Don Draper: An Ancient Perspective

It might only be a matter of time before primetime is graced by a period drama centered around the Platonic Academy. With Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosopherswe have reliable source material. And with academia’s insistence on teaching the Classics, we have indication that interest in Plato and his cohort has not dwindled in the slightest these last couple millennia. Take note, Hollywood.

In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for Mad Men to satisfy our period drama needs (or, I guess, Boardwalk Empire—you know, if you’re into that sort of thing). Since its first season in 2007, Mad Men has been lauded as a cultural phenomenon, so convincing in its depiction of early-to-mid 1960s American society that it has managed to exhume some of the decade’s fashions, and has given our book clubs a wealth of material. It couldn’t survive on the basis of vintage adroitness alone, however. Critics agree Mad Men is damn well-written, with characters not at all out of touch with a 21st century audience. In fact, if anything could be deemed the show’s crux, its most captivating and essential forcethat would have to be the character of Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm.

“Who is Don Draper?” the fourth season begins. Well, he’s an ad man. I refer those seeking a complete analysis of Don Draper to this DVD collection (and the fifth season premiere, Sunday, March 25). What you need to know is that it’s one of those things you have to see to believe. Don Draper is the man Hollywood’s been waiting forone who can steal men’s hearts and their girlfriends too. More flawed a character than any you’ll encounter in Greek tragedy, Draper has nevertheless captured the fancy of young, single men who majored in Business Administration. Here’s a man’s man with a proclivity for mid-morning Old Fashioneds and mid-afternoon romps with secretaries, Bohemian babes, and clients’ wivesto name a few. Here’s a man with the aplomb to do bad things and look good doing them. Don Draper is the Atlas upon whom the world of Mad Men is borne.

The mythological analogy works well for our purposes. While Mad Men is a show running in the 2010s, set in the 1960sjust a half-century of difference, no longer than a heartbeat geologically speakingthere are head-dunking moments when Don Draper’s world appears as primitive as the Ancient Greeks’. Then again, I imagine even Plato liked to keep his Academy clean (cleanliness, godliness, etc.). Regardless, despite the span of decades, or centuries, we’re more or less the same creatures we’ve always been. A leitmotif of vice and virtue ties us from the time of the ancient “Great Bearded Thinkers” to Mad Men‘s time of debonair ad men to today’s time of hysterical realists. For all time, the same impulses have kept us fighting or fleeing and, most importantly, breathing. In an effort to define the best way to go about this cycle of life, Aristotle lectured at his Lyceum on the principles of ethics (his views were then compiled by his son in the Nicomachean Ethics). Needless to say, Aristotle did not provide the final word. Opponents sprang up in his own time, renouncing the eminent philosopher’s repudiation of earthly delights.

Pleasure is not a vice, said Epicurus: “Pleasure is the beginning and end of the blessed life.” In a move suggestive of contemporary politics, Epicurus’ statement was taken severely out of context by his detractors (the Stoics) and elicited much disdain toward the philosopher and his followers. An immediate misconception might be that Don Draper aligns soundly with Epicurus’ views. Interestingly enough, the life of the young Dick WhitmanDon Draper’s actual name and ante-egoparallels Epicurus’ own meager beginnings. Suffering and pain befell the two men in early age, which Aristotle might say predisposed both to lives of decadence: “It is through [inopportune] pleasures and pains that men are corrupted.” Certainly, Don Draper engages in some reprehensible behaviors, but Epicurus was not the portrait of an impetuous hedonist that his Stoic slanderers painted.

We live in the aftermath of this defamation. A word familiar to us is the adjective/noun, ‘epicurean.’ Defined simply, it denotes refined taste (esp. in food and drink) and connotes a certain taboo indulgence. Think the now-outlawed ortolan. Some dictionaries will make note that the word’s meaning in the parlance of our time is a huge misrepresentation of Epicurus’ philosophy. In a letter to a friend, one of the few extant remains of the philosopher’s corpus, Epicurus maintains that bread and water alone can delight: “Plain fare yields as much pleasure as a luxurious table.” Though luxuries are welcome, thank you, they should not be sought out for every occasion.

Don Draper disagrees. His exquisitely tailored gray suits and 1962 Coupe de Ville indicate that he acts well in the spirit of 20th century “conspicuous consumption” and “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Garnering success at advertising firm Sterling Cooper (Draper Pryce), Draper gladly postures when necessary and flaunts his beautiful wife, the ex-model Betty Hofstadt, at awards ceremonies, weddings, and country clubs. But this is all not enough. What is publicly decried (excessive drinking and adultery) is fetishized on Madison Avenue, where Draper invests a large portion of his days. Beyond living comfortably, dressing dapperly, and dining lavishly, Madison Avenue expects Draper to exercise free rein as a man in a man’s world.

