Spinoza and The Lego Movie

The 2014 kid-friendly film, The Lego Movie, purports important and sophisticated themes that can be linked to Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy of necessary existence and monistic ontology as stated in his book Ethics: Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. Emmet, a Lego construction worker and main character, begins the film in the city of Brickburg where President Business lords over everything keeping the world in a state of strict perfection. Emmet happily joins in the dystopian anthem that every citizen sings in unison: “Everything is Awesome.” This establishes the populace’s active part in maintaining its own imprisonment. The song expresses a love of how the order of life is set and no desire to change it. This opening reflects Foucault’s concept of docile bodies, but as the film progresses and the citizens free themselves, the film’s message becomes more similar to Spinoza’s ethics.

President Business’ plan involves using Krazy Glue to stick together all the Lego bricks in the world to keep it in stasis and preserve the perfection he has crafted. The heroes thwart the villain by convincing him that the world is full of people who take the bricks and build something new and unique because each person has a different perspective and that makes them all uniquely special. There is no “chosen one” who is destined to save the world; we are all in charge of this world because of our power over it. At the same time the Lego characters come to this conclusion, the audience is shown that the entire movie is part of a ten-year-old boy’s game with his father’s Lego toys in the real life. His father confronts him, and it’s revealed that President Business is a dream version of the tyrannical father who demands stasis and perfection. The son convinces his dad the same way that Emmet convinces the villain that Legos are meant to exercise imagination, and the freedom to break and rebuild them is essential for that.

Putting this lesson next to Spinoza’s hierarchy of being, we could see the Lego bricks as substance and the constructions of bricks as modes. These modes are temporary and will inevitably break down due to eternal changeability of substance. Even the people are modes, as they are also built from the bricks that make up buildings and all other objects in their universe. Attributes would be the details that set certain modes apart such as what kind of building or person the Legos create and how long it will last before becoming part of another mode. The young boy is a godlike figure who builds modes from this substance and guides the events of the miniature universe. The Lego characters still have agency despite his presence and all act without being aware of his hand influencing the direction of existence. The father/President Business wants to stop that natural chaos and hold substance in place with Krazy Glue, which would curtail the agency of all those people who take part in the changing modes. Spinoza writes in Ethics that people must be active in their existence, as all actions occur out of necessity. The song “Everything is Awesome” returns at the end, when the characters rejoice in the infinite possibly of creation that the world of Legos permits. The lyrics do not change: there is still a love of how the order of life is set and no desire to change it. With the complete lesson of the movie in mind, the dystopian anthem that was originally sung to enforce static perfection becomes a celebration of the naturally perfect order of a dynamic existence. Everything happens out of necessity and therefore need not be changed. That’s why it’s already awesome, and we should revel in that.

Spinoza says that substance is eternal and cannot be destroyed; it is the modes that exist momentarily before being broken down, and their substance repurposed into future modes, continuing the cycle of existence. This is done, Spinoza believes, through the power of nature, which is equivalent to God. The boy can be said to be God in this comparison, as it is his will that drives the building of modes, and it provides a more tangible subject for the analogy, but a more appropriate way to fit The Lego Movie into Spinoza’s model would be to place Lego bricks themselves as God/Nature because they are the substance that makes up the universe, and it is the universe that makes up God. The collectivist message of the movie, advocates not only a social policy of freedom of imagination, but also an ontological one. The bricks make up the people, so it is the bricks (and therefore God) that are free to form whatever modes they want.

And they are free; the very ideology the boy was following was to allow the characters to do whatever they wanted as the game plays itself. The boy drives it on our side of the meta-narrative, but the characters make their own choices within the story, and the Legos literally build themselves, personifying Spinoza’s dynamic universe. Substance is an ontological theory, but it becomes an ethical issue when one tries to stunt its ability to create modes and fulfill its dynamic nature. The Lego Movie is the perfect story to advocate the flourishing of such ability, and in a kids’ movie, no less. Spinoza would have appreciated the monistic approach to existence and the collectivist framework of freedom, especially when it also teaches kids how to fun with imagination. Everything – by necessity – is awesome.

Advertisements