The Moral Philosophy of Calvin and Hobbes

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Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes is one of the most widely revered comic strips of all time. Why?

You could pin Calvin and Hobbes' success to its humor, its artwork, its creativity, or – probably the most frequent commendation – its capacity to speak to the kid inside readers of all ages. Over at The Wall Street Journal, Christopher Caldwell takes a more metaphysical tack, attributing the comic's sweeping impact to its subtle philosophical profundity:

It is [Calvin's] dreams that are the real subject of the strips: the city of Stupidopolis that Calvin builds out of sand castles and destroys, the Transmogrifier (actually a cardboard box) that will turn him into a tiger like Hobbes, the efforts of Stupendous Man to duck schoolwork and of Spaceman Spiff ("poised precariously over a percolating pit of putrid pasta") to avoid the inedible meals that Calvin's mother serves. (Calvin's own preference is for a breakfast cereal called Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs.)

From these situations emerges a social and a philosophical vision, unsystematic but nonetheless profound. The late political scientist James Q. Wilson described "Calvin and Hobbes" as "our only popular explication of the moral philosophy of Aristotle." Wilson meant that the social order is founded on self-control and delayed gratification—and that Calvin is hopeless at these things. Calvin thinks that "life should be more like TV" and that he is "destined for greatness" whether he does his homework or not. His favorite sport is "Calvinball," in which he is entitled to make up the rules as he goes along.

Day-in, day-out, Calvin keeps running into evidence that the world isn't built to his (and our) specifications. All humor is, in one way or another, about our resistance to that evidence.


More at the WSJ. H/t David Dobbs.