Perhaps you remember the title of this post from the blockbuster film “The Dark Knight.” You may have forgotten the context in which the words were spoken, so I’ll present them here, with a little help from the good folks at imdb.com.
Alfred Pennyworth: A long time ago, I was in Burma, my friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never found anyone who traded with him. One day I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.
Bruce Wayne: Then why steal them?
Alfred Pennyworth: Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Alfred, Batman’s intrepid and wise servant, recounts this tale of a Burmese bandit to explain a certain type of criminal. He draws an analogy between this bandit and the misanthropic anarchist known as The Joker. Neither of these criminals is scheming to get rich quick. Instead they pursue crime because they want to create disorder.
Yet a tension exists between Alfred’s two statements – one – that the criminal thought stealing gems was “good sport” and two – that he “want[ed] to watch the world burn.” The first idea suggests something like the classic kleptomaniac, a person who steals for the joy of theft and not for the sake of acquiring the stolen items. The second idea suggests a nihilist, from the Latin nihil meaning “nothing.” A nihilist believes life lacks purpose or meaning.
Perhaps these are two separate arguments. Alfred may want to respond to Bruce’s question with a host of possible answers. So on the one hand, the Burmese bandit may have just enjoyed the thrill of stealing. On the other hand, he may not have been seeking any logical reward. He may have wanted to take things from people for no reason at all.
However, I may have mischaracterized nihilism by equating it to wanting to “watch the world burn.” Existential nihilism according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihilism) is the belief that life has no meaning or value. Would a true nihilist want to watch the world burn? If one take the statement literally, then someone wanting to watch the world burn would get some entertainment value out of the destruction of civilization. Yet a true nihilist holds that life has no value.
Are there people who fit the profile described by Alfred, who cannot be reasoned with, and only find joy in the misery of others? Is the Joker a nihilist? Does he fit better into another category such as anarchist or sadist? What do you think?