Peanuts and Thomists | By Raymond Dennehy | June 2, 2005
Peanuts and Thomists | By Raymond Dennehy | June 2, 2005
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 dont
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 strips plots presuppose
final causality? No doubt I could put these questions to rest by consulting
James Schall, S.J., at Georgetown University. For many years hes
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 Schultzs 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. Dagwoods
prodigious appetite for gargantuan, multi-leveled sandwiches and Hagars
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 thats reality referred to not reality
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 thats 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.
Taylors 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
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 theyre
hearing when absurd neo-Gnostic utterances, like Marti Llamas, come
to their attention. Imagine. Theyre 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
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
Unions 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 whats 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 Chestertons 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 childs innocence and joy
at beholding nature; so he didnt 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 whats real is right in front of
We could do a lot worse than enlisting Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Snoopy
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
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,
He is married to Maryann Dennehy, has four children and eleven grandchildren.
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