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Themes

The narrator of Billy Budd makes no secret of the fact that he is well versed in philosophy. He makes allusions to both political and moral philosophies throughout the book, and he himself seems to be dominated by an overwhelming sense of fatalism. But for all the philosophical sophistication of the book, the most interesting relationship to explore is that between philosophy and practical action. Despite Vere's learning, he makes poor decisions, and one is left examining one of the most difficult philosophical questions of all: what good is philosophy?

Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints

  1. How would you characterize the narrator's philosophy surrounding the story of Billy Budd? Specifically, is he a fatalist or not?
  2. How do characters in the novel use philosophy to guide their behavior? Do characters tend to philosophically deliberate their behavior or do they act on instinct?
  3. What is the difference between philosophy and law? What is the philosophy that underlies military law and the way that it operates?
  4. What is the relationship between science and philosophy in the novel? Which area of study does the narrator seem to value more? When do characters appeal to science and when do they appeal to philosophy? Why?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Though Captain Vere is a philosophically sophisticated man, his experience in philosophy is useless because he does not appeal to it in Billy's case; instead, he simply hides behind his duty.

The narrator of the story is a fatalist, and this philosophical viewpoint affects how he portrays all the events that take place.

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