Little Bill's Republic or Plato Visits the Wild West [1]

by George Goodall


Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's revisionist Western, is one of my favorite movies. It is much more than merely a guilty pleasure since it is both complex and well crafted. This is not just my opinion; it won the 1992 Academy Award for Best Picture.[2] The film is usually taken to be the story of Eastwood's character, William Munny, a former Wild West gunfighter who, although older, wiser, and also sadder, takes up his guns one last time. Yet the focus can easily be shifted to Gene Hackman's character, the sheriff of the town of Big Whiskey, and to the people of Big Whiskey in general. Viewed this way, Unforgiven becomes a cautionary tale or case study from the standpoint of Platonic political philosophy of the inevitable outcome of injustice and of the resulting failure of a community governed by the wrong sort of person.[3]

The film opens in 1880 in the fictional town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, with a couple of cowboys enjoying the company of the prostitutes upstairs in the billiards hall of Greely's saloon.[4] When Delilah giggles at the sight of his small penis, one of the cowboys becomes enraged and slashes and disfigures her face with a knife. Only when the proprietor, Skinny Dubois, draws a gun does he stop his attack. Both cowboys are bound, and Little Bill Daggett, the sheriff, is summoned. After checking on the victim and finding her injuries are not mortal--"She's gonna live," Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), the lead prostitute spits out, implying a future life worse than death--Little Bill is faced with what to do with the assailants.[5]

A number of options for punishment and/or restitution are available. Strawberry Alice wants the cowboys hanged. Little Bill suggests that they probably do not want a trial "and all" and also requests a deputy fetch a bullwhip to whip them. Skinny points out that he has an investment, a property interest in Delilah for having brought her from Boston and now is left with damaged goods since "nobody's gonna want to pay good money for a cut up whore." Sympathy for this claim, together with his determination that the cowboys are from a nearby ranch and are not "bad men" persuades Little Bill to fine them, five ponies from the assailant and two ponies from the friend, with the entire fine to be delivered to Skinny. Strawberry Alice is outraged that Little Bill is letting the cowboys off without hanging or even whipping. "That ain't fair, Little Bill, that ain't fair!"[6] "Whipping's no little thing, Alice. Haven't you seen enough blood for one night?" Little Bill says in dismissing her protest and settling the matter.

Strawberry Alice is not satisfied: "Just because we let those smelly fools ride us like horses don't mean we gotta let 'em brand us like horses. Maybe we ain't nothing but whores, but, by God, we ain't horses." She and the other women pool their resources and offer a $1000 reward for killing the two cowboys.[7] Word of the bounty travels widely, and soon a number of potential killer claimants are en route to Big Whiskey. When Little Bill learns of this, he issues "county ordinance 14" prohibiting private ownership of firearms and posts signs at the entries to town requiring all weapons to be deposited at the county office.

Meanwhile, William Munny, a retired and reformed gunfighter, is barely eking out a living with his two young children on a bleak and isolated farm far off in Kansas. His beloved wife, to whom he offers repeated praise for transforming his life from one of drunkenness, theft, and murder, has died. Although his present life and future prospects appear miserable, he is satisfied that in contrast to his previous life, "I ain't like that anymore. I'm just a fella." To the self-styled Schofield Kid, this poor farmer certainly does not seem to be the "rootin', tootin', no good, sonofabitchin', cold-blooded assassin" he is reputed to be. The Kid has sought out Munny as a partner for the Big Whiskey bounty based on his uncle's recommendation of Munny as "the worst one--meaning the best." The Kid's story fails to entice Munny to join him,[8] but he leaves open the offer should Munny change his mind and catch up with him later. And Munny does change his mind--we are lead to believe out of dire poverty and only for the money--and he enlists another retired gunfighter and old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to join up with the Kid.

The cowboys fulfill their obligation to Skinny. When Davey, the cowboy guilty more by association than commission, offers an additional and "best of the lot" pony as compensation directly to Delilah, the victim of his partner's assault, Strawberry Alice furiously rebuffs the offer and leads all the prostitutes but Delilah in pitching mud at him. But we can see that Delilah is touched by the offer.

