Vico lecturer reveals philosophical truths about Hollywood westerns

The words “spaghetti western” never crossed Robert Pippin’s lips as the distinguished professor from the University of Chicago delivered York’s fourth annual Giambattista Vico Lecture in November. The lecture, titled “Political Psychology, American Myth and Hollywood Westerns: Politics and Truth in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, is part of an annual series hosted by the Faculty of Arts at York University that celebrates the legacy of the great Italian philosopher and historian, Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). 

Pippin, the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor of Social Thought, Philosophy, at the University of Chicago, began his lecture by referring to a famous saying first coined by Vico: "The truth is itself something made."

“We make our own history and we make the stories about our history to attempt to explain it to us,” said Pippin. Stating that while the Greeks have Odysseus and the British have the Arthurian legend, in the United States, Pippin suggested, the genre of the Hollywood western offers a significant expression of American mythology. Pippin said the Hollywood western has turned the Trojan War into the American Civil War and that The Odyssey found its counterpart in the great migration west.

Speaking from the lectern of the Robert R. McEwen Auditorium in the Schulich School of Business on York’s Keele campus, Pippin asked the audience to consider the acting styles and visual sweep of Westerns, and how their grandiosity and ambition are much closer to opera than filmed domestic dramas. “Not for nothing are westerns derisively known as horse operas,” he remarked.

Left: Robert Pippin

“Vico’s single, great contribution to us in philosophy is his drawing attention to the significance of historical change in understanding all things human,” said Pippin. The historically transitional period that formed the subject of his Vico lecture was the post-Civil War founding of the territorial United States and the conquest of the West. Pippin used American director John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as the key example for his analysis. 

In the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, local cattle ranchers hire a gunman, Liberty Valance, to intimidate the townspeople of Shinbone and maintain their monopoly of the territory’s resources. A young lawyer, Ransom Stoddard (played by James Stewart), arrives in town. Valance threatens Stoddard and, in the ensuing violent confrontation, Valance is killed. Stoddard, now considered a hero, goes on to a successful political career. However, the means of Valance’s demise – the premise that brought Stoddard to power – turns out to be a lie. Another local rancher, Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne), is the agent of the lie. Doniphon encourages Stoddard to maintain the falsehood so as to preserve the law and order his story has engendered.

Pippin suggested that the deception in Ford’s classic western was necessary in order for the new order to supplant the old. He characterized the conflict in the movie as typical of great westerns, a struggle between heroic and marshal virtues, and bourgeois virtues – especially the domestic ones – of compromise, peace and security. Pippin suggested that the movie asks how a liberal, democratic legal order can gain a foothold in an environment of lawlessness and corruption. “The heroes of such dramas are often super-heroic, near divinity. One man can out-duel five others in a shootout,” said Pippin. He alluded to Clint Eastwood in the climactic conclusion of Unforgiven or the final gunfight in Ford’s Stagecoach. “The hero can be accurate with a ludicrously inaccurate pistol at 200 yards just as Odysseus can slay all the suitors and Achilles can terrify an entire army with one war cry,” said Pippin.

Right: Pippin pauses during his lecture

He noted that the story is told in a montage of flashbacks told by Stoddard (who in the film had become a successful politician) to an eager reporter. Once again, Pippin tied this in with the notion of telling stories of our past even, at times, apocryphal ones, mythologizing in order to help explain it to us.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the lecture, one question posed by an audience member prompted Pippin to reply: “We’ve forgotten one of the fundamental questions that westerns are concerned with and that is, ‘Is Shinbone worth it? Are you proud of this sterile, dead, empty, airless world that they’ve created?’ It’s a deep and real question, but it’s really only movies that are asking it, not so much political philosophers.”

Faculty of Arts Dean Robert Drummond, a professor of political science, thanked Pippin for his lecture and remarked that in his own lectures he had drawn attention to two conceptions of politics: one portrays it as the study of the influential and the other teaches people to care for one another. “I think now I have to read some more of Robert Pippin,” said Drummond. He then thanked Elvio DelZotto and Susan Zorzi for helping to establish the endowed lecture series in memory of Fred Zorzi, late partner of DelZotto, Zorzi LLP. It honours and highlights the historic and cultural contributions to Canada made by Italian-Canadians.

By David Wallace, communications coordinator, Faculty of Arts.