Movies as Your Own Informal University

Theodicy is the inquiry into the paradox that a loving God would witness and allow such endless evil as exists in the world.

Movies can be very informative as a parallel university which gives you a visual and story-based entry into such a problem or puzzle or conundrum or dilemma.

Take the Roger Corman classic film (based on the Edgar Allan Poe story):

The Masque of the Red Death from 1964.

Consider the following exchange between Prospero (Vincent Price plays a kind of “evil machine”) from the film:

Prospero: Somewhere in the human mind, my dear Francesca, lies the key to our existence. My ancestors tried to find it. And to open the door that separates us from our Creator.

Francesca: But you need no doors to find God. If you believe…

Prospero: Believe? If you believe, my dear Francesca, you are… gullible. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it?

Famine, Pestilence, War, Disease and Death! They rule this world.

Basic Story:

The evil Prince Prospero is riding through the Catania village when he sees that the peasants are dying of the Red Death. Prospero asks to burn down the village and he is offended by the villagers, Gino and his father-in-law Ludovico. He decides to kill them, but Gino’s wife, the young and beautiful Francesca, begs for the lives of her husband and her father and Prospero brings them alive to his castle expecting to corrupt Francesca. Prospero worships Satan and invites his noble friends to stay in his castle which is a shelter of depravity against the plague. When Prospero invites his guests to attend a masked ball, he sees a red-hooded stranger and he believes that Satan himself has attended his party. But soon he learns who his mysterious guest is.

Theodicy and the Explanation of God’s Coexistence with Evil:

Wikipedia informs us:

Theodicy means the vindication of God. It is to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil, thus resolving the issue of the problem of evil. Some theodicies also address the problem of evil “to make the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good or omnibenevolent God consistent with the existence of evil or suffering in the world.” Unlike a defense, which tries to demonstrate that God’s existence is logically possible in the light of evil, a theodicy provides a framework wherein God’s existence is also plausible.

The German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz coined the term “theodicy” in 1710 in his work Théodicée, though various responses to the problem of evil had been previously proposed. The British philosopher John Hick traced the history of moral theodicy in his 1966 work, Evil and the God of Love, identifying three major traditions:

  1. the Plotinian theodicy, named after Plotinus.
  2. the Augustinian theodicy, which Hick based on the writings of Augustine of Hippo.
  3. the Irenaean theodicy, which Hick developed, based on the thinking of St. Irenaeus.

One of life’s educational tricks (a pillar of Meta Intelligence) is to let the off-campusuniversity” of movies give you an on-ramp, if you know how to take it, into formal academe on the campus.

Countries and Deep Patternings: China

China’s High-Level Equilibrium Trap as a Concept

The Pattern of the Chinese Past
Mark Elvin
Paperback: 348 pages
Publisher: Stanford University Press; 1st edition (June 1, 1973)

The 1973 classic work in Sinology, Mark Elvin’s The Pattern of the Chinese Past gives the student an “exemplum” in the kind of scholarship that might be called “pattern-seeking.” Without such attempts, all of history becomes formless and shapeless and an endless parade of “routs and rallies,” and “crimes and follies and misfortunes” (in Edward Gibbon’s catchphrase).

Professor Elvin renders Chinese history through an economic perspective instead of using the common dynastic classification by attempting to answer three questions:

  1. What contributed to the continuity of the Chinese empire?
  2. Why was the Chinese economy the most advanced in the world from the Song dynasty (960-1279) up until the latter half of the Qing dynasty (mid-1800s)?
  3. Why did China fail to maintain her technological advantage after the mid-fourteenth century while advancing economically?

In the first section of the book, the author elucidates the staying power of the Chinese empire was due to the following factors. The economics of defense in relation to the size of empire and the power of its neighbors never became an extreme burden that it rendered the state impotent for any consecutively long period of time. It was always able to reformulate itself after a short disunity or rule by a foreign power of the whole, which only happened twice within a two thousand year period (Mongol and Manchu rule). Two other factors that contributed to the continuity of the Chinese state include a relatively isolated existence from the rest of the Eurasian landmass and the important placed on cultural unity, beginning with the first emperor’s destruction of local records in order to quell local loyalties (pp. 21-22). Both of these factors had been built up over time through a revolution in communication and transportation.

The second section of the book analyses the causes of the economic revolution that occurred between the 8th and 12th centuries and the technological growth that accompanied it. The transformation of agriculture, especially in the south, was the major impetus that fueled the economic growth of this period. This revolution in agriculture had four aspects.

  1. The preparation of soil became more effective as a result of improved or new tools and the extensive use of manure and lime as fertilizer.
  2. Seed improvements allowed for double cropping.
  3. Improvements in hydraulic techniques and irrigation networks.
  4. Specialization in crops other than basic food grains (p.118).

