How To Pick Those Pivotal Philosophers?

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

In May 2009 Kees Korenhof of Publishing House Meinema asked me to make a comic book about philosophy, and I had boldly agreed to have it finished in time for the Spring 2010, which meant a deadline in October. I had to sit down and produce.

I started out by drawing two introductory chapters to define the area. What Is Thinking? And what makes Thinking in humans so special, compared with the consciousness process in (other) animals? Along the way, I introduced myself, or rather my cartoon character, my husband Yiri and our two cats.

But then it was time to dive into solid philosophical history. Where to begin? Well, fortunately it was very obvious: Western philosophy starts with that illustrious trio Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

If you would offer me a chance to meet one of these three, I would definitely pick Socrates. He lived in very turbulent times, went to war on several occasions, and was not afraid to speak his mind, even against the leaders of his own city-state. They didn’t thank him for that: he was sentenced for spoiling the younger generation and disregarding the gods, and was offered a choice: banishment or death by poison. It certainly speaks for his character that he chose the latter: he was not a man to be dismissed.

That was all in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., in a land far away… which philosopher is next? The Roman Empire sure had some great thinkers, but not great enough to equal the influence of the Ancient Greek in the development of Western thought. Actually, we had to wait about 800 years before the next candidate emerged: Augustine.

By that time, Christianity was gaining power rapidly in Western Europe and Augustine was an enthusiastic convert – after he led a life of liberal licentiousness, which makes him one of the more interesting Christian philosophers, I think. He was smitten by the works of Plato.

After Augustine, Western philosophy had to wait another 800 years for an influential spokesman (Eastern philosophy, in the meantime, was benefitting big time from the young and fresh religion of Islam, which made the Arabic lands prosper and blossom in culture and science, compared to which the Westerners were mere boorish peasants). This spokesman was Thomas Aquinas, and he loved his Aristotle. Especially the idea of the Power of Human Reason, which elevated Man from a mere victim of Fate (and Faith) to a God-chosen Pinnacle of Creation.

And that’s how we emerged from the Dark Ages, philosophically: with the idea that Man surely had to be something special, being created with such awesome faculties of Understanding and Reasoning. What philosopher could top that?

I found it challenging to pinpoint the next pivotal philosophers and eventually stayed close to home, which in my case is The Netherlands, and the following three all had a strong connection with this country:

Desiderius Erasmus, René Descartes and Benedictus de Spinoza. Two of them born in the “low countries”, one of them lived here most of his adult life. They also had a strong connection with their Aristotelian heritage: all their philosophies were about Human Reason and what it can and cannot do.

Of these three I like Spinoza best. He was born in Amsterdam, the city where I live, and although history puts us 400 years apart, the times he lived in are not that radically different from now. In his day, Amsterdam was harboring, as it does now, many different nationalities and religions. It was a center of tolerance and culture. But with the country in a war and an economic recession, this tolerance eroded. Spinoza called for freedom of speech, a pamphlet he had to ironically publish anonymously.

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

It’s not all that different from current times. We’re in an economic recession again, minorities are being scape-goated and freedom of speech is being squelched by politicians who want it just for themselves. If Spinoza were alive today, his message would be the same. And he would probably be under fire for it, like Socrates was in his times.

Yes, the occupation of philosopher is not for the faint-hearted! You thought philosophers were dusty old men, smoking pipes and staring meaningfully out of the window of their aristocratic study-rooms, pondering ideas that have nothing to do with real life…? Think again!

You want some excitement in your life? Want to express your individuality and live life to the max? Forget bungee-jumping, become a philosopher!

There are more philosophers in the book, of course, we’ve just reached the somewhat modern age. But I’ll talk about them later, because I took a whole different turn there…

Stay tuned!

True Age: 33

(This entry is not about my upcoming book ‘Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics’, but it does pose a philosophical question)

What is your true age? And I don’t mean in the sense of “If you smoke, you are really ten years older than you are”, but as in: “How old do you truly feel inside?” Men nearing 40 usually answer: 18. Women over 50 often say: 9. Both answers have to do something with the Child Within, I guess. Sometimes though, for some people, True Age is dictated by the Adult Within.

As for me, ever since my teenage years I have felt about 33 years old. This idea stuck with me after I read Lord of the Rings: 33 is the age at which hobbits reach maturity. The years before 33 are referred to as the Irresponsible Tweens – an individual has reached physical autonomy but not yet the wisdom and maturity of adulthood.

I had my share of the Irresponsible Tweens – but when I turned 33, I felt as if I had reached the age that has been appropriate for me as a person all along. 33 to me means that I have some experience, and the common sense to have learned from it. It also means not feeling pressured so much about What I Should Become, because I have found a place in life. 33 is immensely old when seen from the point of view of an 18-year-old, and incredibly young when you are 50. It is the perfect “free place” between youth and seniority. I don’t have to prove myself that much, and yet my existence is still full of promises and possibilities. And the best part: people started taking me seriously.

When I was in my early twenties, it often bothered me that my voice wasn’t heard, since I was a rather young and naive looking girl. When I reached my thirties, more people started to address me in a formal way, and looking to me for my opinion on things. I like that. I always have. For I was always truly 33.

This year I will turn 40 and I’m happy about it. Aging and maturing is an interesting process that we can steer and influence every day with our thoughts and behavior. Although I still feel 33 inside, I hope one day, when I reach 50 or so, the part of me that feels like a Grande Dame will awaken. Then I will recline on my sofa in my elegant home and receive many interesting visitors who long to hear my wit and wisdom… Ah, wouldn’t that be lovely!

Philosophical Qualifications

I don’t have a degree in Philosophy, and frankly, I don’t think you need one to be a “lover of wisdom” – which is the exact translation of the word “philosopher”.

