No country for Old Men (thoughts on America).

Cormac McCarthy’s novel[1] has a powerful story to tell. At a number of levels, it tells the story of America. At the same time, it could be read, based on the title, as a meditation by Mr. McCarthy on his own mortality.[2]  However, my focus is not a psychological analysis of Mr. McCarthy nor is it an extended literary criticism of his novel.[3]  Instead, I want to focus on the political philosophical questions that story raises for America, the rule of law, and the meaning of a decent political society.

At the heart of the story, is an eternal question that all civilisations face.  What is the law? What does it mean to be civilised? What does the law and civilisation mean for those, like lawmen, who guard the regime?  They patrol the border that separates law from lawlessness?

Who guards the guardians?

The story’s central theme revolves around a guardian of the regime. We are aware of a famous, perhaps overused, quotation that asks who guards the guardians.

The Question: “Keep your wife under guard.” Yes, but who will guard the guardians?

What is less well known is the answer that is given, which helps us to understand the situation facing Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and Llewelyn Moss.

The answer: Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

(Preface to Bertrand de Jouvenel On Power: The natural history of its growth (Liberty Fund 1993))

The quotation fits the story. The main character Llewelyn Moss cannot protect his wife.  Even the guardian cannot protect her.  The sheriff, the guardian, Ed Tom Bell, cannot save the woman from the hit man, Anton Chigurh. His failure causes him to reflect on his life and role. He reflects, throughout the book, on what his failure means for the regime, which illustrates the second, usually unknown, part of the quotation.  The book raises the question of whether the Lord is watching over the city.  The Lord here can be both the Judeo-Christian God or it can be understood, as the Ancient Greeks understood it, as the regime’s highest essence, its’ laws. In either case, the question remains, has the Lord forsaken the people because they have forsaken the Lord?  However, the question is abstract, or metaphysical, and ultimately draws us away from understanding the novel as it understands itself.

The abstract level is connected to the practical level in that how we live our lives reflects what we believe about the meaning of our lives. McCarthy explores the choices and the context for those choices through the characters. In particular, the lawmen have to choose to put themselves in danger. The choices they have to make as lawmen may affect their souls yet, they also have to make choices for the best interests of the community, the people they are charged to guard and protect.  To put it directly, they are like the shepherd having to choose for himself and his flock.

In this story, the sheriff realizes that he is overmatched.  He cannot protect his flock.  He also realizes that which is he is protecting has changed.  The problem is more than what he confronts directly in upholding the law. Instead, he realizes that the wider context, what makes the law, what makes civilisation, is changing.  He sees it in the figure of Anton Chigurh. To the sheriff he remains unnamed although real.  Chigurh represents something new, something for which the sheriff is unprepared to meet.  As he says, “What do you say to a man who by his own admission has no soul?” (p.3-4). He understands what he faces, to an extent, because, as he explains “I think it is more like what you are willing to become.” (p. 4).  The deeper issue is what the law means for the soul of the person subject to the law. What are you willing to become to uphold the law and what does the law require of you? We can see this idea in the Platonic dialogue the Minos where Socrates refers to the idea that the best laws sustain the souls of those who fall under the law.  A man without a soul would not fall under the law because he literally has nothing that can be shaped by or is attached to the law.

The limits of the law and what it means to be on the border

What the lawman confronts is the limit of the law.  What is it that lies beyond the law? Is it simply lawlessness and criminality or is it something more sinister?  Is it a deeper nihilism, a void, a nothing that threatens to consume everything?  The theme is not unique to the novel or to America.  The problem has confronted humanity since the dawn of time.  To paraphrase Aristotle, the man who lives beyond the walls of the city is either a beast or a god[4].  In America, the answer has been given by its founding.  What the sheriff, and the law, patrol are the walls, the border, of the regime.  They work together to protect the regime and they also show the limits of the law. The Sheriff understands that he can hold such a creature, as Anton Chigurh at bay, but he cannot defeat him.  The reason he cannot defeat him is that what produces him is intrinsic to human nature and he cannot defeat human nature.  Yet, at a deeper level, it is a human nature that the regime has failed to shape.