Men of Mad Men

In season one, when Liberty Capitol recruits Sterling Cooper for help advertising their savings bank, Draper and friends dream up the idea of a private accountcalled “the executive”for “work expenses” (i.e. expensive restaurants, hotels, and “escorts”), which cannot be accessed by a man’s wife. Draper doesn’t complain about his script; he enjoys numerous liaisons all over America over the course of a single season. Among others of his ilk, his carnal impulses find no objection. Even most women turn a blind eye to the philandering common among the men at Sterling Cooper, some accepting it outright by saying it’s “just how these men are.” Though suspicious of the locked drawer in his office, which she’s also not really supposed to enter, Betty reluctantly allows Draper his private freedom. Both Aristotle and Epicurus would condemn Draper’s infidelity and guile as repugnant. For different reasons, of course.

Those (impossibly) unfamiliar with Aristotle need only know that he and Plato are largely accountable for what is referred to as Western civilization. Plato’s philosophies influenced later Western Christian ideals of goodness of soul and the subjugation of sensual pleasure. As Plato’s student and therefore a descendant of the (in)famous ascetic Socrates, Aristotle formed an approach to ethical life that was a tad humdrum (“Bad men have many ways, good men but one”). Nietzsche calls his philosophical forbear a bore. A professor of mine, Dr. Jim Beggs, is only a bit kinder by saying that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics are mathematical to the point of naïveté. It’s hard to disagree when Aristotle’s main doctrine is known as “the mean.” To the philosopher’s credit, the Ethics was intended for pragmatismnot to reveal supreme Truths with a capital ‘T’.

In his characteristic clear-cut fashion, Aristotle draws in Ethics a dichotomy of vice: excess and deficiency. “The mean” corresponds to the moderate middle ground between these extremes, with some qualities corresponding wholly to deficiency, others wholly to excess (“You can’t be moderate in your adultery, Don Draper,” Aristotle proclaims in the second book, sixth chapter of Ethics). Above all, echoing Plato’s work, Aristotle’s Ethics stresses “a rational attitude in all spheres of life.” It is no surprise to Aristotle that Draper violently oscillates between zeniths of satisfaction (seasons 1-2) and nadirs of insecurity (seasons 3-4). Draper deliberates his actions poorly and exhibits a disregard for doing what is ethically correct. By way of an assumed identity, he has literally lied his way to the top of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. In his search for success and prosperity, or whatever the hell the mad man is looking for, Don Draper continually opts for immoderate excesses and deficiencies, never endeavoring towards the mean by way of the lesser of two evils. Per Aristotle, however, the best way to safeguard success is per. the. mean. Self-control, which Aristotle identifies as the mean of pleasure, is an alien concept for Draper, who more often participates in the excess of pleasure, “self-indulgence.” Draper’s vice stems from a lack of restraint and a desperate need for validationin Aristotle’s mind, a vacant virtue. As his many, many extramarital trysts hint, Draper is in a rut of repeating the “errors to which [he is personally prone.]”

Despite his reputation, Epicurus bodes no better for Donald Draper. For the once-destitute scholar of philosophy, “the absence of pain is in itself pleasure.” Aristotle be damned, Epicurus is remarkably consistent in his avowal of prudent pleasure. In fact, the philosopher of pleasure considers prudence a more precious thing than either philosophy or pleasure. In a human twist, Epicurus maintains that philosophy can stem from common sense alone, without the need for Platonic and Aristotelian systems of logic to derive it. Taken at face value, it may seem that Epicurus’ philosophy is egocentric and at its extreme, solipsistic. Surprisingly, however, Epicurus considered one of the greatest pleasures in life to be friendshipmutual pleasure, one could say. For all Don Draper’s charisma and good looks, his genuine friendships number few. The most earnest friendship he’s ever had is stricken in season four. Epicurus saw friendship as a way to escape the envy that a man’s public life elicitshis relationship with the antagonistic Stoics attests that he spoke from own experience. Certainly, Draper’s lot is envied by those in less elite 1960s strata (with the exception of the burgeoning Bohemians, who take exception to him), but even those in his own circle envy him to some extent. As creative director, he encounters opposition in the first two seasons from the ambitious subordinate, Pete Campbell.

Of course, we mustn’t forget about Draper’s unreserved lust. Surely, Epicurus can appreciate the readiest of human pleasures. And yet, he does not: “Sexual intercourse has never done a man good and he is lucky if it has not harmed him.” Well, shit. Draper has and does suffer harm as a result of his libido, more-so than he prospers (profits?) from it. With some semblance of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, Epicurus inculcates that “prudence in the pursuit of pleasure” is found by avoiding passion. With some rejection of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, Epicurus inculcates that “prudence in the pursuit of pleasure” defines virtue; otherwise, virtue is “an empty name.” Pleasure is good and we must partake, yes, but we must also carefully weigh which pleasures we allow ourselves, for some are immediate gratifications followed by long-term regrets. Don Draper knows all about that, I’d say.

