At time of writing one of the most popular programs on television is AMC’s The Walking Dead.
With an average of over ten million viewers per episode, and no sign of its popularity abating, I found myself asking the question, “How is it that a story line, based on a post-apocalyptic hellscape, where animated corpses walk the land and feast on the flesh of the living, could have entered the mainstream?”
For a few decades, zombie films were only appreciated by a minute portion of the population, and being such a gruesome topic, to posit that it could be brought to television and have a wide audience would seem ludicrous.
I cannot claim in any way to speak for the creators of The Walking Dead. Probability dictates they simply sat down one day and put the story to paper simply because that was how their creative juices were flowing at that juncture in their lives.
As for the television series (it was originally a comic), a producer somewhere recognized that the zombies were secondary to something more important — characters with depth, complexity — and because of their various backgrounds, multiple opportunities for viewers from all walks of life being able to relate to them.
Still, those same characteristics can be found in other series that don’t involve exceptionally brutal and graphic violence, cannibalism, and matricide.
After focusing intently on ancient Roman Stoic ideas for the past couple of years, I realized that The Walking Dead is a perfect metaphor for the philosophy expounded by the likes of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, which puts forth that to be happy, one must strive to have a good life: one consisting of reason, intent on bettering not only one’s self as a human, but also by recognizing our shared common bonds and mutual interdependence with other humans.
Without focusing on such noble goals, and putting effort into achieving a life based on wisdom and love, then what are we?
As cattle with hay, nothing more than consumers, merely propelled by evolutionary drives to eat, procreate, and acquire resources.
In what kind of world do the surviving humans of The Walking Dead find themselves?
It is one in which they are surrounded by beings intent on one thing, and one thing only: consumption.
Watch a video of customers at an electronics store on Black Friday descending upon the last half-price 60” television, and you will note little difference between that and a horde of zombies surrounding, collapsing upon, and then devouring, a human being.
Are the millions of Walking Dead fans actively making a connection between the fictional world of the Walkers (aka zombies) and the Stoic philosophy of the ancient Romans?
Obviously not. But I would venture to state there is something deeper happening in the modern collective conscious that goes beyond either a base fascination with things grotesque, or on a more positive bent, merely recognizing excellence in dramatic acting, writing, camerawork, and music. (Yes…I am a fan of the show.)
I think many people realize there is more to living than just being a Walker—a mindless heap of flesh and bone soley intent on consumption.
When you are surrounded by the majority—from which no one can ever truly escape—one has to ask, as the minority that doesn’t want to succumb to a life of ignorance and craving that will never be sated, “What am I to do?”
You do what the survivors on The Walking Dead do—you develop an internal fortitude, you focus on only that which you truly need, you find strength and support in others with similar goals and values, and you learn when it is wise to love, and when it is wise to let go.
The Walking Dead isn’t for everyone; then again, neither is Stoicism.
Yet, if one understands that life contains suffering, then one can implement ways to ensure that it can be endured, if not outright overcome, through reason, love, strength of will, and refusing to place consumption above wisdom. With that thinking in mind, both the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead and the philosophy of the Stoics make total sense.
Acta Non Verba: Place post-it notes where you will see them throughout the day—bathroom mirror, kitchen cabinet, car dashboard, laptop screen—on which are written the simple phrase, “Walker or wisdom?”
All that is of the greatest worth for a man lies outside the power of his fellow men, and can neither be given nor taken away. – Seneca
…the fact that you attach great value to trivia, is the source of your anger and madness. – Seneca
…so arrogant are humans that, however much they have received, they take offense if they might have received more. – Seneca
…how should I live?…by remembering that whatever dwells in the land of flesh and breath neither belongs to me nor owes me a thing. – Marcus Aurelius
The commonplace sluggishness of the lives lived by the undisciplined is dangerously contagious, for we are often exposed to no alternative healthful way of living. – Epictetus
Popular perceptions, values, and ways of doing things are rarely the wisest. – Epictetus
Many pervasive beliefs would not pass appropriate tests of rationality. – Epictetus
Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
Original, non-meme image from Anne Zwagers via Unsplash.com.