The character, Anton Chigurh is a man and yet he stands outside of society because he does not live by its laws. He lives by his own rules. He lives outside the laws that define what it is to be human.  However, He is not a god (an overman) but a beast. Yet, he is beast that requires one to become like a beast to defeat him.  The Sheriff understands that he cannot defeat him because the system has changed and he cannot change himself.  He can only defeat such a creature (man) by changing the system that created him and allows him to flourish.  He cannot change the system so the only way he could defeat Chigurh would be to change himself. He is unable to do either and thus admits defeat.

If our souls are not educated to be law abiding, what purpose do the laws serve?

What the Sheriff cannot control is how the law can be changed and subverted from within the regime. He understands this challenge by reference to the newspapers telling us of how society is changing. He understands that how the regime educates its young will reflect and change the laws.  No matter what the law says, if the people are not educated in their souls to understand or follow the law, it will not be sustainable. In this, the Sheriff can find no answer.  Throughout the novel, we see reference to the change, and decay, of civilisation.  In the final part of the book, he reflects on what has gone wrong.  On pages 303-304, we see the problem as seen by the Sheriff.

“I think I know where we’re headed. Were being bought with our own money. And it aint just the drugs. There is fortunes bein accumulated out there that they dont nobody even know about. What do we think is going to come of that money? Money that can buy whole countries. It done has. Can it buy this one? I dont think so. But it will put you in bed with people you ought not to be there with. It’s not even a law enforcement problem. I doubt that it ever was. There’s always been narcotics. But people don’t just up and decide to dope theirselves for no reason. By the millions. I dont have no answer about that. In particular I dont have no answer to take heart from…..It starts when you being to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight. I told her, I said: it reaches into ever strata. You’ve heard about that aint you? Ever strata? You finally get into the sort of breakdown in mercantile ethics that leaves people setting around out in the desert dead in their vehicles and by then it’s just too late.”

The Sheriff sees the problem as infusing every strata of society and how we change or recover from that change that is uncertain.  What is certain is that within the changed world, there will be Anton Chigurh.  He exists and thrives within such a lawless world because he brings a certain order to it.  In effect, he shows that the wages of sin are death. He also shows, by other killings, that he does not judge by God’s law. Instead, he lives and acts by his own law.  In a sense, we could consider him to be like nature.  Nature may not be reasonable, acting without justice, thought it acts according to laws. Yet, he is not simply nature, chance, or fate.  Instead, he represents something that civilisation has thought it had contained with laws.

Are we just cattle to be slaughtered?

We can see this problem illustrated vividly, and disturbingly, by Chigurh’s use of the cattle gun to kill his victims.  What does that say about us, as citizens, that we can be killed like cattle going to the slaughter?  Are we are unable to defend ourselves because we have put our faith in the laws? If that is the case, what good are the laws? To paraphrase the Sheriff, law-abiding people are easy to govern; it is the other 10 per cent that are the problem.  When we confront a man acting outside the laws we are unable to defend ourselves because we no longer understand how that threat exists. We are particularly vulnerable when the guardians can no longer protect us.  We appear domesticated, civilised, and vulnerable to the lawless hunter. In this case,  Anton Chigurh is a hunter and he hunts with a cattle gun.  However, he is not the only hunter.

Hunters who live beyond civilisation’s shepherds

In the story, there are three other hunters.  The first is Llewelyn Moss.  He starts the book as a hunter, antelope, and finishes it as a hunter, for Chigurh.  Where he fails is that he is ill equipped to be a hunter within the lawless land he enters.  Unlike the other hunters, Chigurh and Wells, Moss is vulnerable.  He is tied to civilisation, his wife, his family, and thus has something to lose.  By contrast, Chigurh and Wells have no such vulnerability because they live outside the law. The last hunter, the shepherd or the guardian, is the reluctant hunter: the Sheriff.  He never enters the lawless land because he patrols within the law’s borders. Moreover, he refuses to hunt Chigurh in the end because he cannot accept what he must become to succeed. Moreover, he does not know what success would bring even if he were to succeed.  He is willing to accept that he has to defend his flock from the predators yet he knows that if his flock go outside the walls he is nearly powerless to save them.

