Book Review: The Simpsons and Philosophy

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Philosophers, in an effort to make their work more accessible to the masses, have contributed to a number of books in which they relate philosophical ideas to popular culture. A great series of books like this have been unleashed, including philosophical treatment of Stephen Colbert, Seinfeld, and Dexter. In this book, we get a philosophical treatment of the long-running animated comedy, The Simpsons, a cartoon about a pretty dysfunctional but lovable family living in a town called Springfield. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, actually studied philosophy in college.

There are some wonderful essays in this book, and there are some bland and boring ones. The book is a compilation of a lot of different philosophers. The first essay analyzes how Homer compares to Aristotle’s categorization of different types of human character. Roughly, Aristotle identified four levels of virtue: the virtuous, the continent, the incontinent, and the vicious. The virtuous person does the right thing and enjoys doing it. The continent person does the right thing but struggles to do it. The incontinent person recognizes the difference between right and wrong, but out of weakness of will fails to do the right thing. The vicious person does bad things without any guilt, and even enjoys doing bad things. The author of this piece, Raja Halwani, then looks at the character of Homer. With respect to temperance, Homer seems vicious. He eats and drinks too much, and thoroughly enjoys it. With respect to honesty, Homer is also vicious, enjoying the advantages deceit gives him.

Another interesting essay is by Aeon J. Skoble, which is entitled “Lisa and American Anti-Intellectualism.” Skoble discusses how Americans have a love-hate relationship with experts. Experts are invited onto to news programs to give an opinion or write op-ed articles that people read with attention. But, there is still a certain permissiveness that allows people to disagree with the expert, even though they may lack any expertise in the relevant field. The disrespect for the expert, according to Skoble, comes from a growing relativism in American society, which spreads the idea that every opinion is equally valid. The character of Lisa in The Simpsons highlights the tensions surrounding the intellectual. She is singularly smart and asks challenging questions, and people around her mock her.

Another essay uses the character of Maggie, a baby who never speaks, to explore the treatment of language in philosophy. Eric Bronson, the author of this piece, brings in Eastern philosophy, where silence has an important role. For instance, Confucius wrote, “Hear much, but maintain silence.” In the Bhagavad-Gita, a central text of Hinduism, the Creator is portrayed as ineffable and in fact imperceptible. What cannot be perceived cannot be put into language.

In sum, this book will expose you to a lot of different philosophical ideas and relate them to a really good television show. The book will increase your desire to learn more about philosophy and also will deepen your appreciation for The Simpsons. Another fun part of the book is reading the biographies of the philosophers who contributed–they have interesting work online and also in print.

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