Kjetil Røed
Røed is an art critic based in Oslo.

The new cartoon and graphic narrative Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy, offers a smooth beginning to some of the wisest thinkers of early modern thoughts.

One of my first significant encounters with philosophy was the little book Marx for Beginners. Unlike most introductory books on Marxism, this one was a cartoon! Not only that, but it was also both fun and easy to read. However, some might object saying it is a too easy read, but for me it was exactly the simple and entertaining approach that led me to Marx. When I think about it now – simple and fun reading can indeed become the needed shortcut towards more challenging thinkers for many. One must begin somewhere, and it is in particular the lack of books like Marx for Beginners, that might prevent new readers to modern philosophical thoughts.

An easy read

One might say that Steven and Ben Nadler‘s Heretics! fits well into the aforementioned format. The cartoon book presents great modern thinkers and scientists: Bacon, Newton, Galileo, Leibniz, Pascal and Spinoza. The authors move conscientiously – even if (naturally) somewhat schematically – through the thoughts of the various thinkers. In similarity to the cartoon Maus (Art Spiegelman, 1987 and 1992), serious and difficult themes are well portrayed in this cartoon.


«Heretics! reminds me of how important it is to acknowledge beginnings»

I especially enjoyed how the high-quality and complex topics are handled in such a light manner throughout this format: The whole reading experience becomes very amusing, and I am not worried one bit as to how schematically these scientists and philosophers thoughts are dealt with. The book is intended as a teaser and a beginning, which hopefully can lead the reader to more advanced introductory works or preferably the original texts themselves.

The prince of philosophy

Nonetheless, some thinkers are more thoroughly examined than others. Especially Spinoza is analysed in great detail, which was very welcomed in my case, as this is a philosopher whose current status has not diminished since the Baroque. He is probably also the philosopher who has inspired most modern thinkers, considering characters such as Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. To no surprise, nothing new about Spinoza or any others is added in the book – nonetheless, we now have a pleasant and funny lens to watch them from (it may be worth mentioning that Steven Nadler has written the critically acclaimed Spinoza: A Life). This lens may lead to some striking point of views that have not been presented before, although it is hard to figure out exactly what is being added (this will vary from reader to reader).

«The book is intended as a teaser and a beginning.»

The cartoon series give us nonetheless a new perspective on the factual argumentation by these philosophical thinkers, as well as a motion and ease they didn’t have initially.

Humorous touch

One of the highlights illustrating this view is the part that deals with French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche. Here we can see the philosopher himself in a 70s-outfit dancing like John Travolta to Staying Alive, while his thoughts about causality and substance are presented. When questions like «how do bodies move?» and «why do they move as they do?» are presented alongside disco dancing, it somehow makes the theories of causality less pretentious and more easily understandable. Basically, when there is a good joke around the corner, thinking doesn’t any longer seem so much of an achievement.

I must admit that I love the foolishness of such assemblies – Travolta and Malebranche, for example. The dreadful serious and crumbling tone of thought that philosophy often resembles is precisely what prevents many from approaching philosophy. However, It should also be said that the thinkers examined are not great humourists, but then again, what philosophers are?

Beginners’ value

I remember I discussed Marx for Beginners with a friend a few years after reading it, and he admitted – somewhat reluctantly – that he had read this cartoon version of Marx in adulthood before he started reading the philosopher’s own texts. He also said that he probably wouldn’t have moved on to the original texts if it hadn’t been for reading the cartoon first.

 «Simple and fun reading can indeed become the needed shortcut towards more challenging thinkers for many.»

Though Heretics! is far more advanced than the For Beginners-series that I succumbed to in puberty; It goes much more thoroughly into the argumentation. At the same time, it is also more ridiculous, as all the philosophers we become acquainted with seem quite foolish in terms of how they appear in the series. The folly is in its place though, making these philosophers a little more accessible.

 A low threshold

As I’ve already pointed out, Heretics! reminds me of how important it is to acknowledge beginnings: If we cannot acquaint ourselves with what we cannot or do not know, then we will never be accustomed to any new knowledge. Thus, the threshold should be low to begin with.

The fact is that comics like Heretics! can teach us something about our relationship to knowledge. Sometimes we need to return to the beginning and start over in order to properly approach thoughts and philosophical ideas. Sometimes being «too smart» might prevent us from starting over, and there’s no doubt that this is exactly what you need to do from time to time.