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A Philosophical Take on Avatar

After watching James Cameron’s movie, “Avatar”, the question which I immediately began debating, relating specifically to human nature, is, “What is identity?”. Centered on the story of paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully, brought in place of his recently deceased brother, the hero is given the task of working with a scientific team to help mediate peace between the local indigenous tribes and the humans. Operating his new Avatar, Jake finds himself both perplexed with his new form and mesmerized by the intricacies of the planet. Over time, Jake develops a strong connection with the natives and begins to question his place within human and Na’vi societies. I believe that this movie strongly embodies the tenets of both Buddhism and Scholasticism, clearly distinguishing the dualistic nature of all entities, making the distinction that identity is not defined by the physical, but by the morals and decisions experienced and made by the soul, and that the our reality is not the product of our own perception, but instead the creation of a higher being.

The first school of thought that I was immediately reminded of after the stimulus was that of Buddhism. A major theme throughout the movie was the Na’vi emphasis of cherishing life. More specifically, I was reminded of the essence which exists within each and every person, thing, or object.  This reminder eventually brought me to the first aspect of my argument for identity, which is that the soul is not defined by the body, but instead is an infinite entity which may move throughout the universe while retaining its morals, memories, ideas and beliefs. What parallels the Avatar so similarly to the tenets of Buddhism, is that Jake is literally moved from one body to another throughout the movie. While not possible within our own reality, this movement from entity to entity shows the dualist nature of the body and the soul. Further emulating this theory is the aspect that Jake is able to maintain the same personality that he once had within his human form, demonstrating that the transfer he undergoes is merely that of a vessel to vessel movement. Yet another aspect of the movie related to Buddhism is found within the quote when Jake says, “One life ends, another begins…” This aspect of reincarnation is specific to Buddhism, as the relocation from one body to another is essential to the tenets of this philosophy, demonstrating the belief that life is a constant cycle which never ends unless Nirvana is achieved. Within the movie, this trait of Buddhism occurs several times, once with Jake’s brother, once with a friend of Jake’s, and finally with himself. Within the second instance, the death of Jake’s comrade signals the inclusion of the Buddhist theory of a universal conscious. Referred to as Ewya, this entity is a living tree able to connect telepathically with all Pandorian people, plants and animals; essentially representing a greater being connected through the minds of all living organisms. In relation to humanity’s own beliefs, Ewya represents the Buddhist concept of the universal conscious, the entity from which all creation derived. More specifically defined, this concept supports the argument that each and every being, inclusive of both inanimate objects and living beings, contains and is connected metaphysically to a greater entity. In relation to the initial argument of identity, this aspect of the universe applies since it demonstrates that, unlike the materialist point of view, the soul is derived from an alternate source other than the body. From this, it can be concluded that the only connection that the body has to the soul is that of a metaphysical confinement until death.


The second school of philosophy that Avatar stimulated me to write about was that of the philosophy of Scholasticism. While not directly addressing the issue of identity among conscious beings, what Scholasticism does address is the aspect of free will. At first, this may seem unrelated to identity, but this is not the case. Not only is this aspect inclusive of Avatar, but all reality itself. Should any being not have the power of free will, then there would never be any difference from one person to the next, as this would designate that all personalities, while different from each other, were prestructured by a higher being. Therefore, the character represented through people, perceived to be original, would merely be a false front. An example of this would be that of a highly detailed mask, used by people throughout their entire lives as opposed to a blank slate which is carved and constructed throughout their experiences. Related specifically to the movie, the free will trait is demonstrated when Jake is given the choice to leave the Na’vi tribe to destruction, after violating their trust and witnessing the destruction of their homes, or make an attempt to redeem himself by saving the natives. Choosing to save his new family, Jake solidifies his identity as a strong-willed, honor bound soul. This choice reaffirms the Scholastic notion that free will determines the identify of the soul, as without this trait, Jake would have been living within a false sense of reality, and thus not truly existed as a derived form of the universal conscious/higher being, but instead merely been a preconfigured action within the mind of a greater entity. The second aspect of Scholasticism which I was triggered to address was that of morals. Argued by Aquinas, the father of Scholasticism, that the soul is inherently good, through further interpretation, this means that the morals and beliefs of all beings are inherently good. What makes interpretation of this conjecture difficult is determining the definition of “good”, whether that “good” should stand for society or the individual. In both instances of Avatar, as demonstrated through the personalities of Colonel Miles Quaritch and Jake Sully, the military commander acts for the “good” of his own self, while Jake works for the “good” of the Na’vi tribe. Therefore, it is evident that the souls of all beings, whether they be human or not, all work towards their own sense of good. From this, it can be concluded that the soul is not merely a smaller version of a greater being, but instead a metaphysically similar entity with different motivations and beliefs.


While to the dualists, Buddhists or Scholastics these arguments may seem logical, to the materialists and existentialists, my argument may possess several inconsistencies. One question, asked from the materialist point of view, could be, “Why, if a higher conscious created everything with a universally participating conscious, do rocks exist, as they are inanimate objects without purpose or the ability of metaphysical existence.” The answer to this would be that since all creation, including plants, people and animals, derived from the same source, then the reason that rocks exist is because these objects hold within themselves an essence of the greater being. Without this essence, they would not exist. Another question might be, “If we all derive from the same source, then why aren’t we all the same?” The answer to this question would be through the environments which each individual is raised in. The same argument could be used for identical twins. Just because the two look the same does not mean that they will react the same to all experiences. The reason for this is because, despite the same DNA and physical attributes, and despite however minor their environments may differ from one another, that minor difference will act upon them to shape their own specific personalities. Because the soul clearly is, as demonstrated through the counters and examples given, an independent, yet metaphysically bound entity, it is evident that while humans may exist within the same reality, their differences are vast, physical attributes unique to themselves and personalities independent of all others.

From Avatar, and from the philosophical schools used to analyze the underlying themes within both the fictitious reality, as well as our own, it is clear that our identity as conscious beings is defined not through our physical aspects, but through our metaphysical traits. Based upon a movie set millions of light years away from Earth, upon a concept far beyond our own scientific abilities, it is evident that even through the direct transfer of conscious from one body to another, like Jake Sully’s experience, the soul is an infinite entity which wanders from one bodily vessel to the next.


Blessing on February 15, 2015:

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This is an arictle that makes you think "never thought of that!"

Sergey on January 09, 2011:

Great review! The best I ever read.

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