Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review 11: Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar - Understanding Philosophy through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Like most Liberal Arts undergrads, I took a few philosophy courses while I was in college. In fact, my sophomore philosophy final has the distinction of being the only one I have ever actually slept through. My roommate woke me up at 11:30 and said, "Didn't you have a final this morning?" I don't remember anything between that moment and arriving in the professor's office, apologizing profusely.

The point is, philosophy never really made an impact on me. I mean, I get it - Philosophy is supposed to be the essence of what makes us human, the ability to think about the way we think about the world. Dolphins and monkeys may be clever, but do they sit around and ponder whether there's actually a real world out there or if it is only a product of our senses? I doubt it, as it seem like they're more preoccupied with frolicking around and having sex, which means that Douglas Adams really was on to something.

I don't quite get the kick out of philosophy that I feel like I'm "supposed" to, being an educated, intelligent, un-American Elitist and all that, so I'm glad that someone has boiled down four millennia of human thought into a 200-page joke book. Definitely more my speed.

The book begins with Aristotle and his belief in a telos, an ultimate purpose for everything, and continues on through ethics, political philosophy, and religious philosophy, as well as existentialism, logic, epistemology and much, much more. Be warned - if you already know a lot about philosophy, then there's really nothing new in this book for you except the gags. It's written as a kind of Philo 101, for people who've always wanted to know about the different branches of philosophy, but always fell asleep fifteen minutes into the lecture.

By using jokes, the authors make complex philosophical and logical ideas much more immediate and understandable. Take post hoc ergo propter hoc, for example. I know what the Latin means - "After this, therefore because of this," which is a definition that never struck me as being any clearer than the original Latin. As a logical fallacy, I never really convinced myself that I understood what it meant, until I read this joke. (warning: high bawdiness content follows):
An older man marries a younger lady, and they're truly in love. However, no matter what the old man does, he is unable to satisfy his young bride sexually. He tries everything, but cannot finish the deed, so to speak.

So, they go to a sexual therapist, who makes a rather unusual suggestion. "Hire a handsome young man," the therapist says, "and have him stand over the bed and wave a towel over you while you make love. This will help your wife fantasize, and should help her have an orgasm." So they follow the therapist's advice, hire a handsome young man, and try it out. But still, no success.

They return to the therapist, who thinks for a moment and says, "Okay, why not reverse it? Have the young man make love to your wife while you wave a towel over them?" They return home, and the young man climbs into bed with the young wife, while her husband waves a towel vigorously. Within minutes, the wife has an amazing, ear-splitting orgasm.

The husband smiles, looks at the young man and says, "There, you idiot - that's how you wave a towel!
See? Now I get it! Post hoc is where you assume that because event B happened after event A, event A caused event B. No amount of hypotheticals or dull as dirt lectures have ever explained that to me quite as well as this one ribald joke.

I think these guys are on to something, too. Philosophy has always been the pursuit of the super-intellectual, and anyone who tells you, "I'm a philosopher" is assumed to say next, "And would you like fries with that?" Being an intellectual in America is hard enough as it is, but once you start trying to deconstruct the very essence of what "good" means, much less whether it is actually worth being good, people start to look at you funny.

But tell folks a joke, and all that erudite navel-gazing becomes crystal clear. Of course the GOP is run by Utilitarians - this joke makes perfect sense:
A young widow belongs to a country club, where she enjoys sunning herself by the pool. One day, she sees a handsome stranger poolside, so she sits next to him and says, "I don't think I've seen you here before."

"You wouldn't have," he said. "I've been in prison for the last twenty years."

"Good heavens," she said. "What did you do?"

"I murdered my wife," he replies.

"Ah," she says. "So you're single!"
Just replace the young widow with Dick Cheney and the handsome man with, say, Halliburton and you have yourself the GOP in a nutshell!

If you're an old hand at philosophy, check it out for the jokes - there are plenty of good ones in there. If you're new to philosophy, or you were put off by the classes you took in college, check it out. You're not as dumb as your philo teacher made you feel. All you needed was the right sort of explanation.

