The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy

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Steven Nadler, Ben Nadler
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , June
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler’s Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy opens with a dark recounting of Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno’s immolation at the hands of the Roman Inquisition, which is explained in a splash page with captions. Thus begins the tale Nadler and Nadler weave through their graphic novel, telling the story of the birth of modern European philosophy. It is also the story of the disentangling of theology and philosophy, though this aspect of 17th century philosophical history is not explicitly addressed. Ultimately, despite its Eurocentric focus, Heretics! is an easy, fun read that is deceptively replete with historical detail and philosophy.

Heretics! traces a chronological course through 17th century European philosophy, using periodic splash pages to set the date and location for the reader. These are followed by vignettes about individual philosophers told through multiple full color panels with captions and speech bubbles, usually over several pages. For instance, Steven Nadler’s explanation of René Descartes’s first essay in Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) encapsulates Descartes’s thoughts about a “malevolent creator” into pithy speech bubbles accompanying Ben Nadler’s visualization of such a creature. In one tier, it is the familiar outline of a demon or devil with horns and surrounded by flames; in another tier, it is a dirty-looking handyman or artist, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, wearing a trucker cap with horns (27). Nadler and Nadler infuse humor into both the text and the images of the book, with none of the jokes stretching too far above the head of the average layperson’s grasp of history and philosophy. The images capture each philosopher uniquely, but also function as good-natured caricatures of them, which adds to the overall humor of the text. The art is relatively flat, but with good detail. This is clearly a book written for a broad, popular audience.

Traversing through the work of Thomas Hobbes, Baruch de Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz, Lady Anne Conway, Nicolas Malebranche, and John Locke, among others, Heretics! is at its best when it simplifies complex philosophical ideas for its audience. One understands Leibniz’s monadology better if one first understands Spinoza’s pantheism. Likewise, Nadler and Nadler make connections between these philosophers’ metaphysics—their views about the nature of reality—and their social and political philosophies. For instance, the authors draw a direct line between Spinoza’s pantheism (the belief that all in nature is part of the only real substance, God), and his ethics, which are rooted in reason (the mind) over emotions, and which lead him to emphasize freedom of thought and rejection of religious rituals in society. Aside from individual “chapters” on specific thinkers, the authors craft a trajectory of early modern thought that follows the thread of social, scientific, political, religious, and philosophical change that makes modern philosophy possible. Here, Nadler and Nadler outline the growing separation between religious and political authority in Europe at the close of their book through the figure of Voltaire (François-Marie Avouet), whose panels emphasize the contingency of philosophy’s legacy as based on time and location. Had Isaac Newton, Locke, or Leibniz lived in a different locale or time, they would have most likely suffered the same persecutorial fate as Galileo or Copernicus (177-79). The crux of the story Nadler and Nadler weave is a claim familiar to scholars of the early modern era: changes in social, religious, and political institutions during this period effected profound change at the level of Europeans’ fundamental orientation to the universe.

While the authors’ explanations of various philosophies and their overarching historical claims are relatively straightforward and uncontested, there are a few things lacking in this text. First, while Nadler and Nadler do right by including Conway’s philosophy as formative for Leibniz’s thought, they do not give her philosophy much space—only granting it a total of four pages—or explain how she was able to refute Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza despite stating that she did (104). Between Conway and Elisabeth of Bohemia, the other female philosopher Nadler and Nadler mention, whose correspondence with Descartes was similarly influential on Cartesian thought, Heretics! falls prey to the “add women and stir” method of inclusionary scholarship, where their presence in the graphic novel feels more tokenizing than empowering. 

A second aspect lacking from the book is a clearer and more direct statement that this is the tale of modern Western philosophy. Although it obviously focuses entirely on the predominantly white European philosophers included in the Western canon, the very subtitle of the book (“The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy”) claims a universality that is not possible. Of course, this may be more indicative of the state of the discipline of philosophy than it is of this particular book. However, even if the purview of the book was to focus on canonical figures, the introduction’s mention of “European history” while only ever referring to the book’s philosophy as “philosophy” (and not “European philosophy”) potentially suggests a common view held within contemporary philosophical circles that “philosophy” is synonymous with “Western philosophy.” Finally, there are places in the book where a more nuanced understanding of religion might have been helpful, as the authors do not comment on how theological distinctions (such as between Protestants and Catholics) may have affected the philosophers and philosophies they describe.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Heretics! is an enjoyable book that makes philosophy accessible to a broad audience, whatever their background and interest might be. While some may conclude it is not challenging enough for use in the college classroom, others may find that it is a useful introduction to the early modern era in European philosophy. Overall, Nadler and Nadler have been successful at bringing philosophy to comics and comics to philosophy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kirsten Gerdes is Assistant Professor of Humaniities & Philosophy at Riverside City College.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt's Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Madison.

Ben Nadler is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and an illustrator. He lives in Chicago.


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