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Calvin and Hobbes: An Introduction to Free Thought

Limiting philosophical inquiry to scholarly discourse renders the average person incapable of reflecting at a higher level. When it comes to thinking freely, academic expertise is irrelevant because being capable is enough; rather, the cognitive flexibility of inexperience equips individuals with clarity. This serves as the premise of one of the most influential works of modern pop literature — a comic strip about a six-year-old boy and his stuffed-toy tiger.

American cartoonist Bill Watterson is rarely credited with domesticating philosophy through the Calvin and Hobbes comics. Whereas his creative output spanned only a decade, his illustrations continue to find their way into households to this day. What makes this entity particularly compelling is that humor is only a fragment of its grander design. When taken as a whole, the comics bring forth a radical set of ideas in that free thought is the impetus for majority of its dialogue, but this takes time to piece together since it is most commonly circulated in small doses, namely periodical publications and social media posts. Watterson’s brilliance is marked by how he plants the seeds for curiosity by using a medium popular among young readers. This is why children who start reading Calvin and Hobbes from an early age grow into it, not out of it.

When writers use slapstick comedy as a vessel to shape their observations, they tend to attract younger audiences — children are drawn in by such humor because it’s within their reach. The rich animation of Calvin and Hobbes is what initially entices young readers, but it also encourages maturity because they’re tempted to broaden their understanding in order to fully appreciate the comic. With time, they’re able to merge the imagery with a deeper reading of the text, in turn gaining twice as much from it than before. Till that happens, the cartoons suffice.

Philosophy's reach is constrained by dryness in presentation. This might be why people tend to think it requires a level of proficiency to engage with. Calvin and Hobbes is accessible to a wide range of readers largely due to the simplicity of its quirky narratives. There are roughly ten characters that appear in more than one storyline, of which only five are critical to the core dynamic. At the center of this universe is Calvin, an elementary school kid set on resisting any limitations that pose the threat of boredom. Named after the sixteenth-century theologian, John Calvin, his imagination adorns an environment he is frequently disappointed by. Calvin the theologian was a proponent of predestination: the idea that God’s will administers the fate of human beings, beginning to end. This has an underlying influence on the protagonist’s point of view, yet it fails to affect his actions in any way. In fact, he actively refuses to submit to a higher power and routinely defies boundaries to test the extent of his own authority. His inability to manipulate his surroundings does sometimes break his spirit, as seen in his diatribes against the forces that endanger his freedom. Whether or not Calvin actually believes in a god is unclear, though Watterson often implies that the overseer of human affairs, if real, is most likely indifferent toward his creations.

Calvin’s experiments with free will oftentimes put him at odds with nature, demonstrating how overwhelming it can be for any one person to take on the world alone — companionship almost seems necessary for someone as physically and mentally restless as him. The twist, of course, is that he is his own best friend. Hobbes, the stuffed tiger, is brought to life by his imagination in an attempt to make rationality a little more exciting. Though Hobbes seldom convinces Calvin from acting on the wrong impulse, his presence instills a necessary sense of balance that counters his friend’s lack of restraint. Hobbes is based on the seventeenth-century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, best known for weighing out the effects of an organized society on people and the implications of its absence. This explains Hobbes' “dim view of human nature,” as described by Watterson himself. He embodies awareness, which provides Calvin with an upsetting perspective on the state of worldly affairs. As an "animal," Hobbes acts as a link between human nature and nature as a whole. This is precisely why Calvin, despite being a champion troublemaker, is so cognizant of how nature pays the price for the furtherance of mankind. Through Hobbes, he is able to observe and critique the patterns of humans, which is primarily what makes him skeptical of those in charge. Calvin’s rebellion is a product of the realization that grown-ups and those running the world are, for the most part, clueless themselves.

Adults who don’t teach their little ones to disagree with them probably see Calvin as a bad influence. His Mom and Dad (which is what we know them as) are incredibly supportive of their son’s creativity despite how exhausting it gets for them. Instead of dismissing his relationship with Hobbes as delusional, they are sensitive to how their child copes with his environment by treating it like a canvas. It's truly commendable how much Calvin manages to gain from a bundle of cotton — his favorite toy is also his best friend and pet animal. If you look past the “craziness,” he actually channels his fidgety curiosity in the healthiest possible way. Though Calvin generally ends up scandalizing those around him, his parents make an effort to play the “because I said so” card sparingly, careful not to silence his inventiveness.

The last person in Calvin’s immediate circle is his classmate and neighbor, Susie Derkins. With her outstanding grades and wary obedience, she possesses all the qualities that Calvin lacks. Their chemistry demonstrates the differences between formal and informal intelligence, highlighting how absurd human behavior seems when unmoved by expectations. Though they are polar opposites, one can’t help but root for Susie to be the one to replace Hobbes as the balancing factor in Calvin’s life as he grows older. Their relationship, in a lot of ways, is very similar to that of Calvin’s parents.

Like most grown-ups, Calvin’s parents have to improvise adulthood and parenthood simultaneously. Mom comes across as a little more mature than her husband, who struggles with a monotonous nine-to-five office job that represents the worst side of growing up. His childlike tendencies begin to show as he frequently pulls Calvin’s leg, confusing him with misleading explanations for his own amusement. In these situations, Mom usually steps in as the responsible parent, similar to how Susie has to sometimes bring her son back to Earth. Actually, Calvin and his dad have a lot in common — a creative sense of humor as well as a fondness for the outdoors — but their contrasting responsibilities set them apart. At times, it even pits them against each other since Calvin is adamantly suspicions of having his interests align with those who impose discipline on him. That is why he enjoys being outside only when it isn’t being pushed on him as an exercise that "builds character."

Unlike most kids, Calvin recognizes adulthood as being boring and stressful, though he is occasionally charmed by its flexibility. His distrust of social order, however, makes one wonder whether children like him ever fully adjust to the world around them.

Ideally, the world should adjust to them.

Calvin is a well-intentioned nuisance to the fabric held together by his parents, teachers, peers etc., but that is only because they’re unable to keep up with a mind that’s constantly shifting gears.

Calvin and Hobbes isn’t a resource for knowledge because it focuses largely on giving conventional viewpoints an alternate angle — its main lessons are the importance of exercising the mind, emphasizing the fun we can have in doing so. To that point, Bill Watterson uses a child to convey that limited knowledge is an incentive to think more, because you don't have to be a genius to reach your own conclusions.


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