Watch The Idea, the First Animated Film to Grapple with Big, Philosophical Ideas (1932)

A vague sense of disquiet settled over Europe in the period between World War I and World War II. As the slow burn of militant ultranationalism mingled with jingoist populism, authoritarian leaders and fascist factions found mounting support among a citizenry hungry for certainty. Europe’s growing trepidation fostered some of the 20th century’s most striking painterly, literary, and cinematic depictions of the totalitarianism that would soon follow. It was almost inevitable that this period would see the birth of the first deeply philosophical animated film, known as The Idea.

The Idea first emerged as a wordless novel in 1920, drawn by Frans Masereel. Masereel, a close friend of Dadaist and New Objectivist artist George Grosz, had created a stark, black-and-white story about the indomitable nature of ideas. Employing thick, aggressive lines obtained through woodcut printing, Masereel depicted a conservative political order’s fight against the birth of a new idea, which eventually flourished in spite of the establishment’s relentless attempts to suppress it.




Setting to work in 1930, a Czech film-maker named Berthold Bartosch spent two years animating The Idea. Bartosch’s visual style remained true to Masereel’s harsh, vivid lines. His version of the story, however, took a decidedly bleaker turn—one that was more reminiscent of the writings of his compatriot, Franz Kafka. Whereas Masereel believed that the purity of good ideas would overwhelm their opposition, Bartosch, working a decade closer to the Nazis' ascendancy, was wary of such idealism.

Above, you can watch what film historian William Moritz has called "the first animated film created as an artwork with serious, even tragic, social and philosophical themes." Paired with a haunting score composed by Arthur Honegger, the 25-minute animation is a powerfully moving meditation on art, struggle, purity of thought, and populist savagery that remains untarnished after eight decades.

You can find other great animations in our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

Note: This post originally appeared on our site in November, 2013. It was written by Ilia Blinderman. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

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An Animated Introduction to Michel de Montaigne

Considered the first great humanist essayist, Michel de Montaigne was also the first to use the word “essay” for the casual, often meandering, frequently first-person explorations that now constitute the most prevalent literary form of our day. "Anyone who sets out to write an essay,” notes Anthony Gottlieb in The New York Times, “for a school or college class,” a magazine, newspaper, Tumblr, or otherwise, “owes something” to Montaigne, the French “magistrate and landowner near Bordeaux who retired temporarily from public life in 1570 to spend more time with his library and to make a modest memento of his mind.”

Montaigne's resulting book, called the Essais—"trials” or “attempts”—exemplifies the classical and Christian preoccupations of the Renaissance; he dwelt intently on questions of character and virtue, both individual and civic, and he constantly refers to ancient authorities, the companions of his book-lined fortress of solitude. “Somewhat like a link-infested blog post,” writes Gottlieb, “Montaigne’s writing is dripping with quotations.” But he was also a distinctly modern writer, who skewered the overconfidence and blind idealism of ancients and contemporaries alike, and looked with amusement on faith in reason and progress.




For all his considerable erudition, Montaigne was “keen to debunk the pretensions of learning,” says Alain de Botton in his introductory School of Life video above. An “extremely funny” writer, he shares with countryman François Rabelais a satirist's delight in the vulgar and taboo and an honest appraisal of humanity’s checkered relationship with the good life. Though we may call Montaigne a moralist, the description should not imply that he was strictly orthodox in any way—quite the contrary.

Montaigne’s ethics often defy the dogma of both the Romans and the Christians. He strenuously opposed colonization, for example, and made a sensible case for cannibalism as no more barbarous a practice than those engaged in by 16th century Europeans.

In a contrarian essay, “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”—its title a quotation from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations—Montaigne threads the needle between memento mori high seriousness and offhand witticism, writing, “Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure. It amuses me to rattle in their ears this word, which they so nauseate to hear.” But in the next sentence, he avows that we derive pleasure “more due to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance whatever.”

