The Worldview of the Lion King

By Dale Easley

June 8th, 2003

The sun came up over the African plain, hot and brilliant, just as it had done since the beginning of time.
Mufasa to Simba: "A king's time as ruler rises and falls like the sun. One day the sun will set on my time here and will rise with you as the new king.
"You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the circle of life. Remember who you are... You are my son and the one true king."

from a kid's book version of The Lion King

Why was The Lion King such a huge success? And Star Wars? These and numerous movies share the common theme of a hero who must first discover the identity he was born to in order to claim his rightful place in the world. These stories are loved worldwide. Yet here in the U.S., we claim a different set of beliefs: people are not entitled to a position because of who their parents were; there is no divine order that we must each fit into; progress is of greater value than tradition. The American Revolution rejected the right of a king to rule over us. Why is it then that we are so strongly attracted to stories that are in conflict with who we say we are?

Let's start by looking at The Circle of Life. When I was in high school, my best friend was an honor graduate. When it came time to consider college, instead of giving him encouragement, his father said, "Your older brother and I didn't go to college and we've done fine. You don't need to go." And he didn't. To put the advice in a bigger framework, his father believed that the traditional way of doing things was just fine as it is. A circle has no beginning nor end. Each generation does what the previous one did. In contrast, soon after I was born, my father started saving for me to go to college. He hadn't gone, and he recognized that he could have advanced further in his job if he had had a degree. He wanted better for me than he had himself. In this way of thinking, we can continuously improve on what has been done previously. This is modern thinking. We are headed somewhere new and different.

The difference between traditional and modern thinking is like that between life in the Middle Ages and life after the Rennaissance; between following exactly what is written in the Bible and discovering a cure for a disease in a science laboratory; between saying women should stay home and take care of the babies and saying women should pursue any career they wish; between a society where your place is determined by your race and a society where human rights are respected for each individual. Though some of the traditional beliefs linger on, Americans have mostly chosen a view that allows for constant improvement and individual rights, and the American economy has benefitted from the resulting level of innovation: A new version of every product seems to come constantly; we don't drive the same car grandpa did nor dress like gradma; my two-year-old computer is already becoming obsolete; my wife called me on the cell phone when we wrecked our van, and when I called the insurance company, it had our information in a computer database.

On the other hand, because of the constant change, advertisers can appeal not only to our desire for new products but to our desire to be new people. Our roles are not set, so maybe if we buy the new Lexus, people will think we're important, or at least rich. This insecurity about our place in the world that comes with modern life is one of the secrets to the success of movies like The Lion King. And unfortunately, it also helps explains the growth of fundamentalism in the U.S. and worldwide. People want the security of a known role, and everyone needs meaning in their lives. A fundamentalist preacher, an ayatollah, or a TV advertisement is quite willing to tell you the purpose for your life and how you should live it. We have rejected the divine right of kings but want some divine Circle of Life to fit into. However, we can't have it both ways.

One of the purposes of this science class is to transform your thinking. It's hard to imagine any serious scientist being a fundamentalist. We want to see the evidence. However, science alone won't help you find meaning in life. That will come from the relationships you form and the passions you pursue. Science doesn't have much to say about love, friendship, and passion. But without the change in thinking that preceded the scientific revolution, I wouldn't have valued friendships with African-Americans, Indians, and women. Given my family's background, I would have spent my life raising crops on someone else's farm. My dad was the first in his family to finish high school, and that was a major step up and out of a very limited way of life. He did not accept that one must do things the way they had always been. And because of it, I'm here today at the front of the classroom instead of out picking someone else's cotton.