“Groundhog Day” as Platonic Morality Tale

Groundhog Day MovieI'm assuming for this post that you're familiar with the 1993 Bill Murray vehicle (Go rent it right now if you haven't!), which I watched with my kids this past Feb. 2 for the first time in many years. I was struck in light of our recent episode on Plato's Gorgias on the evolution of the character as he's trapped in his ever-renewing limbo.

The obvious philosophical comparison to the movie is Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence, but it's nothing like that: in Nietzsche's picture, everything we do has extra weight, because it will happen again and again as history repeats, far in the future beyond our current experience. In the film, everything he does is undone, meaningless (apart from its effects on himself), lighter, and he can remember all of it. So it's actually the inverse of eternal recurrence.

Another comparison is Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus," which is somewhat more apt. He finds that his ultimate happiness is in this woman who he has to re-woo from scratch every morning if he wants any kind of intimacy with her. But unlike Sisyphus, he can take a break whenever he wants from this task. In fact, each day is his own to choose what task to pursue.

The idea of starting from scratch is useful here, and points out some potential variations in the situation that would have really changed the dynamic. He starts out generally unliked, but still on civil terms with his co-workers, and in a position of fame and power such that he can easily impress others in the town who don't already know him. He has money, and, as time goes on, he has the advantage of intimate foreknowledge of the day's events. By comparison, if you've seen "The Wire," there's a picture presented there of a heroin addict who starts each day with nothing and is faced with the task of somehow acquiring enough cash to get his fix, and enough food to survive to the next day.

There's also an inconsistency in the film (and of course, given that it's just a light romantic comedy, it's arguable that the film doesn't owe us any consistency at all, so it's a wonder it works as any sort of philosophical example) in that any harm he causes to his body is undone the next day, yet he can acquire talents over his days, which surely also require physical changes beyond mere mental memory (which is of course really physical as well). Some of the other characters' reactions over time are also somewhat contrived, meaning they couldn't really be explained if they had total amnesia and were purely reacting to Murray's behavior that day.

Still, the picture of Murray's final (spell-breaking) day is telling: he effortlessly impresses everyone and does all the right things. How is he able to do this? Through knowledge. Knowledge of what's going to happen and of how people will react, but more than that, hard-won knowledge of how best to react to every situation. "Best?" Well, since the satisfactions of others' admiration of him are so short-lived, best in this case means the most satisfying to him. He ends up in a zen-like peace in the midst of his constant activity. He's figured out what battles he can't win (saving a dying hobo's life, actually seducing the one he loves), what difference he can make (even though presumably the damage to a boy falling out a tree would from his cursed vantage be eternally temporary), how to really make everyone around him feel great, and most of all, he's trained himself to behave morally. Even though he figures out early on how to successfully rob a bank and so be flush with cash for the rest of the day (and likewise, I'm sure there would be more violent and equally effective means to achieve this), this doesn't become part of his long-term routine, because he's already got enough.

On a different picture of human nature, he could have become a serial rapist, newly subjugating the town every day, but this, whether or not he explored such dark avenues in his many months of captivity, is not what ends up being satisfying. Given enough time to reflect on it, he (as any of us would, according to Plato's picture) seeks the good, and given enough acquired knowledge of himself, of social graces, of material circumstances, he's able to achieve the good unerringly. So this tale a counter to the "ring of Gyges" example brought up by Glaucon in The Republic. In that case, Glaucon says that man is fundamentally unjust, because if he had a ring of invisibility and could do injustice without consequence, he surely would. Groundhog Day is a demonstration that on the contrary, though someone with such power would try injustice, given the time to really sort himself out, he would turn to justice after all.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Craig says

    Nice post, Mark.

    I have always been a huge fan of Groundhog Day, but have never considered that interpretation. It is funny how many philosophies and religions claim the movie as a commentary on their ideals.

    I have always viewed it as a comparison to Buddhism/Karma, where Phil is accumulating bad/good karma through multiple “rebirths.” It shows the ultimate futility in the way that many people lead their lives: accumulating riches, going after sexual desire, seeking fame, drugs/alcohol, suicide, etc. They are all fleeting and empty. (The inconsistency in accumulating skill also makes more sense with the karmic interpretation, depending on which school you are talking about).

    In the end, he breaks the cycle when he reaches the point of “wei wu wei” (doing without doing). His good action comes not from the desire to achieve some personal reward or to meet an end, but rather it just comes forth from his own honest self-expression. He becomes a good person without trying to be a good person: the ultimate form of morality.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Yes, I think the Buddhist take on effortless virtue applies here in terms of his attitude. You could also say that it’s also what leads to compassion per the Buddhist story. The difference seems to be the attitude towards knowledge. I allege that he could effortlessly win over the admiration of the many chiefly because he knew those specific many through and through, but then, this lesson wouldn’t apply to his going forward in life, except insofar as he’d mastered social graces more generally, which he had as well.

      For the Buddhist, social graces are to be spurned, right? I know there’s a fantasy there that if you spurn social rules but act through genuine simplicity, then everyone will see that as admirable and revere you anyway, but I don’t think we get enough from the movie to test that hypothesis either way. (i.e. a character who’s too absorbed in his ambitions and doesn’t then appreciate the main character even though the latter is all Buddhist sagelike)

      • Craig says

        I’m not aware of rejecting social graces as being central to any particular Buddhist practice, except for maybe when it came to diviorcing itself from the Indian caste system. Most Buddhists practice thier faith and live normal everyday lives as part of a society. Monastic life is not the norm.

