Cardinal Virtues in “12 Angry Men”

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Author: Michael De Sapio

12 Angry Men is a film connected to the Western moral imagination, speaking to us on a primal, even a classical level, with themes that are as old as the Bible and Greek tragedy. The characters of the twelve jurors are archetypes representing the virtues and vices of all of us, and their search for the truth is universal…

12 Angry Men

April 2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of one of the most beloved American film classics, 12 Angry Men. Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb (with a supporting cast of peerless character actors), this jury- room drama seems to have a universal appeal, extending far beyond devotees of the Turner Classic Movie Channel. This author fondly recalls watching a screening several summers ago on the Washington Mall before a large and involved audience, with the United States Capitol providing a fitting backdrop to the passionate discussions of the jurors. The widespread use of the film in schools has ensured its rediscovery by successive generations. Who doesn’t remember watching 12 Angry Men in a civics or government class as a means of illustrating the American justice system?The film speaks to us on a primal, one might even say classical level, with themes that are as old as the Bible and Greek tragedy. The characters of the twelve jurors are archetypes representing the virtues and vices of all of us, and their search for the truth is universal. Indeed, one of the reasons we continue to value the products of the Golden Age of Hollywood is that they were still connected to the Western moral imagination. Themes of good and evil, sin and redemption pervade these films, and this is no less true of 12 Angry Men than of any other classic film from the period of the 1930s through the early 1960s. It is instructive to ponder how the classical virtue ethics expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiaeand in particular the “cardinal virtues” of prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justiceplay out in the film.

For those few who haven’t seen 12 Angry Men, a brief summary of the plot: In New York City on the hottest day of the year, a jury deliberates over the fate of an eighteen-year-old minority youth accused of stabbing his father to death. All but one of the jurors come into the jury room ready to vote “guilty.” The lone holdout juror is convinced that the case is not as airtight as it appears, and he attempts to win over the other eleven to a “not guilty” verdict.

Note: In the screenplay, the jurors are referred to by their jury number rather than by name. We will follow that practice in this essay. The principal characters of the film are Juror No. 8 (played by Henry Fonda) and Juror No. 3 (played by Lee J. Cobb).

12 Angry Men is renowned for its examination of the corrosive effects of prejudice, which is at heart a failure of the virtue of prudence. The classical tradition considered prudence to be the leader or “charioteer” of the other virtues, setting their rule and measure. St. Thomas Aquinas, following in the footsteps of Aristotle, calls it “right reason in action” (ST II-II, 47). Prudence allows us to “see rightly,” to condition our reason and conscience according to the true nature of things in order to act virtuously. Now, it could be argued that racial prejudice is rooted in a failure to see things as they truly are—i.e., that all human beings are equal in dignity. The sole juror whose “guilty” vote is rooted in prejudice against the defendant’s ethnic background is Juror No. 10 (Ed Begley), a sixtyish garage owner. Despite claiming firsthand knowledge of the ethnic group in question since he has “lived among them all my life,” he shows ignorance in prejudging the defendant’s behavior based on his membership in this group rather than on the facts of the case. For Juror No. 10 the defendant is guilty a priori, and the facts are only convenient excuses to condemn him to the electric chair.

A positive example of prudence is embodied in Juror No. 4 (E.G. Marshall), a calm and reasoned stockbroker who approaches the case dispassionately and is only interested in establishing the facts. Perhaps it is his very ability to “see rightly” that enables him to change his vote late in the film when Juror No. 8 seems to be building a strong case for a “not guilty” verdict. Significantly, the bit of evidence that convinces Juror No. 4 involves a witness’ eyesight.

The uncomfortable environment—a cramped jury room without air conditioning on the hottest day of the year—tries the jurors’ fortitude, their ability to “stick with it” under pressure. Thomas Aquinas divides fortitude into two parts: attack (protecting goods at risk to oneself) and endurance (clutching to what is of value amid suffering) (ST II-II, 123). Both are present in the film. First, the courage to voice unpopular opinions—exhibited especially by Juror No. 8—is intimidated by the rowdier members of the jury, who want a quick verdict with minimal discussion. Secondly, the hot weather makes the jurors feel keenly the challenge to keep up the deliberation and reach a just verdict. As one of the jurors declares toward the beginning, “Everyone has a breaking point.” The flippant salesman Juror No. 7’s (Jack Warden) breaking point comes near the film’s end, when he decides to change his vote to “not guilty” just to break up the deadlock. Immediately upon changing his vote, No. 7 is confronted by the immigrant Juror No. 11 (George Voskovec) for not sticking to principle (“Don’t you have the guts to do what you think is right?”). No. 11’s use of the word “guts” suggests that No. 7’s action was a failure of the second part of fortitude, a failure to stand firm under difficulties. No. 7 changed his vote not out of conviction, but out of weariness from the heat and the lengthiness of the session.

