George Bailey and the Moral Universe

Joseph Griffith

June 25, 2013

“Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that. I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I’m gonna see the world: Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields. I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.” – George Bailey, It’s A Wonderful Life

The greatest stories are political because only power reveals man’s true nature.  As Aristotle notes in his Nicomachean Ethics, “Rule shows the man.” Political rule enlarges the capacity of the ruler to be just or tyrannical, moral or immoral. When power is thrust on a man, his virtues or vices which had heretofore been hidden are revealed. There is very little benefit, it seems, to reading a play or watching a film about a man who does not possess the opportunity to be good or evil. Only stories of political rulers are worthy of the main stage because only political rulers have the occasion to perform human actions in a way that can be comprehended.

According to Harry Jaffa, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is such a story. One of the darkest and most powerful tragedies of all time, the play demonstrates the haunting consequences of tyranny Macbeth’s agonizing fall from virtue.

Recently, my father told me that Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” was one of his father’s favorite films. In fact, every Christmas Eve, my family watches the film, freshly popped popcorn in hand. It was not until this past December, though, that I began to realize the gravity of the movie’s message. Of course, I appreciated my grandfather’s interest in the black-and-white film, but the significance of the movie’s message eluded me until I juxtaposed it to the story of Macbeth this past Christmas.

While Frank Capra’s protagonist, George Bailey, is no king, prince, duke, or military commander, his character possesses many governor-like qualities that enable us to witness his grand virtues. He clearly fits Jaffa’s description of a political man because George Bailey “shares responsibility for the commonwealth and labors in its service.” Like Macbeth, George Bailey “is a vital part of a political community.” He takes over his father’s Building and Loan, which offers the hard-working townspeople of Bedford Falls an escape from Mr. Potter and his “Potter’s Fields,” a dirty and overly expensive slum.

In movies and in plays, political decisions have real consequences. Whereas Macbeth’s self-interested attachment to power leads him to murder the king, George Bailey’s selfless attachment to the political community murders his dreams. The contrast could not be clearer. In Act III, Scene 4, Macbeth, knee-deep in the muck, proclaims, “For mine own good, all causes shall give way.” The Scottish lord will not let anything stand between him and the object of his desire. He brutally executes his king, the king’s guards, his loyal friend Banquo, and McDuff’s entire family in order to acquire and maintain power. George Bailey’s political duty, on the other hand, suffocates his life-long dream to become something great. His moral responsibility starves his wanderlust to the point of atrophy. He misses every train, every plane, and every automobile. He does not visit the Parthenon. He does not attend college. He does not have a honeymoon. He does not own a nice house or a new car simply because he bets everything he owns on the “cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan.”

Frank Capra’s plot thickens when George’s uncle loses the Building and Loan’s deposit, threatening George with jail time and the Building and Loan with bankruptcy. When George seeks Mr. Potter’s assistance, he realizes that the money his life insurance would pay in the event of his death makes him “worth more dead than alive.” Later that night, alone, drunk, and coatless, George Bailey stands atop a snowy bridge and considers suicide, staring helplessly into the icy waters. Clarence, George’s bumbling guardian angel jumps into the river first to save him. Then, warming himself by a fire, George confesses what had been eating away at his conscience from the moment life passed him by: justice does not pay. He bet the wrong way. In the end, it would have been better if he had never been born.

When Clarence hears George claim this, he does something peculiar. I had always wondered why the angel does not show George what his life would have been like if he had followed the sound of every anchor chain, plane motor, and train whistle. If George could see that the grass is not greener on the other side, perhaps he would not lament his moral life after all. However, such a revelation while not without value would not have shown George Bailey the ultimate reward of just political rule. Clarence gives George Bailey the opportunity to see what the community of Bedford Falls would have been like without him, and in doing so, he sees first-hand the tangible results of his political rule: without him, his friends are ruled by a tyrant.

Accordingly, the moral of the play and of the movie is that the political man receives what he deserves. In Macbeth, we see the moral universe’s “inexorable and inescapable, vindictive power,” writes Jaffa. In “It’s A Wonderful Life,” we see its unstoppable, rewarding power.

While Macbeth is a just man at the beginning of the play, his tyranny destroys every good thing that enticed him to become a tyrant. He loses his sanity and is haunted by his murdered friend’s bloodied ghost. His wife goes mad and commits suicide. He claims that life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The conclusion shows how Macbeth’s friends remember him: his tombstone reads, “Here may you see the tyrant.” Shakespeare’s political story demonstrates a political damnation: Macbeth’s vicious crimes are repaid with complete alienation from the members of his political community, his friends. “There is no tincture of salvation resulting from Macbeth’s crime,” writes Jaffa, “only damnation.”

At the end of the film, George Bailey’s wife orchestrates a last-minute fundraising drive. His home is overrun by the townspeople who give over three times the amount needed to avoid prison, bankruptcy, and scandal. Friend after friend rush in giving George their pocket watches, checkbooks, piggy banks, and cash. One man jubilantly states, “I wouldn’t have a roof over my head if it wasn’t for you, George.” In the end, the message of Macbeth and It’s A Wonderful Life is the same. Whereas Macbeth’s wicked rule is punished with his complete excommunication from the political community, George Bailey’s just rule is rewarded with sincere friendship—and the realization of its value. As Harry Bailey, George’s heroic brother, storms into the home with the press at his heels, he gives a toast to his big brother, “the richest man in town.” Whereas the story of Macbeth is one of a man falling from an estate of virtue-laden friendship, It’s A Wonderful Life is one of a man ascending to it.

And as my grandfather knew, that is a story worth telling.

Joseph Griffith is a junior from Medina, Ohio majoring in Political Science and History.