Monday, June 27, 2022

Aristotle on the middle class

On CNN the other day, liberal commentator Van Jones complained that the Democrats are “becoming a party of the very high and the very low” ends of the economic spectrum, and do not appeal to those in the vast middle, including the working class.  He notes that the “very well-educated and very well-off” segment of the party talks in a way that sounds “bizarre” to ordinary people, citing as examples the use of terms like “Latinx” and “BIPOC.”  He could easily have added others, such as “cisgender,” “whiteness,” “intersectionality,” “heteronormativity,” “the carceral state,” and on and on.  To the average person, the commentators and activists who use such jargon – insistently, humorlessly, and as if everyone does or ought to agree – sound like cult members in need of deprogramming, and certainly of electoral defeat.  (I would also note that having a college degree and being facile with trendy political theory does not suffice to make one “very well-educated,” but let that pass.)

Beyond a reference to reparations, Jones is vague about exactly what it is about current left-wing policy that might appeal to the poor.  Is it higher gasoline and food prices?  Being the ones who had to go out and do the manual labor while the laptop class stayed cozily locked down working from home and watching Netflix?  Skyrocketing crime in poor neighborhoods because of the demonization and defunding of police?  Or is it free needles, the license to shoplift and to defecate in the streets, and other hallmarks of the George Gascón and Chesa Boudin style of law (non-)enforcement?  But it would be an insult to poor people to think this anarchy aids or appeals to them.  Here too, it is actually the poor who suffer most from left-wing excess, while the rich congratulate themselves for their (twisted understanding of) virtue.

In any event, Aristotle would agree with Jones about the general principle that a wise statesman should appeal to the middle class.  Aristotle says that even a legislator who is personally more favorable to the very rich or the very poor “at all times… ought to endeavour to include the middle people” and make the laws “attractive to those in the middle” (Politics, Book IV, Part XII, Sinclair translation). 

The reason is not the cynical one that this is a good way to secure power.  The reason is one of basic principle concerning what is best for society as a whole.  In Book IV, Part XI Aristotle observes that all states are made up of “the very well-off, the very badly off, and thirdly those in between,” and argues that those in the middle are best suited to governing:

This condition is most easily obedient to reason, and following reason is just what is difficult both for the exceedingly rich, handsome, strong and well-born, and for their opposites, the extremely poor, the weak, and those grossly deprived of honour.  The former incline more to arrogance and crime on a large scale, the latter are more than averagely prone to wicked ways and petty crime.  The unjust deeds of the one class are due to an arrogant spirit, the unjust deeds of the other to wickedness

There are other drawbacks about the two extremes.  Those who have a superabundance of good fortune, strength, riches, friends, and so forth, neither wish to submit to rule nor understand how to do so; and this is engrained in them from childhood at home: even at school they are so full of la dolce vita that they have never grown used to being ruled.

End quote.  What is of most interest in these comments is Aristotle’s insight that the extremely wealthy, no less than the extremely poor, are temperamentally unfit to wield power.  (This is not only an Aristotelian insight, but a Platonic one – recall from the Republic that the guardian class are not permitted even to handle money, let alone amass personal fortunes.)  What makes them unfit is their tendency toward arrogance, softness, and consequent difficulty following reason or submitting themselves to rules.

A more perfect description of our decadent liberal elites cannot be imagined.  It is not poor or working people, but rather the affluent and “educated,” who live in a fantasy world in which there are innumerable “genders,” the bogeyman of “white supremacy” lurks behind every bush, inflation has no connection to the federal government’s having shoveled out gargantuan piles of free money, and the rules (about wearing masks and staying locked down, for example) apply only to the ruled and not the rulers.  You need facility in abstract theory to get yourself to believe such lunacy, and you need the insulation from reality that wealth provides to avoid suffering the costs of it, at least in the short term. 

