Tag: Plato

Virtue is Manifest

In a Facebook update, I speculated about the different senses of the word “good” being used in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz*, in particular in the early chapters. The Scarecrow, for example, has the following to say to Dorothy:

“It must be inconvenient to be made of flesh,” said the Scarecrow thoughtfully, “for you must sleep, and eat and drink. However, you have brains, and it is worth a lot of bother to be able to think properly” (16)

He spends time thinking about ways he is better than humans are, and ways humans are better than he is. He requires less maintenance and is less prone to injury. Dorothy has brains, and can therefore “think properly.”

In college, as a creative writing major, I was taught to be very suspicious of -ly adverbs in my writing, but in this passage we have two crucial ones: ‘thoughtfully’, and ‘properly’. The Scarecrow’s modifiers tell us that (1) he believes he does not, himself, think properly, but (2) the narrator is less interested in ‘proper’ thinking – the important thing is that the Scarecrow is thoughtful.

Consistently in these early chapters, it is the Scarecrow who thinks up a plan to deal with each problem. When the Tin Man’s mouth rusts shut (because he has been weeping about every bug he steps on), only the Scarecrow realizes what has happened and oils his jaw. the Scarecrow devises the safest plan for leaping across a chasm on the Lion’s back. When the next chasm is too wide, the Scarecrow devises the plan to chop down a tree and use it as a bridge, and when the Kalidahs chase them across the bridge, the Scarecrow knows to chop off one end of the bridge so the monsters fall into the chasm.

Similarly, the other companions believe themselves weak, but manifest the very virtue they claim to lack: The Tin Woodsman believes his lack of heart makes him unemotional, yet weeps for the tiniest creatures. The lion believes himself a coward because he experiences fear, but he is immediately willing to leap across the first chasm, even though he is not certain he can make the leap, and he is immediately willing to stand and face the Kalidahs as his companions flee.

Dorothy and the lion have the following exchange:

“Then, if you don’t mind, I’ll go with you,” said the Lion, “for my life is simply unbearable without a bit of courage.”

“You will be very welcome,” answered Dorothy, “for you will help to keep away the other wild beasts. It seems to me they must be more cowardly than you are if they allow you to scare them so easily.”

“They really are,” said the Lion, “but that doesn’t make me any braver, and as long as I know myself to be a coward, I shall be unhappy.” (21)

None of the companions at this point in the novel really understand the nature of virtue – it is neither cowardice to feel fear and face it nor stupidity to lack a brain but be the greatest planner in your cohort, and feeling strong sympathy for others is a virtue, even if you lack a physical heart.

But in his ignorance, the Lion gets to the heart of the matter. “As long as I know myself to be a coward, I shall be unhappy.” Each of Dorothy’s companions knows some false thing about himself, and that error is the source of each companion’s sorrow. In all of these cases, the character’s virtue is manifest in his behavior, not his self-image.

Unformed follow-up thoughts:

  • Debate between Scarecrow and Tin Man as debaat
  • Same debate as reference to Plato (heart vs. mind)
  • Allegory of the Cave :: each character’s mistaken view of his how failings is a shadow of the truth?

* I’m going to try to refer to the novel using “Wonderful” and the film without it, but who knows how long I’ll remember to do it. :/