The Philosopher’s POV: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

August 9, 2011 21 Comments

The Fantastic Mr. Fox:  An Aristotelian Animal

Foxes are known to be clever, and Mr. Fox is no exception.   He plans invasions of the farms of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, “horrible crooks, so different in looks, but nonetheless equally mean.”  He laces blueberries with a potent sleeping powder to give to the dogs that guard Boggis’s chickens, and the dogs eat them and fall asleep.  But while he is clever, he also takes unnecessary risks, as his wife’s nephew, Kristoffersson, says to their son Ash.  After raiding Berk’s Squab Farm with his wife, Felicity, they stand outside, and Mr. Fox ponders a fox trap that has been set up to catch them.   He thinks he has figured out how it works and pulls a chain that unexpectedly drops iron bars that trap them.  Upon his release from jail after serving two non-fox years (12 fox years), Fox settles down, as he promised his wife that he would, and becomes a journalist writing a column called, “Fox About Town.”

But he is restless, doesn’t want to live in a hole anymore, and is aware of his finitude, recalling that he is seven years old and that his father died at 7.5.   He wonders who he is and asks how “a fox can ever be happy without a chicken in his teeth.”  He appoints Kylie, the friendly opossum, his assistant and plans one last big job, with three phases, in which he will steal from each of the three “horrible crooks.”  The first two capers go well, though Kylie has to point out the obvious: they can enter Boggis’s farm through an open gate rather than taking the dangerous route Fox proposes.  In addition, because they have no escape plan, they are forced to climb an electrified fence to get out.

Mr. Bean is a more formidable opponent.  His men shoot off  Fox’s tail, force the family underground, try to starve them out, and then flood their tunnels with Bean’s alcoholic cider.  Kristofferson is captured when he and Ash try to recover Fox’s tail from Bean’s house, and Fox seems ready to agree to exchange himself for Kristofferson’s release.  But then he decides to take advantage of the different strengths of the different species of wild animals, and they launch a successful counterattack on the farmers, the success owing largely to Ash’s daring and athletic sprint and “whack-bat” swing that results in opening the gate to Bean’s compound.

Why didn’t Mr. Fox keep his promise to his wife to settle down and stop stealing when he was released from jail?  Why did he lie to her when he began executing his last big job?  His short answer is that he “is a wild animal.”  When later his wife asks Mr. Fox why he got them “into all this” (that is, into a situation where they are being relentlessly pursued by Bean and the other two farmers), his answer is that he doesn’t feel good about himself if others do not think he is “fantastic” in doing the kind of things foxes traditionally do, namely, “court danger, hunt prey, and outsmart predators.”   At the end of his conversation with his wife, Fox says, “I think at the end of the day I’m just…” and she finishes his sentence with, “I know.  We’re wild animals.”

Aristotle thought that the good of anything that has a function consists in the excellent performance of that function.  A good knife is one that cuts well, a good flutist is one who plays the flute well, a good ship builder is one who builds ships well, and so on.  So if foxes have functions, a good fox would be one that performs its functions well.  Further, for Aristotle a thing’s function is what it alone can do, or can do best.  Mr. Fox thinks that foxes dig better than any other animal.  So that is one of their functions.  They also court danger, hunt prey, and outsmart predators.  Those are also their functions.  Aristotle also thought that, for any X, being a good X is good for X, and when it comes to people, that happiness consists in the excellent performance of what is peculiar to man, namely, rational activity.  So he would say that for Mr. Fox to be happy he must act like a fox: dig, be clever, take risks!

Fox does not give up acting like a fox, for in the end he steals from the Boggis, Bunce, and Bean International Supermarket instead of from their farms.  However, he is able to combine such pursuits with a more settled family life supported in part by his writing a new column, “Fox on the Prowl.”

Aristotle thought that man is essentially a rational animal, but unlike the gods, we have a composite nature that combines reason with desire.  Reason is supposed to govern desire by determining what is the golden mean between excess and deficiency.   The coward has too much fear and the rash person too little.  The courageous person has just the right amount and so does the right thing in the face of danger.   In the beginning, Mr. Fox was too rash; perhaps his wife wanted him to be too cowardly.  In the end, he may have found the just right point between excess and deficiency, which is what Aristotle thought virtue and happiness consist in.