The greatest benefit of practicing virtue, as Cicero recommends, is "the contempt of death," which frees us to live fully. Montaigne attacks the modern fear and denial of death as a paralyzing attitude. Instead, “we should always, as near as we can, be booted and spurred, and ready to go,” he breezily suggests. “The deadest deaths are the best.... I want death to find me planting cabbages." The irreverence he brought to the gravest of subjects—making, for example, a list of sudden and ridiculous deaths of famous people—serves not only to entertain but to edify, as de Botton argues above in an episode of his series “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness.”

Montaigne “seemed to understand what makes us feel bad about ourselves, and in his book tries to make us feel better." He endeavors to show, as he wrote in his first essay, "that men by various means arrive at the same end." Like later first-person philosophical essayists Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Montaigne addresses our feelings of inadequacy by reminding his readers how thoroughly we are governed by the same irrational passions, and subject to the same fears, conceits, and ailments. There is much wisdom and comfort to be found in Montaigne’s essays. Yet he is beloved not only for what he says, but for how he says it—with a style that makes him seem like an eloquent, brilliant, practical, and self-deprecatingly sympathetic friend.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Existential Philosophy of Cowboy Bebop, the Cult Japanese Anime Series, Explored in a Thoughtful Video Essay

Super Dimension Fortress MacrossMobile Suit Gundam WingNeon Genesis Evangelion — these are the kind of titles that might ring a bell even if you have no particular interest in futuristic Japanese animated television shows. But how about Cowboy Bebop? That evocatively Western name itself, not an awkward English translation of a Japanese title but English in the original, hints that the series stands apart from all the dimension fortresses, mobile suits, and neon geneses out there. And indeed, when it first aired in 1997, viewers the world over took quick note of the distinctive sensibility of its stories of a shipful of bounty hunters drifting through outer space in the year 2071.

"On paper, Cowboy Bebop, the legendary cult anime series from Shinichirō Watanabe" — recently director of one of Blade Runner 2049's short prequels — "reads like something John Wayne, Elmore Leonard, and Philip K. Dick came up with during a wild, all-night whiskey bender." So writes the Atlantic's Alex Suskind in a piece on the show's lasting legacy. "Everyone speaks like they’re background extras in Chinatown. The show ultimately features so many cross-ranging influences and nods to other famous works it’s almost impossible to keep track. It’s Sergio Leone in a spacesuit. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with automatic weapons."




And yet Cowboy Bebop remains, thoroughly, a work of Japanese imagination, and like many of the most respected of the form, it has serious philosophical inclinations. Channel Criswell creator Lewis Bond examines those in "The Meaning of Nothing," his video essay on the series. "Can we as humans find something in nothing, find purpose beyond survival?" Bond asks. "These ontological thoughts that plague us make up the same existential drift our characters repeatedly find themselves in, and it's what is most significant to the journey of Cowboy Bebop." He looks past the cooler-than-cool style, snappy dialogue, witty gags, and rich, unexpected mixture of aesthetic influences to which fans have thrilled to find "a metaphysical expression of how people overcome their lives, particularly the lingering grief that comes with them."

Taken as a whole, the show resolves into a presentation of life as "less of a linear path towards a goal, more of a haze that we must venture through without any guidance, because the sad reality of Bebop's story is that our cast of characters are lost in the cosmos without any justification for why they live, other than to exist." The series came to a famously ambiguous end after 26 episodes, but this past summer we heard that it may return, rebooted as a live-action series. Whatever its medium, the world of Cowboy Bebop — with its spacecraft, its interplanetary cops and robbers, and its superintelligent corgi — amounts to nothing less than the human condition, a place we have no choice but to revisit. Might as well do it in style.

