Would Plato Enjoy any Movie More than ‘Groundhog Day’?

Groundhog_Day_(movie_poster)Movies don’t get any better than Groundhog Day. Billy Murry–everyone’s favorite–is Phil Conners, a jerk-faced weather man stuck in an infernal time loop that makes him repeat the same day forever. Murray’s humor is what makes the movie fun, but this film is a classic because there’s a part of us that gets stuck in that time loop, too.

Bill Murray’s journey in Groundhog Day is a great update on a story told in ancient philosophy. (I have no reason to believe the filmmakers intended it this way.) When I think about this movie I am reminded of classical thinkers like Beothius and Socrates who found themselves in unfair imprisonments and used those situations to learn and teach others.

With a blizzard blocking his way out of town, Phil Conners has no choice but to stay in his strange prison without even knowing why he’s been singled out for this punishment. (Or how it’s even possible.) It doesn’t take long for Groundhog Day to get downright depressing.

Boethius’s The Consolation of Philoshopy paints an equally dreary picture. In the sixth century, poor Boethius was imprisoned by Theodoric the Great who suspected him of being a traitor. (He wasn’t.) Boethius had wait out his imprisonment with the knowledge that at the end of his tenure he would be sent to a traitor’s death. During this time, Boethius repeats the question that all of us have asked: how can injustice exist in God’s world?

Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day is no saint, but the viewer certainly does not think he deserves to be tortured with a sinister time loop. Like Boethius, he is trapped with no hope.

After realizing he’s not getting out of his temporal prison, Phil Conners tries to alleviate the pain by having fun, even at the cost of others. He becomes numb to anyone else’s feelings (since they are just going to reset the next day anyway) and pretty much does whatever he wants without worrying about consequences. Stuffing his face with cheesecake and robbing banks is fun, but these victories are quickly replaced by feelings of emptiness. (The Bible student is easily reminded of the book of Ecclesiastes, in which the author is unable to find joy in their life even when they are doing everything right.) Failing to find any reason to go on, Phil tries to escape the time loop by killing himself. It doesn’t work.

The most moving part of the story is watching Bill Murray try to save an elderly homeless man. He feeds him, warms him up, and takes him to the hospital when he gets ill, but nothing can save the old man.

Our hero doesn’t give up on helping people. He finds as many good deeds to do as he possibly can, but that’s not what turns him around. Phil Conners only begins to change when he looks inside of himself and fixes his own problems. The days are no longer about finding new ways to get karmic merit badges, but Conners’s quest to better himself.

Why? Boethius tells us. While in prison, the ancient thinker is visited by Lady Philosophy. (Did you know that philosophy was portrayed as a woman? She used to be.) She tells Boethius that fortune drives men mad by giving them good times and then taking them away, but then she reminds him that no turn of events can prevent Boethius from pursuing virtue.

Phil Conners learns the same thing. No matter what his situation, he can chase after virtue and better himself. Not even a crazy, temporal prison can stop him from that.

And this is how Bill Murray’s film picks up where the ancient philosophers left off. I don’t like it when things don’t go my way. I don’t always want to go to work and do the same thing again and again. Life isn’t always fun. And the most frustrating prisons are not necessarily made of stone and iron, but of mundane activities and unfulfilling social responsibilities.

But, I ask myself, does any of this stop me from pursuing virtue? No. It does not. So I try, each day, to better myself and contribute to the world around me. Nothing can stop me from doing that. (Even if I’m not very good at it.)

Maybe that’s why I was so excited about learning to play the cajon last week.