Was he right?  Couldn’t a clever thief be happier than a virtuous pauper?   Is it true that what makes something a good X is always good for X?  It seems that what makes a fighting bull a good fighting bull may not be good for the bull.  Ferdinand, who enjoys sniffing the flowers, is a poor fighting bull, but he ends up better off than the excellent fighting bulls who die cruel and painful deaths in the ring.  Aristotle may have admired the Mr. Fox who emerges at the end of the film, but it may not be good for everyone to be a good human being.  Sometimes good human beings, like good fighting bulls, die cruel and painful deaths.


Each month Dr. Bruce  Russell explores philosophical issues that are central to good filmmaking.  Dr. Russell is a professor of philosophy at Wayne State University.  His major areas of interest include ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of religion (the problem of evil).    He has published extensively and we are fortunate that he has combined his  keen knowledge in these areas with his love of film.

The Philosopher's POV
21 Comments to “The Philosopher’s POV: The Fantastic Mr. Fox”
  1. Jolyn Welsh Wagner says: we have an interesting pairing of thoughts about our old protagonist Mr. Fox(click whistle)…..and Aristotle and Freud squaring off for the most compelling explanation of his motives, behaviours and dare I say “essence”?….so what’s going on in this claymation universe????is it the battle between animalistic desire and higher reason that is consuming Mr. Fox or good old Oedipal longings for a father’s love and approval? Someone grab a few chickens, I think this discussion could take a while!! Great work guys!

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    I think Freud and Aristotle’s views about human nature and what is the best way to live are not as far apart as might appear at first glance. Both think that humans are composite beings possessing reason, desire, and emotions. What should analysts hope for in their patients? That they become more rational not feeling anger, fear, etc., where those emotions are inappropriate, that is, irrational. It is irrational to be angry with the messenger who brings bad news and it is irrational to be angry with your therapist because he or she resembles in certain ways people you have reason to be angry with.

  3. Bruce Russell says:

    I continue! (Somehow my comment was posted before I finished). Irrational emotions often cause irrational action, so you can become more rational in your conduct by having more rational emotions. Isn’t that Freud’s goal, becoming more rational in your feelings? Therapists can’t make people happy, for that depends on their most central desires being satisfied. The world might not cooperate in satisfying those desires, so you may not be happy even if you have rational desires and emotions. But having such desires and emotions can make you unhappy so ridding yourself of them is necessary, though not sufficient, for happiness.

    Of course, Freud had theories about the nature and origin of certain desires and emotions that Aristotle did not. But they still agreed about the fundamental nature of human beings.

  4. Jolyn Welsh Wagner says:

    I’m not certain that Freud’s major(fundamental) goal was to invite his analysands to live more rationally…that’s a part, to be sure, but equally important was to accept(Lacan would probably say embrace) the inevitable irrationality of desire…its unconscious components etc all its wackiness and impossibilities and find creative ways to co-exist….maybe Aristotle would have turned up his toga on that part..I don’t know….less rational perhaps, but way more interesting….Jolyn

  5. Bruce Russell says:

    I don’t think desires are necessarily irrational; they are not inevitably so. A desire to drink when you are thirsty, eat when you are hungry; rest when you are tired are not in themselves irrational. Nor are desires to accomplish things within your grasp, to love people who treat you well and love you back, and so on. It is irrational to desire pain or unhappiness for their own sakes, or to want do what you know is impossible (say, to live to 200 in today’s world). But most desires are rational, not irrational, and their rationality, or irrationality, does not depend on their origins. The irrationality of a desire is a function of its content, not its pedigree. So there is no reason to want analysands to accept the irrationality of their desires, for their desires need not be irrational.

  6. Jolyn Welsh Wagner says:

    I agree with much of what you are saying about desire…that some are rational, absolutely! that many are rational, makes much sense to me…but that MOST desires are rational seems to counter the advice I’ve been given to fit my beliefs to the evidence….far too many folks(including poor wiley Mr. Fox) seem to spend alot of their time struggling with irrational desires..including those cagey unconscious ones…which is also why I do think that pedigree matters(in addition to content,that is the meaning of who it all came from seems to factor in a bunch)…it just doesn’t seem to unfold as cleanly as your theory describes…or am I just being irrational?

