbent upon the accidents of his birth, this time by doing exactly what his father asks of him rather than the opposite, but Howard Ashman had nothing to do with that film).

The difference in the two men, however, meant the last gen-xers, like myself, grew up on a steady diet of stories with an underlying ethos of Lockean individualism, while the first millennials grew up on films with a decided ethos of Aristotolean communitarism.

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