The Meaning (wink, wink) of Life

Watch all the DVDs you can, play online games all night, Tivo everything, and never, ever take off your iPod — you won’t be any closer to passing Philosophy 101. Pop culture and academic philosophy seem to have nothing to do with each other.

So what, then, is going on with the rise of pop philosophy? Socrates trades in his toga for a track suit and bling? Marx goes to an out-of-Iraq demonstration? Maybe it’s the other way around, with pop going philosophical. As in: Jewel names her next album Being and Time, or Metallica reads Gramsci, starts giving away MP3’s for free, and renames itself Dialectica.

It seems to be happening. Not with Metallica or Jewel (so far as I know), but with book buyers. Until a few years ago, the words “metaphysics”, “epistemology” or “Hegel” probably never appeared in the same sentence as “best seller” or “Keanu Reeves”. Now, books about philosophical ethics or the perils of foundational epistemology are sharing shopping bags with The DaVinci Code and Marley and Me.

Much of this popular interest in philosophy began with The Simpsons and Philosophy, a book of scholarly essays about Homer (the animated one) and the rest, which has sold around a quarter of a million copies since it was released six years ago by Open Court. A year or two later, it was The Matrix that gave everyone who didn’t take philosophy 101 a crash course in Kantian metaphysics (which was how “Keanu Reeves”, via The Matrix and Philosophy, got in all those unlikely sentences). Since then, Princeton’s professor Harry Frankfurt is on track to sell more copies than that with his little book On Bullshit which, despite its wisecracking title, is a serious philosophical essay seeking to figure out (as most philosophical essays do) what, exactly, something means. Frankfurt is now a media celebrity (he’s been on Jon Stewart’s show at least twice) and Bullshit and Philosophy is helping Frankfurt’s fans take things further and figure out what, exactly, all this bullshitmania really means.

Full disclosure: I helped edit Bullshit and Philosophy and I’m the editor for the series, Popular Culture and Philosophy. That series is going strong because there are serious philosophical issues and even some real insights posed by icons of pop culture — such as South Park, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Superheroes, The Sopranos, and Harry Potter — as well as trends and brands (like Poker, The Atkins Diet, and Harley Davidson). Monty Python? Say no more, say no more. Star Trek? That would be logical. Pink Floyd? Whoa. That’s deep.

The territory of Pop Goes Philosophy is this sudden convergence of philosophy and pop culture. We’ll dip into these books and I’ll introduce some of the best, weirdest, or most puzzling ideas they have to offer, such as Ed Slowik’s conclusion (in Monty Python and Philosophy) that, accompanied by the study of every Monty Python DVD, will actually increase your chances of doing better in Philosophy 101 — at least the section on existentialism.

— George Reisch

Sartre, Bad Faith, and Freedom

Existentialists place the burden of life’s meaning on the individual, but they are under no illusion that this is easy. Most individuals are not up to the task. Rather than honestly confront the situation, many people attempt to deny their freedom to make this choice — and the freedom of the individual is one of the key concepts of existentialism. Sartre calls this denial of personal freedom or choice “bad faith”; a simple example would be a person who accepts that he is a “sinner”, or an “alcoholic”, and therefore believes that he is not free to change his actions (for he is determined, and therefore cannot stop being a sinner or alcoholic).

A more subtle example is presented when they take on the identity of a stereotype or “role”, such as a doctor, policeman, scientist, and so on, and let the stereotypical manners and behavior of the role determine how they should behave and think as individuals. Sartre gives the example of a waiter in a café who displays all the mannerisms of the waiters one sees in movies or reads in books. He has an overly kind or slightly condescending attitude, voice, and use of words (“How are we this evening, sir?”), a stiff, automaton walk and quick bodily movements. On Sartre’s view, this person is denying his freedom to be a person who just happens to have the job of a waiter. One can be a waiter without having to follow a stereotyped code of behavior (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, New York: Philosophical Library, 1956).

Monty Python, of course, loves to present stereotyped characters and, indeed, these characters are some of most recognizable and beloved components of Python. From the aggressive policemen who break into skits intent on arresting anyone and everyone (with their cries of “What’s all this then?!”), to the dull office workers obsessed with petty details and paperwork, to the old housewives whose lives revolve around complaining (in high-pitched voices) and shopping, Monty Python challenges us to re-think our lives by satirizing or parodying the many ways that people fail to achieve an independence of thought, and thus a freedom to choose. Like Sartre’s waiter, these stereotyped characters seem unable or unwilling to recognize their freedom to pick a course of action independent of their typecast jobs, social class, or milieu. Perhaps these stereotyped people have allowed some social, religious, or other grand concept to determine their proper conduct and behavior, and thereby to decide their life’s meaning for them. Perhaps they are like Brian’s followers, who, after Brian tells them that, “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves,” shout back in unison, “Yes, yes!! We’ve all got to work it out for ourselves.” And then, eagerly, “Tell us more!” (ibid).

