Walter Berns should have an influence among future students, teachers, and devotees of American constitutional democracy.
In the comedy film Groundhog Day, Phil asks his drinking companions Gus and Ralph, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” Ralph replies, “That about sums it up for me.” In the current unpleasantness of shelter-at-home, those of us working or learning at home, out of the path of contagion, can feel like Phil and Ralph. While many will stream Groundhog Day to stave off ennui, they should have the remote in one hand and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the other. With an eye to both, we can navigate the temptation of unhappiness with our circumstance.
For those who haven’t seen the film, Groundhog Day is the story of Phil Connors, an arrogant pill of a weatherman who finds himself cursed to live the same day over and over. Phil is on assignment in Punxsutawneyto cover the emergence of the prognosticating groundhog. He is joined by his co-workers Larry, a goofy cameraman, and his producer Rita, whom he hopes to seduce. The successful casting of Bill Murray as Phil—recently reprising his role in a Super Bowl ad—may be owed to Murray being a bit of a pill himself. Creative differences between Murray and producer/director Harold Ramis ended their friendship; they reconciled just before Ramis’s death.
Character, Friendship, and Our Souls
The exchange between Phil and Ralph in Punxsatawney’s bowling alley bar is a reverse parallel of the parting of Ramis and Murray. Instead of friends lost, friends are made. In the prior scene, Phil has lashed out at Ralph and Gus, calling them “morons.” Immediately after that, he is getting drunk with them. Phil, who now knows his fate, seeks companionship beyond the obligatory companionship of his co-workers. Given Phil’s low opinion of everyone in Punxsutawney, one can hardly conclude that Phil’s newfound friendship is born of anything but expediency, however, and this scene introduces one of the film’s key themes.
In Ramis’s brilliant fable, character, curiosity, and friendship are essential foundations for happiness. So, too for Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, currently the ninth most assigned book on college syllabi, Character, according to Aristotle, is governed by the part of us concerned with action, emotion, and desire. This non-rational part of our souls makes us creatures of habit—the kind more easily targeted by suggestions from Amazon or Netflix, for example, and predictably bad at keeping New Year’s resolutions. More significantly, this part of human nature also makes it very difficult to change how we act towards those with whom we have a long history—the family closest to us during a quarantine. This part must be trained through repeated action, but that training must be toward the goal of good character. The rational part, by contrast, enables us to know, make, and deliberate. This part must be taught, but curiosity is a prerequisite to learning. If trillions spent on education have taught us nothing else, it is that you cannot teach those who refuse to learn. Likewise, we cannot expect to have good character without the willingness to practice it.
Is Happiness a Circumstance or a Choice?
Phil is not only arrogant; he is a cynic and a scoffer. These vices are his emotional response to dissatisfaction with his circumstances. Life owes Phil more than he gets, or so he thinks. And this is why Phil’s fate is so devastating. Like many of us, he presumes that circumstances determine his happiness. The very first line of the film is telling: “Somebody asked me today, ‘Phil, if you could be anywhere, where would you like to be?’” When Phil’s circumstances never change, he can find no prospect for happiness. Phil then finds hope in his ability to manipulate his circumstances. Acquiring omniscience by living the day over and over, over what Phil strategically grasps at whatever he wants. Theft and seduction become child’s play, but happiness eludes him. When Phil has exhausted these goods, over what is likely many years, he attempts suicide over and over but simply wakes up the next morning.
Phil’s days, whether wasted or wanton, procure only what Aristotle considered secondary to what he considered essential for happiness—excellence of soul. Things like wealth might make a good man happier, but they cannot make a bad man like Phil happy. Aristotle’s teacher Plato would say that Phil’s hope for satisfaction has about as much chance for success as filling a bucket with a hole in the bottom. Practitioners of positive psychology call this the “hedonic treadmill,” and economists call it diminishing marginal utility. The “goods of the soul” that Aristotle prioritizes are distinguished from all other goods in one vital way, and Phil doesn’t realize it until he has lost all hope.
Are We Much Different From Phil?
We might think ourselves wiser or better than Phil. He wants easy gratification and money. We may only want health or simply the chance for honest work. But like so many things on which we pin our hopes, the conditions for these are not ours to determine. Phil’s early days, trapped in the cycle of repetition, resemble the folly of youth. We convince ourselves that we are surely in control of our circumstances and, therefore, our happiness. But as we get older, we begin to see patterns emerging alongside our inability to predict or control them. We presume to have wisdom and attempt to adapt, but our adaptation still depends on the hope for a favorable circumstance.
Our lives become our own treadmill, chasing good fortune until the day we get the inevitable call telling us that our preparation was in vain. Those calls used to come for us one at a time—from an investment advisor or a doctor, for example. Now the call has come for the whole world. Individually or collectively, we are like Phil, but without the advantage of his omniscience. We scramble in vain to find a day like this one and gain some sense of control. Now is the time to get off the treadmill, and pursue the essential ingredient of happiness always under our control, neither constrained by quarantine nor bolstered by government bailouts.