"A blind man, a lesbian and a frog walk into a bar. The barkeep looks at them and says, "What is this - some kind of joke?"
- from Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar at Wikipedia
Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar at
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Philosophical Humor compiled by David Chalmers

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Review 10: Meditations

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I don't read a lot of philosophy. I'm not sure why, since philosophy is really the province of the Liberal Arts graduate, and that's what I am. Even worse, I was a political science major, and pol-sci is really just applied philosophy. You ask yourself questions like, "What is man's obligation to man?" and "How can a society best benefit everyone involved in it?" and the next thing you know it's three in the morning and you're on your twelfth cup of Denny's coffee.

Arguing the meaning of life in a diner, however, isn't considered to be "real" philosophy. Philosophy these says means making up your own lexicon, creating words to describe concepts that you have spun out of the rhetorical ether - or, in philosophical terminology, "just made up." So you get phrases in modern philosophy that go on for pages and pages, and have so many recursive clauses that you wind up having to go back to the beginning just to figure out where you left off.

So, if you're like me - and it's not impossible that you are - and you don't feel like delving into the murkiest depths of intellectual waters, I can solidly recommend Marcus Aurelius' immortal Meditations. There is no beginning, there is no end - you can open up the book anywhere, read for a while, and then put it down.

Written back in the 2nd century, Meditations is a collection of Marcus' thoughts on life, existence, and how to be a good and moral man. Some of those observations are long, a page or two, but most of them are just a few lines. It's kind of as though Marcus was hanging out at his camp in Carnuntum and he had a Thought. "Pen!" he would yell, "and paper!" He'd scribble his idea down and put it away to be filed away later. Whether he had any great plans for this collection of ideas, we'll never know. He was an Emperor, of course, and it's pretty normal for Emperors to want to make themselves look brilliant in history. But, as you read the book, you realize that Marcus' mind wasn't on history. Why bother, he'd say. It'll all be the same in a thousand years anyway.

Death is ever-present in this text. When you start to worry about whether you're living up to the example set by your ancestors, don't bother - they're dead and gone, and they couldn't care less about who you have become. Are you always concerned with what people will think of you after you die? Why worry about it? You'll be dead, for one thing, and beyond caring, and in any case whatever you have accomplished will be gone when the last person who remembers you is himself dead.

Marcus is very clear in his views on death: it's part of nature, part of the ceaseless change which controls everything in this world. We came into this world, built from the atoms and essences of the dead who had gone before us, and one day we will return to that ceaselessly changing sea of Nature. Our lives are mere moments when measured against the vastness of eternity, and our powers are meaningless against those of the gods and the world that gave birth to us. "Remember that Man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant,' he said. "All the rest of his life's either past and gone, or not yet revealed."

In this way, there are some definite parallels between Marcus' Stoic philosophy and Zen philosophy, though they're centuries apart. Both Zen and Stoicism emphasize living in the present moment - not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. The only time in which you really exist is right now, and so it should be your only concern. Don't let other people's opinions of you govern your feelings - you can't control them, you shouldn't expect to be able to. You can, however, control yourself. "Will anyone sneer at me?" he asks. "That will be his concern; mine will be to ensure that nothing I do or say shall deserve the sneer."

Yes, this book is very quotable.

Where Stoicism and Zen would probably part ways is on Marcus' reliance on Reason as a supreme governing power. He maintains that a man's reason is the only thing that he can truly claim as his own, and that it should be ready at hand at all times. In any situation, presented with any person or object, the first thing that a person should do is turn his reason upon it. Figure out what it is, at its root, and once you know that, everything else will become clear.

I'm a big fan of Reason. We're humans, and we're bound to believe stupid things from time to time, but we're also possessed of some very clever brains, and an excellent ability to turn those brains on to solving problems. But far too few people actually use those brains. We allow our passions to override our reason and end up doing stupid things to ourselves and each other. As hard as it may be, I'm with Marcus on this one - without reason, we're not really humans. At best, we're children, at worst we're beasts. It is our duty to the world to understand it, without illusion or self-deception.

Frankly, I think Marcus would be very disappointed at how little progress we've made on this regard. I mean, it's been nearly two thousand years, after all, plenty of time to deal with our superstitions and our illusions. On the other hand, I think he'd be flattered that his words had lasted so long and had influenced so many people.