Aristotle notes that a true polity requires some measure of “friendship” or “partnership” between the different groups that make it up.  This is not possible when the very poor or the very rich dominate, because “the former [are] full of envy, the latter of contempt.”  Now, malignant ideologies like Critical Race Theory are syntheses of envy and contempt, which make true friendship or partnership between citizens impossible.  But here too it is not the poor but rather the affluent, the educated, and the powerful – “woke capitalism,” the universities, HR bureaucracies and the like – who are injecting this poison into the body politic.  And it is these elites, rather than the poor, who have been the source of the diabolically cruel regime of general lawlessness that has been trying to impose itself upon the West in the last few years.

Aristotle notes that given the defects described above, tyranny is much more likely to arise out of the rule of the very rich or the very poor than out of the middle classes.  A more effective tyranny still is that in which the very rich stir up the poor against the middle classes.  As Plato noted, oligarchy tends to degenerate into, and in the short term profit from, radically egalitarian democracy, with tyranny as the sequel. 

Conservatives have in recent years increasingly come to realize that the super-rich are not their friends.  As usual, what we moderns have to relearn, Aristotle already knew 2300 years ago.

Related reading:

The trouble with capitalism

Hayek’s tragic capitalism

Adventures in the Old Atheism, Part IV: Marx

Liberty, equality, fraternity?

Aquinas contra globalism

Continetti on post-liberal conservatism

Woke ideology is a psychological disorder [on Plato’s analysis of democracy]

35 comments:

  1. Miguel CervantesJune 28, 2022 at 3:15 AM

    I think it's very hard to make Aristotle's discussion of people "in the middle" in terms of wealth as having much to do with today's middle class. The bourgeois is surely a production of non-Christian modernity, associated with the sovereign state, secularism, and civil society itself as its own, self-referring end (as Roger Scruton explains at length, with approval.

    In fact, as Christopher Dawson tells us, even "proletarians" are today consumed by bourgeois values. Wealth might not be the main factor to consider here now, I would suggest, but ideology.

    And on the ideological score, nobody concerned about middle class values has anything to fear in the West - it's completely dominated by them. The argument between liberals and conservatives is an in-house, post Enlightenment barney on just what the secular utopia is and how to get it. Christianity has no part in this debate. There is the faith. Then there is politics and society; something else, but determined by the ultimate end known by the faith.

    St. Thomas has that well-know metaphor of the politician as captain who needs to make sure the ship remains intact and functions as well as can be, but whose function is to make sure it gets to harbour. Conservatives and liberals alike see their mission as endlessly arguing which colour to paint Nelson's "Victory" in dry dock.

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    1. I think that's probably true: the bourgeois is mainly concerned with a comfortable life in this world, although he retains some virtues that were handed down to him by Christendom. Nonetheless, the peculiar hatred that the Revolution (in all its manifestations) has for the middling type of person is interesting. It tends to be far greater than its hatred for the very rich, for all the rhetoric against the latter. Of course, this is partly because the Revolution is led by the very rich.

      In general, the middling types tend to espouse the least insane type of liberalism as their political views. (Of course, as Zippy might say, this just means they have the best unprincipled exceptions. All liberalism is insane and wicked, and tends to the destruction of virtue and goodness, both natural and supernatural.)

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    2. I think it is a mistake to employ "bourgeois" in this context. First, the term in modern parlance is meant to be derogatory, but the origin of that derogation was a marxist view of property. Nobody who owned property could escape the "bourgeois" net as used by the marxists, but plenty of people who own property can be (and are) not guilty of liberal foolishness that is common on both the left and the "right" of modernity. To be "neither poor nor wealthy" is not to be a liberal (whether of the left or "right"), nor to be a bourgeois as that term's current connotation implies.

      Secondly, while it is of course sad and damaging to our nations that so many people ARE liberals of stripe or another, Aristotle's point is not so much that those in the middle will be paragons of virtue (and therefore our middle groups fail to match his ideal), but rather that those in the middle will tend to avoid SOME of the vices that tend to inhabit the extremes, and therefore it is useful to pull them into government to take advantage of (whatever, relative) virtues they have. That many in the middle classes are materialistic and selfish is an unhappy fact. But in spite of that, those self-same materialistic and selfish people ALSO tend not to be arrogant as well, as the rich tend toward.