What concerns us as citizens is that if we are to have justice, the leaders who have responsibility for defending us must do what is needed and necessary to keep us safe.  The issue, though, is more than our physical survival.  We have to have lawmen and leaders that are willing to protect our souls.   What we see in the book is the question of whether our souls become vulnerable when the leaders, the guardians, become corrupted.  What happens to the law, and those it is meant to protect,  if they are unable, or unwilling, to uphold the law?

What does this mean for America?

America is a nation of laws. What the novel makes us realize is the fragility of these laws.  Moreover, it makes us realize the laws are, almost, meaningless without the citizens educated within their souls to obey the laws.  America is founded on the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.  Yet, what does that mean today in the face of such criminality?

The Sheriff reflects on the past, the present, and what is coming.  He hopes that the country can renew itself, but he is not certain. We can take the novel as a jeremiad, a call to reform, but is it enough? Can America explain to itself how it has come to the where it is today?  Have we lost touch with common good so that the laws only mean something to the individual and not as a human person set within the context of civilisation?  We see Moss taking the drug money even though he knew it would change everything. On the surface, one could say he was pursuing a distorted American dream.  Yet, is that the American dream? Was he simply a hunter who was distracted from his prey into something else? Instead,  of remaining in nature, hunting his prey for sustenance, he entered a lawless world; one that he could not escape because what we need makes us vulnerable to what we want. Even in that lawless land, a land outside of civilisation, there are still rules, brutal rules, which extract their own consequences.  Therein, we see a message for America.

If we do not know how we have arrived at our present can we change our future?

The question that remains is how we arrived at our present.  We may have lost what it means to be right and wrong and only live by the law, but how did that occur?  If that is where we are, how can we resist lawlessness when the law is changed? How do we stop the law from failing to reflect what is right and wrong?  In these questions, we see what happens with the pursuit of justice within the novel. Can justice, beyond natural justice, be found outside the law?  Is such “natural” justice, just?

In America, we have to reflect on such issues daily. The recent cases involving the use of “self-defence” raise the questions anew. Yet, they are questions explored within the novel. The answers within the novel, and within America, are troubling because of what they mean to be law abiding, to be just, and most of all to be human.

We may want to believe that technology will solve the issue.  However, the sheriff realizes that technology is no cure, no panacea to what he faces.  The criminals and those wishing to act outside the law will have the same technology.  They have more resources devoted to breaking the law.  We can see in the example of the abandoned DC-3 plane. What remains, then, is nature. In this case, human nature and what it means to be human. The issue for America is what type of regime it has. Has America lost sight of its faith in the law and the principles that give us faith in the law? Is the outlaw now celebrated and the lawman vilified for upholding the law? Are we to choose what laws we will obey and avoid the consequences of the choice to live beyond the law?  In this, we can start to consider whether America is no longer a place for the old men, but what is left when America is no longer a country for old men?  How did we come to this place?

Atheism in a regime founded on Nature’s God?

We may want to read into the novel a view on God and atheism. The novel does not ignore these issues nor does it embrace them.  The issue is not simply one or the other.  We misunderstand the book if we assume that a character is an atheist or a believer.  What we need to understand is that whether someone is an atheist, while fundamental, is secondary to what the novel means.  We cannot know if someone is a believer, even by their acts, and thus we have to return to what the law means and how we understand what the law means in a society.  As Socrates reflects in the Minos, we need to understand the lawmaker, the good shepherd, apportions to the souls of citizens to make them better. However, to understand that role the shepherd has to have knowledge of the soul. In the dialogue, Socrates and the Companion admit their ignorance.  Indeed, the issue confronting the Sheriff is similar, if at a lower level, as he struggles to understand what he needs to do against a person like Anton Chigurh. How can he defend against a man who has no soul and is therefore not bound by the laws? If the citizen has a lawless soul what purpose do the laws serve?