It's a great text, one that calls from the past to remind us of some very important truths - that we are here, now, and we are each in control of our own lives. We are possessed with a limitless ability to understand our universe, and to not use that reason is to waste the best part of ourselves.

"Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one."
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus Aurelius at Wikipedia
Meditations at Wikipedia
Meditations at Wikiquote
Meditations at Project Gutenberg
Meditations at Librivox
Meditations at

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review 09: The Man Who was Thursday

The Man Who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

I lost my backpack thanks to this book.

It was years and years ago, probably my first winter in Japan, and I'd picked up this book at Maruzen. I had heard about Chesterton, mainly from the dedication page of Pratchett and Gaiman's Good Omens ("The authors would like to join the demon Crowley in dedicating this book to the memory of G.K. Chesterton. A man who knew what was going on.") and the title looked weird enough to be entertaining. So, I was reading the book on the train, as I often do, and I had my backpack on the floor between my feet. When the train got to my station, I stood up, still reading, and walked off.

It wasn't until I had to put the book down again to eat that I realized I no longer had my backpack.

This was no small problem, either - the bag had a lot of important stuff in it, not the least of which was my Palm Pilot with all my friends' addresses on it. There were also about two dozen Christmas cards in there, along with other various and sundry things. And it was a good bag, too.

Long story short (too late), I never got the bag back. The staff at my school, and even one of the students, were kind enough to call the Keihan lost & found a few times to see if anyone had turned it in, but with no luck. And whoever got it didn't do the obvious thing and look at the return address on every single one of those Christmas cards, nooo....

Ahem. I'm over it. Really.

My point is this: beware the seductive power of this book. Beware the enchantments laid upon it, and the dreamlike web that it weaves. For if you let it, this book will enrapture you, and gods help you if that happens.

The story is one that sucks you in almost from the first page, when two passionate poets argue the worth and detriment of society. Should it be torn down, and let chaos reign in the world? Is order the true glory of humanity, the crowning jewel of mankind? Should the existing paradigm be praised or destroyed, and is he who advocates the path of anarchy true to that path?

From that moment, that confrontation of poet-philosophers, we are drawn into a dark heart of true anarchy, where no one can be trusted to be who he appears to be. And not even the protagonist himself can be absolutely sure where his path will end.

Needless to say, I think this book was awesome on many levels. The whole thing reads like a dream, moving in and out of locales with odd fluidity, and it's honestly hard to put it down. It has a great cast of characters, each one distinct and interesting and worth your attention, and a great ending that, while not making a whole lot of sense, is entirely fitting.

What's really interesting is the modern applicability of this story. Its major theme is that of law versus anarchy, and when Chesterton wrote this back one hundred years ago in 1908 the anarchist movement was seen as a real threat. These people were not the angry kids, spray-painting Anarchy signs all over the place and listening to punk rock. The fringe radicals of the Anarchist movement advocated violence. They liked dynamite and struck terror in the hearts of the citizenry, much in the way that terrorists still do today. And like modern terrorists, they were driven by a twisted and dark ideology which placed their own motivations above society. In the world that Chesterton has made, the Law is in a perpetual battle with the forces of chaos, the dark and shadowy enemies who are always out to destroy us.

Sound familiar?

The hunt for terrorists is a great plot for any writer, and hundreds of them - good and bad - have used this trope as a way of telling a story. Chesterton, however, reached into the heart of that idea and found the uneasy twist that we are not always willing to deal with. He found the Nietzschean paradox about what happens when you battle monsters, and saw that it could very well be true. He has shown us that it is dangerous to act without knowing the truth, even if the truth isn't what you want it to be.

Neil and Terry were right - Chesterton knew what was going on. This book is just as relevant today as it was a century ago, even if Chesterton never meant it to be. No matter what the subtitle to the book may be, and no matter how he may have meant it, the book is still valuable to us. Well worth reading.

