Baggini, Julian

Philosophy with: “Why Homer Simpson is our great philosopher” by Julian Baggini

Homer Simpson ... deep in thought
THE Simpsons reaches a milestone 500th episode next Sunday.

Homer and his family made their debut in the US in 1987, and the cartoon has since become America’s longest-running sitcom.

It also holds the world record for guest appearances, with cameos from hundreds of stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Jones, Ricky Gervais and Sting.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will appear when the 500th episode premieres in the States.

Here the editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, tells why he thinks the series is more than just a giggle.

THE Simpsons’ landmark 500th episode is not bad for a cartoon.

But for me, The Simpsons is much more than a funny animated series — it’s a work of philosophy.

And it does philosophy better than most philosophers.

Some people think comedy can never be as deep as serious philosophy. I disagree.

Comedy is the most truthful art form we have.

Cameo ... Ricky Gervais, Elizabeth Taylor and Tom Jones

Cameo … Ricky Gervais, Elizabeth Taylor and Tom Jones

It’s great at puncturing any illusions we might have that we’re wise or important.

In one episode, Homer is ill and wonders: “What if I wind up as some vegetable, watching TV on the couch? My important work will never be completed.”

“Society’s loss, I suppose,” says Marge.

The point is that life is not about work on a grand scale.

In movies it’s always some big dream or noble ideal that gives someone the will to live.

Wisdom ... Plato, left: 'Any man may easily do harm, but not every man can do good to another'; Descartes: 'I think therefore I am'

Wisdom … Plato, left: ‘Any man may easily do harm, but not every man can do good to another’; Descartes: ‘I think therefore I am’

In Homer’s case, the doctors cannot find anything to motivate him to walk. But one thing does get him on his feet: The candy machine.

When Homer looks back on his life, his triumphs are simple joys of normal life, such as a reunion with his wife.

For Homer Simpson his only important work is sex, TV and food. What’s worse, it’s junk food, trash TV and quick sex.

Sure, he has kids to raise, but their important work will be just as unimportant.

The Simpsons is also a powerful advocate of disrespectful tolerance for all.

In the world of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, it becomes impossible to take anyone as an ultimate authority or to demonise anyone as completely evil.

Inspirational ... Aristotle, left: 'The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain'; Confucius: 'I hear and I forget, I see and I remember. I do and I understand'

Inspirational … Aristotle, left: ‘The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain’; Confucius: ‘I hear and I forget, I see and I remember. I do and I understand’

Even corrupt characters like Mayor Quimby and Chief Wiggum are so ridiculous you laugh at them but don’t hate them.

It promotes a kind of cynical, realistic update of hippy ideals.

It’s all about universal love, man, but not because people are great or because with the dawning of the age of Aquarius a new utopia is possible.

You could even claim that the Simpsons is more religious than political. It is sceptical about the possibility of changing the world. But it does offer a possibility of changing yourself.

So it should be obvious why we love The Simpsons.

Reality bites ... Homer: 'Trying is the first step on the road to failure'

Reality bites … Homer: ‘Trying is the first step on the road to failure’

Like us, it has no time for authority but even less time for pointless, self-important moralising about it.

It sees the world for the absurd, corrupt place it is, but loves it all the same, because it is full of imperfect people like ourselves.

George Bush Snr once said American families should be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons. Well, I think philosophers should be less like Plato and more like Homer.

Cartoons can cut straight to the chase because they strip reality down to the basics, which is what philosophy does.


27 Emmy awards won by The Simpsons
£334m Box office takings of The Simpsons movie

23 Seasons the cartoon series has run

16 Writers used for every episode

£250k Average pay per episode for leading actors

Someone like Homer is never realistic in the way a film or novel character is. But he is a real American everyman.

Homer captures something real in us all that a more “realistic” character never could.

Cartoons thrive on the broad brush strokes of caricature, just like philosophy deals with big, broad issues like truth, justice, the good, identity, consciousness, morality and meaning.


Realistic films and TV series can’t deal with these well because they need real, flesh and blood characters who are more than just types.

So, in one way, it’s not realistic when the school headmaster, Principal Skinner, introduces kids to a film on the meat industry saying: “In the interests of creating an open debate, sit silently and watch this film.”

No one speaks like that. But, in another way, this is realistic: Politicians are always saying they are having an open debate when really they’re just doing everything on their terms.

But what’s really brilliant about The Simpsons is that no one is allowed to feel smug. Everyone gets it in the neck.

So, in Homer The Heretic, when Homer sees Hindu shopkeeper Apu’s shrine to Ganesh, he says: “No offence Apu, but when they were handing out religions, you must have been out taking a whiz.”

And it is wise, not because it can carry on with complex intellectual games for hours, but because it can see the truth and nail it in a brilliant one-liner.

Life may be a joke, but nothing tells is like The Simpsons.


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