I do have a degree in Theology from the University of Amsterdam. It was something of a genetic necessity: both my parents were ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church, and my maternal grandfather was a Professor of Theology at the University of Leiden. Thinking and talking about Life, the Universe and Everything was something that I was literally born into. Fortunately, my parents were not the “Shut Up and Read Your Bible” -type of reverends, but more the “What A Miracle Our Daughter Has A Mind Of Her Own”-kind of educators. They always seemed delighted by my creative and intellectual achievements, however wacky or outrageous – well, I was their first child, so I had a lot of credit.

My parents always encouraged me and my two brothers to ask questions and develop our own views. They were actually very surprised when I chose to study Theology, since I never showed any inclination towards ascending the pulpit. I chose Theology because it is a very diverse study, including languages, sociology, phenomenology, dogmatics, history and philosophy. The faculty of Amsterdam was a very liberal one, accommodating Christians and atheists alike.

So, what I’m trying to say is: any environment that allows a person to be curious and to learn about their own specific existential questions, can qualify as a school for philosophy. Hopefully, my comic will inspire people both inside and outside of educational systems to find their “love of wisdom”!

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

How did my Philosophy Comic come about?

It all started way back in 2007…

I had the good fortune to be making occasional comics for newspaper NRC.Next, with a special assignment: I visited theater shows and made reviews in comic form. I loved the format, and wanted to extend it to other areas.

In April 2007 a philosopher from the North of Holland did a stunt: he spent a week in a huge casket, just like the Greek philosopher Diogenes in the fourth century B.C. I went up and visited him, and drew a comic report about it.

Philosopher in casket

Unfortunately, NRC.Next wouldn’t print it, since they didn’t really have a corner for philosophy. So I went to newspaper Trouw, which not only printed the comic, but gave me my own monthly spot in the paper, which I was free to fill with comic reports on philosophical and spiritual matters.

Since then, I have produced about forty comic reports on a wide range of subjects: I Ching, a convention about Happiness, the Reality of Lord of the Rings, Hallucinogenics, Buddhism, Near Death Experiences, Freemasonry, a Phone Line to God, Freud, the Crusades and Virtual Reality. (some have them have been translated and can be read here). All of the trips I made to special events were huge fun and gave me more than enough to draw about – except one.

In 2009 I attended a talk about Spinoza which was so dull, vague and unfocused that I could see no way to make the experience into a useful comic. So I did something more general: I made a comic about the life and thoughts of Spinoza.

Spinoza
The original Spinoza comic as it appeared in Dutch in newspaper Trouw

It was a great success! I received lots of fanmail about it from people with an interest in philosophy, who thought my comic did not only represent Spinoza very well, but did so in a very fun and accessible way.

A few months later I got a call from publisher Kees Korenhof from Uitgeverij Meinema (specializing in philosophical books). He asked me if I would like to make a comic book about philosophy, in the same vein as the comic reports. My husband and I looked at each other and said: Of course! It was the middle of the crisis, there weren’t many assignments coming my way but we managed financially, so we could easily devote ourselves to making a whole comic book, something that has been a dream of mine anyway.

It was a gamble for the publisher, since Meinema had never published comics and aims at a very specific audience. The first imprint had a cautious number, to see how the book would do. Thanks to a big interview in the newspaper, the first print was sold out in a week, even before the official book presentation. By now, the book has seen three prints, an online workbook and several positive reviews.

Curious yet?

Well, hold on until September, then get your own copy of ‘Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics’ and see what all the (my) fuss is about!

By the way, part of the Spinoza comic made it into the book – the only piece that has actually been published before, everything else is completely new material.

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

Who Am I and What Am I Thinking?

Do you remember the first thought you ever had?

Well, that depends on what you consider a thought.

I imagine that, as a baby, even in the womb, I must have felt all kinds of sensations that registered somewhere in my tiny brain as observations, like “I’m cold”, “I’m hungry”, “I’m tired”.

Are those thoughts?

In my comic, I drew my own theory of types of thoughts.

We have observations, and then start building upon those by connecting them, and then we derive conclusions.

And that process, the switching between Observing, Connecting and Concluding, is what we call Thinking.

I think.

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

 

One of my earliest recollections about my own thinking process was from when I was about five years old. Like many children, I liked cute, small animals. It bothered me that I could not pick up and cuddle the small sparrows in our garden. Oh, how I wished that one of them would come to me and be my friend!

So I made something up.

I told my teacher and parents that I had rescued a small baby-bird that had fallen out of a tree, and that I had restored it to health and then its mother came to pick it up. They both happily flapped their wings at me in thanks as they flew away.

My parents and teacher just smiled and said: “Oh, that’s nice.” At first I thought I had fooled them with a lie. But it gradually dawned on me that they knew full well that what I told them never happened, yet they seemed to enjoy listening to what I had to say.

And so I found out about another type of thinking: the story-telling thought.

Or: imagination.

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

I Blog, therefore I Am

This month NBM will start announcing my comic ‘Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics’, and I am very happy and excited about it! This book appeared originally in Dutch in 2010, and I am very pleased with the American title NBM came up with. (the original is ‘Philosophy in the Picture’).

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

 

Because it IS a Discovery in Comics – as much for me as for the reader, I hope. I have no formal education in philosophy and I think you don’t need one to be a philosopher. Philosophy is literally: love of knowledge, so all you need to enjoy my book is an interest in Thinking, and Thinking about Thinking. And I throw in the occasional cartoony joke as well, so a sense of humor is also a pre-requisite.

If you want to know more about the book, check it out on my website: www.senoeni.net

On this blog I will post more about myself and how the book came about in the coming months, see keep an eye on this spot.

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

Next episode: WHO AM I and WHEN DID I START THINKING?