  7. Bruce Russell says:

    There is a difference between an irrational belief and an irrational desire. A rational belief is one that fits the totality of evidence. There are three views about the relationship between irational desire and irational belief: (1) David Hume’s view that a desire is irrational if, and only if, it is based on an irrational belief (say, the desire to jump off a 12 story building and land safely); (2) a desire is irrational if, and only if, it is an intrinsic desire for something that is, in itself, “bad for you” (e.g., a desire to feel pain or to be unhappy for no reason); (3) the hybrid view that says a desire can be irrational because EITHER it is based on an irrational belief OR because of its intrinsic content. I used to accept (3), but since reading Derek Parfit (contemporary Oxford philosopher), I’m leaning towards (2). As far as I can tell, Hume is just wrong, and the examples of desiring pain or unhappiness for their own sake shows that he is. In any case, a desire won’t be irrational just because it is unconscious. Maybe you unconsciously love chocolate or Pedro Almodovar! That does not make those desires irrational. Is the desire based on an irrational belief? Then maybe it’s irrational (if the hybrid view is correct). Is the object of the desire something that is bad for you and you still want it for no other reason? Then it’s irrational. Fitting your beliefs to the evidence is the advice I’d give in order to have rational BELIEFS. It might be derivatively relevant to whether you have rational DESIRES. I wonder why you think Mr. Fox’s desires are irrational? Because acting on them puts him at unreasonable risk? But then it falls in the category of being a desire that is for something that is “bad for” Mr. Fox. And if it is bad for him, it does not matter whether it arose consciously or unconsciously. Or so I think.

  8. Robert MacDonell says:

    Fitting one’s beliefs to the evidence in order to have ‘rational beliefs’ is sound advice I think. And whether ‘irrational desires’ are conscious or unconscious DOES make a difference; the difference being context.

    I think our analyst colleagues would tell us that in manifest content (conscious experience), the context is understood along with the content(or at least mostly so) which is why it is possible to modulate our choices and make ‘rational’ decisions: e.g., ‘nothing in excess’. Latent content in affects, free associations and dreams, on the other hand, has no conscious context until it is assigned meaning (put in context)

    So, while irrational desires may be attributable in some measure to content, it is of necessity also attributable to and framed by its context (pedigree); for there is no content independent of context. I think Aristotle and Freud would be of one mind in that regard.

  9. Bruce Russell says:

    Robert, I’m glad to see your comments again. They are always thought provoking. Maybe we should get clear about what we mean by “content”, “context,” etc. to make sure we aren’t talking past each other.

    When I speak of a desire’s (or belief’s) content I am referring to the object of the desire (or belief). So a desire for ice cream has a different content than a desire for pasta, for success, for sex, etc. Any of those desires may have conscious or unconscious causes. I don’t deny that context (by which I mean the surrounding circumstances, background conditions, and the like) causes the content. I’m just denying that all irrational desires are caused by unconscious states and that unconscious states always cause irrational desires when they do cause desires. In addition, rational desires can have unconscious or conscious causes. There are two distinctions: (1) conscious/unconscious and (2)rational/irrational. You can construct a matrix like this:
    conscious unconscious

    rational (1) (2)

    irrational (3) (4)

    I’m saying that there can be desires that fall in each of the four cells. There is no ESSENTIAL, NECESSARY, relationship between members of one pair of distinctions and those of the other.

    I think philosophers and non-philosophers often talk past each other because philosophers are interested in whether A and B are NECESSARILY connected while non-philosophers are often interested in whether they are CAUSALLY connected. To illustrate, take the question, “What makes someone a bachelor?” Philosophers would answer, “Being an unmarried male of marriageable age”…or some such. Non-philosophers would think about a causal answer perhaps offering, “they are self-centered, ill-tempered men”…or some such.