The complete Cowboy Bebop series can be bought on blu-ray, or if you're a subscriber, you can watch the episodes on Hulu.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Philosophical Appreciation of Rocks in China & Japan: A Short Introduction to an Ancient Tradition

In addition to summing up Socrates and his European heirs, Alain de Botton has also applied his five-minute animated video approach to the very basics of Eastern philosophy. While offering its introductory surveys, the series may hopefully spur viewers on to greater appreciation of, for example, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Japanese Zen master Sen no Rikyu, who refined the tea ceremony as a meticulous meditative ritual. Rikyu’s practice shows us how much philosophical and religious traditions (often a distinction without a difference) in Japan and China engage rigorously with everyday objects and routines as often as they do with texts and lectures.

Yesterday, we brought you several short explanations of one such practice, Kintsugi, the wabi sabi art of “finding beauty in broken things” by turning cracked and broken pottery into gilded, beautifully flawed vessels. Several hundred years earlier, in 826 AD, renowned Tang Dynasty poet and civil servant Bai Juyi discovered a pair of oddly shaped rocks that captivated his attention. Taking them home to his study, he then wrote a poem about them, influenced by Daoism’s reverence for the forces of nature and inspired by the hard evidence such forces carved into the rocks. Like the broken pottery of Japan’s Kintsugi, Bai’s rocks come in part to symbolize human frailty. In this case, he casts the rocks as friends in his lonely old age, asking them, “Can you keep company with an old man like myself?”




After Bai Juyi, aesthetic meditations on the beauty of rock formations became highly popular and quickly refined into “four principal criteria,” writes the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “thinness (shou), openness (tou), perforations (lou), and wrinkling (zhou).” The found artifacts are often known as “scholar’s rocks”—a mistranslation, de Botton says, of a term meaning “spirit stones”—and are chosen for their natural wildness, as well as shaped by human hands. They were placed in gardens and studies, and “became a favorite and enduring pictorial genre.” During the early Song dynasty, such stones were “constant sources of inspiration,” and were “valued quite as highly as any painting or calligraphic scroll.”

So highly-prized were these objects, in fact, that they appear to “have hastened the collapse of the Northern Song Empire,” through a mania not unlike that which drove the tulip craze in the 17th century Netherlands. As did many Chinese cultural traditions—including Zen Buddhism—the love of rocks crossed over into Japan, where it was adapted “in a particularly Japanese way” in the 15th century, inspiring the “subdued, smooth,” minimalist rock gardens we’re likely familiar with, if only through their consumer novelty versions.

As per usual, de Botton imbues his lesson with a takeaway moral: rock reverence teaches us that “wisdom can hang off bits of the natural world just as well as issuing from books.” We may also see the love of rocks as a kind of anti-consumerist practice, in which we shift the attention we typically lavish on disposable objects destined for landfills, trashheaps, and plastic-littered oceans, and instead apply it to beautiful bits of the natural world, which require few investments of labor or capital to enrich our lives, and can be found right outside our doors, if we’re careful and attentive enough to see them.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Alan Watts Explains the Meaning of the Tao, with the Help of the Greatest Nancy Panel Ever Drawn

A Nancy panel is an irreducible concept, an atom, and the comic strip is a molecule. - comics theorist Scott McCloud

A little over ten years ago, cartoonist Jim Woodring isolated a single image from Ernie Bushmiller’s long-running and deeply polarizing Nancy comic strip, celebrating it on his blog, the Woodring Monitor, as "the greatest Nancy panel ever drawn.”

What makes this panel the greatest? Woodring declined to elaborate, though his readers eagerly shared theories—and some befuddlement—in the comments section:

Sluggo has reached the perfect state of no-effort, the satori-like denial of the "small mind" and all of the suffering that comes with it.

… it's the comic equivalent of a koan—something designed to tie our rational mind in knots so that we can glimpse enlightenment.

Sluggo smiles because he knows a secret. He says no because he rejects consensus reality. He floats along because he doesn’t fight life—he sees the maintenance of the harmony and is one with that harmony. He knows all paths lead away from home. Instead he goes within and knows freedom.