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  2. Did Aquinas share that opinion? If so, how did he reconcile it with the idea that the best political system is the monarchy?

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    1. Thomas suggested that the best political system is a monarchy - considering the issue in the ideal. As a practical problem, though, he thought that the best political system was that of a MIXED government - one that had elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. And, interestingly, this is exactly what we have in the US (and in many nations, in varying degrees of mixture). The US president has far more executive power than that of a mere "presider" over the legislature. The upper house of our legislature was envisioned with some aristocratic aspects, though those were partly undermined when we put voting for them directly into the hands of the people.

      Aristotle, like Thomas, thought that a monarchy was in theory the best system, but he has an odd, almost completely out-of-the-blue comment that this only works when the king not only has more virtue than the rest, but when the king has more virtue than all the rest put together. Since he fails to support this comment by an argument, and it is indeed not very supportable even had he tried, I take this to have been in Aristotle a flash of inspiration by God, a hidden prophecy of the kingdom of Christ, the God-man whose perfections do indeed exceed that of all the excellences of other humans put together - but only because he is divine. That is, Aristotle happened to be right about what kind of monarchy will work exactly rightly, but his correctness was not due to a principle he could have elucidated, but due to divine inspiration guiding his words.

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    2. John Kennedy O'Tool did the best take-down of monarchy:

      Mrs. Reilly: A king? You want a king?

      Ignatius Reilly: Oh, stop babbling at me!

      Mrs. Reilly: I never heard of nobody wanted a king.

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  3. Very interesting. I can say the we see that same phenomenon here in Italy, albeit on a lesser degree, until now

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  4. Good article. I agree about the health of a society's tie to the health of its middle class. I don't buy it, however, that the ancient descriptions of the wanton very-rich apply only to "liberal elites" and not also to "right-wing elites."

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  5. “ Those who have a superabundance of good fortune, strength, riches, friends, and so forth, neither wish to submit to rule nor understand how to do so; and this is engrained in them from childhood at home: even at school they are so full of la dolce vita that they have never grown used to being ruled.”

    Exhibit 1: Donald Trump

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    1. Yes, and I think it is the case for authoritarian leaders in general. In his Social Contract, Rousseau J-J followed Aristotle in that respect, and the methods he wanted to adopt for government were aimed at avoiding the most affluent and the least ones from taking power.

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  6. George LeSauvage:

    I'm afraid I no longer believe that, at least not very strongly. I am increasingly inclined to think that classes are largely imaginary. Or at least that they exist only to the extent we take them seriously.

    The above cited definition, note, mentions only how much someone has. No consideration of HOW people make their livings. And surely that matters too. If anything, it can matter more. Are the "middle class" yeoman farmers (as Hanson* and Jefferson thought?) Or are they artisans? Or tradesmen? Those are different, you know. Their interests do conflict. A fisherman's interests do conflict with a restauranteur's, whether he has just one boat, or Mr Snow's fleet.

    Another point is that status is very often more important to people than money. It's noticeable that, in our society, a chef is the only person who works with his hands, but has a fairly high-status job, at least for the better eateries.

    Again, how much did the classes as Plato and Aristotle saw them resemble those of Aquinas's day? Or ours? To my eyes, they are very different. (In Aquinas's case, there is an added dimension, that of how much European societies varied by place. While the causes are different, the polis and our electronic village seem more uniform.)

    The bottom line is that we have all been taught to see things in this manner. I question whether that is a distortion.

    *I'm referring to his good early work, before he jumped into politics.

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  7. I notice that, as is commonly the case, people seem to equate "middle class" with "bourgeois". That's certainly an anachronism in Aquinas's day, and probably in Aristotle's. It means, after all, city dwellers. But surely the most common in earlier times would be small landowners.

