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Philosophy Class With “Calvin and Hobbes”

On November 18, 1985, after six rejected concepts and several adult years spent living with his parents, struggling cartoonist Bill Waterson published the first Calvin and Hobbes comic. The strip featured a young boy, Calvin, who, “catches” and befriends a Tiger, Hobbes, by luring it into his tiger trap with a tuna fish sandwich.

The strip took off immediately. Over its ten year syndication lifetime, Calvin and Hobbes was carried in over 2,400 newspapers across the globe and sold over 30 million copies of its 18 published books

Eventually we learn that Hobbes is not an actual tiger, but is a stuffed tiger toy to whom Calvin assigns a persona – he sees and interacts with Hobbes, but to everyone else, Hobbes is merely a stuffed animal. Watterson juxtaposes the imaginary dynamic between Calvin and Hobbes with the reality of their relationship – just a child and his toy –  as a means by which to offer philosophical wisdom, poignant social insight, and sharp humor.

It’s pretty crazy – I read Calvin and Hobbes religiously as a child. It was far and away my favorite comic. Having re-read it in more recent years, I have to assume that about 90% of its content was way, way over my head. That’s part of the strip’s beauty – it can be equally as enjoyed by a ten year old, wrapped in a blanket and sipping hot chocolate on his couch, as by a borderline alcoholic/stoner college student living in a frat house. Or, you know, other people who are not children or drug users. Pretty much anyone can find something to love in and learn from Calvin and Hobbes.

Here are some Calvin and Hobbes strips that I find to be particularly mind blowing:

On predetermination

In this strip, not only does Watterson very simply and effectively present a complex philosophical question – one still very relevant today – but he also provides a humorous and insightful commentary on the implications of both sides of the debate. “Are our actions predetermined?” “Well… If they are it means I can pretty much do whatever I want and not worry, right? Yeah. I’m gonna go with a yes on that one.”

On the terrifying speed with and extent to which technology has ingrained itself in our society

calvin and hobbes

It’s funny to think about the fact that this strip was published around two decades ago and has only become more relevant with age. Internet wasn’t even prevalent at the time of this strip’s release. The picture he’s painting is kind of like that fucked up society in Pixar’s WALL-E, which – even though is exaggerated – is something that humanity is closer to than ever before, and is moving closer still towards.

Waterson’s poignant social commentary on youth culture

I really love this one. In a single sentence, he offers a profound social commentary on modern youth, and uses the premise of a child on Halloween to make a point of how frightening this commentary is. Just an awesome use of layering here.

On war

This is one of the more overt political statements you’ll find in Calvin and Hobbes. But rather than commenting on, or highlighting a specific conflict, Watterson chooses to comment on the concept of war in general.

On ethics

This strip  is a great example of one that was likely way over my head as a child. It’s packed with perspective on ethics, and insightful in terms of the implications of ethical decisions in the real world.

And these are more or less just a random sampling of Calvin and Hobbes. I have this epic, three volume tome which contains within its glorious pages every single Calvin and Hobbes strip ever created, and I picked these out after going through it for all of ten minutes. And you may wonder why Calvin and Hobbes, while it was insanely successful while it ran, is nowhere near as recognizable nowadays as strips like Garfield and Peanuts. It’s because Bill Watterson, the beautiful son of a bitch, was so anti-merchandising that he didn’t allow Calvin or Hobbes to be used in any way that he didn’t have direct control over. He didn’t want the things it represented to be polluted and exploited for personal gain. He was a principled man who truly believed in the potential for art to affect positive change through the medium of the comic.

If you haven’t, I highly recommend you pick up a Calvin and Hobbes book at some point. At the very least it’s great for the coffee table.

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Written by: Richard Reitzfeld