Improvements in transportation and communications were almost as important as agriculture in growing the economy. Water transport saw big gains and led to the golden age of geographic studies and cartography, with envoys traveling as far away as Africa. Money and credit matured during this time helping to expand the economy. Paper money made its first appearance in 1024. Improvements in science, medicine, and technology also occurred during this period. However, despite all these advancements, “this period was the climax and also the end of many preceding centuries of scientific and technical progress” (p. 179). Although the Chinese economy continued to advance from the 14th century on, albeit on a smaller scale, it was not accompanied by improvements in technology.

The last section deals with this phenomenon, describing the distinctive characteristics of this late traditional period (1300-1800), and then proceeding to point out why technological advancements did not keep pace with the growth in the economy. This period sees a rise of small market towns in the sixteenth century and a decline in contact with the non-Chinese world around the middle of the fifteenth century. Also, by the eighteenth century serfdom disappeared, aiding population growth, which had reached 400 million by the mid-1800s. Elvin interestingly points out that the highly sophisticated metaphysics that evaded Chinese intellectual thought during the Ming and Qing dynasties negated any deep scientific inquiry (p. 233). In the attempt to explain the lack of technological advancement, Elvin disputes a number of conventional explanations. Contrary to popular belief, there was enough capital during this period to finance simple technological advances, also there was minimal political obstacles to economic growth.

In short, Elvin believes “that in late traditional China economic forces developed in such a way as to make profitable invention more and more difficult. With falling surplus in agriculture, and so falling per capita income and per capita demand, with cheapening labor but increasingly expensive resources and capital, with farming and transport technologies so good that no simple improvements could be made, rational strategy for peasants and merchants alike tended in the direction not so much of labor-saving machinery as of economizing on resources and fixed capital. Huge but nearly static markets created no bottlenecks in the production system that might have prompted creativity” (p. 314). This condition is what he terms as a “high-level equilibrium trap.” The term “trap” to describe the condition of late imperial China’s technological advancement in relation to the economy is similar to Escape from Predicament, Thomas Metzger’s analysis of the “predicament” that confronted Chinese intellectual thought from the Song through to the end of the Qing dynasty. Both explanations have at their core the idea of late imperial China not being able to generate real sustainable progress internally, stating that it was the Chinese response to the Western threat in the mid to late 1800s that finally brought the needed change.

Essay 23: Movies as a Kind of University

A meta-intelligent attention to movies (as well as songs) can serve as a university or university supplement.  Let’s think of three early eighties movies together, as a cluster:

  1. Romancing the Stone (Michael Douglas)
  2. Salvador (James Woods, Oliver Stone movie)
  3. Under Fire (Nicaragua setting)

These movies taken together reveal changing relationship between the West and the developing world. (so-called less developed countries or Third World).


There’s a scene in Romancing the Stone where Danny DeVito’s character finds himself in Colombia and exclaims at one point, “Who will save me from this Third World toilet?” (i.e., Donald Trump’s view at present).

In Salvador, there’s a scene where James Woods’ character is told by a local woman, commenting on the turmoil of the moment (such as Archbishop Óscar Romero’s assassination): “This reminds me of the “Matanza” (“massacre”).

The 1932 Salvadoran peasant massacre (Matanza) occurred on January 22 of that year, in the western departments of El Salvador when a brief peasant-led rebellion was suppressed by the government, then led by Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. The Salvadoran army, being vastly superior in terms of weapons and soldiers, executed those who stood against it. The rebellion was a mixture of protest and insurrection which ended in ethnocide, claiming the lives of an estimated 10,000 and 40,000 peasants and other civilians, many of them indigenous people.

All of this Central American turmoil has deep roots in (Spanish) colonial land distribution as well as post-colonial “state-formation” after the Spanish empire was gone, where the political elite families took over the land with millions of landless and subsistence-farmers excluded from any prospect of betterment. (The Guatemalan massacres of indigenous Indians under Ríos Montt follow the same pattern with its deep roots in “state malformation.” Costa Rica was somewhat spared this turmoil via 1948 progressive revolution under Figueres).

Under Fire shows the Nicaragua revolutionary situation in 1979. The “periodistas” (journalists) represented by Gene Hackman and his friends are told by a revolutionary soldier woman, “The world is now about North-South, not East-West.”

“North-South” means West/Third World and their changing relationship as opposed to Washington-Moscow rivalries.

The current migration crisis on the U.S. border in 2020 has everything to do with this background history of “state malformation” in Central America and its collision with nativist/populist virulence in Trump’s America. (i.e., Trump/Miller/Bannon). These problems can only be addressed by “developmentalist” policies and understandings and not by “know-nothingism.”

Thus, these three movies, taken as an “accidental cluster” give us an unintended insight into the moving “tectonic plates” that give us current history.

Movies should be seen in this “meta-intelligent way” (i.e., informative in an overview sense).