Soon, the first "assassin" arrives in town in the form of English Bob (Richard Harris), a freelance killer of Chinese for the railroads, together with his biographer, Mr. Beauchamp. He boasts of the superiority of the British monarchy and laughs about the recent assassination of Present Garfield. He also imperiously ignores the posted ordinance as well as the direction of a deputy to check his guns, which leads to his being surrounded by at least six deputies with guns drawn and pointed at him. English Bob turns out to be an old acquaintance of Little Bill, and the two chat calmly, catching up on old times, as Little Bill disarms him.[9] Everyone else is quaking in fear. When Little Bill takes the last of English Bob's guns, Bob protests that he is now at the mercy of his enemies. "Enemies?" asks Little Bill. "You been talking about the Queen again, on Independence Day?" Before Bob can answer, Little Bill inflicts a merciless beating on him, saying as he does, "I'll bet you think I'm kicking you, Bob. It ain't so. I'm talking to you, Bob, and all those villains down in Kansas, all those villains in Missouri, and all those villains down in Cheyenne, and I'm telling them there ain't no whore's gold, and even if there was, well, they wouldn't want to come looking for it anyhow." The townsfolk witnessing this, including the deputies and the prostitutes, are horrified at the violence and ferocity of Little Bill's "talk" with English Bob, and Little Bill is embarrassed when he stops beating Bob and realizes a crowd is silently watching him.

Little Bill jails English Bob to allow him to recover from his injuries sufficient to travel. While Bob recuperates, Little Bill regales Mr. Beauchamp with stories of gunfighters and gun fighting. Mr. Beauchamp is still convinced of the truth of the romantic myths of the Wild West despite Little Bill's realistic accounts of persons and events.[10] When English Bob leaves town, he curses Big Whiskey: "A plague on you; a plague on the whole stinking lot of you without morals or laws. And all you whores--you got no laws; you got no honor."

Strawberry Alice worries that Little Bill's warning by his treatment of English Bob will succeed in scaring off any other "assassins," but almost immediately Munny, Ned, and the Kid arrive. Munny sits shivering with fever in the saloon while his companions are upstairs with the women. Little Bill finds him armed and inflicts another savage beating while the others escape and then rescue Munny who has collapsed in the rain-drenched street. When he recovers, the three go after the cowboys. The Kid discovers that killing is neither as easy nor as glamorous as he had thought and admits that he is not the experienced killer he claimed to be. Even Munny and Ned are troubled by what they are doing and realize that they are no longer the evil men they used to be.[11] Yet they do succeed and kill both cowboys. In returning to Big Whiskey to claim their reward, they become separated. Ned is captured and flogged to death by Little Bill in trying to extract information on the other two. When Munny learns of his friend's death, a rage grows in him and he finally drinks whiskey again to steel himself for revenge; he becomes like Achilles seeking Hector, the killer of his friend Patroclus.

As Munny rides into Big Whiskey after Little Bill, he see Ned's body displayed in front of Greely's bearing a sign stating, "This is what happens to assassins around here." Walking into the saloon, he confronts and then kills Skinny. Little Bill objects that Munny just shot an unarmed man. "Well, he should have armed himself if he's going to decorate his saloon with my friend." Little Bill now knows with whom he is dealing: "You be William Munny out of Missouri, killer of women and children." "That's right. I've killed women and children. I've killed just about every thing that walks or crawls at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned." A chaotic shootout ensues in which Munny kills five men and wounds Little Bill but is not hurt himself. Munny prepares to finish off Little Bill who protests, "I don't deserve to die like this. I was building a house." "Deserve's got nothing to do with it," Munny snarls as he pulls the trigger.[12]

Armed deputies and townsfolk outside may have trapped Munny in the saloon, so he shouts a threat out into the street: "Alright, I'm coming out. Any sonofabitch takes a shot at me, not only am I gonna kill him, I'm gonna kill his wife, all his friends, burn his damn house down." He leaves town unmolested as no one has the courage to stop him. The movie ends with a title crawl explaining that Munny and his family abandoned the farm in Kansas and were rumored to have prospered in dry goods in San Francisco.

