An academic friend was visiting from abroad, and after a day of talks and teaching, we wound down around ten o’clock at night. Noticing my exhaustion, he offered a secret to decompression. “Zohmbies, Mahtt,” he counseled in his inimitable Greek accent. So it was that I tuned into my first episode of The Walking Dead, where Glenn—having saved multiple lives—was asked by a fellow survivor what he did before the end of the world. “Delivered pizzas,” he shrugged. For all the downsides of the apocalypse, it can also summon hitherto dormant reserves of virtue. I quickly learned that the talent of the show’s make-up artists often eclipses that of its writers—but not always.
I have followed the seasons imperfectly, losing interest and then regaining it over the years. I’m not sure I’ve watched every episode, nor do I care to read the original graphic novels (disqualifying me, of course, from the ranks of serious fans). But I can offer how the series maps onto the classical tradition of the four cardinal virtues, as best exemplified by Josef Pieper’s fine book on the subject. Pieper claims that prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are the “four hinges on which swings the gates of life.” They are then, not surprisingly, the hinges upon which this exceptionally popular series unwittingly swing as well (spoilers below).
Before samurai swords, handguns, and crossbows, the first thing necessary in surviving the attack of the zombies is prudence. For the Greeks, for Aquinas, and for Pieper, prudence is the “intelligent prow of our nature,” which puts us in touch with reality. For the classical moral tradition, reason is less the restricted faculty bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment than it is our “gateway to reality,” and prudence is how reason transforms knowledge of reality into decisive action in realizing the good. And so, faced with a new world of flesh-seeking former humans, the immediate mistake made by those who remain human is a failure of prudence—an understandable, but fatal, inability to reckon with the magnitude of the catastrophe.
Hershel Greene, the ex-alcoholic farmer who shelters and ultimately joins the show’s focal group, illustrates the failure. When he seeks to save his family-members-turned-zombies in his barn, hoping for an eventual cure, he is only putting more lives at risk. By refusing to acknowledge that zombies are no longer human, Hershel lacks what Pieper calls the “infinite suppleness which the virtue of prudence must retain in the face of the complexities of the ethical life.” It is no different with Deanna Monroe, leader of the Alexandria safe-zone, a suburban enclave that benefits from accidental preservation. She gives motivational speeches, advocates transparency, and initiates seasoned soldiers into suburban niceties—but she vastly underestimates the threat due to lack of experience beyond the walls. Receiving counsel from those who do have experience, however, both Hershel and Deanna grow in prudence, and they ultimately execute decisions in accord with their new reality—that is, they are willing to kill zombies.
But, of course, the show’s primary lesson is that there are much more serious problems than the undead. The human threat exceeds that of the walkers because zombies, lacking reason, are no longer capable of the injustice at which humans excel. The most fearful places are therefore not zombie-ridden warehouses, but anywhere corrupt humanity governs, especially the General’s Woodbury or Gareth’s Terminus. “No worse or more desperate mishap can be imagined in the world of men,” writes Pieper, “than unjust government.” Nor is it surprising that both Woodbury and Terminus claim to be enclaves of justice.
It is of considerable importance that man prepare himself to encounter historical realizations of evil in which a high degree of “morality” is joined with a
considerable measure of “heroism,” but which nonetheless remain thoroughly and unsurpassingly inhuman and evil, because at the same time they embody uttermost injustice.
To be sure, the accumulation of power is necessary in providing defenses against hoards of walkers. But absent the normal restraints of law, power’s corrupting influence can act almost as quickly as a virus entering the bloodstream of the bitten. In short, better to become a zombie than to fall under the rule of powerful humans who have forgotten Thomas’s principle that “the purpose of power is to realize justice.”
For Pieper, genuine fortitude is manifested wherever “to suffer and endure is the only remaining possibility of resistance,” of which there are ample opportunities in The Walking Dead. But fortitude is far more than knowing how and when to kill. “Fortitude must not trust itself,” said Ambrose, which is to say it has to be founded on prudence (knowledge of reality) and justice (rendering to each their due). And for this reason the show offers false fortitude in abundance, that is, the sort not expended in a just cause. For example, any supposed bravery that is founded on an “indifference to life” is not fortitude. It is this kind of courage that the crossbow-bearing Daryl Dixon matures away from, and to which the main band’s leader, Rick Grimes, increasingly succumbs.
But the chief failure of fortitude thus far is on display in the show’s most ostensibly Christian character, Gabriel the priest. The priest (of some unidentifiable hybrid denomination) is afflicted by his own failure to defend his flock. Not having “realize[d] that which is good, in the face of injury or death,” he is defined by that failure, promulgating prayer meetings instead of fostering patience, which is fortitude’s very essence. “The patient man,” wrote Aquinas, “is not the one who does not flee from evil, but the one who does not allow himself to be made inordinately sorrowful thereby.”
Such timorous sorrow is Gabriel’s defining feature. Despite his collar, he has not realized the secret of what Pieper calls “mystic fortitude,” which derives from “the hidden abandonment of man to God.” As of now, Gabriel’s inadequacy has overshadowed the true Christian fortitude of Hershel, who movingly evoked Psalm 91 and gave his life for his friends. It is not that Hershel’s was the show’s only witness to transcendence. “In the Christian era, there is no such thing as ‘purely natural’ virtue,” writes Pieper, “without actual reference to the order of grace.” But Hershel was the closest the show has come to “throwing open of this [natural] realm” with the “inclusion of new and invisible realities” of faith, hope, and love. That said, Hershel’s death and Gabriel’s cowardice currently give the upper hand to the series’ intermittent irreverence, be that a misquotation of the Bible with a caustic laugh (“The weak shall inherit the earth!”) or the early Hershel’s memorable remark, “Christ promised the resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.”
Pieper felicitously describes the last of the cardinal virtues, temperance, as the banks of the stream en route to the sea of perfection. And this virtue illustrates the last of the key temptations that afflict the shows surviving characters: the temptation to become monsters themselves. With full knowledge that “intemperance (like temperance) is something exclusively human; neither angel nor animal can know it,” we can nevertheless suggest that zombies are pictures of the intemperance that beckons the remaining survivors, as when a weaponless Rick Grimes escapes from a thief by biting his foe in the neck.
A walker, compelled by noise and flesh, is the image of the intemperate soul afflicted by acedia, hoping to “shake off the obligatory nobility of being.” Using zombie-like language, Aquinas says such souls are marked by a “roaming unrest of spirit.” Zombies only care for food, and the unchaste man, according to Thomas, is like a lion in sight of a stag, “unable to perceive anything but the anticipated meal.” But for a human to become intemperate on The Walking Dead is deadly, for intemperance “more than any other thing renders man unable and unwilling to ‘take heart’ against the wounding power of evil in the world.”
For Pieper, “unchastity, incontinence, pride, uninhibited wrath [and] curiositas” are all forms of intemperance. And indeed, there are moments in the series when unchastity—which Pieper nicely describes as unreasonable sex—leads survivors toward the classic horror movie consequences (impending death), or when a failure to restrain one’s appetite sows the seeds of community conflict. But a failure of gentleness is what keeps most survivors from achieving temperance; and the fact that gentleness is the last thing that comes to mind as necessary in a zombie apocalypse only shows how far we are from understanding the classical moral tradition. As Pieper explains,
Gentleness as a virtue presupposes the power of wrath; gentleness implies mastery of this power, not its weakening. We should not mistake the pale-faced harmlessness which pretends to be gentleness—unfortunately, often successfully—for a Christian virtue. Lack of sensuality is not chastity; and incapacity for wrath has nothing to do with gentleness.
Perhaps this illuminates why the wisdom of Aikido, refreshing as it may be, is thus far an unsatisfying solution to the survivors’ predicament. The temperate channeling of anger, not its extinction, is what the apocalypse demands.
As to whether temperance can be squared with binge-watching, however, I care not to inquire.
Matthew J. Milliner is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.