Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Graphic Philosophy

Philosophy depends on words to express ideas, arguments and value-laden judgements but a narrative story of philosophy’s development also lends itself to graphic representation.


Sean Sheehan


“Heretics!” uses a comic-book format to tell the story of seventeenth-century thinkers – mostly radical philosophers but also iconoclastic scientists –who challenged the status quo in ways that continue to inform our reflections on the nature of the world.

Challenging authority carries risks – think Socrates, Jesus, Che Guevara, Pussy Riot, Chelsea Manning …countless others – and seventeenth-century intellectuals who questioned the established order risked imprisonment and even death.

Giordano Bruno, just one of the heroic heretics featured in this attractive  book, angered the Vatican and was put on trial in Rome for heresy, In 1600, his tongue gagged by a piece of wood, he was hung upside down naked and burned alive.

If you were lucky the Catholic Church would only issue an excommunication or, as what happened to Galileo, who proposed the idea that the earth orbited the sun, imprisoned for a couple of weeks and shown the instruments of torture before agreeing to relent. (Some Catholic apologists still try to find excuses for the Vatican’s fascistic control of dissent.) Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish authorities in Amsterdam

Using strip cartoon to convey complex ideas is an impossible task but between the author and illustrator this book makes a worthy attempt. There is no dumbing down in the story of how a group of thinkers in the 1660s pursued new ways of understanding the universe and ourselves.

They did not always agree with one another and their views about the existence of God are very different. Leibniz’s metaphysics are not the easiest to comprehend but the book makes a valiant effort to put across his ideas in words and pictures.

Spinoza is the most radical of these heretics, arguing that our bodies and our minds are alike in that both are a part of the natural order. God is Nature: “the one infinite and necessarily existing substance”.

Descartes thought the opposite, separating the two but in ways that remain unconvincing. What they shared, though, was the conviction that the older medieval approach to philosophy needed to be overthrown.

Spinoza’s politics were as radical as his philosophy. He insisted – as illustrated in one of the pages shown here – that a socially and politically healthy society should not suffer interference from religious bodies. Intellectual freedom, he wrote, was essential for any republic.

“Heretics!” is a primer, a story about the birth and of modern philosophy, and a huge relief in the context of publishing’s amoral willingness  to churn out the writings of authors spinning pseudo reflections and self-help manuals on the meaning of life.  It offers a reader-friendly introduction to the thinkers who laid the foundations for modern philosophy and, its authors would surely agree, if it succeeds in stimulating an interest in Spinoza – whose insights into the mind/body relationship are arresting – it is well worth reading.

“Heretics! The wondrous (and dangerous) beginnings of modern Philosophy”, by Steven Nadler & Ben Nadler, is published by Princeton University Press.

(Photos provided by the publisher)

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