I have gone on perhaps too long with the plot of Unforgiven, and you are likely wondering what this has to do with the Platonic interpretation I promised earlier. I turn to that now. Recall that Plato's purpose in the Republic is an analysis of justice, and that he does this first by describing what constitutes justice writ large in the proper organization of a polity and second by explaining what justice is for the individual. The well-ordered individual is a topic for another day; the attention here is on social order. For Plato, individuals fall into three broad classes by nature based on aptitude, character, and interests--those primarily concerned with profit, those primarily concerned with honor, and those primarily concerned with knowledge.[13] The mental capacities of feeling, willing, and thinking respectively parallel these concerns as do the associated virtues of moderation, courage, and wisdom.[14] The myth of the metals[15] with its hierarchy of bronze, iron, silver, and gold illustrates this natural ranking. A well-ordered society must take this natural division of capacities into account, and Plato devotes most of the middle part of the Republic outlining the organization of the good society premised on this division. The vast majority of people fall in the first class, that of producers, who provide all of the goods and most of the services. A second, much smaller class, the guardians, is the soldiers and police who defend the society from external and internal disruption and attack. The third class, the best and brightest, is that of the very few rulers, the philosopher-kings, who provide overall guidance. Justice, writ large in the society or polity as a whole, "is to perform one's own task and not to meddle with that of others."[16]

How would Plato view Big Whiskey on this scheme? The vast majority are money-lovers,[17] producers--Skinny, the townsfolk, the cowboys, the deputies, and most of the prostitutes. The gunfighters--Munny, Ned, English Bob, Little Bill--are honor-lovers, at least potential guardians. And there is another honor-lover--Strawberry Alice. But Big Whiskey is missing a wisdom-lover, a philosopher-king, to rule and guide the community, and this is the central cause of its failure. As Plato warns, "Cities will have no respite from evil...unless philosophers rule as kings in the cities, or those whom we now call kings and rulers genuinely and adequately study philosophy."[18] And this is exactly what Big Whiskey lacks. It does not even have a mayor or other political leader, let alone a qualified ruler.[19] There is no one to provide effective rule; there is no one to judge and resolve disputes completely and decisively; there is no one to decide what constitutes the good for the community as a whole. There is no one to institute and maintain justice, to ensure that everyone does his or her proper task and only that proper task.

The appropriate question is why there is no philosopher-king in Big Whiskey. Plato certainly implies that the wisdom-loving capacity is rare, and he explicitly outlines the long and intensive training and education necessary for molding this capacity into an actual ability.[20] Only those with the most aptitude coupled with the most training[21] turn out to have true ability to rule. Perhaps as an isolated frontier town, Big Whiskey is simply too small to attract someone with the necessary aptitude, training, and experience. Perhaps it is too poor to support the life of a philosopher-king who will spend most of his or her time considering the Form of the Good and relatively little time intervening in the life of the community, that is, actually ruling.[22]

Big Whiskey is in America, so it would be reasonable to think that a democratic polity is possible even if the town has not formally established a New England style town meeting direct democracy or the more common town council representative democracy. Not for Plato. He sees democracy as a degenerate form of government characterized by too much freedom[23] to do as one chooses and too much equality that treats the better and more worthy the same as the worse and less worthy. Democracy improperly grants all individuals, qualified and unqualified, good and bad, an equal voice in the affairs of the community.[24] In short, from the Platonic point of view, it is fortunate that Big Whiskey has not gone democratic.

Big Whiskey lacks democratic leadership, and we have seen that a full-fledged philosopher-king is not available. But there might be someone with the natural temperament to be a second-best ruler, although there are few candidates.[25] The venal Skinny does not qualify, nor do the other producers. The prostitutes, with one exception, cannot be considered. The deputies and cowboys are also producers and lack sufficient courage even to be more or less adequate guardians. The gunfighters or "assassins" as Little Bill calls them--Munny, Ned, and English Bob[26]--do have proven courage and grace under fire indicative of a potential to be guardians, and they clearly seek honor,[27] but they are not members of the community. They are foreign invaders. Rather than lead the community, they are enemies to be subdued in defense of the community. This leaves only Little Bill and Strawberry Alice as candidates.

Little Bill is the de facto ruler of his town. As a former gunfighter, he certainly has the guardian's aptitude, and he has had on-the-job training as the sheriff, the protector of his community. Like a good guard dog, he is fierce with enemies and gentle with friends.[28] He is spirited, as Plato describes it, and full of righteous indignation, boiling anger, and willingness to fight immediately for what he considers right,[29] and what he thinks is right is the well-being of Big Whiskey. And he is steadfast and courageous. He is contemptuous of "tramps, drunk teamsters, and crazed miners sporting their pistols and acting like they was bad men, but without any character, not even any bad character." He recognizes that these he disdains are not gunfighters, are not acting from honor, are not courageous. They are merely armed men operating beyond their expertise. He has some respect for "assassins," but he will use all of his skills and abilities to protect his community from them and any other enemies. Plato could be describing Little Bill as one of the best of guardians who "must always do whatever they think is in the best interest of the city."[30] With all of these qualities, Little Bill is excellent guardian material. But he is not philosopher-king material.

