In my first analysis of The Giver, I discussed how Plato’s Theory of Forms and Allegory of the Cave contributed to a deeper meaning within the book. I will preserve this philosophical theme by now introducing Socrates, ethics, and existentialism. The laws and upbringings of the society, the idea of living your own life to its fullest, and questioning the beliefs of your peers can provide us with a clearer guide of The Giver.
As I read the book, I could not help but see The Giver as Socrates; his cloistered wisdom fossilized by age and predisposition to dialogue is almost undeniable. As Socrates walked the streets of Athens, he questioned his equals about justice and equality. He did so in an attempt to further understand his world and his peers’ morals, though he denied that knowledge was unattainable. Jonas and The Giver’s insightful discussions on logic and the difference between right and wrong is fascinating. We, as the audience, can empathize with Jonas’ abhorrence of keeping memories to himself. It is said by The Giver, in consolation, that most people are simply unable to endure such wisdom. But what makes this morally acceptable? Why have these wonderful and destructive sensations been withheld? Surely it is for the best, reasons the Elders. This esoteric knowledge held only by Jonas and his teacher is what intrigued Socrates. With every conversation the two hold, a new door is opened to investigate a social injustice. Like Socrates, both The Giver and Jonas question the ones around them. Take chapter 17 for example, when Jonas witnesses a playful war between his friends. He immediately challenges his own beliefs and realizes that while his friends’ ignorance is bliss, it is ethically wrong what they are doing. What used to be a fun game turns into a depressive realization for Jonas. Later in the book when he finds out that his parents have been lying this whole time, Jonas doesn’t know what to do with himself. By calling his own upbringing into question, we find ourselves exploring Jonas’ existential crisis.
The idea of existentialism is to live life to the fullest and take control of who you are. We instantly run into a wall, though: Doesn’t Jonas’ predestined life contradict his pursuing an identity? Well, yes and no. I will explain my thinking by crediting Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of Übermensch, or “superman.” The gist of Nietzsche’s notion is that one man, a “superman,” as he called it, would ascend all others by creating new morals and values. Jonas, being the new Receiver, has all the necessary requirements of a superman. At the same time, he is limited in his say against the gerontocracy. And as The Giver reminds us, “I have great honor […] But you will find that that is not the same as power” (84). Jonas is one of two people that knows the truth about his world. Knowing that his parents, his friends, and his government cannot know the truth, Jonas finds he can only confide with himself and his wise, tortured mentor. Søren Kierkegaard is our next guide. The Dane is considered to be the first existentialist. His most influential book, The Sickness Unto Death, advocates similar ideas to that of Nietzsche. Søren, like his fellow gloomy philosopher, believed that the individual was more important than the group. The group was a dangerous thing to the individual. Kierkegaard dispelled the idea that we should be influenced by and conform to others; instead, he passionately stated that every action, every thought we make is decided by us and us alone. So what can Jonas learn from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche? Not much: Jonas actually does a good job in the latter half of the book acting on self-motivation, in my opinion. Realizing that no good can be done to his society and that he must leave everything behind, Jonas ascended the herd and decided to give him and his adopted brother Gabriel a new life. Jonas is an Übermensch.
For further reading: 501 Things You Should Have Learned About Philosophy by Alison Rattle
Philosophy: An Illustrated History of Thought by Tom Jackson (2014)
Essentials of Philosophyby James Mannion (2006)
The Psychology Book by DK (2012)
The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)