Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy

Say you went to college. Furthermore, say you went to a college that required you to take a two-year ride through Contemporary Civilization, or Philosophy I and II, or The World According to Dead White Men. They were called survey courses, but they didn’t simply scan the horizon from a comfortable distance — two years with a gin-and-tonic in an Adirondack chair. They were more like two years of what aspirants to enter the Navy SEALs only have to endure for seven days: Hell Week. Many students fell mortally wounded on the punji sticks of Gottfried Leibniz’s sentences; Bento Spinoza did his best to slaughter the survivors. Still, you look back on those years fondly, upon the few weeks when you covered Renaissance philosophy and were asked to read Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Discourse on Method, Leviathan, Pascal’s Pensées, Spinoza’s Ethics, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and, if you were lucky, Novum Organum and The Principia. Right. Fondly.

Enter Steven and Ben Nadler’s slenderized and tenderized intro to Renaissance philosophy by way of comics: Heretics! For those of us who hope to revive in memory what our liberal arts educations were supposed to leave us with for life, it is with pleasure that I can say that Nadler père, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Nadler fils, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, have collaborated on a fine formula in which the narrative zip (and overall entertainment value) of the cartoon format lend critical aid to the project of introducing — or reintroducing — readers to philosophy’s revolutionary era. Steven deciphers many of the big ideas of the gentlemen named above, plus, glory be, a woman: Princess Palantine Elisabeth of Bohemia, who may have influenced Nicolas Malebranche, Henry More, Descartes, and Leibniz in ways untold. His work is epigrammatic, but not without polychrome and humor. He has employed the header of most panels to set the scene: political, historical, philosophical. The panel itself serves many purposes: to enlarge upon an idea, to poke fun at some dullard, to convey the excitement of unearthing something wholly new.

Although not strictly chronological, the story has both forward motion and specific gravity: the panels smoothing transition one to the next, building on ideas, introducing counterarguments, hitting high notes: Galileo on sun spots, the Transit of Venus, the movement of the moons of Jupiter; Descartes searching for a “body of knowledge that had the same degree of certainty as the truths of mathematics” (and his wonderful mindbender: “How can I know that I can know if I don’t know what it is to know?” which Steven deconstructs); the extension of Hobbes’s materialism: “Our ideas, our sense perceptions, our feelings, our imaginings, our volitions — they are all just motions in the body”; Viscountess Conway swerving uncannily close to today’s creationists; Locke’s appreciation that we have laws even in the state of nature; Spinoza’s struggle with passion and reason; Hobbes trying to reconcile popular consent with absolute sovereignty. What makes the lacunae acceptable — other than this being a short, graphic history — is that Steven is the kind of teacher who would make a good scoutmaster: he knows how to kindle a fire from unlikely sources. You want to keep building this flicker into something transformative; not a sea of flames, but a light by which to expand your worldview.

Ben is a natty, amiable cartoonist. His characters strike the right emotional response — I couldn’t help it that many reminded me of a weird old friend, Carl Anderson’s character Henry — and Ben gives the story heft and movement with an easy use of guiding gutters between panels and full-page splashes. What takes the cake is his choice of colors. They have an antique quality — pale rose, madder, lake, ocher, sienna — well in keeping with the seventeenth century. Princeton has invested serious resources on the book. The paper is as weighty and tactile as card stock, and the design and construction feel like a fancy car.

The book provides much in the way of where, how, and when, and even, for its limited introduction, aspects of why. Why this blossoming of radical thought, this turning on its head of received opinion; why this faith in the raw science of the familiar, and this lack of faith in religious authorities? This was revolutionary thinking. This thinking was — ready for it? — heretical. Giordano Bruno was sentenced to death by burning in 1600 for his heliocentric views (insubordination didn’t help his case). Here we see thinking’s heavy lifting being done at peril — thinking as elemental as the periodic table. And we are given that friendly nudge to familiarize ourselves with these people, not only to grasp how we arrived at our way of comprehending and being in the world, but to keep on questioning.

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