Nor is he producer material. Little Bill is building a house, but as one of the deputies laughingly observes, "He's no carpenter--there is not a single square angle in the whole thing."[31] Now Little Bill is acting beyond his expertise. When Mr. Beauchamp, English Bob's biographer, visits one rainy night to hear gunfighter stories, Little Bill runs out of containers to catch all the leaks pouring through the roof, prompting Mr. Beauchamp to suggest he ought to hang the carpenter. Little Bill glares at him for a moment, affronted to be dishonored, but lets it pass. Yet more than the quality of the structure or that it is his own handiwork, Little Bill is proud of his house as the physical manifestation of his status as a member of the community. It is a place, he says, where he can sit on his porch, smoke his pipe, and watch the sun set. Whether Little Bill was ever the evil kind of gunfighter Munny was and English Bob is, his own house represents for him civilized life and the peace, ease, enjoyment, mutual respect, and community missing from the life of the gunfighter. His house is a symbol of his commitment to the good life in community with his neighbors and of his commitment to his neighbors as distinguished from an existence of selfish isolation.

Despite all of his aptitude and qualities and his sincere intention to protect his community, Little Bill fails. He is not able to overcome the challenge of one of his neighbors who becomes an enemy from within the community and invites enemies from outside the community to wreak destruction of the community. When Delilah is assaulted and Little Bill determines the proper punishment to be merely a fine, and a fine paid to Skinny rather than to Delilah, Strawberry Alice is outraged. She protests, but to no avail. Little Bill has made his decision. But Alice is not satisfied. She takes up the collection and issues the reward for the deaths of the cowboys, and this sets in motion the whole series of troubles that dooms Big Whiskey. If Little Bill blundered in his judgment of the cowboys, he compounds his mistake in trying to patch it. He tries to stop reward-seeking assassins from coming to Big Whiskey, but his methods--prohibiting firearms and sending "messages" via beatings--are not effective. He does not really attempt, and certainly does not succeed, in mollifying Alice. When Skinny suggests that, "You could run off them cowboys," he responds, "I could run off them whores," but he does neither. And this is the key to Little Bill's failure. He is too gentle to friends when circumstances call for harsher treatment. Whipping the cowboys, as he first considered, might have appeased Alice, and banishing the cowboys, the whores, or both would stop the assassins, as least from coming to Big Whiskey. A wiser, more-qualified leader would not have made these errors.[32] He would have inflicted the necessary harsh treatment on members of his community. Plato warns about this and holds that even philosopher-kings are subject to the timocratic temptation in which leaders are distracted by power and money and become too sympathetic to economic considerations.[33] Little Bill weighs Skinny's financial concerns and the cowboys' importance to their ranch too highly, and this clouds his judgment. A skilled philosopher-king would not have made that mistake.

I suggested Alice as a candidate ruler, and she certainly should be considered. As a prostitute, she might not seem to be anything but a specialized producer, but she is clearly much more than that. She is obviously spirited--she tries to stop Quick Mike's attack on Delilah, she is not afraid to challenge Skinny and Little Bill both openly and secretly, she is determined that the prostitutes be treated fairly and properly, she spurns Davey's peace offering of the best pony for Delilah, and she devises the reward scheme. She is gentle with her friends as she nurses the injured Delilah and boosts the morale of the other women, and she is fierce with those she judges to be enemies of the prostitutes. Benefiting friends and harming enemies may be the essence of manly virtue,[34] but these are among Alice's abilities. Honor drives her: "Maybe we ain't nothing but whores, but, by God, we ain't horses," and she views the mutilation of Delilah as an injury worse than death. Her conception of justice demands compensation for the dishonor done both to Delilah specifically and to the prostitutes in general. That this compensation requires the deaths of the cowboys is something an honor-loving gunfighter like Ned understands.[35] Alice is especially contemptuous of Little Bill's judgment of the cowboys given what convinces Little Bill is Skinny's investment in Delilah with its implication that these women are not persons but just property. She wants justice as see sees it, and she will get it anyway she can. In short, Alice is a natural leader and gladly assumes the role of leader of the prostitutes. Like Little Bill, she is excellent guardian material, and Plato is quite clear that women, as well as men, may fill any role in society except for the biologically fixed functions of bearing and begetting children.[36] But also like Little Bill, she is not philosopher-king material.

