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To Be Or Not To Be King: Simba's Existential Choice

Josh Herring approaches The Lion King through a Kierkegaardian lens, as Simba wrestles with his desire for the aesthetic level of existence and his calling to embrace the ethical. In a Kierkegaardian ethics, the specifics concerning right and wrong are less clear, but the realization that one’s becoming and ultimate sense of identity are deeply entangled with one’s existential choices, and thus, the need to choose carefully, is central and therefore paramount in education. While his running away was influenced by grief and deception, and his choice to embrace an aesthetic life was influenced by a need to survive, Simba inevitably faces a choice concerning moral responsibility. The choice to return as rightful king results in a new sense of freedom and dignity, and the result of this existential choice to embrace an ethical life creates a stronger sense of direction. He did not become some other, some ideal of a king; he became more fully himself.

"In "I just can't wait to be King" we see Simba at the point where he most needs to be formed. He shows the signs of a future tyrant, and as such is not yet finished growing into his potential. His journey is circuitous, and reflects many significant choices, but even in this early scene The Lion king shows Simba's need for further formation."

Later in the film, Simba finds his worry-free worldview challenged by Nala, who insists that he has a moral responsibility to return as king--to become something more than he currently is, something he was always meant to be.

"Simba lopes off, angry but unable to articulate his anger. He has been asked to make a choice. From Nala’s perspective, the choice is simple: Simba should return, and right what is wrong. For Simba, however, the choice involves more. "That which is to be chosen has the deepest relation to the one who is choosing…” Simba has reached a moment of existential choice, requiring the sacrifice of his pleasure-based lifestyle. In this choice, he will choose which lion he will become: either the path of pleasurable aesthete abdicating responsibility, or the path of the ethical willing to take up the mantle of responsibility. Making such a choice is transformative: in making this kind of choice, “his inner being is purified and he himself is brought into an immediate relationship with the eternal power that omnipresently pervades all existence.” For Kierkegaard’s theory, it is not about making the right or wrong choice; the process of making the choice forces the development of the personality. The Judge writes, “What, then, is it that I separate in my Either/Or? Is it good and evil? No, I only want to bring you to the point where the choice truly has meaning for you. It is on this that everything turns. As soon as a person can be brought to stand at the crossroads in such a way that there is no way out for him except to choose, he will choose the right thing.” Simba is brought to just such a point of choosing. In one sense, his previous choices all had some element of compulsion, making them lesser choices. He fell into exile through the influence and deception of Scar, and he went along with Timon and Pumbaa in part through the necessities of survival. Here, in this moment in the story, he is faced with a choice that he alone can make. In such a moment, faced with the choice, Simba must choose whether he will stay in the life of hakuna matata, or embrace the path to becoming the king he was born to be."


This post is meant simply to offer a glimpse into our Disney & Apologetics project. Excerpts alone, however, cannot stand for an entire chapter, nor can they stand as representative for all the other ideas to be explored and arguments to be made in this 500-pp, two-volume work. There is much more to ponder within these pages! If you want to think more carefully about morality, about using the formative artifacts of pop-culture to approach Christian apologetics, and about the connections between imagination, aesthetics, and theology, buy this book! You can see what others say about it here and here.


Josh Herring holds a PhD in Humanities from Faulkner University. He currently serves as Professor of Classical Education at Thales College for Thales Academy. He works with teachers to deliver a classical education to the highest possible degree of excellence. He hosts The Optimistic Curmudgeon podcast, and writes frequently for the Acton Institute, Law and Liberty, Public Discourse, and a variety of other outlets. Josh and his wife Jennifer live in North Carolina with their four cats, many trees, and infinite bookshelves.

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