    Of course, that hasn't stopped people from reading their Marxist preconceptions onto earlier times. See J H Hexter's "Storm Over the Gentry" for a good (and well written) discussion. Unfortunately, Marx's categories have so dominated our thinking that it's hard to even try to do without them.

    - George LeSauvage

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    1. The distinction between city-dwellers and landowners itself is anachronistic, as in Aristotle’s time all Greeks were inhabitants of a polis. There are multiple layers of error at work here.

      Nevertheless, Aristotle’s fundamental insight remains sound and generally true today: If you want to find people fit to govern, you are least likely to find them among the irresponsibly wealthy or the irresponsibly poor. The ability to buy one’s way out of personal trouble does not prepare one for public office; the inability to get out of perpetual trouble, still less.

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    2. Of course in the Bible a big city (Jerusalem) was the center of Jewish worship. And Christianity was a religion for urban people ("Pagan" originally meant country folk). And in the end all the just will be living in a big city (New Jerusalem).

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    3. I'm not convinced. Yes, the polis did involve a connection between urban and rural which largely disappeared later. So the term "bourgeois" isn't quite right. Yet it was used (above) by people in comments as meaning "middle class". Which is how most use it today. In Aquinas's day it was very different.

      But it's also true that, to have the amount of leisure Aristotle thought necessary, one would have to be pretty high in the upper middle. (Are the gentry who ruled England from the 17th well into the 19th C upper, or middle?)

      But the bigger problem I have is that there just is too much difference between various types of occupations which fall within a given income/wealth range. Farmers can grow crops or livestock, like Cain and Abel. Even herdsmen can be very different, as US history shows in sheep and cattlemen.

      There is very good reason to see a commonality of interests among all the seafaring peoples, from the lower deck to the captain. Really. Yes, there were conflicts within, but to any landsman, it was a clear and distinct culture.

      The trouble is that we have all been taught to see things through the lens of class. I question that; at a minimum, it's worth taking a look from a different perspective.

      - George LeSauvage

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  8. It is impossible for me to contribute to excellent posts on practical (modern sense) posts.

    Post China face masks and the people who love being ruled, I think the idea of freedom in solidarity will not die. I just hope philosophers will not let us down.

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  9. @Miguel

    I appreciate your post and understand your contempt for modern secularism; however, as a child of multiple divorced people and all the rest I must protest your idea that somehow the West is just some product of (in polite language) “post-Christian Utopianism.”

    I think Christian Utopianism will save the West and humanity. Antichrist will come but before he does to hell with him.

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  10. This blog has really gone down. I miss the great discussions on God, evil, metaphysics, epistemology,
    etc back in the day.

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    1. Not sure what you’re talking about. I post on those topics as much as I ever did. Most recently, see e.g. the posts on May 14, May 23, May 31, and June 6. And the next post will be of a metaphysical nature.

      But perhaps you mean that there aren’t as many people leaving comments? That has been my impression over the last few weeks, though it might reflect a beginning-of-summer drop-off, which I think has happened in the past. On the other hand, traffic to the blog is as high or higher than ever. I have wondered whether some people who are still coming to the blog are choosing to comment over at Twitter rather than here, but I’m not sure.

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    2. Dr. Feser, I myself have often had trouble getting comments posted, as I can’t seem to log in to my profile through your site. Sometimes it seems important enough to jump through the extra hoops and make it work, but often I just give up and remain silent.

      If this is happening to other commenters also, that might explain the apparent decline in activity.

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    3. Hmm, thanks for the heads up, Tom. Blogger seems recently to have changed the comment input system. I didn't realize it was making it more difficult to comment (as opposed to just different).

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    4. Strange, I'm actually finding it easier to post comments than previously, through my google account.

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    5. Does this comment come through?
      Just a trial.

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    6. I have found the opposite. After over a year of almost all my comments vanishing, a few have gotten through lately.

