In his book on the politics of William Shakespeare, famed scholar Allan Bloom argues that poetry is often more important to political philosophy and the public mind than the cold books of philosophers and historians. "Aristotle's description of heroic virtue means nothing to men in general, but Homer's incarnation of that virtue in the Greeks and Trojans is unforgettable."
Today, stories are mostly told through movies rather than the oral traditions of Homer or stage plays of Shakespeare. Every year, many of the finest films are honored at Hollywood's many awards ceremonies – none so prestigious as the Academy Awards. If the Oscar nominees for Best Picture this year are any indication, the creative arts are still the most powerful way to teach people history and, as with any good history lesson, some sort of philosophy.
Our history lessons this year encompass some of the most fascinating subjects of the past 200 years. Lincoln, and to a lesser extent Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, exhibits for us the dark depths of slavery and the tremendous work done to remove that cruel practice from the United States. Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo's great novel, gives us a glimpse of post-Napoleonic France and the plight of its people. Argo shows us a dark moment of our history that is itself tremendously relevant to today's politics. Zero Dark Thirty follows one of the most captivating, controversial, and important manhunts in history.
The more remarkable thing about these movies is that they do not give us a cookie-cutter view of history and they force us to think about and discuss our subjects. The Lincoln of Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis is not the distant paragon of wise nobility that is encased in marble in the American psyche – this film gives us Abraham Lincoln the master politician, and shows how he was able to navigate through the muddy waters of low politics without losing sight of his high and noble goals. Les Miserables, set in the midst of a poverty-induced revolution fomenting in the slums of 19th century Paris, lets us ponder the rule of Christian charity as shown by Jean Valjean against the rule of blind justice as embraced by Inspector Javert – and the interesting notion of how the conniving Thenadiers manage to survive while so many more do not. Zero Dark Thirty forces us to confront the enhanced interrogation techniques used in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, an uncomfortable story for many, but a part of history that should be thought about.
For all the laments about popular culture today and the bad influences of Hollywood, let us take heart that the movies are still able to teach so many about history and, more importantly, the ideas the move history. Let us be happy that people leave Les Miserables with the ability to understand and pity both Valjean and Javert; that one of our greatest actors is being uniformly honored for his portrayal of our greatest president; and that Argo, a tale of clashing cultures, loyal allies, devoted public servants, and Hollywood's ability to spin a story for any purpose, is sailing towards Oscar success, teaching people about that interesting and incredibly relevant slice of history along the way. Tune into the Oscars, sit back, and enjoy the history lesson!