Teaching Philosophy with Calvin and Hobbes

Brandon Katz

Philosophy for Children

Teaching Philosophy with Calvin and Hobbes

The practice of philosophy is often reserved for the halls of higher learning. People assume that you need the capacity and resources to decipher ancient treatises in order to engage with philosophical inquiry. While this is certainly a valuable type of philosophical education, it does not all there is to the discipline. We might think of philosophy more generally as a way of thinking that involves using abstractions to understand more of the world around us. This sort of practice can be applied in various areas such as ethics and metaphysics. Rather than being limited to the texts of a college philosophy class, this sort of thinking can and should be applied to our everyday lives. We might find ourselves often using moral reason or questioning our place in the universe. This natural tendency to philosophize is found among children far younger than college students and should be cultivated earlier in life. Many forms of entertainment targeted at young children are filled with philosophical implication. Bill Watterson’s famous comic strip Calvin and Hobbes is no exception. In fact, the the stories of the boy and his stuffed tiger contain both underlying philosophical themes as well as explicit and often sophisticated philosophical inquiry.

Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 1)
Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 1)

Perhaps one of the most profound things about the philosophy of the comics is its accessibility. Though generally targeted towards a young audience, Calvin and Hobbes invokes philosophical themes that are complex and often reserved for higher learning. Although it might sound absurd, there are significant messages of Aristotelian morality found in the stories. On the topic of morality, Aristotle says, “Excellence [of character], then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect” (Nicomachean Ethics). This passage by Aristotle invokes common themes of classical western philosophy. By saying that character depends on making choices, he is invoking the classical view of nature. He believes that there is a certain sort of moral character that nature endows, and people must makes choices that line up with this natural morality. Such a sense of morality relies on moderation, another classical virtue.

Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 2)

One commentator praised Calvin and Hobbes as “our only popular explication of the moral philosophy of Aristotle” (Wilson). This is quite a significant statement to make about a children’s comic, but might not be without merit. Throughout Calvin and Hobbes, we see Aristotelian themes arises time and time again. First, there is the character of Calvin, marked by self-indulgence if nothing else. For example, in one scene Calvin tries to eat ten boxes of his favorite “Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs” cereal in one sitting so that he can collect all of the toys that are included in the boxes (Appendix 1). Rather than waiting to collect them over the course of a longer period, he decides that he needs to collect the toys as soon as possible. This impatient and self-indulging attitude is contradictory to the sort of moderation that Aristotle praises. Calvin’s tendencies are often chastised by his father, who frequently encourages him to build character. In one panel, Calvin’s father tells him to eat the dinner that he hates because “it will build character” (Appendix 2). Calvin’s father, through his frequent lectures on character, is trying to temper Calvin’s indulgences and provide him with moral instruction much in the style of Aristotle’s moderation. Whether or not Watterson had Aristotle in mind, it is clear that the lessons on character closely resembles the ancient philosophers sense of moral cultivation. This theme might even be similar to how children in general are supposed to develop a sense morality as they grow older and develop. Society seems to hold some general guidelines on how children should be raised to behave, such as the importance of sharing, so perhaps this implies underpinnings of a concept similar to Aristotle’s views on nature and morality.

Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 3)
Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 3)

While delving into Aristotle’s possible influence on Calvin and Hobbes might only be possible with an older audience, that does not mean that young children cannot appreciate the ethical implications of the stories. When confronted with the aforementioned example, children might ask whether they should sometimes do things that seem undesirable or unpleasant to them. They have probably encountered similar situations in life where a parent or other adult has told them they must behave in a certain way, even though it is not what they want to do. Eating some certain food for dinner, when they might prefer something else such as a sugar-filled cereal, seems like a situation that many children could encounter. The story might push them to wonder why they were supposed to eat a certain food and if the reasons given to them made sense. It also raises question of authority and when to listen to it.

Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 4-5)

The ethical dilemmas of the stories, however, go beyond questioning the food one should eat. In another panel, Calvin shows Hobbes that he caught a butterfly in a jar, to which Hobbes replies, “If people could put rainbows in zoos, they’d do it” (Appendix 3). After pondering the response for a moment, Calvin frees the butterfly. This panel raises implication about humans’ relationship to nature and other living things by making us question our moral responsibility to them. Are they moral objects that deserve some sense of justice, or are does morality end with humans? This example could make children consider the way that they treat animals and environment, and introduce ethical considerations into how they do it.

Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 6)
Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 6)

One of the most astounding things about the Calvin and Hobbes comics, is its juxtaposition of simple and complex presentation of philosophical concepts. During a walk in the woods, Calvin postulates “It’s a dog-eat-dog world, so I’ll do whatever I have to, and let others argue about whether it’s right or not. I don’t believe in ethics any more. As far as I’m concerned the ends justify the means” (Appendix 4, 5). This panel directly invokes the moral philosophy, or lack thereof, of Niccolo Machiavelli who is famous for saying that rulers should not consider traditional ethical concerns, and instead focus on the maintenance of their power (Machiavelli p. 62). This panel might not be as accessible to very young children, for the language used to present the problem is more complex and addresses the abstract ethical question directly instead of implying it through example. Still though, perhaps it could spur philosophical discussion among older children. One could think of many examples to illustrate Calvin’s point and help the children understand the ethical principles that he is considering.

The lessons of Calvin and Hobbes extend into other areas of philosophy as well. Standing outside and looking at stars one night, Calvin says, “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently,” and continues. “Well, when you look into infinity, you realize that there are more important things than what people do all day” (Appendix 6). There are many places one could take this panel in a philosophical discussion. There are moral dimensions to it–we might question whether we must really make moral considerations when are actions might be so insignificant. Is Calvin implying that nothing we do actually matters, or is he merely trying to help us understand their relative place in the universe? This exchange also invokes epistemological issues. What are the limits of our knowledge, if the universe is so incomprehensibly large? Although this panel contains fairly open-ended message, there is a lot of room to have a conversation with children about its possible implications.

Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 7)
Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 7)

The stories can also help children begin to confront questions of aesthetics. In one panel, as Calvin draws on the sidewalk, he says “People always make the mistake of thinking art is created for them. But really, art is a private language for sophisticates to congratulate themselves on their superiority to the rest of world” (Appendix 7). This presents question of subjectivity in art. Calvin seems to be implying that only the artist’s interpretation of a work is legitimate, and consumers do not have the capacity to judge art. When working with children, one might ask them to explain the way in which we should assign value to art. Is it a matter of personal preference? Or, is there one correct understanding of art or standard on which to judge it. Calvin again invokes these themes by comparing different forms of art when he states, “A painting. Moving. Spiritually enriching. Sublime. High art!” and continues, “The comic strip. Vapid. Juvenile. Commercial work. ‘Low’ art” (Appendix 8). Again, Calvin presents the argument that there is some objective standard on which to judge art. He reiterates his opinion that only art that meets his standard of sophistication is to be respected. This opinion prompts readers to ask whether it is correct, or if there could be value among different forms of art and even the lowly comic strip.

Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 8)
Calvin and Hobbes (Appendix 8)

Waterson’s stories of Calvin and Hobbes invoke many philosophical questions, that can be discussed with the comic’s young readers. While it is easy to read through the comics without stopping to consider the significance of their messages, it is worth unpacking the philosophical themes that are present throughout the stories. This paper has presented a small sample of what can be done in this area with the comics, and there is much more room to find uses for Calvin and Hobbes in philosophical discussions with children. One of the great things about the comics is that, depending on how one frames discussion, you could use them for philosophical discussion with varying age groups. Overall the comics present a wonderful opportunity to follow the character on their fun adventures, while taking something of significance away from each one.

Works Cited:
  1. Homiak, Marcia, “Moral Character”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/moral-character/>.
  2. Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, 2nd ed., The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  3. Wilson, James. “’CALVIN AND HOBBES’ AND THE MORAL SENSE.” The Weekly Standard, 17 Dec. 1995, www.weeklystandard.com/james-q-wilson/calvin-and-hobbes-and-the-moral-sense.
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