Did you know, student of dead white philosophers, that Heidegger was a “boozy beggar”? Wittgenstein a “beery swine” and Descartes a “drunken fart”? What about Plato, who, “they say, could stick it away; Half a crate of whiskey every day”? Neither did I until I saw members of Monty Python sing “The Philosopher’s Song,” above, from their 1982 live show at the Hollywood Bowl. Eric Idle, in what looks like an Australian bush hat strung with teabags, introduces the number, saying it’s “a nice intellectual song for those two or three of you in the audience who understand these things.” Then Idle, joined by Michael Palin and frequent Python collaborator Neil Innes, launches into a paean to drinking that colorfully calls the great philosophers crazed dipsomaniacs. Well, all but John Stuart Mill, who got “particularly ill” from “half a pint of shandy.”
It’s all nonsense, right? Maybe so, but the Pythons were no strangers to philosophy. Having assembled from the august bodies of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, they perpetually revisited academic themes, if only to mock them. And yet some philosophers take the work of Monty Python very seriously. In his Monty Python and Philosophy: Nudge, Nudge, Think Think!, Philosophy Professor Gary Hardcastle refers to an essay called “Tractatus Comedio-Philosophicus,” which “wants us to know that the only difference between Monty Python and academic philosophy is that philosophy isn’t funny.” So there you have it. Skip the years of penury and overwork and go directly to Youtube for your higher education in the classics from the Pythons. Then listen to Professor Hardcastle—in Open Court’s “Popular Culture and Philosophy” podcast above—expound at length on the philosophic virtues of Cleese, Idle, Palin, Gilliam, and Jones. And finally, a bonus: below watch Christopher Hitchens sing “The Philosopher’s Song” from memory in a 2009 interview.
The song grew out of an earlier Python setup known as “The Bruce Sketch” (below). The sketch is pretty dated—some moments certainly come off as more offensive than perhaps deemed at the time. (Our English readers will have to let us know if “pommy bastard” smarts.) Four Australian philosophy professors at the fictitious University of Woolamaloo, all of them named Bruce, welcome a new member, Michael Baldwin (whom they insist on calling “Bruce”). The Bruces seem a nice bunch of chaps until they start in on their rules, revealing a contemptuous obsession with keeping out the “poofters.” It’s perfectly in keeping with this assembly of amiable right-wing nationalists: The Bruces inform their English colleague that he may teach “the great socialist thinkers, provided he makes it clear that they were wrong,” and then they get a visit from a shuffling caricature of an Aboriginal servant (whom one mustn’t mistreat, state the rules, “if there’s anyone watching”). In addition to bigotry, Australia, politics and prayer, the Bruces, their new member learns, seem mostly concerned with drinking rather than philosophy. In my personal experience of some academic quarters, this is at least one part of the sketch that hasn’t aged at all.