The Abiding Wisdom of ‘The Big Lebowski’

The 11th annual celebration of all things Lebowski—bowling, White Russians, what-have-you—happens this weekend at the Executive Strike and Spare. The Coen Brothers' 1998 film “The Big Lebowski” spawned a cult following with its own traveling fan festival, a religion based on its hero (Dudeism) and now a book of essays examining philosophical questions raised by the film. 

Is sloth a virtue? Is there such a thing as a just war? Is bowling a new interpretation of the Sisyphus myth, and is it the key to a meaningful life? How would Kierkegaard and Camus respond to “The Big Lebowski?”

Peter Fosl is chair of the philosophy department at Transylvania University. He edited “The Big Lebowski and Philosophy: Keeping Your Mind Limber with Abiding Wisdom,” published by Wiley in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series. Fosl says the Dude’s philosophy of abiding is how the film ultimately confronts violence and the difficulties of the modern world. He wrote about it in his essay for the collection titled “Bowling, Despair, and American Nihilism.”

“On one hand, The Dude is a loser and a deadbeat,” says Fosl. “On the other hand, he has this compelling, engaging, compassionate humane virtue to him. It’s that virtue of abiding that draws people in.” 

Slacker and bowling league mainstay Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges, is neither violent nor particularly frightened by the strange and menacing events surrounding him in the increasingly chaotic plot that involves a cadre of nihilists, a missing trophy wife, a case of mistaken identity and another Lebowski, a millionaire tycoon offended by the Dude's lackadaisical lifestyle. “The Dude abides” is one of the film's many catch-phrases, reproduced on bumper stickers and shirts sported by the film's fans. It's in this act of abiding—to endure, to withstand without active opposition—that Fosl says the character unveils the key to finding meaning in a chaotic universe. 

“The film says the Dude was the perfect man for his time and place, for our time and place. If abiding is what he does, if abiding is the way he confronts nihilism and violence and difficulties of the world as he faces it in this post-Reagan, post-Vietnam, post-hippie place we’re in, then abiding is the centerpiece, the thing that has to be understood in order to understand the film,” says Fosl.  

Fosl became a fan of the film because of the annual festival (he lives in Louisville, where the flagship event happens every year) and began to see its philosophical angles after repeat viewings.

“I’ve always been committed to the idea that there’s philosophy everywhere, in our ordinary lives and in the scholarly world,” says Fosl. “You can find it in pop music and film and books. Academic philosophers make a mistake in focusing so much on academic work.” 

Fosl will read from “The Big Lebowski and Philosophy” at Carmichael's Bookstore (2720 Frankfort Ave.) on Thursday. He’ll also sign copies Saturday at Lebowskifest. 

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