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Peanuts and Thomists | By Raymond Dennehy | June 2, 2005

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This sapient contribution needs a running start. So here goes.

One of the Jesuits who taught me undergraduate philosophy insisted that the author of the "Peanuts" comic strip, Charles Schultz, was a Thomist. I don’t recall what reasons he gave for this pronouncement and, in any case, I never got around to asking him about it.

Still over the years the question has visited me more than once. What is Thomistic about Linus, Lucy, Charlie Brown, and Snoopy? Was it the kinds of things they did or said? By utterance or action did they imply a philosophy of moderate realism? A natural law ethics? Did the strip’s plots presuppose final causality? No doubt I could put these questions to rest by consulting Father James Schall, S.J., at Georgetown University. For many years he’s been referring to one or another "Peanuts’ comic strip in his writings to concretize a philosophical or theological point he was arguing.

Left to my own devices in the interim, I can see that the "Peanuts" characters unfold the drama and comedy of their lives against a background of unpretentious but uncompromising realism, the kind that Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas defended: Charlie Brown takes a pitch from Linus and blasts the ball to where Lucy stands with arms stretched upwards to catch the ball; only she misses and it lands on the ground. There it all is: cause and effect, well-meant intention, chance, personal responsibility, the sketch of human community as Lucy offers her excuses.

One might wonder why "Peanuts" and not other comic strips, especially given Schultz’s minimalist drawings of the characters and their simple, straightforward conversations. Yet this very simplicity, penury even, and directness of speech are what connect with Thomistic realism. Whether or not Schultz was a Thomist, those traits make his characters and plots a perfect setting for expressing the very principles and ideas that Thomism takes as the starting point of philosophy.

That kind of realism is not easy to find in other comic strips. The realism is there, of course, but their comic exaggeration distracts us from it. "Dagwood and Blondie," "Hagar the Horrible," and the like entertain us by caricatures of the human situation. Dagwood’s prodigious appetite for gargantuan, multi-leveled sandwiches and Hagar’s polarized life — invincible leader of endless raids on British coastal towns and, upon returning home, husband and father beleaguered by humdrum domestic chores – amuse us because they retain just enough realism to allow a suspension of disbelief. And, yes, there are the political cartoon strips, like "Doonesbury," that satirize the social and political foibles of real people, but that’s reality referred to not reality depicted.

G.K. Chesterton noted that the glory of Thomistic philosophy is its grounding in the real world, unlike modern philosophy which, in his words, has turned the world upside down and then tells the common people that that’s reality. All of which is not to say that the claims and methods of modern philosophy are in principle false or, worse yet, nonsensical. One can agree with A.E. Taylor’s observation, uttered as a challenge to his perceived triumphalism of Thomists, "Mankind has not been playing the fool since 1277." Modern Thomists have increased their philosophical wherewithal by incorporating methods and principles from phenomenology and linguistic analysis into their moderate realism.

The problem with modern philosophy is its heritage of challenging the intuitive truths of common sense, a practice that has spawned philosophical nonsense. For one thing, the man and woman in the street can hardly believe what they’re hearing when absurd neo-Gnostic utterances, like Marti Llama’s, come to their attention. Imagine. They’re supposed to accept the claim that obvious sexual differences between men and women are of minor consequence and that what counts is gender, which is a social construct. Llama counts five genders: hermaphrodite, two ovaries and two testicles; male, two testicles; female, two ovaries; herm two testicles and one ovary; ferm two ovaries and one testicle, with no one gender claiming preeminence.

Like all social constructons, what passes for gender depends on the sensibilities of the day: apparently society giveth and society taketh away. Too bizarre to be taken seriously by anyone but its author? Not in the eyes of the European Union’s definition of "gender" as an arbitrary social construct embracing several genders.

Equally incredible to common people is the claim by advocates of "moral error" theory that all statements about what’s morally right and wrong are in principle false, that we nevertheless must follow moral rules because they are evolutionary adaptations, and that we must accordingly cultivate the practice of "fictionalism" to persuade ourselves that moral statements of right and wrong are true even though deep down we know them to be false. This should be worth a new page in psychiatric manuals. Following the entry on "hereditary chemically induced schizophrenia," there should be something like "academic schizophrenia, self-induced by mimicking hereditary schizophrenia."

Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and even the dog, Snoopy are comic strip reflections of Chesterton’s common folk. Children and animals are blest with a lack of sophistication. Their naïve assessment of the things around them protects them from mistaking nonsense for truth. As children, we have much to learn about the world, but how much would we learn if we started out with the prejudices and perversity of the sophisticated?

Nietzsche exhorted us to become like children because childlike innocence was needed to construct a morality worthy of the new man. Ironically, the very one whose Lordship he denied and reviled presented that truth centuries before him. Christ warned his disciples that they must become as little children if they wished to enter heaven. And what about Aristotle? He was no naïf, but he nevertheless had the child’s innocence and joy at beholding nature; so he didn’t suffer fools gladly, as is clear in his advice to avoid philosophical discussions about "foolish questions" such as whether change is real. Thomas Aquinas displayed the same childlike openness to reality, which is why his writings on profound theological and philosophical subjects are so remarkably lucid.

Thomists are an endangered species and our existence is all the more precarious for its lack of defenders. Unlike the Monarch butterfly and Blue-Fin Dolphin, we have no powerful groups, such as the Sierra Club, lobbying for our protection. At our present rate of decline, Thomists will soon be as scarce as gay bulls in a cow pasture. No comic strip, however Thomist-friendly, can stop the decline. Still, "Peanuts" serves as a good-humored reminder that the important truths are simple and what’s real is right in front of us.

We could do a lot worse than enlisting Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Snoopy for support.

Raymond Dennehy is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco.

After serving from 1954-58 as a radarman in the U.S. Navy aboard the heavy cruiser, USS Rochester in the Pacific Theater of Operations, he attended the University of San Fransisco, obtaining a B.A. in philosophy. He studied philosophy in the graduate school of the University of California, Berkeley, finally getting his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto.

He is the author of Anti-Abortionist at Large: How to Argue Intelligently about Abortion and Live to Tell About It. (Go here for reviews and excerpts.) His previous books are Reason and Dignity and an anthology he edited, Christian Married Love. He is frequently invited on radio and television programs, as well as university campuses, to speak and debate on topics such as abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and cloning.

He is married to Maryann Dennehy, has four children and eleven grandchildren.

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