"I am content. I need nothing, I will do nothing, I am fine as I am.”

Another fan, Glyph Jockey’s Lex 10, took it one step further, removing the speech bubble before taking Sluggo on an animated trip through the cosmos, narrated by philosopher Alan Watts:

In the state of being in accordance with the Tao, there is a certain feeling of weightlessness, parallel to the weightlessness that people feel when they get into outer space or when they go deep into the ocean.

Gabby Pahinui's “Pu’uanahulu” and Ramayana imagery bestow added hypnotic appeal.




Revisit this strange little animated gem the next time your head's about to explode from stress. Don’t question or get too hung up on meanings, just go with the flow, like Sluggo and Watts.

Could other Nancy panels serve as vehicles for Taoist enlightenment? Mayhaps:

Bushmiller’s strong point was never the content of his comic strip's jokey plots—a friend once described him as 'a moron on an acid trip.' In fact, the gags were even simpler than was necessary for a 'children's' strip. That's because they were just a vehicle for the controlled and brilliant manipulation of repetition and variety that gave the strip its unique visual rhythm and composition. Bushmiller choreographed his familiar formal elements inside the tightest frame of any major strip, and that helped make it the most beautiful, as a whole, of any in the papers.” - Tom Smucker, The Village Voice, 1982

Recently, Bushmiller’s Nancy has been enjoying a renaissance. The strip that many casual readers of the funny pages dismissed as boring or dumb is revered by many celebrated cartoonists, including Bill Griffith, Daniel Clowes, and Art Spiegelman.

This month sees the publication of Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden’s How to Read Nancy, a book length analysis of one single strip, which also functions as a how-to and history of the comic medium. This hotly anticipated volume has in turn given rise to a lively online How To Read Nancy Reading Group, a hotbed of fan art, altered panels, and Nancy strips from around the world.

Invite your pals over to play comic theorist Scott McCloud’s Dadaist game Five Card Nancy or take the online version for a solo spin.

And for those who require context, here is the original strip from which the floating Sluggo panel is drawn.

Apparently the key to the Tao is a plastic hammock…

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hugh Hefner (RIP) Defends “the Playboy Philosophy” to William F. Buckley, 1966

"Mr. Hefner's magazine is most widely known for its total exposure of the human female," says William F. Buckley, introducing the guest on this 1966 broadcast of his talk show Firing Line. "Though of course other things happen in its pages." Not long before, publisher and pleasure empire-builder Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine ran a series of articles on "the Playboy philosophy," a set of observations of and propositions about human sexuality that provided these men fodder for their televised debate. Hefner stands against religiously mandated, chastity-centered codes of sexual morality; Buckley demands to know how Hefner earned the qualifications to issue new codes of his own. Describing the Playboy philosophy as "sort of a hedonistic utilitarianism," Buckley tries simultaneously to understand and demolish these 20th-century revisions of the rules of sex.

"The Playboy founder is no match for the Catholic who snipes him at will with 'moral' bullets," writes the poster of the video. "The acerbic, dry Buckley is on attack mode with a conservative audience, in moral panic, behind him. The Catholic had the era of conservatism behind him. [ ... ] In the 21st century though, Buckley would have a harder time defending morality with Hefner." One wonders how Buckley and Hefner, were they still alive today, might revisit this debate in 2017. (Buckley died in 2008, and Hefner passed away yesterday at the age of 91.) Times have certainly changed, but I suspect Buckley would raise the same core objection to Hefner's argument that loosening the old strictures on sex leads, perhaps counterintuitively, to more satisfied, more monogamous pairings: "How in the hell do you know?" Though this and certain other of Buckley's questions occasionally wrong-foot Hefner, the faithful can rest assured that he keeps enough cool to fire up his signature pipe on camera.