        I would surmise that his change in atitude was not about him wanting to be admired. After all, the next day just starts all over. Why bother saving the kid out of the tree every day if he never says thank you and he won’t remember when it happens the next time? I think the point of those scenes was to show that he had a genuine change in attitude. Something along the lines of the first of the Buddhist ‘4 Great Vows’: “Although sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” It is like Sisyphus, but with repeating good deeds that have no end and no reward, because he sees each good deed is an end to itself.

  2. Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

    Man, I watched this movie all the time when I was a kid. On the eternal recurrence thing – I’d usually heard this expressed as a myth or a maybe a parable, and I’d always regarded it as such, but I’ve also heard some philosophers (Solomon, in his No Excuses course) say that Nietzsche was up on the science of his day and he really may have thought of this as a plausible theory, which seems crazy to me. Is there real disagreement on this?

    • Ryan says

      It’s not so much a theory as a thought experiment. If you could know that a moment would recur forever would that affect the way you lived the moment? Or would you live it the same way as though it were readily dispensable as we seem to do across large lengths of our lives? No amount of evidence produced by science that I am aware of would ever be able to settle the matter one way or another. We could amass a towering mountain of precision experiments revealing that life is in some fundamental way linear and not cyclic and this would always be subject to immediate and permanent change that would work to topple everything we believed we had known.

      One problem for me is that our intuitions about time are so distracting it prevents us from even so much as being able to conceptualize how time could be in any other way – and the fact that it is for us so arbitrarily formal and abstract in the certain way that it is should only lead us to discover many other ways in which time could be. This is revealed to me a little bit every time the notion of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence crops up because everybody has their own speculative theories they’re willing to put forward about what non-classical forms of time could be, but we never cut across all of these different ideas to notice that at this point it really could mean anything at all.

      For those within the moment, for it to recur eternally is the same as it would be for it to happen only once. What should be implausible is the implausibility of eternal recurrence itself. People are characterized by their inability to make a decision in the last instance as to it being the case one way or another. We always want to have it both ways. While it would be nice for bad moments to be dispensable, we wouldn’t want for good moments to be treated in the same way.

    • Profile photo of Aaron Watson says

      I always took it as a way to think about your life, or for you to make choices. As if every day of your life, each decision, each moment would repeat itself over and over ad infinitum.

      Only with the mental toughness bred from this type of thinking can we future philosophers hope to overcome the damned nhilism of Schopenhauer! :)

      This sort of reminds me of the Samurai meditations on death — like some mental trick to put such emphasis on your actions as to not live in fear of the actual thoughts of nhilism which are always lurking behind the scenes.

  3. Profile photo of Philip C. says

    I was too young when I watched the movie to consider the philosophical implications of how consequences of actions determine one’s sense of responsibility. What I do remember was considering the ways it affects identity–the way Murray’s character viewed himself and others, and how this sense of time allowed him to gain insight into the various aspects of peoples’ lives. The world opened up to him such that he had to branch out from his circle of familiar friends and coworkers to find new insights, and when he tried to simulate past actions he found he couldn’t replicate some “ju ne sais quoi” quality of original authentic experience (Benjamin’s “aura” comes to mind.)

    I’m not sure if I share Mark’s takeaway that this necessarily implies a universal attribute that all individuals would eventually give up trying to shirk responsibility and finally turn to justice. We only see Murray’s character go through the transformation, but some may just feel they’re stuck, lose hope and cease to care. Also the whole issue of logic as-we-know-it failing implies that it may simply resume again. We never know why the day just started to repeat itself, so one can never know what to expect of the future either.

    Another interesting point of comparison that breaches more overtly on the philosophical angle (as do many German films for whatever reason) is Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it. I cannot recall if the protagonist Lola could remember her past-life actions, but I remember getting the impression it was like executing variations of a whole, like “extra lives” in video games. And though it does leave you somewhat with a sense of closure (albeit open-ended), it doesn’t attempt to reconcile these variations of Lola’s life actions by stringing together their consequences to form some new sense of identity.

  4. Profile photo of Philip C. says

    Oh and I just remembered a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called “The Secret Miracle” which played out a similar scenario but in that case the distortion of time was more overtly a gift from God. It allowed the protagonist time to fulfill his life’s dream before he died.

  5. Jesse says

    I was always intrigued with the thought that each of those repeated days he experienced became offshoot time lines in a ‘many worlds’ like approach. Then in each one he still had to live the consequences of his actions. In the original film he never has to deal with the things he did the “day” before so that the only punishment is doing the day over again, he never really learns a moral lesson from the “day” before.

  6. Chris says

    “… whether or not he explored such dark avenues in his many months of captivity”
    i think the “months” comment misses the mark. his character becomes fluent on piano, learns the background of seemingly every citizen of the town, is a master ice sculptor, knows the timing of events down to the second, etc. the film leaves the question of how long his repeated existence lasts (as so much occurs off screen), but my hunch is many, many years, possibly on the order of lifetimes, if not longer. reading it like this we see that it is far easier for him to learn complex skills and knowledge than it is for him to learn how to live morally.

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