“Build a man a fire and he’s warm for a day,” I say. “But set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life. Tao of Pratchett. I live by it.” —Jim Butcher, Cold Days (2012)
That’s “Sir Terry” to you, Dresden… but other than that, the only wizard listed in the yellow pages is right on the money.
Terry Pratchett is best known for his incompetent wizards, dragon-wielding policemen, and anthropomorphic personifications who SPEAK LIKE THIS. And we love him for it. Once we’re done chuckling at Nanny Ogg’s not-so-subtle innuendos and the song about the knob on the end of the wizard’s staff, however, there’s so much more going on beneath the surface of a Pratchett novel. The real reason Pratchett’s work resonates so deeply with so many people around the world—and will continue to do so for decades to come—is that every one of his stories tugs at a deep, philosophical thread that sneaks up under the cover of action and punny dialogue to mug you faster than a denizen of the Shades.
Throughout Sir Terry’s work—not just the Discworld novels, of course, but also his early science fiction works, the ever-popular Good Omens written with Neil Gaiman, his anthologies such as A Blink of the Screen, and also his BBC lecture, Shaking Hands with Death—it’s possible to trace enough daring and challenging philosophical viewpoints to fill at least a dozen articles like this one.
This is not an exhaustive survey of those various viewpoints and concepts. Rather, this essay is an attempt to provide a flying machine’s-eye overview of just a few of the major philosophical underpinnings of Pratchett’s Tao, or “way.” Let’s jump in…
The Nature of Absurdism
“Magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.” –Mort
Those unfortunates who have yet to read Pratchett properly may be tempted to dismiss his humorous approach to reality as simply “absurd”…as if that were a bad thing, synonymous with gratuitous laughs and an absence of deeper meaning.
They would be very wrong in this estimation, starting with the nature of the absurdity itself. The comic absurd in Pratchett goes far beyond a few, well-needed laughs, and serves a deeper purpose.
The hierarchy of wizards in Ankh-Morpork’s Unseen University serves as a good example. In Pratchett’s early works, the University is a seething hive of murder and destruction. Promotion through the Orders of the arcane comes mostly through assassination, the tradition known as “dead man’s pointy shoes.” That magical arms race inevitably leads to recklessness, and threatens to rip the veil between Universes and destroy the Discworld completely.
Enter the absurd, embodied in the larger-than-life person of Archchancelor Ridcully. The man’s name is Ridcully. He literally incarnates Ridiculousness. But he’s also the one to bring some semblance of stability and order to an organisation that wields the greatest powers below Cori Celesti. His absurd nature shapes the deadly seriousness around him into a tenable structure, and all the way down the hierarchy, you end up with wizards who are too busy murdering tea trolleys to murder each other.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, driven younger wizard Ponder Stibbons and, even more so, the genius Leonard of Quirm are the epitomes of Reason in an unreasonable Universe—as a result, they usually end up the most absurd of all.
Absurdity is the necessary bulwark that tempers Reason and Power—it is the only thing that stops these forces from turning on themselves and becoming instruments of corruption (like the magic wastelands left over from the Mage Wars), violence, and domination. And that’s true whether you’re sitting on a ball orbiting a larger, burning ball spinning around a supermassive black hole, or whether you’re on a disc on the back of four elephants, standing on a turtle swimming through space.
The absurd has long been a rich theme in philosophy and literature, from the writings of Kierkegaard in the mid-19thcentury up through the last hundred years, finding a particular cultural foothold in the aftermath of World War II. Philosopher Albert Camus wrote, among many other ruminations on the absurd (which was perhaps the key notion in all his work), that, “For the absurd man, it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. Everything begins with lucid indifference.”
From this existentialist point of view, embracing the absurd is what allows us to be free from societal bonds, routine, and monotony, to find our own way through life. This freedom is the core drive of all Pratchett’s heroes and anti-heroes. Like Lu-Tze, we must embrace the absurd and always keep our ability to be surprised alive. This mindset for day-to-day life is perhaps Sir Terry’s first and greatest gift to the reader.
Personal Ethics and Beliefs
“Take it from me, whenever you see a bunch of buggers puttering around talking about truth and beauty and the best way of attacking Ethics, you can bet your sandals it’s all because dozens of other poor buggers are doing all the real work around the place.” –Small Gods
On a more personal scale, an absurd Universe presents a challenge for the individual and their personal, daily choices: If nothing makes any sense, then what’s the point of caring?
