The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand: South Park and Libertarian Philosophy

Interesting essay on on the subject of South Park and Libertarian philosophy:

It’s all too easy to become fixated on the vulgar and obscene surface of South Park, rejecting out of hand a show that chose to make a Christmas icon out of a talking turd named Mr. Hankey. But if one is patient with South Park, and gives the show the benefit of the doubt, it turns out to be genuinely thought provoking, taking up one serious issue after another, from environmentalism and animal rights to assisted suicide and sexual harassment. And, as we shall see, the show approaches all these issues from a distinct philosophical position, what is known as libertarianism, the philosophy of freedom. I know of no television program that has so consistently pursued a philosophical agenda, week after week, season after season. If anything, the show can become too didactic, with episodes often culminating in a character delivering a speech that offers a surprisingly balanced and nuanced account of the issue at hand.

Plato’s Symposium is useful for showing that vulgarity and philosophical thought are not necessarily antithetical. Before dismissing South Park, we should recall that some of the greatest comic writers – Aristophanes, Chaucer, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift – plumbed the depths of obscenity even as they rose to the heights of philosophical thought. The same intellectual courage that emboldened them to defy conventional proprieties empowered them to reject conventional ideas and break through the intellectual frontiers of their day. Without claiming that South Park deserves to rank with such distinguished predecessors, I will say that the show descends from a long tradition of comedy that ever since ancient Athens has combined obscenity with philosophy. There are almost as many fart jokes in Aristophanes’ play The Clouds as there are in a typical episode of The Terrance and Philip Show in South Park. In fact, in the earliest dramatic representation of Socrates that has come down to us, he is making fart jokes as he tries to explain to a dumb Athenian named Strepsiades that thunder is a purely natural phenomenon and not the work of the great god Zeus: “First think of the tiny fart that your intestines make. Then consider the heavens: their infinite farting is thunder. For thunder and farting are, in principle, one and the same.” Cartman couldn’t have said it better.

About Kevin

Kevin Jarnot is a technologist who lives just South of Boston, MA. He is currently employed as Chief Technology Officer at Micronotes, an AI-driven conversation-marketing company based in Boston, MA.
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