So Aristotle and Epicurus take exception to Draper’s lifestyle. But Don Draper’s not all bad. We love him don’t we? Well, I do, at least. For all his (and the rest of the cast’s) moral failings, something about Mad Men has kept audiences rapt well into 52 episodes. Perhaps it’s for the same reason that students of literature often know Dante’s Inferno upwards and downwards, but may forget that the Divine Comedy has two other parts: Purgatorio and Paradiso. Would St. Augustine’s Confessions have been so influential in the Christian literary tradition if he had not fervently recounted the trespasses of his youth? The cycle of sin and sanctity dominates a large part of the Canon. In experiencing Don Draper, we encounter a metric ton of sin, yet when he comes through with goodness, we feel elated. We want the handsome man to surpass his handsome sum of flaws. At the same time, we want to see him hit bottom hard. This is the same principle (also outlined by Aristotle, in Poetics) that has kept Attic tragedy afloat in classrooms and theaters these last couple millennia. We can only wildly speculate what kind of suffering awaits Don Draper in the next episode. Aristotle and Epicurus might have a good sense of it, though.

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2 Comments on “Don Draper: An Ancient Perspective”

  1. joshcovell
    March 25 2012 at 10:30 am #

    David, brilliant piece. A few questions for you.

    1. I’m wondering what you think of Draper’s attempt to embrace Aristotle’s “mean,” where he, short-lived as it may be, rejects alcohol, recognizing the spiral downward he was experiencing. Does he ideally seek the mean but too often fall victim too the siren song of indulgence? And what will it take for him to “reel it in,” as it were?

    2. On Epicurus’ friendship: “The Suitcase,” what I (and I think many) would consider the high mark for the series, shows a budding friendship between Don and Peggy. But it’s an interesting one. Though perhaps not “mutually pleasing,” I think both get SOME pleasure out of mutual understanding. Both are ambitious, emotionally distant (perhaps as a result of their ambition) characters and both see a kindred spirit in the other. But it’s interesting in that Peggy also represents sort of a feminine, new-and-improved version of Draper. Can this kind of dynamic ever really be mutually pleasing?

    3. Not a question, but the character of Draper just intrigues me to no end and this article highlights that beautifully. He is the embodiment of carnal pleasure-seeking and the audience lives vicariously through him, but (and this is the part that is most fascinating, I think) we want him to indulge only insofar as he can do so while still maintaining his superiority in the workplace and in his relationships. Once he loses total control and thus his power and position, we want him to self-improve more in line with “the mean.” Maybe he really is like a Kennedy–a charismatic, effective leader AND the embodiment of indulgence, which we only support if the former takes priority over the latter. I’ll be interested to see if Don’s out-of-nowhere marriage is his attempt to tone down the latter so that he can reestablish himself in the former.

    • David Hernandez
      March 25 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      Thanks for the meaty questions, Josh.

      1. Draper doesn’t drink to the extent that, say, Freddy Rumsen (“Six Month Leave”) or Duck Phillips (“The Suitcase”) do. He doesn’t seem so far in the hole, there. There are several moments throughout all four seasons where Draper realizes he has to make better lifestyle decisions, but he simply lacks the moral strength to deliver on the promises he makes himself. I don’t see Draper forsaking alcohol or any other of his vices for any extended period of time; mostly because that’s not good television.

      2. Thanks for bringing up Peggy (actually, my favorite character). She also popped into my mind with Epicurus’ doctrine of friendship. “The Suitcase” is a great episode, but it’s only halfway through season four. Perhaps they connect well for a short while, but with his proposal to Megan at the end of the season, Draper loses a great deal of respect from Peggy. The end of the season is a decisive moment, I think, when Peggy is finally able to remove Draper’s veil of “infallible superior.” Their dynamic is going to be interesting in season five. I anticipate Peggy to challenge Draper more than ever, if not even replace him at some points. I’m sure they’ll have moments of connection, but it seems likely that Peggy’s image of Draper will get in the way of anything extraordinarily meaningful.

      3. You know, you make a very good point. One of my favorite scenes in the series is when Draper shows up at Peggy’s bedside after she gives birth. The way the shot shifts to him is chill-inducing. He seems a truly powerful character in that moment. We like it when he’s powerful and acts as well as he’s dressed. I think you put it perfectly with the analogy to a Kennedy. I don’t know how his new marriage will pan out, but I also don’t think Draper will stop being Draper any time soon.

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