Written for Acculturated
November 8th, 2016
Like every other Benedict Cumberbatch fan out there, I recently saw Doctor Strange, the Marvel movie in which he plays the titular sorcerer. While it was weird hearing Cumberbatch speak in an American accent, the movie was, overall, pretty amazing. The casting was wonderful, the storyline was interesting, and the special effects psychedelic. The story is mainly one of redemption, as we follow Doctor Strange’s journey from a brilliant but self-centered neurosurgeon to a protector of earth capable of bending time and reality itself. However, it also provided an interesting cautionary tale about what happens when man attempts to overturn the natural order.
For some background (and a few spoilers), in the film, the good doctor trains under the most powerful sorcerer in the universes (yes, plural), the Ancient One. A former student of the Ancient One, named Kaecillius, goes rogue, and with his disciples attempts to bring earth into an alternate universe, known as the Dark Dimension. Kaecillius learns that time does not exist in the Dark Dimension, and believes that by entering it all mankind can live forever. He is, of course, wrong. The Dark Dimension is aptly named, and while time may not pass there, it is not a place one wants to spend any time.
Doctor Strange and his allies are taught by the Ancient One to protect and preserve the natural order. Man is meant to die, and the immortality promised by Kaecillius goes against the laws of nature. But the Ancient One is guilty of what Kaecillius and Co. are trying to accomplish. She draws her energy from the Dark Dimension, and is effectively immortal. It is the discovery of her hypocrisy that turns Kaecillius against her. As another character, Mordo, points out, her meddling with the natural order created the entire Kaecillius crisis. The Ancient One defends her actions, saying that sometimes a bending of the rules is necessary. Strange is initially angry upon finding out the Ancient One’s deception, but ultimately agrees with her, and tells Mordo she was just doing what she thought was right. But while the Ancient One may have done what she thought was right, it is Mordo who is actually right. The Ancient One taught her students to protect the natural order while not abiding by that rule herself, and the consequences of her actions were catastrophic.
While in real life we don’t have to contemplate things like whether or not to draw energy from the Dark Dimension (well, most of us anyway), as a society we face our own questions of morality—from subjects ranging from underage drinking to more serious topics like abortion. When we, like the Ancient One, try to do what we think is best, we can still fall short. Human judgment is prone to human error. Fortunately, we have a guide on how to keep the natural order intact: tradition. The natural order is so complex that it would be impossible for one person alone to consider all that is necessary to maintain it. Tradition is the accumulated knowledge of all our ancestors on right and wrong, what they learned during their lifetimes and passed on to us. Tradition is, in other words, the time-tested methods of how to maintain the natural order and keep society moving smoothly, which those who came before us learned through trial and error.
In one scene in the film, Doctor Strange attempts to cast an advanced spell, but is interrupted by Mordo and another sorcerer. He is told that that particular spell is incredibly difficult, and if performed improperly could end disastrously. They point out that there are even warnings in the book he’s reading the incantation from. The warnings, however, come after the spell. Since he hadn’t bothered to read ahead, Strange wouldn’t have known what could have gone wrong until he’d finished performing the spell. Likewise, how society stands to change for the worse is rarely clear to progressives who want to change the world to fit their vision. A disrespect for longstanding institutions and a lack of foresight means the negative consequences of their actions won’t become clear to them until it’s too late.
So as we contemplate the end of a contentious election season, we could do worse than take a page from Doctor Strange, which reminds us that without respect for tradition, most of our efforts are likely to end only in hubris.