RARA-AVIS: Greco-Roman philosophy and hardboiled ethics

From: William Denton ( wtd@pobox.com)
Date: 31 Aug 2005

I've been doing a bit of reading lately about Stoicism and other schools of philosophical thought from back in Greek and Roman times. We've often talked about how crime writing, and hardboiled writing in particular, is concerned with moral behaviour, and I see lots of parallels. Some writers and characters could be matched up with closely with Stoicism or Cynicism or others, I think, and if some of you know your ancient philosophy then I hope you can supply more examples.

George Pelecanos's books in particular deal with how to be a good person in a world filled with vice and temptation and crime, and his people do the best they can, trying to live honourable lives and not worrying what other people think, and behaving in such a way that their children can learn by example. Pelecanos does that explicitly. On the other hand, something like Kent Harrington's DARK RIDE (about which more next week when it's Kent Harrington Month) shows prime examples of a) how not to raise a child and b) how not to behave. I certainly don't mean it's a didactic book, but if you wanted to show how moral failings lead to trouble, then any noir book is jammed with examples. Not that that's why we read them. (Or do we?)

Sam Spade was, he said, mostly concerned about who killed his partner because that's what people expected him to do. Custom said that when a detective's partner was killed, the remaining detective had better solve the case, or else it was bad for business. Some schools of thought said custom was important, but others would say one's internal morals outweighed that. Spade's morals and his behaviour are a specially interesting case, and I'd have to reread the end of THE MALTESE FALCON to remind myself of details before I say more.

I know little about classical philosophy, but the related treatments of morals there and in hardboiled and noir writing really struck me. It's also another point that illustrates the depth this kind of writing can have--not that we need that proven, but there are folks who think all crime writing is superficial by its nature.


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : www.miskatonic.org : www.frbr.org

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