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  11. Aristotle insight is very interesting, but i wonder if his points against the rich leading are not weakned today thanks to our modern tech plus consumeristic mentality.

    The middle class today has way more conforts and pleasures that on the metic day, not only hardly going hungry but having the capacity to eat a awesome variety of tasty stuff, has more ways to deal with the elements, has apps that allow food, transportation etc to being easily get, can easily not face oposition online by choosing who to interact with, has a way less solid relation with the extended family(giving more freedom to choose relations), everyday is bombarded by propaganda with the intention of creating in it new desires, has the State to protect it from not having somethings and is taught things like that fullfiling all desires is being happy, that there is no need to answer to anyone for our personal lifes, or that law is just a human creation.

    Anyway, the point of this rambling is: looking at the way than the middle class lives today, it is not what we have today way more vulnerable to having the rich-person vices than on Aristotle day?

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  12. Definitely a bit off topic, but how does Aristotelian realism deal with new things coming into existence/actuality? If the form of something cannot exist prior to that thing’s actuality in matter, then how can there be a potential for it to exist? (Ex. Did the form of a dog have to exist prior to a dog’s actual existence for it to be a potential?)

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    1. The "potential" refers to something that IS, i.e. it's potential to be something that it is not now. That's what the matter is, for a matter-form being: the matter of a rabbit has the potential to be the matter of the wolf. The form of a substantial being doesn't EXIST before the being exists, waiting for matter, so it doesn't "have the potential" to become (the form of) the being. The form is the form of the being when the being itself starts to exist. We don't need to speak of there being "a potential" for the form to exist.

      It would be better, perhaps, to say that there is a "possibility" of the form existing (because there is a possibility of an event happening wherein an agent cause will cause the thing to exist), but nobody thinks that that "a possibility of an event happening" is some THING that inheres in, say, the agent. After all, it is possible for God to create some new thing from nothing, but that possibility is not an existing thing, and so it is not a potency of such a thing.

      It also seems like a mistake to ask "what (prior) stuff does the form come from", since the (prior) stuff is precisely the point of matter, i.e. the material principle, not the formal principle.

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  13. Nice post Prof.Feser. Speaking of laws though, Does anyone have any strategy for proponents of Pro-Life legislation going forward with regards to forming laws, specifying exceptions etc. There is a very recent case of the 10 year old girl who was assaulted and got pregnant as a result but was denied an abortion in Ohio, I guess she then had to go to Indianna. There is a lot of outrage coming from the left with regards to this and it's gaining a lot of traction but I haven't seen any prominent pro-life figure or commentator offer any take on it besides the African commentator Obianuju Ekeocha . Atleast some pro-life tak,e like loving both the baby and the mom seems called for but it seems like no one wants to suffer any political or popular backlash. I think we have to formulate some response to this in general, because the average person in general can't help but feel for the child and are more likely to allow for the abortion in this case. Silence on the matter by prominent pro life figures will only cause the people in the middle to move more towards the pro-abortion lobby and hence cause this win to be very short-lived because it would seem as if pro-lifers don't have any answers . It also seems as if most states are going with the 6 fetal heart beat bans, this already seems to be a kind of concession given that, consistently speaking, life begins at conception, but it must have been done keeping in mind political considerations, Florida which is a bit more liberal is planning a 12-14 week ban I think. Such concessions may be necessary in a political reality, so it would be better if we had some general principles for these exceptions and concessions. I also think in general, that this is a good time to re-visit some intra-catholic debates with regards to saving the life of the mother, exemplified by the New Natural Law vs Classical Natural Law debates with respect to Craniotomy etc. The last comprehensive treatment of something like this seems to be in Professor Kaczor's book the Ethics of Abortion where he covered the craniotomy debate from both angles ultimately not coming to any settled conclusion. The craniotomy procedure is extremely rarely required statistically speaking but it presents a good case study to consider various moral principles and clarify terms such as moral object etc. Personally with respect to craniotomy, I tend to incline more towards classical natural law as a theory, so I am a bit uncomfortable with it it as a procedure but some time back Pope Benedict XVI commissioned a study on it by Fr Martin Rhonheimer and BXVI wouldn't have done so if it was a settled issue, so it seems open to speculation. Also there are certain issues that seem to be raised given current events, for example a pre-pubescent child's body isn't ready for the act of delivery rifled with n number of complications and could potentially kill the child, Could one consider it under the exception of saving the mother's life. I don't know. Also questions should the legal exceptions to saving the mother's life based on the more narrow catholic definitions of it or broader pro-life definitions, Here I am thinking of the case a few years back where a nun was suspended for sanctioning the termination of a pregnancy to save the mother's life, which evoked a lot of inta catholic debate. I remember Fr Thomas Berg debated this with Fr Kevin Flannery. Although Fr Thomas Berg eventually came to agree with Fr Flannery. I think Grisez also tentatively considered the possibility of permissibility in cases of rape but the arguments he put forth in favour of it being permissible seem untenable to me. Nevertheless we exist in a time where some of the greatest thomists and catholic minds on different sides of these issues are alive and practicing their trade eg:- Dr Feser, Dr Robert P George, Fr Stephen Brock, Fr Kevin Flannery, Dr Chris Kaczor, Prof Budziszewski, Dr Steven Jensen, Prof Charles Camosy, Dr Ryan T Anderson and many others, but they are getting old as well so now is a good as a time forever to have these discussions.

