The Simpsons is more than a funny cartoon - it reveals truths about human nature that rival the observations of great philosophers from Plato to Kant... while Homer sets his house on fire, says philosopher Julian Baggini.
With the likes of Douglas Coupland, George Walden and Stephen Hawking as fans, taking the Simpsons seriously is no longer outre but de rigeur.
It is, quite simply, one of the greatest cultural artefacts of our age. So great, in fact, that it not only reflects and plays with philosophical ideas, it actually does real philosophy, and does it well.
How can a comic cartoon do this? Precisely because it is a comic cartoon, the form best suited to illuminate our age.
To speak truthfully and insightfully today you must have a sense of the absurdity of human life and endeavour. Past attempts to construct grand and noble theories about human history and destiny have collapsed. We now know we're just a bunch of naked apes trying to get on as best we can, usually messing things up, but somehow finding life can be sweet all the same. All delusions of a significance that we do not really have need to be stripped away, and nothing can do this better that the great deflater: comedy.
The Simpsons does this brilliantly, especially when it comes to religion. It's not that the Simpsons is atheist propaganda; its main target is not belief in God or the supernatural, but the arrogance of particular organised religions that they, amazingly, know the will of the creator.
For example, in the episode Homer the Heretic, Homer gives up church and decides to follow God in his own way: by watching the TV, slobbing about and dancing in his underpants.
Throughout the episode he justifies himself in a number of ways.
- "What's the big deal about going to some building every Sunday, I mean, isn't God everywhere?"
- "Don't you think the almighty has better things to worry about than where one little guy spends one measly hour of his week?"
- "And what if we've picked the wrong religion? Every week we're just making God madder and madder?"
Homer's protests do not merely allude to much subtler arguments that proper philosophers make. The basic points really are that simple, which is why they can be stated simply.