Philosophy wouldn’t exactly seem like the kind of subject matter that lends itself well to comics, let alone comics with millions of readers. But that’s exactly what Corey Mohler has managed to do over at Existential Comics. Corey, a software developer, sees himself as a philosophy popularizer and has done an incredible job—you’ve probably already seen his wildly popular posts “The Germans play Monopoly” or “World Cup Philosophy: Germany vs France.” Or since you’re reading this site—perhaps you’ve seen his Stoicism inspired fare.
We reached out to Corey to get his thoughts on existentialism, Stoicism, the difference between the two and how philosophy has changed his life. For this and much more, enjoy our interview with Corey and if you respect and admire your work as much as we do, please consider supporting him on his page on Patreon.
Just to kick things off, I was curious if you saw a spike in interest in your comics after the publication of Sarah Bakewell’s book, At the Existentialist Café, which had rave reviews? And what did you think of the book? I know you recommend Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre as a starting point for existentialism but I was wondering if you’d suggest Sarah’s book first for beginners before one jumps into the primary texts?
I haven’t noticed a spike in interest, but it would be very difficult to detect, as I already get 2-3 million hits on the comic per month. To be honest, I can’t imagine the interest in it will ever get much higher, as it has already gone much higher than I ever would have thought. I actually just started reading At the Existentialist Café a few days ago, and I’ve only gotten a few chapters in, but it definitely seems like a great book to set the stage and tell the story of those philosophers and thinkers, and why they were doing what they were doing. Some people *cough*analytic philosophers*cough* like to pretend that philosophy is like mathematics, where the philosophy is totally divorced from the humans behind it, and should be able to be read without knowing any biographical information. Not only do I think this isn’t true, but I think it is generally much more boring. Understanding the story behind the thinking is a great way to get introduced to philosophy. If I were ever to do a podcast or write a book (which isn’t going to happen, I don’t have the time), it would be more like that, half biography, half philosophy. Logicomix, about Bertrand Russell, is kind of in the same vein, and is great.
Can you talk to us about philosophy has changed your life? How do you use it day to day?
Philosophy has immensely changed how I think in general, so it’s very difficult to innumerate how much it changes my life day to day. Undoubtedly I would be a complete different person if I were never exposed to philosophy, in how I interact with others, interpret my own actions, and understand the world. When people talk about how philosophy is “useless”, they ignore what a tremendous difference an education of any kind has on the individual. It is very hard to go through a tremendous amount of philosophical education and remain the same person that you were when you started. More concretely though, day to day, I’d mostly say that I use philosophy to write Hegel jokes on Twitter.
You also mentioned that you have been thinking about the growing popularity of Stoicism. What are your views on that?
I’d say there is a sort of misunderstanding of Stoicism that annoys me, that I often see in popular articles, and among growing Stoic communities, which is the idea that Stoic virtue is sort of equivalent to some kind of masculine ideal. The worst form of it would even be suggesting that you are going to somehow use Stoicism to get women, which of course is totally absurd, and wildly missing the point of Stoicism. The perfect Stoic is usually portrayed as confident, someone who ignores pain, doesn’t care what others think, is tough, etc. You can kind of see why people would have this confusion, and I think the demographic that is into Stoicism is often young men looking to assert their masculinity, so they can be eager to be fed this sort of thing. You often see the same thing with Nietzsche, which is equally misplaced, and in some ways even more bizarre and confused. But Stoicism really has absolutely nothing to do with “manliness”. There is no reason to believe a tough Rugby player is more inclined to Stoicism than anyone else, for example. Stoicism is, at its core, about how you interpret the world around you.
I think the best example of this kind of mistake is the origin story for Epictetus, and how people sometimes misread it. We are told that he was a slave, and as a child, his master tortured him brutally, and intentionally broke his leg, leaving him lame for life. We are told, here, that Epictetus endured the pain silently, with total composure, so as not to give his master the satisfaction of hearing him cry out. Now, a lot of people reading this, especially young men, will think “wow, that’s pretty badass, maybe if I read Stoicism, I could stand up to anything too.” But this is a huge mistake, that’s not where the Stoicism happened. In fact, this was long before Epictetus had ever even heard of Stoicism, so it can’t have been Stoic Wisdom that allowed him to withstand the pain, he just happened to have been a tough kid, and was probably more motivated by spite that any kind of virtue. What I mean by that is that he knew that by not crying out he would rob the satisfaction from his tormentor, spiting him in the only way he could. Every child with any sense knows not to give your bullies the satisfaction of seeing you cry in front of them, but that isn’t Stoicism. The actual Stoicism, for Epictetus, happened every day of his adult life, in not being bitter about his leg, that was ruined out of pure malice. Most of us, in that circumstance, would think back often about their old master, and resent how he left you with a limp for no real reason, and feel angry all over again. But through the teachings of Zeno, Epictetus was able to realize that these sort of feelings were pointless. Regardless of how it happened, the reality was that he his leg was lame, and there was nothing he could do about it, so the rational thing to do would be to accept that fact, and move on. That is Stoicism, it isn’t being tough enough to put on a brave face during physical pain. Not everyone has the sort of toughness required to tolerate the same amount of pain. If you aren’t the kind of person that can do that, and you want to be a Stoic, you should actually just accept it and realize that you aren’t, in fact, the pinnacle of masculinity, and that’s fine.