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    1. I can't really speak for Prof. Feser, but I'm almost positive he does not think of himself as "getting old."

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  14. Thor Was Awesome!! Can't help but notice how a central theme plot in both the recent marvel movies is the purpose and meaning kids bring to one's life. Obviously these movies were planned more then a year back, but it's almost like fate would have them release at such a poignant time. Thor almost had me tearing up at some points. That's quite rare for a Taika Watiti movie. But then again marvel themes always had a way of touching upon the most meaningful aspects of the human condition, so it's hard to deviate too far from the source material without losing out crucial aspects of the characters. RIP Stan Lee.That's what made someone like Spiderman stand out as opposed to Superman. This movie also provides a wonderful case in point study for discussions on Theistic Personalism and Classical Theism, Problem of Evil etc, definitely a must watch and worth a blog post.

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  15. (1) "sound like cult members in need of deprogramming, and certainly of electoral defeat."

    Certainly true. If only the opposition had an articulate, principled spokesperson not associated in any way with former president Trump. Any nominations?

    (2) "Thor Was Awesome!!"

    I guess we have to agree to disagree. There aren't many movies which make me want to disavow an entire genre, but the most recent Thor movie has turned me off from any desire for more Marvel movies.

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    1. Fair Enough. Many reviewers including the Canadian Lad felt that the movie didn't allow Thor to be serious, that the movie was too fast paced and didn't give Christian Bale enough screen time. I agree with those criticisms to a certain extent. For me though certain themes or aspects like the dynamic of love and loss between Thor and Jane, the way in which it touches upon the fact that you can't escape the reality of death,Thor after everything he has lost,finding hope in his life by caring for Gorr's daughter "Love", born of eternity , Love requiring sacrifice (in this case quite literally, since Gorr's daughter's name was love) was enough to move me. Also the scene of Thor bestowing his power on the children was quite awesome to see especially if think about it in the context of Thor at one point in the MCU being unworthy of that power precisely because he was high headed now being mature enough to share that power with helpless children so that they may reach home. I also think with regards to the seriousness charge, it may have been done on purpose since Gorr in a certain sense is antithetical to Thor, Gorr upon having lost everything became serious and vengeful, while Thor upon having lost everything became contemplative and soul searching,I think that because of the way in which the first phase ended, people expect every film to be that dramatic and grand in it's implications, but it takes a bit of patience and stumbling to get all the pieces in place for the grand finale as traditional comic book fans would attest to.

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