    So, yes, irrational desires are OFTEN caused by unconscious forces but they are NOT NECESSARILY caused by such forces. There are POSSIBLE cases in each of the four cells of the matrix I constructed. But what makes them irrational desires are not their causes, anymore than what makes someone a bachelor is what causes him to be unmarried (that is, the essential properties that are necessary and sufficient for being a bachelor [that MAKE someone a bachelor] are not the same as the causes of being a bachelor). What makes a desire irrational in this sense are the properties that are essential to a desire’s being irrational. The three theories I offered in response to Jolyn are the candidates. Their defenders think that they are the essential properties of an irrational desire.

    I think we might be talking past each other because you, and Jolyn, are thinking about what causes desires to be irrational and I’m thinking about what properties are essential to a desire’s being irrational. The causes aren’t essential properties because we can imagine cases of irrational desires in each of the two cells of my matrix.

    Phew. That was too long, but I think we’ll talk past each other if we don’t make these distinctions clear.

    There are other concepts you use that are pretty fuzzy to me: context, content (as you understand it), latent content, etc. But maybe the central issue between us can be side-stepped by noting the ambiguity in “makes…”. On one reading it refers to essential properties; on another, to causes.

  10. Bruce Russell says:

    Uh, the matrix fizzled. It is supposed to have two colums at the top with conscious/unconscious heading them and two rows below with rational/irrational filling them. That will generate four boxes or cells. Well, I tried to make it clear…just didn’t work out when I hit “submit.” That scrambled the matrix!

  11. Bruce Russell says:

    Here’s a simple example to show that a desire that is caused by a subconscious and irrational desire need not itself be irrational. Suppose that subconsciously I want to sleep with my mother. For the sake of argument, suppose also that that desire is irrational. Finally, suppose I want to sleep with Sophia because she resembles my mother in ways that make me want to sleep with her. Now I don’t think my desire to sleep with Sophia need be irrational. Maybe Sophia is just the right sort of woman for me! This example shows that you cannot infer that a conscious desire is irrational just because it was caused by an irrational subconscious desire (plus transference, say). To determine whether a desire is irrational or not, you must look at the nature of the desire. Its origins do not allow you to conclude one way rather than another. They are irrelevant to the question of the nature of the desire, rational or irrational, just as what causes someone to be a bachelor is irrelevant to the nature of bachelorhood. Does the desire have properties sufficient to make it rational? Then it is. Does it lack properties necessary to make it rational? Then it is irrational.

    OK, I know. I only get one essay a month!

  12. Marc Rosen says:

    Time for the couch to weigh in. I’m playing with the idea that Fox is in the grips of a neurotic inhibition. That is, he has a strong desire that is being barred from expression by way of internal conflict. He wants to give expression to his Fox-like nature which, in the movie, he finally does. What Quakenbush hears, I believe, are themes in Fox’s narrative that provide windows into why he has sought consultation and into what constrains him from actualizing, or even knowing, the nature of his desire. You’re right, Bruce, that in the beginning, he goes overboard, taking rash and irrational chances. In the end, Fox becomes courageous, tempering the intensity of his desire and fear with a realistic and useful appraisal of the world around him.

  13. Jolyn Welsh Wagner says:

    soooooo…does he become more “rational” in his beliefs about himself or more in tune with his longings and desires?????? Jolyn

  14. Robert MacDonell says:

    Bruce – Your comments are always very helpful. Maybe we are talking past one another to some extent. So I hope you can help me out here. I like the matrix approach, it helps me sort out my thinking. So I posit the following and look forward to your comments:

    Square 1 is: conscious/rational process (thinking)that we all engage in daily and would commonly agree is logical, functional, goal oriented, and dare I say ‘normal’.

    Square 2 is: unconscious/rational process which from a psychoanalytic perspective is a contradiction in terms, since unconscious thinking (primary process) is by definition not rational in the sense implied in square 1.

    Square 3 is: conscious/irrational process is neurotic: conscious thoughts and behaviors deriving from unconscious conflict (irrational, primary process thinking) which analysis seeks to help a person understand in order to ameliorate the conflict; that is, to make the context understood so the person can effect a change.