For most people, serving on a jury is a duty rather than a pleasure, and the particular physical circumstances in 12 Angry Men make the session even less pleasurable than usual. The virtue whereby we use pleasures correctly is temperance (ST II-II, 141). The temperate person is moderate in his use of pleasures and does not let them take on an inordinate role in his life. We turn again to Juror No. 7 for the opposite of the temperate person. This juror has bought tickets for a baseball game that evening and wants the jury session to be over with quickly so he won’t miss the game. A love for the pleasure of sports has overtaken Juror No. 7’s life to the extent that he values it more than the life of another person. Pleasure has become the measure of all his actions in the jury room. This is symbolically enacted late in the film when out of boredom he crumples the used ballots up and throws them at the electric fan in sport. Whether the vote is “guilty” or “not guilty”—i.e., the moral truth—matters little to Juror No. 7; a hedonist, he would likely go whichever way the wind was blowing, just so long as he doesn’t miss his evening’s entertainment.

Temperance has a wider application than simply pleasure; as Juror No. 8’s foremost adversary, the middle-aged messenger service owner Juror No. 3 (Lee J. Cobb) demonstrates, one can also be intemperate with anger. Juror No. 3 describes himself as a “very excitable person,” and he more than any of the other eleven jurors justifies the film’s title. At the beginning of the film, when Juror No. 3’s view holds sway among the others, his anger seems repressed, bubbling beneath the surface. But as the jurors bring up points which contradict his point of view, he becomes overtly angry and vents his anger through bouts of abusive shouting; at one point, he yells a sarcastic remark at an elderly juror. Further, Juror No. 3 illustrates how intemperate anger can escalate into physical violence: in the middle of the film, in the midst of a verbal spar with Juror No. 8, he tries to attack him (“I’ll kill him!”) and has to be restrained by the others.

The question of whether anger—and, indeed, the passions in general—are good or evil was of interest to Thomas Aquinas. He argues that anger is praiseworthy if it is accordance with right reason and is proportionate (ST II-II, 158). The anger that one might feel at witnessing and act of violence, for example, is just and praiseworthy. Indeed, Aquinas says that the moderate use of anger is involved in the operation of virtues including fortitude. Juror No. 3 justifies his anger as a reaction against the injustice of the murder and the further injustice (as he sees it) being perpetrated in the jury room by Juror No. 8: “We’re trying to put a killer in the chair where he belongs.” It’s apparent, however, that Juror No. 3’s rage is also selfishly motivated: He is a bully who doesn’t want his point of view challenged. A contrast to this inordinate anger is provided by Juror No. 8: at one point, annoyed by the sight of Juror No. 3 and another juror passing the time by playing tic-tac-toe, Juror No. 8 grabs their piece of paper and crumples it up declaring, “This isn’t a game!” This action exemplifies just and proportionate anger.

But Juror No. 3’s intemperate anger goes deeper than his actions in the jury room; indeed, it is related to his failure to seek justice, defined as the right order of things (jus in Latin). As he reveals in an emotional monologue, Juror No. 3 was deeply affected by a rift he experienced with his son several years before. Juror No. 3 was a tough, disciplinarian father, concerned with instilling “manliness” in his son. Ironically, the very manliness that No. 3 desired in his son backfired onto him when they got into a fight when the son was sixteen. An estrangement followed, as a result of which No. 3 has become embittered against all “kids” and is using the young man on trial as a scapegoat.

Whether or not Juror No. 3’s anger at his son was justified, he has let it take over his life, spoil his relationships with others, and cloud his judgment, so that a completely unrelated case becomes an opportunity to enact private vengeance. No. 3 is almost incapable of making prudent judgments in the jury room, because a disordered emotion—his grudge against his son—colors his perception of every phase of the case. His situation illustrates the danger of long-standing resentments and the need for reconciliation. The possibility of this becomes evident in the closing moments of the film, as No. 3 collapses on the jury table in tears after having torn a photo of his son and murmurs, “not guilty.” At this moment, No. 3 seems to have realized the futility of anger and the need for love and reconciliation to restore the right order of things (justice).

12 Angry Men, as fine a piece of cinema as America produced in the 1950s, provides a jolt to anyone who thinks ethics and moral theology are an academic matter. Moral choices are expected of us in the real world every day. Being chosen for a jury puts one in a position of immense responsibility, for a person’s life depends entirely on the reason and will of twelve ordinary people in the street. The characters of 12 Angry Men provide us with object lessons about the formation of conscience, the cultivation of virtuous emotions, a sense of proportion between pleasures and duties, and a striving toward the right order of things. Unlike many Hollywood offerings, this classic seems designed to stay in our memories as we fight our everyday moral battles.

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