Woody Allen Photo by Colin Swan, Wikimedia Commons

Refuting Woody Allen’s bleak world view

By  Fr. Robert Barron
  • September 20, 2014

I was chagrined, but not entirely surprised, when I read Woody Allen’s recent ruminations on ultimate things. To be blunt, he could not be any bleaker regarding the issue of meaning in the universe. 

We live, he said, in a godless and purposeless world. The Earth came into existence through mere chance and one day it, along with every work of art and cultural accomplishment, will be incinerated. The universe as a whole will expand and cool until there is nothing left but the void. Every hundred years or so, he continued, a coterie of human beings will be “flushed away” and another will replace it until it is similarly eliminated. 

So why does he bother making films — roughly one every year? In order to distract us from the awful truth about the meaninglessness of everything, we need diversions, and this is the service that artists provide, he said. In some ways, low-level entertainers are probably more socially useful than high-brow artistes, since the former manage to distract more people than the latter. After delivering himself of this sunny appraisal, he quipped, “I hope everyone has a nice afternoon!” 

The philosophers of antiquity and the Middle Ages acknowledged what Allen observed about the physical world is largely true. Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas all knew that material objects come and go, that human beings inevitably pass away, that all our great works of art will eventually cease to exist. 

But those great thinkers wouldn’t have succumbed to Allen’s desperate nihilism. They also believed there were real links to a higher world evident within ordinary experience, that certain clues within the world tip us off to the truth that there is more to reality than meets the eye. One of these clues is beauty. 

In Plato’s Symposium, an exquisite speech by a woman named Diotima describes the experience of seeing something truly beautiful — an object, a work of art, a lovely person, etc. — and she remarks that this experience carries with it a kind of aura. It lifts the observer to a consideration of the Beautiful itself, the source of all particular beauty. A modern version of Diotima’s speech would be the evocative section of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wherein the narrator relates his encounter with a beautiful girl standing in the surf and exclaims, “Oh heavenly God.” 

John Paul II was standing in this same tradition when, in his wonderful letter to artists, he spoke of the artists’ vocation as mediating God through beauty. To characterize artistic beauty as a mere distraction from the psychological oppression of nihilism is a tragic reductionism. 

A second classical avenue to a higher world is morality or, more precisely, the unconditioned demand of the good. On purely nihilist grounds, it is exceptionally difficult to say why anyone should be morally upright. If there are starving children in Africa, if there are people dying of AIDS in this country, if Christians are being systematically persecuted around the world . . . well who cares? Every hundred years or so, a coterie of human beings is flushed away and the cold universe looks on with utter indifference. Why not dull our senses to innocent suffering and injustice as best we can? 

In point of fact, moral obligation links us to the higher world. The violation of one person cries out, quite literally, to heaven for vengeance, and the performance of one truly noble moral act is a participation in the Good itself, the source of all particular goodness. 

But Woody Allen’s rejection of this principle is evident in two of his better films, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Match Point (2005). In both, men commit horrendous crimes, but after a brief period of regret, they move on with their pampered lives. No judgment comes, and all returns to normal. 

Yet I’m convinced that the great auteur doesn’t finally believe his own philosophy. Perhaps this conviction is born of my affection for many of Allen’s films. But there are simply too many hints of beauty, truth and goodness in his movies, and these speak of a reality that transcends this fleeting world. 

(Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago.) 

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