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N. 53, September 2004

Monty Python's guide to philosophy

Secular humanists are often accused of not espousing a “positive” philosophy, of simply denying the existence of the supernatural while resigning themselves to a meaningless and joyless life. Indeed, I was once a guest on a radio talk show together with Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer, when the host incredulously observed that we seemed to be pretty happy people “for being skeptics.” I don’t know where this stereotype comes from, other than the deeply entrenched prejudices of people who think that there is meaning in life only if somebody up there shows a keen interest in the details of their sexual practices. But I know how to once and for all debunk the myth: let us briefly examine the obviously humanistic philosophy embodied in the work of one of the most happy-going groups of people I’ve ever come across, the British comedians collectively known as “Monty Python” (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin). My analysis will be confined for the moment to the Monty Python (henceforth, MP) songs, leaving a detailed study of their movies and TV productions to a more appropriately academic venue.

Every philsophical analysis needs to start with good questions, and MP does just that in the appropriately titled The Meaning of Life (from the homonymous movie):

    “Why are we here? What’s life all about?
    Is God really real, or is there some doubt?”

And as any good philosopher would do, MP does not provide us with simplistic, canned, answers, but rather with alternatives to seriously ponder:

    “Is life just a game where we make up the rules ...
    Or are we just spiraling coils,
    of self-replicating DNA?”

Which shows an understanding of both the problem of relativism in morality and of Richard Dawkins’ concept of the selfish gene.

Monty Python does appreciate alternative, even religious, viewpoints, as we can evince from several passages of Every Sperm is Sacred (from the movie “The Meaning of Life”):

    “I’m a Roman Catholic,
    and have been since before I was born
    And the one thing they say about Catholics,
    is they’ll take you as soon as you’re warm ...
    You don’t have to have a great brain ...
    You’re a Catholic the moment Dad came.”

Which implies a view of sex that one can find developed at length in several Encyclicals by various Popes, or can be clearly summarized in MP’s system as:

    “Every sperm is sacred
    every sperm is great
    If a sperm is wasted
    God gets quite irate.”

However, one could argue, make fun of God all you like, but in the end isn’t it rather obvious that He is responsible for the beauty of creation, arguably one of the most important things that give meaning to our life? This is, of course, the well known argument from design, presented at length, for example, by William Paley in his 1831 book, Natural theology: or, Evidences of the existence and attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature. Naturally, David Hume had already debunked the argument in his 1779 volume, Dialogues concerning natural religion. Hume, pointed out that one needs to consider not just the good stuff that God allegedly made, but also the rest. Which MP summarizes very eloquently (and in a lot fewer words than Hume) in All Things Dull & Ugly:

    “All things sick and cancerous,
    all evil great and small,
    alla things foul and dangerous,
    the Lord God made them all.”

Never was the argument from evil against the existence of God more aptly presented. But MP does not limit itself to what Francis Bacon called the pars destruens of their philosophy. They go on with a pars construens by elaborating an alternative viewpoint based on what one could think of as the cosmic perspective. Consider, for example, the Galaxy Song (from “The Meaning of Life”):

    “Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown ...
    Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
    and revolving at 900 miles an hour ...
    In an outer spiral arm, at 40,000 miles an hour
    of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.”

But why -- you may ask --  would astronomy matter to our sense of everyday life? Obviously, because it helps to:

    “... remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure
    how amazingly unlikely is your birth.”

Which doesn’t mean the cosmic perspective avoids scathing social criticism:

    “And pray that there’s intelligent
    life somewhere up in space
    Because there’s bugger all down
    here on Earth.”

Despite such apparently negative view of humanity, the optimistic character of Monty Python’s brand of secular humanism emerges most clearly in Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (from the movie “Life of Brian”). Consider, for example, the following exortation:

    “If life seems jolly rotten
    there’s something you’ve forgotten
    and that’s to laugh and smile
    and dance and sing.”

So much for humanists being a joyless bunch! And the song doesn’t lack deep philosophical forais, as in:

    “For life is quite absurd
    and death’s the final word ...
    Enjoy it -- it’s your last chance anyhow.”

Not to mention this quintessential, and rather mathematically accurate, summary of human life:

    “I mean -- what have you got to lose?
    You know, you come from nothing
    you’re going back to nothing.
    What have you lost? Nothing!”

Something to ponder, the next time that road rage is about to overcome you because yet another jerk on an SUV cut you off without using a turning signal.