Vade Mecum

Peter French's
Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns
Rowman and Littlefield, 1997

I love westerns. I love the characters populating westerns: the lonely gunslingers, good and bad, the pious but timid townspeople, the independent frontier women. I love the western's sense of space: figures humbled by Monument Valley or swallowed up in an expanse of prairie. I love the inevitable moral confrontations, verbal and physical, which are the dramatic substance of westerns. As an ethicist, I have also long felt that embedded in many of these films and novels was important reflection on morality (tested to its limits) in the face of violence and death. Thus I have been delighted to discover philosopher Peter A. French's Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns (1997).
French explores what American film westerns say about the social drive to "settle" the wild, about Christianity, and about moral heroism. In this regard, he presents fascinating commentary on many important films: the paradigmatic early western Stagecoach, the chilling The Searchers, the sentimental Shane, and that recent magisterial western (and comment on the genre itself), Unforgiven. French argues that westerns express a rejection of a certain Christian ethic of meekness and forgiveness (which in the films, he argues, is often associated with a certain "eastern" civilizing and feminizing influence). Instead, French finds affinities between westerns and ancient Greek ethics. As he writes, "The ethics of the western places very high value on independence, pride, loyalty, friendship, . . . honor, self-reliance, valor, and most important, vengeance and moral (righteous) hatred." For those of us intrigued by westerns, and for those of us interested in ethics and in constructions of American identity, Cowboy Metaphysics offers adventuresome and rewarding discussion.

Pamela M. Hall is an associate professor in philosophy and women's studies and Massee-Martin/NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor.

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