When we were chatting about doing this interview you mentioned several things to me. One of them was about how after existentialism, Stoicism is the philosophy you think about most. Can you elaborate?
Well, as far as living in day to day life anyway, there are lot of other areas of philosophy that are important in other ways. Existentialism, I think, incorporates a lot of the same ideas as Stoicism, but it sort of fails rhetorically for a lot of people in a way that Stoicism doesn’t. It seems like it is very popular today among young, educated people to naively accept some form of Existentialism, or at least some stripped down interpretation of it that has worked its way through popular culture. You will hear people repeat, as if it were a truism, something like “nothing really ultimately matters, and it is up to each of us to decide what is important in our own lives, and find our own meaning.” Well, that’s great and all, but then these same people will lose their mind if the waiter brings them the wrong dish, or someone cuts them off in traffic. It’s like, wait a second, NOTHING matters, but somehow a minor inconvenience matters enough to ruin your day? The so called mantra that they repeat reflectively has no effect on them, because they don’t really take it to have any real meaning. Stoicism directly explains why these kind of things, quite literally, don’t matter. Once you understand that, there is no reason to be upset by them. At that point it is possible to try to understand how an existential account of truly meaningful activity can happen.
For our readers who are not as familiar as you with existentialism, can you give us a brief overview? And maybe explain in your own words the difference between existentialism and Stoicism?
Existentialism, in particular the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, was primarily concerned with what it means to be free. They would say that the central thing about our existence was our perfect freedom to define what our existence meant. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we are perfectly free to do anything. Going back to Epictetus’s leg, Sartre would say the fact that his leg was lame was part of his “facticity”. This just means that it is an inert fact of existence. So he couldn’t be free to walk normally, because it was simply part of reality that his leg didn’t function. He was, however, free to interpret the meaning of what happened to him, and the meaning of his lame leg. So whether or not he lets his lameness define who he is, or cause him suffering, is complete up to him. So far it sounds pretty similar to Stoicism, right? This is where they depart though. The Stoics finish that thought with: “and therefore, he should obviously not let it cause him suffering.” The Existentialist simply says that it is up to him. So if he genuinely wishes to be spiteful to his old master, and hold a grudge, that too is up to him, and only he is responsible for that action. So like the Stoics, the Existentialists draw a sharp line between what you must accept as merely existing in the world, and what you are able to influence with your own will. Unlike the Stoics, they do not believe it is possible to draw from this any “logical” or “ideal” way to live. Human freedom only has an obligation to authentically express itself, however it chooses.
I find it inspiring that you have no academic background in philosophy but you clearly know the subject matters that you tackle extremely well. It reminds of Dan Carlin who is behind the widely popular Hardcore History podcast, who is also not a professional historian. What does your learning process look like? For instance, philosophy sounds like such an overwhelmingly complex topic for people that they don’t even know where to begin. What would you suggest to them?
I wrote a blog post a while back on the approach I’ve taken to self learning in an area as complex and interwoven as philosophy, as well as giving specific resources.
The main challenge, honestly, is to put aside your ego and give an earnest attempt to try to understand what you are reading, instead of trying to put your own stamp on it. People talk about the “Principle of Charity” all the time, but it if you are reading a text to try to assert your will over the text, you can be as charitable as you want, but you’ll never get a very good understanding. When reading a text, the main thing to keep in mind isn’t charity, but the goal of reading the text in the first place. The goal is to understand the text. If you are directed towards this goal, you will find an easier time. Bizarrely, most people have some other goal in mind when they read philosophy, from refuting the ideas, using the author’s ideas as tool to bolster your own agenda, or even just getting through it to brag that you’ve read it. No Principle of Charity will save you if you aren’t first and foremost focused on understand in itself.
We’ve heard from a lot of our readers who are undertaking their own journeys in Stoicism and studying the philosophy. Which books, schools or other authors outside the discipline would you recommend they supplement their studies with? What do you think will provide a fresh and different perspective that would be a great follow up to Stoicism?
While Stoicism has had a resurgence of late, I think a lot of the other Greek schools of thought have similar ideas which are worth exploring as “life philosophy”. The one who is mostly strangely ignored, despite his enormous influence elsewhere, is probably Aristotle. Aristotle’s conception of virtue is obviously highly influential for the Stoics, and in some ways more fleshed out. Aristotelian virtue ethics has made a bit of a comeback intellectually in terms of a grounding for morality, by Nussbaum, MacIntyre, and others, but it would be interesting to see a similar revival as to what has happened with the Stoics, where it is not just a moral theory, but also a theory of how to live the good life, as Aristotle originally intended it.