Sam Vimes embodies, throughout his series-long arc, the struggle between doing the right thing or settling for the easy or expected thing. When your entire Watch is a joke in a world of State-organised crime, why bother rising above the likes of a Colon or a Nobbs? When the dark is inside you, clamouring, why fight it to uphold Justice and fair treatment, even for the criminals you’ve been struggling against? When the world is so chaotic, and you’re so busy, why does it matter if you miss reading your son his bedtime story, every now and again?
The answer? Because, as Pratchett has scored into the granite of Vimes’ character, “Some things are important.”
Vimes’ reasoning can be understood in terms of virtue ethics, as taught by Aristotle, Mencius, or Confucius, which state that right acts do not depend on some outside set of rules or on their consequences in order to be right, but are inherently right because they are in accordance with certain core values we also deem right.
Pratchett also tells us why defending these values is important, and how belief is tied up with our essential humanity. It’s for the same reason that the Hogfather is important, as Death explains to his granddaughter Susan:
…HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers?”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESSIN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
“I AM DEATH, NOT TAXES. I TURN UP ONLY ONCE.” –Feet of Clay
No discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of Terry Pratchett’s work could be complete without speaking about death. And the Discworld series’ Death is only the start of it. As Pratchett points out, there’s a reason the famous “Appointment in Samara” is one of the oldest stories in the world.
Death, and its meaning, is a core component of philosophy. While Epicureans argue that death is meaningless to us as individuals and should not bear on our enjoyment of life, Aristotle states that a life well-lived is the key to an ideal or noble death. Heidegger takes it a step further and asserts that the fear and anticipation of unknowable death are key drives in everything we care about in life.
Terry Pratchett didn’t just talk the talk when it came to confronting mortality. He walked the walk, boldly and candidly, as he showed us through his deliberations on death in the career-spanning collection A Blink of the Screen, his BBC Lecture “Shaking Hands with Death,” and most importantly, in his incredibly brave and meaningful attitude when faced with his own death, at the cruel hands of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. His passionate and clear-eyed message in favour of assisted dying reflects his lifelong commitment to a deeply moral, humanist, and philosophical set of principles.
The Importance of Stories
“We are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.” –The Science of Discworld II: The Globe
Over the course of the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett develops a clear, unique, and intriguing answer to the age-old epistemological question of what separates a human consciousness from other consciousnesses.
Obviously, the question supposes that there is, indeed, something does indeed separate us, fundamentally, from other animals and life in general. But Pratchett firmly believes that’s the case—and that something is our brains’ ingrained reflex and ability to interpret the Universe, as well as our interactions with it and each other, as stories:
“Our minds make stories, and stories make our minds. […] Stories map out the phase space of existence.” –The Science of Discworld II: The Globe
This conception of humanity goes far beyond the tongue-in-cheek notion of narrativium or narrative imperative Pratchett uses to poke fun at his own creation. It also shines a light on the notion of predestination, particularly in Good Omens, in which the characters answer the question “Is everything pre-written?” with a resounding “No.”
To those fundamental problems of epistemology—questions such as “How can we know anything?”, “How can we know others?” and “How can we know ourselves?”—Pratchett answers confidently, again and again: Through the lens of fiction. Through stories.
Terry Pratchett has taught us so much about his inspiring, inimitable Tao, through his life and his work, and even more so through his death. And just like his Death-with-a-capital D, the deeper meaning in his work has a life all its own. These ideas—challenging and provocative, poignant and reassuring—like his stories, will be there waiting for us to reach out and shake hands for a long time to come.
Originally published March 2019.
J.R.H. Lawless is a multiple award-winning Canadian SF author who blends comedy with political themes—drawing heavily, in both cases, on his experience as a lawyer and as Secretary General of a Parliamentary group at the French National Assembly. A member of SFWA and Codex Writers, his short fiction has been published in professional venues, and most recently in the Third Flatiron Press Terra! Tara! Terror! anthology, to great reviews, placement as 2018 Recommended Reading, and an award for Best Positive Future Story 2018. He is also a craft article contributor to the SFWA blog, the SFWA Bulletin, and Tor.com. His next story will be released on April 15th in the Third Flatiron Hidden Histories anthology. He would love to hear from you on Twitter, over at @SpaceLawyerSF!