“Where ideas compete freely, the prettiest win.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)
In Shaping the Future (2005), Horst Hutter describes the philosopher as a kind of cultural physician who administers medicine to sick people living in a sick society. The medicine is good for you but it tastes bad. Really bad. So the cultural physician’s primary task is to find creative ways to compel you to consume the cure. Since Socrates, philosophers have, for the most part, sought to compel us solely with rational argument, with reason. Nietzsche saw the folly in this strategy. Reason alone will never slay the dragons of delusion that guard the exit to Plato’s Cave. It’s unequal to the task.
If philosophy is to even have a fighting chance, it has to call upon the persuasive powers of poetry, the mesmerizing magic of music, and the elemental energy of the emotions; it has to get used to relying upon rhythm, rhyme, and rhetoric; and it has to learn how to sing with the saints and prophesy with the prophets. In short, if philosophy is to even have a fighting chance in the war against ignorance, it must become beautiful, because, as the philosopher Aaron Haspel wryly observes: “Where ideas compete freely, the prettiest win.”
But Socrates was famously ugly. And there’s an ugliness to even the most beautiful philosophy which repulses most people. That’s why philosophy will never move the masses the way religion does. It’s always going to be a road less traveled. If the life and death of Socrates proves anything, it’s that philosophy is an acquired taste—viz., people don’t naturally enjoy having their assumptions challenged. All to the contrary, most people get really mad when you ask them to justify their beliefs. And yet overcoming this defensiveness is the cultural physician’s primary task.
The major obstacle on the road to wisdom is not stupidity, lack of intelligence, or ignorance, but rather an unwillingness to question that which we love and care about. Nietzsche saw this with unusual clarity. For instance, in Ecce Homo (1888), he writes: “How much truth does a spirit endure, how much truth does it dare? More and more that became for me the genuine measure of value. Error (belief in the ideal) is not blindness, error is cowardice.” Philosophers would have you believe that their rugged royal road is the only way around this cowardice. But there’s another way, a shortcut which steers clear of philosophy altogether. It’s a path paved with laughter. And its name is comedy.
Socrates believed philosophy was all about telling the truth and confronting your own ignorance. At its best, comedy does just this, but it does so far more gently than philosophy, and for this very reason, comedy will always be a far better consciousness-raising tool. Comedy is far more of a threat to the powerful than philosophy, as it can get through to people who are never going to hear the harsh criticism of a Socrates. When comedians like Louis CK start playing the part of cultural physician, they can get lots of otherwise resistant people to consume the cure because it’s sugar-coated with humor.
If I were to write an updated version of Machiavelli’s Prince, it would include the following advice to the tyrants of this world: laugh at the philosopher, fear the comedian.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)
Louis CK’s treatment of the touchy subject of white privilege is a case in point: