Philosophy professor Justin White discusses the complexity of personal transformation in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Sophisticated philosophy often scares those who aren’t familiar with it; some people even run away from a philosophical argument, assuming that they won’t be able to understand or relate to it. Yet philosophic principles riddle the literature and media that most people consume. Assistant Professor Justin White (Agency and 19th and 20th-century European Philosophy) strove to make philosophy easier to understand by looking at it within the popular TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender. In a lecture on Thursday, February 16, 2023, White described how the character Zuko’s transformation throughout the series demonstrates philosophic principles of change.
White began by explaining a few philosophical terms that would play a major role in his lecture: practical identity, or how people interact with the world, and conception of self, or how people see themselves and want to act. Who people want to be often doesn’t line up with how they act in the moment, making them assume change is impossible. Zuko faces similar internal conflict through the misalignment of his practical identity and his conception of self.
This misalignment of conception of self and practical identity results in Zuko acting in ways that don’t match how he sees himself. White said, “His world is still shaped by an identity he wants to shed.” The changes in both practical identity and conception of self are what mark Zuko’s redemption arc.
Book One: Honor Is Everything
At the start of the series, Zuko’s conception of self is a fighter who overcomes struggle through strength. Zuko says, “I’ve always had to struggle and fight, and that’s made me strong. It’s made me who I am.” To him, capturing the Avatar will prove this, so his practical identity, or actions, are laser focused on this one goal. Zuko’s practical identity matches his conception of self perfectly, meaning that he has no internal conflict about his actions at this point. Zuko thinks of himself as a good person, even though the audience can see that he isn’t good at this point in the story.
White stated that these two aspects of self must come into conflict for Zuko to want to change. And they do when a massive storm brews. As the storm grows worse, he ends up allowing the Avatar to fly away in order to get his crew to safety. This action of saving the crew doesn’t match his conception of self because he sees himself as someone who will do anything to catch the Avatar, including sacrificing innocent soldiers. But when he has to actually risk those lives, he chooses not to. We see him struggle with that decision before acting. White explained that this action lays the groundwork for further changes in his actions and sense of self.
Book Two: Inheriting, Finding, and Choosing Destiny
For Zuko to continue changing, White stated that he must continue acting in ways that don’t line up with his conception of self. Within Book Two, Zuko does this by saving an Earth Kingdom boy, returning to his uncle, Iroh, and setting the Avatar’s sky bison free. With his practical identity now at odds with his conception of self, this conception begins to shift. Zuko falls ill and struggles with his conflicting ideals. He emerges a new person, but his confidence is tested when his sister, Azula, lays a trap for him and Iroh.
Azula forces Zuko to choose a side, offering him quite literally everything he has ever wanted. Zuko’s heart, his sense of self, is conflicted and fractured in this moment. White explained that Zuko sees himself differently than he used to, and his allegiance to the Fire Nation is weakened, but he still wants to regain his father’s affection. His practical identity takes over, and he sides with Azula, betraying Iroh and returning to the Fire Nation as a prince.
Book Three: Rethinking Honor and Destiny
When he returns home, Zuko has everything: his title, the respect of his people, his father’s love, his childhood crush, and the defeat of the Avatar. But he isn’t happy. Zuko says, “I admit it. I have everything I’ve always wanted. But it’s not at all how I thought it would be.” White described this moment as a moral vertigo where Zuko’s actions clash with who he wants to be, the person his uncle always believed him capable of being.
Zuko’s confusion leads him to recognize that he wants to be a good person. The way he views himself changes, and he vows to change his practical identity, or actions, to fit his new sense of self. His first act toward being a good person is to offer his services to the Avatar (whom Zuko didn’t actually defeat) in helping end the war.
One of the Avatar’s allies goes to Zuko’s tent in the middle of the night to try to see if Zuko really has changed. She startles him, and he accidentally burns her feet, leading him to cry out, “Why am I so bad at being good?”
Attacking an intruder fits Zuko’s life up to that point. But attacking a desired ally conflicts with his new self-image. White said, “Even if conscious aspirations about who we want to be figure into our typical being in the world, such aspirations do not change who we are and how we live as thoroughly or as quickly as we like.”
Zuko doesn’t give up though, he keeps trying to act in accordance with his new self-image and is accepted by Team Avatar. As he travels with them, he becomes better at aligning his actions with his new sense of self, while still retaining parts of his residual identity (such as being a fighter who overcomes struggle through strength).
During a later duel, Azula attacks one of Zuko’s new allies, and Zuko throws himself in front of the potentially fatal attack, showing that he has finally become good at being good. He sees the world in a new light, and he reacts instinctively in accordance with this new viewpoint.
White concluded, “Zuko’s transformation highlights common (if complicated) aspects of personal change.” When we are striving to become a better person, we commonly find ourselves being bad at being good—desiring things we wish we didn’t and doing things we wish we wouldn’t. Zuko reminds us that becoming a new person—to become good at being good—is often a struggle. Our new sense of self requires us to change our actions, persist through setbacks, and recognize that our residual identities may linger even as we work to leave them behind.
Check out Dr. White's book chapter that inspired this lecture, "Being Bad at Being Good: Zuko's Transformation and Residual Practical Identities," which is part of the book Avatar: The Last Airbender and Philosophy. His more technical academic paper that covers the same principles is “Backsliding and Bad Faith: Aspiration, Disavowal, and (Residual) Practical Identities” which will be published in the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy later this month.