At the beginning of Groundhog Day, Phil Connors isn’t a villain. He’s an asshole.
He’s not harnessing the powers of the Dark Side to control the universe like Darth Vader or killing people and eating them like Hannibal Lecter. Instead, he’s the ordinary kind of bad guy we encounter in our everyday lives. He’s selfish, mean, and conceited. You probably know someone like Phil. You might even see a little Phil when you look in the mirror. I know I do.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that all human activity is aimed at some end and that most of these ends are aimed at some other end. So we go to college to get a degree; we get a degree so that we can get a good job; we get a good job so that we can earn a salary; we use the salary to buy a house–you get the idea. Aristotle argues that what we’re really aiming for with all this activity is happiness. We don’t use happiness as the means to getting something better. Happiness is the one thing we want for its own sake.
We get ourselves into trouble in two big ways. First, we mistake one of the lower good as the highest good. Secondly, we use other people as a means to achieving our ends, rather than viewing them as people in their own right.
At the beginning of the movie, Phil is caught in a mistake that many of us make repeatedly. He wants a better job and he believes that getting it will make him happy. He’ll be free of his dumpy job in a crappy third-rate city and then everything will be okay. People will finally recognize his talent and he’ll get the respect and rewards he deserves. He’s mistaking a lower good (getting a job) with the highest good (happiness).
He’s also using people as a means to an end. In the beginning, it’s just about his professional life. He’s not interested in getting to know the people he works with. Instead, he just manipulates them to advance his career. Later in the movie, he uses women for sex, and this is clearly all he has in mind for Rita at first.
So if Aristotle doesn’t think getting laid and getting a good job is happiness, what is? Well, it’s the activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. Phew. Glad he cleared that up, huh?
To understand what the hell he’s talking about, you have to appreciate what he means by virtue. These days, when we say that someone is virtuous, we usually mean that he’s a person who doesn’t break the rules of morality. For the ancients, though, virtue was about much more. It was living the “good life,” that is, a life of excellence.
As the film progresses, Phil becomes more virtuous in the full sense of that word. He doesn’t just stop having one night stands and lying to people. He also reads every book in the library. He learns to play the piano. He develops his skills in practical things like auto repair and medicine so that he can actively help others. He’s not just refraining from doing evil, he is living a good life.
And here’s where it gets really interesting. When Phil went through his evil phase at the beginning of the movie, he could act with impunity because there was no tomorrow. He could steal money from the bank and never have to serve time. He could seduce women and they’d never remember it the next day. He could eat like a pig and never gain weight. But this lack of consequences also applies to him when he breaks good. When he changes a flat tire or saves a life or plays a great song, none of these things stick. Life for Phil is like the ice sculpture he creates for Rita. It melts away.
The next day he wakes up and its as if none of those things ever happened–except within Phil himself.
Through these repeated acts of virtue, Phil becomes a better man. It’s not ultimately about what he does. It’s about who he is. By doing brave, wise, kind, and humble acts, Phil becomes a brave, wise, kind, and humble man. The happy ending for Phil happens before Rita falls in love with him and his long day finally gives way to tomorrow. Rita falls in love with him because of the kind of man he has become. Phil the Asshole has become Phil the Virtuous Man. And he hasn’t become some boring, milquetoast “nice guy.” He is still recognizably Phil. The best possible Phil.
According to Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis, Phil had about 10,000 years to figure this out. You and I have considerably less time.