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Heretical philosophy-fun

New cartoon gives good portrayals of some of the wisest minds of early modernity.


One of my first significant encounters with philosophy was the little book Marx for beginners. However, unlike most introductory books on Marxism, it was a cartoon! Not just the – it was both fun and easy to read. The Easy to read and too fun, surely someone will object, but for me it was exactly the simple and entertaining that was the entrance to Marx – and which, I think now, may be the necessary entrance to more advanced thinkers for more. Somewhere one must begin – and it is precisely the absence of proper beginnings that Marx for beginners which is part of the problem.

Steven and Ben Nadlers Heretics! however, fits nicely into said series tradition.

A good taste test. The cartoon deals with the great thinkers and scientists of modernity: Bacon, Newton, Galileo, Leibniz, Pascal and Spinoza. The authors are conscientiously – albeit (naturally enough) somewhat schematically – through the thoughts of the various pundits. Like a cartoon like that Mouse (Art Spiegelman, 1987 and 1992) the most serious and difficult topics are dealt with nicely in this cartoon. I particularly like how the high-strung topics are brought to light through this format: All the way it's very funny, and I'm not worried for a moment about how schematically these scientists and philosophers' minds are treated. It is ment as a taste test, a beginning, which – hopefully – can lead the reader to more advanced introductory works or (most preferably) the original texts themselves.

However, some people receive more thorough treatment than others.

Prince of philosophy. Especially Spinoza gets a lot of space, which is welcome for me – this is a philosopher whose topicality has not diminished since Baroque Amsterdam. It is probably also the philosopher that most modern thinkers have been inspired by – just think of characters like Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. Admittedly, nothing new is added about neither Spinoza nor any of the others – but we get a weird and funny lens to look through them (it should perhaps be mentioned that Steven Nadler has written the critically acclaimed Spinoza: A Life). This lens can probably lead to some twisted viewpoints we haven't been to before, although it is difficult to calculate exactly what is being fed (it will vary from reader to reader).

The series at least gives us a neat perspective on the factual arguments, giving the philosophical ideas a mobility and ease they did not have before.

Humorous touch. One of the highlights, in that sense, is the party dealing with the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche. Here we can see the philosopher himself in the 70s outfit dance to John Travolta Staying Alive, while his thoughts on causality and substance are presented. When questions like "How do bodies move?" and "Why do they move the way they do?" presented with disco dance as a background, this makes the contemplation of causation less pretentious – and more easy to understand. Because it is so that it is more often easier to think where there is room for smiles and laughter. Thinking is no longer so much an achievement, when the joke is just around the corner.

All the way it is so much fun, and I do not worry for a moment how schematically these minds of scientists and philosophers are treated. 

I have to admit that I love the foolishness of such juxtapositions – Travolta and Malebranche, for example – because it is something that prevents many from approaching philosophy, it is precisely the gravely serious and crisp tone of thinking that is often obstructed. It is also not to be underestimated that the thinkers treated here are not themselves great humorists (what philosophers are they, by the way?).

The value of the beginning. I remember discussing Marx for beginners with an older friend a few years after I read it, and he admitted – somewhat reluctantly – that he had just read this comic book version of Marx in adulthood before snooping on the philosopher's own texts, and that he had hardly gotten into this thought of it hadn't been for the cartoon.

Heretics! is far more advanced than the "beginner" series I fell into at puberty; it goes much deeper into the argument. At the same time, it is more ridiculous, in a fundamental way, since all the philosophers we come to know seem quite foolish as they appear in the series. Stupidity is in its place, it has a function, because it aligns the image of philosophers as unapproachable authorities and brings them, in this way, closer to us.

Low threshold Philosophy. Heretics! Reminds me – as I said – of the importance of recognizing beginnings: If we are unable to find an entrance to what we cannot or do not know, we will certainly not be aware of it. Thus, the threshold should be low at first.

The fact is that comic books like this can teach us something about our relationship with knowledge whole life; for we must maintain these beginnings for both others and ourselves so that we can return to the beginning and begin anew no matter how far we have come in the rest of the game. Because we never become so educated and smart that we should not start again from time to time – we think the, it is at least beyond any doubt that it is exactly what we should do.

Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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