"Blessed are they who did not see,
But, being blind, believed."
- from the Dedication, The Man Who was Thursday

G.K. Chesterton at Wikipedia
The Man Who was Thursday full text at Wikisource
The Man Who was Thursday at Wikipedia
The Man Who was Thursday at Wikiquote
Mercury Radio dramatization of The Man Who was Thursday (direct mp3 link)
The Man Who was Thursday at Librivox
The Man Who was Thursday at

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Review 08: Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

What with the movie on its way, I thought it'd be time to go through the book again. And, as always, it was a great pleasure to read.

This is a graphic novel that has an immense impact on comics history. It's considered to be one of the most important works in the genre in, well, ever. Read any analysis of Watchmen and you'll read that it revolutionized comics. It changed everything, they say.

They're right.

Before I get to the actual story - and it's a formidable story - I want to address the immense technical achievement that is evident in this book. Look at any panel, any page and you can spend a long time just admiring the artistry that has emerged from the Moore-Gibbons partnership. The words and the images fit together like the finest puzzle pieces, each one reinforcing and supporting the others. There are no unnecessary words, and there are no unnecessary pictures.

Goddamn it's good. It's a fantastic piece of work.

Just as much as the technical aspects of the book are a marvel, so is the story. It was written in - and set in - the mid-80s. It took the core genre of the comics industry, superheroes, and bent them to reality's will. These were not the iconic, ageless figures of Batman and Superman, people whose hearts and intentions were pure and who never aged. The superheroes - or "costumed adventurers," more appropriately - were very, very human. Not only did they age, but they made mistakes. They lied, they failed, they gave up. They were, with one notable exception, human, and their reasons for doing what they did were also very human.

It's tempting to say, "These characters are us," because they're not, but they're still a lot closer to us than traditional superheroes are. And this was especially true in the mid-80s. The Darkening of comics hadn't begun yet, and it was probably Watchmen that kicked it off. Suddenly, after decades of two-dimensional storytelling and Manichean moral codes, the idea of heroes with ethical failings, personality problems and a faulty moral compass flooded the market. Unfortunately, they were inferior copies of an exceptional original.

Anyway, the story. The world in 1985 is a different place. The rise of the costumed adventurer had a big impact on the social fabric of the United States, and the Cold War has reached levels of tension that nearly break the world in two. America owns a superweapon in the person of Jonathan Osterman, also known as the nearly godlike Doctor Manhattan, but even he can't stop the political super-powers from the intractable mess they have created. Everyone can feel it, the great burning and the end of the world. Everyone knows it's coming.

And then someone kills The Comedian.

The death of this adventurer-turned-mercenary sets off a chain reaction that leads to the discovery of a horrific plan to save the world. People who believe themselves to be heroes have to decide what it means to do good when there are no good choices left to make.

It starts off as a murder mystery with hints of conspiracy and ends with a bang, as well as a deep moral quandary - do the ends justify the means, and if so, how far can we take that argument?

There are points to criticize the book, if you want to. One that my friend Joe mentioned is that, for all that the main characters are supposed to be heroes, they're utterly un-heroic. They're the antithesis of what a comic-book hero is supposed to be: morally sure and above reproach. Any mistakes that they make, even the ones that result in tragic consequences, should make them more heroic in the end. That's what makes characters like Spider-Man and Superman such a pleasure to read. We know that, even if they screw up, they'll ultimately do the right thing.

The same can't be said for the people in this book. Rorschach is a homicidal existentialist, Ozymandias is a megalomaniac, Doctor Manhattan is a detached nihilist, sort of, and Nite Owl is a pudgy guy in an owl costume. These people are not, by and large, people that you can cheer for. They're not people you can look up to, mainly because they're just like us. They're flawed, very deeply flawed, and we expect our heroes to be better than that.

So, it is possible that you will dislike each and every character in the book, and I can't blame you for that. Still, it's worth your time to read, even if it's just to admire the technical ability of Moore and Gibbons. As for the movie, I can only pray that they do it right. I have a high tolerance for adaptation - and I know there's no way the entire comic can be fit into a movie - so I will give the filmmakers some leeway. But I pray that they do it right....

"Somebody has to do it, don't you see? Somebody has to save the world..."
- Captain Metropolis, Watchmen

Watchmen at Wikipedia
Watchmen at Wikiquote
Watchmen annotations
Watchmen movie website
Watchmen at