Monday, August 08, 2011

Serving Evil

I watched the movie Thirteen Assassins last night. A samurai picture of recent vintage (and not, I might add, suitable for younger viewers), it left me only with questions as I went to bed.

At its core, the movie asks two questions:

1) In the bushido ethos of loyalty to one's lord above all, what does one do when that lord is evil?

2) What is the requirement of good men to serve evil men?

Bushido (as it became codified through the years) required the loyalty of a retainer to one's master, no matter what the consequences or what the nature of the master. This becomes evident in the moview when incidents reveal the cruelty and capricious nature of the Shogun's half brother Naritsugu is revealed to his chief retainer, Hanbei. He knows his master is evil - but he holds to the tenants of bushido that loyalty to the master is above all. In the end, 200 men die to protect a less than worthy lord, as well as all those who Naritsugu has slain in the movie or is suggested to have slain - a testament to the bushido ethic, but not to the greater morality.

Which gets to the second point: what is the requirement of good men to serve evil? At what point does bushido (or in Christian ethics, submission to a higher authority) fall before the greater moral law that evil is simply evil and then is to be destroyed? Is the law of individual honor or the law of the betterment of the whole the supreme law?

Watching the movie, one can understand the inherent flaws that existed in bushido, the flaws that eventually brought the system down. Caught on the horns of loyalty to one's lord and the Confucian ethics of a good society flowing from the good rule and morals of the rulers, a contradiction existed and continued
in the system until the Meiji restoration (in which bushido ethics found the ultimate lord, the Emperor, who would make a good society by good rule)- but a system which eventually destroyed the samurai and the bushido system that had made it possible. The question for that time, it seems, resolved itself.

But evil still exists. Good men (and women) serve those individuals and systems which are evil and malevolent. The moral questions still remain, ready for another generation to review and attempt to resolve the contradictions which, perhaps, simply cannot be resolved.

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