Note: This post first appeared on our site back in 2012. We brought it back today for obvious reasons, and updated it to reflect Hefner's passing. Since 2012, a huge archive of "Firing Line" episodes have been put online. Get more on that here.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

How Can We Know What is True? And What Is BS? Tips from Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman & Michael Shermer

Science denialism may be a deeply entrenched and enormously damaging political phenomenon. But it is not a wholly practical one, or we would see many more people abandon medical science, air travel, computer technology, etc. Most of us tacitly agree that we know certain truths about the world—gravitational force, navigational technology, the germ theory of disease, for example. How do we acquire such knowledge, and how do we use the same method to test and evaluate the many new claims we're bombarded with daily?

The problem, many professional skeptics would say, is that we’re largely unaware of the epistemic criteria for our thinking. We believe some ideas and doubt others for a host of reasons, many of them having nothing to do with standards of reason and evidence scientists strive towards. Many professional skeptics even have the humility to admit that skeptics can be as prone to irrationality and cognitive biases as anyone else.




Carl Sagan had a good deal of patience with unreason, at least in his writing and television work, which exhibits so much rhetorical brilliance and depth of feeling that he might have been a poet in another life. His style and personality made him a very effective science communicator. But what he called his “Baloney Detection Kit,” a set of “tools for skeptical thinking,” is not at all unique to him. Sagan’s principles agree with those of all proponents of logic and the scientific method. You can read just a few of his prescriptions below, and a full unabridged list here.

Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives.

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.

Another skeptic, founder and editor of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer, surrounds his epistemology with a sympathetic neuroscience frame. We’re all prone to “believing weird things,” as he puts it in his book Why People Believe Weird Things and his short video above, where he introduces, following Sagan, his own “Baloney Detection Kit.” The human brain, he explains, evolved to see patterns everywhere as a matter of survival. All of our brains do it, and we all get a lot of false positives.

Many of those false positives become widespread cultural beliefs. Shermer himself has been accused of insensitive cultural bias (evident in the beginning of his video), intellectual arrogance, and worse. But he admits up front that scientific thinking should transcend individual personalities, including his own. “You shouldn’t believe anybody based on authority or whatever position they might have,” he says. “You should check it out yourself.”

Some of the ways to do so when we encounter new ideas involve asking “How reliable is the source of the claim?” and “Have the claims been verified by somebody else?” Returning to Sagan’s work, Shermer offers an example of contrasting scientific and pseudoscientific approaches—the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and UFO believers. The latter, he says, uncritically seek out confirmation for their beliefs, where the scientists at SETI rigorously try to disprove hypotheses in order to rule out false claims.

Yet it remains the case that many people—and not all of them in good faith—think they’re using science when they aren’t. Another popular science communicator, physicist Richard Feynman, recommended one method for testing whether we really understand a concept or whether we’re just repeating something that sounds smart but makes no logical sense, what Feynman calls “a mystic formula for answering questions.” Can a concept be explained in plain English, without any technical jargon? Can we ask questions about it and make direct observations that confirm or disconfirm its claims?

Feynman was especially sensitive to what he called “intellectual tyranny in the name of science.” And he recognized that turning forms of knowing into empty rituals resulted in pseudoscientific thinking. In a wonderfully rambling, informal, and autobiographical speech he gave in 1966 to a meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, Feynman concluded that thinking scientifically as a practice requires skepticism of science as an institution.

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” says Feynman. “If they say to you, ‘Science has shown such and such,’ you might ask, ‘How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?’” Asking such questions does not mean we should reject scientific conclusions because they conflict with cherished beliefs, but rather that we shouldn't take even scientific claims on faith.

For elaboration on Shermer, Sagan and Feynman's approaches to telling good scientific thinking from bad, read these articles in our archive:

Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detection Kit”: 8 Tools for Skeptical Thinking

Richard Feynman Creates a Simple Method for Telling Science From Pseudoscience (1966)

Richard Feynman’s “Notebook Technique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: What to Ask Before Believing

 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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