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A Fiery Take on Philosophy

Associate Professor Justin White brings philosophy to broader audiences with his lecture on Avatar: The Last Airbender.

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“Why am I so bad at being good?”

Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation famously asked this introspective question in season three of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Associate Professor Justin White (19th- and 20th-Century European Philosophy) attempted to answer the question for the second year in a row in his lecture on February 27, 2024. The lecture, held over Zoom in partnership with the Salt Lake County Library for their lecture series, outlined Zuko’s process of self-reflection and betterment and connected his redemption arc to a few key philosophical concepts.

White split his presentation into three sections that corresponded to the three “books” in the TV series. In each section, he showed how Zuko’s inner turmoil related to his “practical identities,” which refers to the way people interact with others and see themselves in relation to the world. White said, “As Zuko shows, practical identities are complex, sometimes unwieldy, and changes in explicit self-conceptions can take work, time, and perhaps even some luck to bring about the deep change one aspires to.”

As prince of the Fire Nation and son of a harsh, tyrannical fire lord, Zuko grew up seeing himself as a prince and a fighter (his practical identities). After Zuko gets banished for speaking out of turn, his quest to regain his father’s approval led him to experiences that helped him realize his practical identities didn’t align with his true character. With a lot of self-reflection and guidance from his Uncle Iroh, as well as several mishaps along the way, Zuko sought to achieve the “deep change” that White mentioned. His initial practical identities of a fighter and a prince no longer solely defined him.

White also contributed one chapter to a book titled Avatar: The Last Airbender and Philosophy. His chapter, "Being Bad at Being Good: Zuko's Transformation and Residual Practical Identities,” dives deeper into Zuko’s far-from-linear path to redemption and relates it to his identities as a Fire Nation prince, a fighter, and a desperate son. His research caught the attention of KSL News, who wrote a story in 2023 about how White is making philosophy more accessible by exploring it through interesting mediums.

For a more in-depth summary of White’s lecture, read here.