Concern about the ethical condition of mankind has exercised great minds from the beginning of time. In Biblical chronology, the Fall follows only Creation. No longer a denizen of paradise, man began his struggle against himself and the elements, the former proving a consistently more formidable foe. Plato's description of life in a democratic regime illustrates not only how easily vice can dominate virtue, but how such an ethical inversion comes to be accepted as the norm rather than the aberration:
They praise [democratic man] extravagantly and call insolence good breeding, license liberty, extravagance generosity, and shamelessness courage ... [i]n fact, he lives from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment ... [t]here's no order or restraint in his life, and he reckons his way of living is pleasant, free and happy, and sticks to it through thick and thin. (1) What Plato considered the penultimate level of civil degradation could easily be mistaken for a People magazine cover story regaling the exploits of contemporary bon vivants. Often enough lapses in probity among even politicians and preachers prompt winks and nods as much as reproach. Such is the extent to which American popular culture lionizes the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, adopting Hobbes's sensual calculus in place of the classical and Christian pursuit of the good for its own sake.
Some observations transcend time and place, illuminating as they do so those principles that apply to all mankind in every circumstance, past, present and future, principles universal in their application. Plato means to divine the journey to the good, the true, and the beautiful, which necessarily involves the cautionary exposition of paths of least resistance paved with self-deception and evil. Some seventy generations after Plato, a moment's reflection on his words confirms that human nature does not change much despite "progress," that man remains forever susceptible to the inversion of vice and virtue, of what merely feels good for what truly is good, and therefore at risk of alienation from that which truly vests human life with meaning.
One thinker who devoted systematic study to the manifestation in art of man's ethical condition was Irving Babbitt, and his scholarship offers an insightful and erudite guide to discerning how artistic--and, indeed, all--human activities affect the ethical order. "Life," he posited, "is a dream that needs to be managed with the utmost discretion, if it is not to turn into a nightmare." (2) For Babbitt, as Claes Ryn has noted, "the foundation and center of all genuinely civilized life is personal moral character and effort." (3) A person's access to the true meaning of life and its attendant happiness is a function of determined moral striving of which aesthetic activity is necessarily a part. "[A]rt," therefore, "achieves greatness in proportion as it expresses the ethical essence of human existence." (4)
Given the centrality of moral striving to Babbitt's notion of a healthy social order, there can be little doubt as to how he might perceive the modern American Christmas. What began as a celebration of one of the most ethically consequential events in history, the Incarnation, has degenerated into a pretext for conspicuous consumption. The religious awe before transcendent good is increasingly, if not totally, subsumed by indulgence of the desire for material goods. Amidst the frenzied shopping and ubiquitous kitsch, the film It's a Wonderful Life stands in America as one of the most recognizable artistic symbols of this season. Set on Christmas Eve in a post-World War II small town, the movie tells the story of the likable and selfless George Bailey who suffers scandal and ruin not of his own making only to be saved in the final act through intervention by God, family, and friends.
On the surface, the film's director, Frank Capra, appears to have manufactured the perfect feel-good holiday vehicle. The satisfaction the film provokes makes it easy for audiences and critics alike to consider it a puff-piece, a sweet and superficial sop to our nostalgia for "times gone by," heightened as it is during the holiday season when the modern American is most in need of respite from the wearing pursuit of mammon. For many, the film is no more than a cinematic candy cane, a Christmas treat that requires no assembly and induces no hangovers. Could Babbitt find any redeeming value in a work so evidently associated with the sentimental and escapist holiday dream?
Beneath the illusory glow of Christmas-time consumerism that has enveloped It's a Wonderful Life, Capra operates within a series of ethical paradoxes, directly confronting the inversion of virtue and vice that Plato laments: the ties of responsibility and duty serve to liberate rather than repress; the seemingly mundane and commonplace hold as much potential for transcendence of self as the epic and the adventurous; moral-spiritual rather than material units mark the measure of a man; and true happiness is more likely attained through what is foregone than what is indulged.
Frank Capra reminds us of what is truly meaningful in life, warning how easily distracted from that truth we become if we give in to "indulging the pleasure of the moment." (5) It's a Wonderful Life deserves consideration as a classic of cinematic art because it conveys this delicate ethical condition in easily recognizable terms and grounds in stark imagery the notion that the choices we make in life have consequences beyond our own particular existence.
Frank Capra and the American Dream
As an artist, Capra grasped intuitively Irving Babbitt's reflection on the role of the imagination:
The type of imagination by which most men are governed may be defined in the widest sense of the word as romantic. Nearly every man cherishes his dream, his conceit of himself as he would like to be, a sort of "ideal" projection of his own desires in comparison with which his actual life seems a hard and cramping routine. (6) With that in mind, why not simply make films that appealed to this ideal projection? The production of It's a Wonderful Life during the summer of 1946 marked Capra's return from war-time service, before which he had developed an Academy Award-winning reputation for his skill in balancing the ideal with the real in regard to the American Dream. The dream seemed possible in his films, but only insofar as it was contained within the real. Any other circumstance of realization of the ideal would be a fantasy, a "land of chimeras." (7) Capra's work, as inspiring and creative as it could be, comported with the importance Babbitt ascribed to the distinction between the real and the ideal:
The important thing ... is that a man ... should not cease to discriminate between his fact and his fiction. If he confuses what he dreams himself to be with what he actually is, he has already entered upon the pathway of madness. (8) That grounding of the American Dream in the real and the mundane of American life rang true with a wide audience.
Postwar America, however, presented unique challenges regarding the dream's perception and realization. (9) In 1945, millions of servicemen returned to pursue the American Dream as they had idealized it while risking their lives in its defense. If World War II was a conflict to defend the American way of life, the immediate postwar period was a time to get home and live it. The distorting effect of close proximity to mortality opened an abnormally wide chasm between the expectations of returning G.I.'s for unlimited opportunity at home and the more mundane reality of civilian life. Participation in the war produced two effects that postwar civilian life seemed unable to duplicate: a unity of purpose among the broader population and a sense of participation in something of historical significance. Americans had, effectively, been living in the context of an ideal which not only transcended their personal lives but necessarily elevated the universal wartime cause above their particular circumstances to such a degree that their daily lives dwindled to insignificance.
The sacrifice of the particular and the personal, however, was no Augustinian embrace of the spiritual over the temporal; it was an existential bargain. The G.I.'s fought for the cause, for the ideal, so that they could live it once the war was won. What greeted them upon their return home, however, was the reality that the realization of the ideal could not be guaranteed. The American Dream was in reality, as always, what the individual made of it, and whatever it was, it certainly was not an effort elevated by unity of purpose or historical significance. The relationship between the ideal which vests every human life with meaning and the individual search for and experience of that meaning had resumed its peacetime parochialism. The wartime imbalance favoring the universal cause over personal particular life was restored to peacetime equilibrium with the consequence that civilian life seemed somehow diminished.
Capra sensed the disillusionment of the returning G.I.'s in no small part because he felt it himself. In this postwar context, his previously successful formula of portraying American ideals at work in the lives of ordinary people risked appearing absurd. He saw the script for It's a Wonderful Life as the perfect antidote for threatening disillusionment because it portrayed in starkly resonant terms the value and meaning of an individual human life. In his autobiography, Capra recounted his initial reaction to the story:
It was the story I had been looking for all of my life! Small town. A man. A good man, ambitious. But so busy helping others, life seems to pass him by. Despondent. He wishes he'd never been born. He gets his wish. Through the eyes of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he not been born. Wow! What an idea. (10) Having grown up a poor...