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Titanic–a Tale to Remember April 14, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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So now we think we know what happened, on that night exactly 100 years ago. Divers have explored the wreck, animated computer models have been presented, rescued artifacts are making their rounds around the world, stories of lost souls and survivors have been told, documentaries and movies have been made. So after the 100th anniversary, can we now close the book on Titanic? Or will it become one of the stories of humankind that we will never quite be done with? If so, it will be because, for one thing, it speaks to something perennial in the human psyche—and for another, because the story is broad and deep enough that different times and ages can find their own reflections in it.

When the disaster happened, the world was different—and I’m not talking about technology. The very mindset of the western world in 1912 was vastly different from today, because of the enormous optimism felt on two continents: the new century was going to be magnificent; the advances in medicine would soon conquer all diseases; technology would take humanity to far-away places on the planet, at break-neck speeds; politically, democracies were spreading, and war seemed like a primitive option, left behind in the turmoil of the 19th century (and few people were in the position to be able to predict the start of the Great War (WWI) just tw years later). And nature, in all its forms, would soon be conquered by human know-how and willpower. And what better symbol of the new age than the sister ships being built in Belfast, the Olympic and the Titanic? And when the Titanic, the carrier of the dream of the future, sank on April 14, 1912, the dream of an invincible 20th century perished, too, and in its place rose a wave of cynicism that we have, in effect, been riding ever since.

As we all know from Cameron’s movie (if we didn’t know already): It wasn’t the architect who claimed the ship was unsinkable—the concept came from the owners and the advertisers. The sinking of Titanic gave rise to cynicism and skepticism about what authorities tell you (don’t worry, there will be another lifeboat), about what advertisers tell you, about the promises of technology and even the wisdom of applying it. In short, Titanic now became a symbol for human hubris and nemesis, and that is the mirror Titanic has held up to us for a century.  

But now? With the 100th anniversary the drumbeat of the moral lessons of Titanic is sounding a new beat, coming from James Cameron himself. Two themes are emerging that one hundred years ago were not high on the agenda; one wasn’t even on the horizon. The recently corroborated fact that of the 1500 people who died that night, a great number were 3rd class passengers, locked up in steerage like rats, without even a change of escaping, has become a new theme: When disaster strikes, everybody suffers, but some may be suffering more than others: the have-nots. According to statistics, 75 percent of steerage passengers died, while among the first class passengers “only” 37 percent were lost. So the social aspect of Titanic as a class experience has emerged as a moral lesson, added to the hubris theme. But Cameron sees yet another moral caveat in the story of Titanic: the hubris of a planet thinking it can go full steam ahead without worrying about icebergs, for the sake of profit. For him, Planet Earth is a Titanic forging ahead into climate change.

So is that an appropriate lesson to be learned from the story of Titanic, or does it somehow deflect and detract from the actual tragedy happening to real people 100 years ago? Are they being used merely as a means to a political end? That is up to us to decide, individually. What fascinates me is that the doomed ship can take on a new narrative role as a teacher of moral lessons that go far beyond the concerns of 100 years ago. But perhaps that is the case with all good stories; they not only tell a timeless tale, but their lesson can be adapted to new ages and different problems.



1. Paul J. Moloney - April 22, 2012

Unfortunately the sinking of the Titanic is rich with moral lessons. If one is expecting a better life, and if one has no expectation of the opposite, the end of life can come as a complete horrible shock. Even if a poorer person coming to America could entertain doubts about making it in America, the thought of losing one’s life in the Atlantic Ocean does not seem to have been seriously considered because the Titanic was touted as unsinkable. I would think then that a life that was not so good would be better than no life at all.

There is a benefit, actually many, to being called to philosophy. The better life does not consist in economic betterment, though everyone may need the basics. Even poorer people can have economic security while making less money. The better life comes through understanding rather than through greed. Greed is an infinite desire that can never be fulfilled. The greedy person can have no rest. Greed has no conclusion. Death is the conclusion of life, and death contradicts the inconclusiveness of greed. Death is definite while greed is not. The desire of greed is infinite and therefore indefinite. What is indefinite about death is the time and other circumstances of our deaths. Because the time of our deaths is indefinite, it seems that our lives can be infinite, that we will never die, because the infinite is also indefinite. It can be a shock when our lives come to an untimely and abrupt end.

On the other hand, philosophy is always coming to an end through understanding. As Aristotle points out, understanding is a kind of rest. Understanding comes after the activity of reasoning, and that is why it is considered a kind of rest. Understanding is the fulfillment of reasoning. Understanding is a conclusion, and when we have a conclusion we have fulfillment. In contrast, greed can never be fulfilled and ends in an unfulfilled life. A well argued life, through philosophy, comes to a fulfilling conclusion, which means a fulfilled life.

I am sure one can tie together all the moral lessons, both the good and the bad, learned from the sinking of the Titanic. The bad lessons such as greed, arrogance, presumption and the like seem to be the most obvious. Even one good moral lesson, though tragic may outweigh all the bad moral lessons. I cannot think of a greater class act than the one performed by members of the band who played on while the ship was sinking. (It seems, too, that the musicians who played during the sinking were younger fellows who could have had full lives ahead of themselves.) If such heroism does not remove cynicism nothing will.

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