The Bottomless Pit of Control
As I write this, I can feel the anticipation of those who have studied Aristotle and are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Here it is: happiness is probably not the right word at all to use—though just about every translator uses it in approaching Aristotle’s Greek term “eudemonia.” We professors try (in vain) to get our students to eschew popular understandings of happiness. Even etymology is against us; the root of the word “happiness” emphasizes good fortune. We substitute words like “flourishing” or “fulfillment,” trying to de-emphasize the idea that happiness is circumstantial. Not only do students not take to those less familiar words, however, they have a stubborn belief (no doubt associated with youth) that good luck, or at least control over circumstances, will be theirs.
There are two problems with a circumstantial conception of happiness. First, it negates all the advice we give one another, whether as parents or peers, about living a satisfying life. We, along with Aristotle, would be left with a one-page script: “Good Luck.” Second, we rob ourselves of freedom and empowerment. Once we trade true happiness through character and curiosity for favorable circumstance, our lust for control—like a pursuit of wanton or wasted pleasure—is insatiable. Is it any wonder that with scientific power and global prosperity, which every era of mankind would envy, we suffer from unprecedented anxiety, depression, and cynicism?
Discarding Circumstance for Character and Curiosity
Phil’s imagined control is sobered by his failed seduction of Rita. Marshaling insights from countless days, shown through a montage of hilarious cuts, he configures an illusion to appear to be everything Rita desires. But he is none of those things in truth; he has become a brilliant rhetorician. It is implied that Phil even learns French to seduce Rita, or at least enough to convincingly read French poetry to her. The montage betrays his real feelings for such pursuits, however: “What a waste of time.” Everything Phil holds his nose to learn, and every virtue he feigns, cannot bring him happiness because they are only a means to an end. Rita sees through all of it, and she isn’t the only one. When she says, “I could never love someone like you, Phil, because you could never love anyone but yourself,” Phil replies, “Love myself? I don’t even like myself.”
In a similar way, our current crisis casts a skeptical and searching eye on so many presumptions of happiness, virtue, and learning in modern life. Entertainment and expediency have seduced us to where we cannot tell true from false. In Act 3 of Groundhog Day, however, Phil shows us the way. He discards the hope of circumstantial happiness and turns to character and curiosity. He devotes himself to reading, then music and sculpting. He shows up on the doorstep of the local piano teacher. As he steadily improves, his piano teacher (who is still on that day of his first lesson) asks, “Are you sure this is your first lesson?” He replies, “Well, my father was a piano mover.”
Phil’s humor masks the reality that excellence requires habitual dedication. Many have argued that it takes ten years to get good at something, and Ramis later speculated that Phil must have been trapped at least 30 or 40 years—a guesstimate confirming estimates by others. Danny Rubin, the story’s orginal author, speculated it could have been 100 years. There’s reason to think that most of us won’t even have enough time to get a habit established (a couple of months), but we can certainly start.
After years of self-improvement in both knowledge and character, all lived on this repeating day, Phil becomes a source of joy for the “hicks” he had mocked. He joyfully performs with the band at the celebration that he hated. His agitated and sarcastic commentary on the morning presentation of the groundhog gives way to eloquence and drama. He makes beautiful ice sculptures. Rita remarks, “That was surprising. I didn’t know you were so versatile.” A humble Phil nonchalantly replies, “I surprise myself sometimes.” Spending his day in a host of good works and self-improvement, Phil practices generosity and charity. He even studies medicine, an ambition launched when an elderly homeless man cannot be saved. He demands “I want to see his chart” and is later called “Dr. Conners” by the locals.
Phil has discarded seduction for saintliness. Phil’s blossoming wisdom and aesthetic sensibilities are now evident to Rita, who becomes genuinely attracted to him. His excellence, or virtue, has made him truly lovable and capable of real friendship. His circumstances may appear to have granted him his wish: Rita is now his for the taking. But his character has changed, and he will not take advantage of her. Once together, she she drifts off intoxicated with affection and admiration for Phil. He reads Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees”: “Only God can make a tree.” Now reading poetry for its own sake, this line is Phil’s admission that he may have omniscience but never omnipotence.
Curse or Choice?
We should view our own Groundhog Day now, as Rita views Phil’s, as something other than a curse. Like Phil, we should surrender our own pretenses of either omniscience or omnipotence—whether now or under normal circumstances. In our current sobriety, we should refocus on that over which we have control and for which we are ultimately responsible. Let us practice the virtues that sustain real love and friendship, and let us fan the flames of curiosity previously smothered by novelty or expediency. Concerned with Covid-19, we cannot control our circumstance, but we can control ourselves.