According to Sartre, another way that people can manifest bad faith is when they fail to acknowledge that their past choices, taken as a whole, represent or define their character. Since there is no pre-established meaning to life, our meaning can only come from our actual choices, and so if my choices display a certain pattern (such as heroism, cowardice, dishonesty, and so on), then that is the type of person that I have freely chosen to become. Many people attempt to deny these basic facts about themselves. They might declare, “I am really a hero, but I was never in the right circumstances to display my heroism”, an excuse that supposedly explains away their many past flights from any potential danger [this example comes from Sartre’s famous play, No Exit (Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and the Flies (New York: Random House, 1975). But, Sartre tells us, there is no deep-down, internal property (essence) of “heroism” that makes a person heroic. Rather, we are what we do, and our actual choices are the only means of determining our character, and consequently the meaning we have given to our lives. Of course, we are always free to become a new person if we so choose to act in the future.

Instances of this type of person (who are, as they say, “in denial”) abound in Monty Python. In the “Fish License” sketch, Mr. Praline declares “I am not a loony!”, even though he is pestering a post office clerk for a (non-existent) fish license for Eric, his pet halibut. “I chose him [Eric the halibut] out of thousands. I didn’t like the others. They were all too flat”, he tells the clerk (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Episode 23, untitled). Sartre would accuse Mr. Praline of bad faith: he is definitely a loony!

One of the criticisms commonly raised against Sartre’s concept of freedom is that he fails to take into account the influence, or limitations, of our genetics (nature) and up-bringing (nurture). Is the alcoholic really “free” to stop drinking, or the homosexual to “choose” heterosexuality? Most would say they are not. And this limited scope of individual choice plays a role in several Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketches. The timid, subservient, Arthur Pewtey has decided he won’t be “pushed around” anymore, but when he tries to stop his wife’s seduction (by the marriage counselor, no less), and is told to “go away”, he instinctively backs down with a meek, “Right. Right.” (Episode 2, “Sex and Violence”). Is Arthur Pewtey really free to change himself into a confident, aggressive person? Similarly, limitations of a more basic physiological sort persistently thwart Ron Obvious’ ambitious stunts, such as jumping the English Channel, or eating Chichester Cathedral (Episode 10, untitled). The point? Monty Python contains much that is existentialist, but it holds the seeds of some powerful objections to existentialism as well.

A Nietzschean Conclusion

I’ve tried to show that Monty Python has some positive, existentialist advice on life. It’s not simply a sarcastic send-up of humanity and the search for meaning. But, Monty Python just wouldn’t be Monty Python if it didn’t also make fun of philosophers and their theories of life! And, indeed, a sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus involves two pepperpots who go in search of Sartre in order to settle an argument (Episode 27, “Whicker’s World”). Along the way, conversation reveals details about Sartre, especially as they talk with his wife (Betty Muriel-Sartre).

Sartre can be a bit moody, for example: “‘the bourgeoisie this and the bourgeoisie that’ — he’s like a little child sometimes”, his wife tells us. And he isn’t much fun on holiday: “He didn’t join in the fun much. Just sat there thinking. Still, Mr. Rotter caught him a few times with the whoopee cushion.” The satirical target of this skit is the pompous and self-important philosopher, and the moral, possibly, is that philosophers should not take themselves so seriously. Even they can be caught by a whoopee cushion. If this last interpretation of the Sartre sketch is in any way correct, then it once again reveals a latent philosophical message in Monty Python. The ability to step back and take an honest look at ourselves, or to laugh at our own pretensions, is a virtue that Nietzsche emphasized: “I will not deceive, not even myself”. (The Gay Science, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995)

For Nietzsche, the cultivation of personal virtues, such as honesty, is part of the process by which an individual can form a meaningful, authentic life. Nietzsche describes this process on occasion using “artistic” metaphors, as “‘giving style’ to one’s character” (ibid). This suggests that the creation of a meaningful life is much like the creation of a beautiful, significant art work. The concept of the “will to power” is important in this context: “every living thing does everything it can not to preserve itself but to become more.” (ibid) By conjoining the striving of individuals to grow or flourish with the creative act of fashioning a unique, virtuous character, we may begin to understand what Nietzsche considered a meaningful life. And, interestingly, there is a sense in which Monty Python itself fits Nietzsche’s theory. That is, the history or “life” of Monty Python is marked by a continuous internal development and striving to become more, all under the guidance of a well-conceived, if dynamic, artistic plan.

As Monty Python’s Flying Circus progressed, the idea of a fluid, “stream-of-consciousness” method of writing sketches and comedic material gradually evolved. Skits with normal beginnings and endings, and with final punch lines, were replaced by an inventive, constantly developing series of bizarre leaps to new material, and yet the material was often cleverly interconnected on many levels. (A nice discussion of the development of the show occurs in, G. Perry, Life of Python, London: Pavilion, 1983). With the transition to movies, the plots became more unified and presented a more consistent theme, and the content became more daring. Yet the members of the group were not content with simply repeating the same strategy of sketch writing that had succeeded in the past. When the episodes began to merely repeat themselves, such that the show was no longer evolving (“becoming more”), the cast members gradually began to leave the group for new projects. Like the ideal Nietzschean individual, Monty Python was not content with just existing. It strove to grow, to “overcome” its present condition and obtain new accomplishments, all under the control of a critical, artistic vision.

— Ed Slowik

Monty Python – Spam


George Reisch is the series editor for Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series. He received a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Chicago in 1995 and teaches philosophy at the School for Continuing Studies at Northwestern University. His book, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.

Edward Slowik received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Ohio State University, specializing in the history and philosophy of science, space-time theory, and early modern philosophy. He is the author of Cartesian Spacetime (Kluwer, 2002) and is Associate Professor in Philosophy at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota.