The other day I happened to rewatch a classic popcorn movie, Road House, starting Patrick Swayze. There’s a lot to laugh at in the film, a lot of over-acting and action. The film is about a specialized bouncer called a “cooler,” named Dalton, who has a reputation for cleaning up bars and keeping out bad customers. The film starts with him being approached by the new owner of The Double Deuce, a road side bar in Jasper Missouri. The bar is known for having problems and he thinks Dalton is the one to fix them.
The small town and bar are shaken up when Dalton arrives, bringing with him the changes he believes necessary to bring stability to the bar and create an environment where people can enjoy themselves without worrying about being stabbed. This mostly requires firing drug dealing, stealing, and incompetent employees.
These changes bring Dalton into conflict with a corrupt local businessman named Brad Wesley. Wesley has made his life around Jasper by extorting the town for protection money and is dead set against Dalton making any changes that could disrupt his power. This becomes the conflict of the film, with Wesley and Dalton fighting for the Soul of Jasper and the fate of the Road House.
Like I said, a popcorn movie.
The Philosophy Fighter
What surprised me about the rewatch was the understated presence of the philosophy of Stoicism in Dalton’s attitude and actions. While it’s never stated as Stoicism, Dalton appears to be a practicing Stoic. Through the movie it’s revealed that Dalton majored in Philosophy at Columbia, lending authenticity to the idea that he would be familiar with the practices associated with Stoicism.
If you dive into the trivia of the film, there was actually a scene cut from the final version where someone refers to Dalton as, “The philosopher fighter.” A title that would have been appropriate especially when we look at how he applied this philosophy through throughout the movie.
The Dichotomy of Control
When Dalton is instructing the bouncers of the Double Deuce, he explains to them the rules of being a bouncer and how to properly respond to situations. He tells them to be nice because whatever is said, it isn’t personal, it’s the job.
There is a story of Cato, a prominent Stoic from the Roman Empire, who was once shoved and insulted at the local bathhouse. Once things calmed down, the aggressor apologized. Cato replied that he didn’t remember being hit or insulted. The Stoics believed that we couldn’t always control our circumstances, but we could control our responses. They called the practice the dichotomy of control.
Insults are a matter of life with other people, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear them and remember that they are rarely as personal as we want to make them. Epictetus wrote, “If you hear that someone is speaking ill of you, instead of trying to defend yourself you should say: “He obviously does not know me very well, since there are so many other faults he could have mentioned.””
While we can control our reactions to the situations, we cannot always control the situations themselves, that’s why it’s always helpful to consider what could happen next.
After the first night of Dalton’s new management style, the bar owner is excited to announce the night has been successful because, “Nobody died.”
Dalton replies that, “It’ll get worse before it gets better.”
Here hints at another Stoic practice called negative visualization, in which we imagine what could go wrong allowing us to anticipate and get ahead of it. Half of our struggle with these upsets is the surprise of getting caught off guard, this practice of forethought takes away the initial power of the evil approaching. The use of this technique by Dalton is further highlighted when he makes an off-handed remark about trouble being less dangerous once it has been anticipated.
Good films form the central conflict in the conflicting ideologies of the antagonist and protagonist. The argument with Dalton’s Stoic virtues is the hedonism of Brad Wesley. Wesley, from the first moment we meet him is consumed with his own pleasure, he’s driving down a country road, swerving in and out of both lanes nearly running Dalton off the road. He doesn’t care about anyone except himself.
This could be seen as an extreme form of epicureanism, which was a competing school of philosophy in the Roman world. The foundation of Epicureanism is that pleasure is the highest good, whatever brings you pleasure is the best thing to pursue. Taken to extremes, this philosophy advocates the indulgence of a child and the brutal passion of one when denied. Brad Wesley, lives at this extreme, and will do whatever necessary to get himself what he wants.
The argument between Epicureanism and Stoicism have been long and exhausting, like two siblings. Stoics advocate self-denial and control as virtues, the Epicureans prefer to focus on how to enjoy life. Dalton and Wesley butting heads is a cinematic portrayal of this competition and can be illustrated in the scenes where they speak.
Dalton: You’ve gotten rich off of the people in this town.
Brad Wesley: [laughs] You bet your ass I have. And I’m gonna get richer. I believe we all have a purpose on this earth. A destiny. I have a faith in that destiny. It tells me to gather unto me what is mine. But, Christ, you get paid for beating people up. Tell me you don’t love it. Of course you do. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t.
He looks at what Dalton does and encourages him to revel in it, to take joy in the beatings, to relish the fighting, to make it personal.
Was the Stoic vs. Epicurean debate a thrust of the filmmakers purpose in the movie? Probably not. It is, as it was intended to be: a popcorn movie. What the film touches on is the continual argument that exists beyond philosophical schools, what is worth fighting for?
Dalton fights for order, and applies violence impersonally as a way of maintaining that order.
Brad Wesley applies violence personally, to get what he wants and supply his desires of the moment.
When viewing this through the lenses of Philosophy we can look at it as a Stoic debate. We can interpret Dalton’s actions as a reminder of Stoic principles and virtues. We cannot always control the situations we find ourselves in, but we can control our response — we can be nice when others are not.