Alice's failing is that she does not know when to stop; her motto could be fiat iustitia et pereat mundus. [37] She is like the traditional Greek heroes Vlastos considers in contrast to Socrates whose vengeance is not tempered by even the lex talionis limiting retaliation to the equal treatment of an eye for an eye.[38] She is subject to the flip side of the timocratic temptation, deceit and war.[39] A young woman Alice feels responsible for has suffered a serious and permanently disfiguring injury, but she was not killed, and Little Bill definitely has let the cowboys off too easily. A legitimate judge, or a philosopher-king, would have levied more than a fine, but it is unlikely that a proper legal process would result in capital punishment even for this grievous assault. But for Alice, only the deaths of the cowboys is commensurate with the disfigurement and dishonor suffered, and when the assassins complete the killings, and the other cowboys and townsfolk learning of this throw rocks at the prostitutes' house, Alice shrieks in defiance, "They had it coming!"

English Bob's curse is mistaken--the leaders of Big Whiskey do not lack morals or laws, and they certainly do not lack honor. But Little Bill's enforcement of the law is too weak, and Alice's sense of honor is too strong. Had Little Bill been a wiser, more-qualified leader, or had he been guided by a legitimate superior, he could have found a way to satisfy or restrain Alice. Likewise, had Alice been a wiser, more-qualified leader, or had she been guided by a legitimate superior, she could have found a way to satisfy her thirst for justice by means that would not destroy her community.

And she does destroy her community. The collateral damage she sets in motion is far more than just two cowboys. The reward also results in the deaths of Little Bill, Skinny, five deputies, and Ned as well as the beatings of English Bob and Will Munny, the disillusionment of both the Kid and Mr. Beauchamp, and the corruption of Munny. By the end, it is like a Shakespearean tragedy, the stage littered with bodies and devastated lives. But as Munny rides out of town, Alice is not horrified, she is not mortified, and her steely stare suggests that she is still not satisfied.

She may not have intended it, but Alice has caused death, horror, and the loss of her community. She has defended her friends, the other prostitutes, but at the cost of the rest of their small society and their tenuous place in it. She has invited Munny into town, and by the end, in vengeance for his friend's death and protection of his own life, he is threatening to destroy all of civilized life in Big Whiskey: "Any sonofabitch takes a shot at me, not only am I gonna kill him, I'm gonna kill his wife, all his friends, burn his damn house down." That is, he is willing to annihilate life, obliterate love, eradicate friendship, and demolish domesticity. And this is no idle threat since Munny is quite willing to carry out his threat to the extent of his ability and as he deems necessary. As with Alice, there appears to be no limit to what he is willing to do to achieve his ends by the terms he sets. At least Little Bill valued the community and his place in it. Recall his last words before Munny kills him: "I don't deserve to die like this. I was building a house." "Deserve's got nothing to do with it," sneers Munny.


Plato's explanation of what goes wrong in Big Whiskey is the same as his criticism of what is wrong with the politics of his day--the wrong people who do not know what they are doing are in charge. Lacking both aptitude and proper training, those who rule are acting beyond their expertise. Moreover, both the rulers and the ruled are unjust. Rather than continue at their own task, they improperly meddle in tasks reserved for others. Big Whiskey lacks a qualified ruler. Without a philosopher-king who could establish and maintain justice, horrible things happen that ruin Big Whiskey. Having no competent leader, two admirable individuals, each with much potential but without proper preparation who thereby act beyond their expertise, struggle to impose separate, conflicting, and flawed conceptions of justice, one too mild, the other too harsh. Of necessity, they fail. This results in both external and internal attacks that shatter the social order. For Plato, the case of Big Whiskey is simply a particularly spectacular example of the many ways in which a society can go wrong and a reminder of the very few ways societies go right. Plato gives Unforgiven two thumbs up.