23.7.17

PICTURING PHILOSOPHY

Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler. Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 2017.

The seventeenth century was a difficult and dangerous time for philosophers. To challenge set ideas that the earth was the centre of the cosmos, that kings maintain their divine right to rule and religious orthodoxy be sacrosanct, created a heretical volcano for the establishment.
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Such disturbances for governments resulted in house arrest, exile, imprisonment or even death (Giodarno Bruno was burnt at the stake.) 

Yet in spite of deep resistance a provocative proto-modern world view emerged; creating an uneasy alliance of heretical thinkers in a cluster of European states. By the end of the seventeenth century you couldn't claim that the 'radical' philosophies of Bruno, Locke, Newton, Galileo, Pascal, Descartes, Liebnitz, etc. were fully integrated into society but they were still an irritant or blessing, influencing the behaviour of the privileged / learned and engendering serious public and clandestine debate.

If you want to understand this time you could read a chapter on it in any reliable history of western philosophy, sample the philosophers writings and attempt to summarise their achievements. Or you might take an introductory shortcut and acquire Steven and Ben Nadler's Heretics. Here in graphic/comic text book form is perhaps all you'd need to be launched. But is it? Given that Heretics is a fun, intelligent, irreverent and visually pleasing book it does oddly assume its readers to be quite philosophically literate.

I would have very much liked an index, references to other books and even a comic book pointer to their authors. All we have are three pages of Dramatis Personae for the heretics concerned. What I missed was a graphic book appendix about the continuing influence of such radical world views on twentieth and twenty-first century philosophy.

Yet let's consider what Heretics is and how it gets through its narrative. Heretics is obviously an American academic action story with an occasional awkward juxtaposition of text and image. For in order to engage the student reader some deliberate 'cool' anachronisms crop up in its comic-book panels.



"When one considers that Newton, Locke and Liebnitz would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned in Rome and burnt in Lisbon, what are we to think of human reason?"


On page 109 we have the philosopher Malebranche questioning Descarte's metaphysics concerning the movement of bodies. For this Ben Nadler supplies an image of disco dancing John Travolta and God as a megaphone wielding film director. Page 126 presents John Locke exploring ideas about the individual's rights concerning property. Our 16th century farmer becomes a modern guy removing an apple pie from his electric cooker. When we arrive at Locke's years in Amsterdam he's not wholly occupied with his political theory but depicted eating popcorn and holding his TV remote control up to the screen. His speech bubble reads, "Exile sure frees up a lot of time”. Whilst the next panel depicts him, quill in hand, writing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in more free time!

I don't want to appear solemn about communicating philosophy but the Naders feel the need to connect seventeenth century heretics with modern day so as to make them 'relevant.' This feels like an easy cop out and contradictory, for there are other well executed examples that summarise difficult ideas in their own time and historical context (e.g. Newton on gravity, Leibnitz's monad perceptions and Descarte's waking and dreaming states). If they'd trusted the difficult ideas more they could have found enough appropriate seventeenth century imagery and still have produced a popular and accessible book.

Yes let's not take this serious enterprise too 'seriously.' Heretics is meant to be entertaining. And to this end it succeeds. Especially in conveying the concepts of Descartes, Locke, Newton (I loved the explosion of zany illustrations at the end of this chapter) and Spinoza (a delightful comic reference to Hamlet in relation to control of our lives.) The aesthetic/technical quality of the drawings alternates from the formally stiff to the enjoyably fluid. The text contains core philosophical 'truths' that do come clearly through. And what certainly, and sadly, emerges is that the fate of a philosopher/scientist was hugely dependent on which country they lived: "When one considers that Newton, Locke and Liebnitz would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned in Rome and burnt in Lisbon, what are we to think of human reason?"

Heretics is engaging and playful even when it's shallow. When deep and thoughtful it instructs and entertains with real graphic invention. – Alan Price.

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