The Sheriff is not a philosopher nor does he attempt to be one. He is a lawman. Someone for whom the political philosophical questions are resolved.  He has to administer the law as best he can. He sees the limits of the law and experiences its changeability.  What worries him, given that he has to enforce the law, is that the society behind the law is changing.  He does not see how the society that is changing, away from obedience to the law as a civil religion to something else, can be defended in the same way.  He cannot protect his people, as a good shepherd, and realizes that society, as a whole may be unable to protect itself because they have lost the original faith in what makes good laws. If we see any law we disagree with as being corrupt and the political system that created as corrupt, what hope do we have for obedience to the law? If the souls of citizens become lawless they will be unable, perhaps unwilling, to do what is needed to create a decent society. In trying to sustain a decent society, we have to be aware that lawmen can be corrupted and our role in that corruption.  If the lawmen are corrupted, then what can be done?

Justice, nature and chance

One could make the argument that such justice will come from Chigurh as the mirror image of Sheriff. Chigurh is on the side of lawlessness. Chigurh is living within a lawless realm and he dispense a brutal form of “natural” justice.  What connects them, though, is what neither can escape: nature and chance.  Nature connects them because they live according to an understanding of human nature.  The Sheriff looks at the good in human nature and seeks to protect it from the bad. He is, and wants to be, the good shepherd, yet he understands his limits.  Chigurh, by contrast, understands human nature differently. He looks at the bad in human nature and acts accordingly. He does not accept the limits proposed by the law.  In both cases, they understand nature and human nature.

What also connects them is chance as distinct from nature.  We see chance acting in the car accident where Anton Chigurh is injured.  The accident occurs shortly after he explains to Carla Jean, before killing her, that someone’s path is set for them through life and it rarely changes abruptly.  The driver of the car that hits Chigurh is high on drugs. Chigurh suffers serious injuries for the second time in the novel including a badly broken arm. Chigurh was wounded previously by Moss and it changes him. Moreover, we have to understand that Chigurh was caught by Moss, but Moss was unable, unwilling, to kill him because he has no cause to kill him.  By contrast, Chigurh believes that anyone he kills he has reason to kill them. In reaction to Moss, Chigurh has to change the way he works.  He understands things differently. He says that he has caught up with himself.

The Sheriff works with chance as well but in a different way. He does not work against accidents but understands how they work in his favour.  Near the end of the novel, he returns to the crime scene to look for the money. He does this knowing that Chigurh had returned to a previous crime scene.  He knows that Chigurh is out in the parking lot and cannot do anything about it.  He understands that chance has played a role throughout his life. Yet, he cannot risk more than he has because of who he is.  He remains, as he began, bound within the laws despite their flaws.

Can we reform America?

The novel, written in 2005, explores the nature of the American soul.  In doing so, it helps us to consider what it is that makes us human, what makes the law good, and what makes a decent society. At the same time, it explains why there is doubt in the American soul.  We, the reader, are left having to explain and understand how we have arrived at our present if we are to avoid what is coming.  One thing is certain. We face a choice. We can change or we can have Chigurh.


[1] I enjoyed the movie, but it lacked the depth, nuance, and resonance of the book.  The film drained the novel of its meaning or its intent.  The gap between the novel and the film tells us all we need to know about the gap between Hollywood and America.

[2] I doubt Mr. McCarthy is a self-indulgent writer. The possibility is an unintended consequence that needs to be considered, if only to be rejected.

[3] A number of tropes or themes throughout the text are worth an extended analysis. A careful, and extended, analysis of how McCarthy uses eyes, trust, faith, reason, chance, hunting, technology and newspapers would provide a rich and detailed understanding of his literary skill.  However, I leave the literary analysis to literary scholars and critics. I will remain focused on the political liturgical content.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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1 Response to No country for Old Men (thoughts on America).

  1. Dan Martin says:

    I enjoyed reading this quite a bit

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