    Square 4 is: unconscious/irrational which is essentially the definition of primary process thinking. This is akin to psychosis.

    I agree with you that desires and their object (content)can fall into all four squares, but maintain that whether they are conscious or unconscious (the context they derive from) makes all the difference. In other words, I believe the causes are essential properties of the thoughts/desires. The causes (context) are inextricable from the content. Every thought has both content and context.

  15. Robert MacDonell says:

    Looks like three of us were writing simultaneously !

  16. Robert MacDonell says:

    I must agree with Marc that Fox works through his neurosis in the end and becomes more rational.

  17. bruce russell says:

    I’m typing one-handed because i had hand surgery on tues (trigger finger). HENCE, few caps and (maybe!) mercifully shorter!

    To Marc, i think fox always gave expression to PART OF his fox-like nature, namely, the wild animal in him, but at first ignored another part, namely, reason. In the end, he seems to strike a better balance, the Aristotelian just right point between excess and deficiency!

    I also think that different actions and attitudes that fox manifests require different explanations: the Freudian considerations relevant to explaining his attitude to his son Ash; reason and desire more relevant to explaining his stealing and the like. So i don’t see a reason to posit some hidden obstacle to his expressing his fox-like nature, unless you mean the rational part of his nature.

    i’m going to send this now and then respond to Bob. i don’t want to get a timed-out message and lose all i’v written with my left hand!

  18. bruce russell says:

    Bob, i disagree with a couple of your remarks. First, i don’t think a desire is a process, and, second, i think some rational desires are NOT the result of thinking. For instance, i might unthinkingly want to take a sip from my glass of water while we are having a conversation and then do just that. SO I DISAGREE WITH TWO THIHGS YOU SAY ABOUT SQUARE ONE. (

  19. bruce russell says:

    ugh! Note sent before finished! Desires in square one are not processes and need not result from the process of thinking; they can be spontaneous and unreflective.

    I’m trying to show that what the notion of an unconscious rational desire is NOT a contradiction. That is what my example involving Sophia is meant to show. My love for Sophia stems from my desire to sleep with my mother, but that love for her will be perfectly rational if we have common interests, are kind to each other, bring out the best in each other, etc. Perhaps you are led to think it is a contradiction because of a mistaken belief that rational desires must be conscious, even must be the result of conscious thinking. If that were true, then it would follow that there could not be an unconscious rational desire. Buy i argued above that it is false.

    Further, you can’t grant that there can be something in every box of the matrix and maintain that an unconscious rational desire is a contradiction. If it is, then such a desire is impossible, and so nothing can go in square 2.

    I think you go wrong by confusing processes with desires, which can result from processes but are not themselves processes. So why couldn’t there be conscious irrational desires that DO NOT result from unconscious conflict? Maybe my neurons just fire in a certain way that makes me want to jump off a cliff when i walk near the edge instead of stepping back like most people. Still, this desire might be conscious; i might be well aware that i have it. So i think square 3 can contain not only the sorts of desire you offer (though those will be in there).

    I’d say similar things about square 4. Let the desire to jump off a cliff i described above now be unconscious. I don’t think a person who has this desire need be psychotic. I don’t know what you mean by “primary process thinking” so i can’t comment on that.

    FINALLY, you can’t accept all you say in your last paragraph. Insofar as you allow that there can be desires in all four boxes, you cannot also maintain that causes are ESSENTIAL properties of the content. Why? Because if there can be conscious and unconscious causes of rational AND irrational desires the CONTEXT (as you understand it) is IRRELEVANT to the rationality of the desire. I know that at one point you say that there can’t be unconscious rational desires but i gave an example against that idea, argued that maybe it stemmed from a mistaken idea of what a rational desire is, and pointed out how it is incompatible with holding that all the boxes can have members.

    I guess having just one hand to write with isn’t enough to silence me! Some of you will be disappointed, I’m sure!

  20. Robert MacDonell says:

    Bruce – Sorry to hear about your surgery. Hopefully it was planned and not an unfortunate accident. Hope you mend soon. Many thanks for your comments.

  21. bruce russell says:

    Thanks, Bob. It was planned, and I seem to be recovering quickly.

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