One thing that has always attracted me to “Supernatural” is that any story told in the series can inspire all sorts of discussions about philosophy, theology, morality, the triumphs and consequences of free will, or just how this tightly woven world of Winchesters, monsters, angels and demons can be in overall metaphysics. That discussion isn’t just limited to academics, theologians, or philosophers either. Fans are engaging as well.
In the latest book of academic essays, “Supernatural and Philosophy: Metaphysics and Monsters…for Idjits,” there’s plenty of thought provoking examinations into moral dilemmas and other touchy issues raised during the course of the show, and it opens up several branches of discussions that entertain any curious mind, even those not too familiar with the series. Although, if anyone wasn’t familiar with “Supernatural” before reading these essays, I’m sure they’ll want to get to know it afterward.
As we know, the moral concepts presented in “Supernatural” are rarely black and white, and the ambiguity in the show not only depicts struggles in the lives of the Winchesters, but reflects how moral struggles can affect us on a personal level as well. Turns out truth is stranger than fiction, and we like to explore answers to life questions raised each time an antagonist butts heads with a Winchester.
Here’s just a few of the many questions raised in these essays:
- Can monsters be members of the moral community?
- How free can a will be and still be free?
- Is selling your soul to a demon and being banished for all eternity to Hell really a justifiable punishment for a stupid act of desperation?
- Does God make a lousy king?
- Why can’t Sam and Dean attain the American Dream?
- How important is the role of women in Sam and Dean’s lives?
- Why does Dean Winchester have such trouble believing in God?
- Do angels have any more reason to believe in God than we do?
- Would God support Sam and Dean’s plan to close the gates of Hell forever?
- How deviant from the norm is Sam and Dean’s relationship?
- What role has naturalism played in “Supernatural”?
Supernatural and Philosophy
I’ve read several “Supernatural” themed essay collections, and I definitely consider Supernatural and Philosophy: Metaphysics and Monsters…for Idjits to be one of the best. I like the subjects these writers try to tackle, and how these pieces raised important questions, but didn’t lose me in a lot of intellectual rhetoric. The people who wrote these essays are academics, but they’re real fans of the show too and know their canon. They offer insights into “Supernatural” that I have never previously considered, probably because they know of several philosophical, literary and theological comparison texts that have never made my reading list.
A lot of times when reading these essay books fueled by pop culture, I often wonder what is the significance of such an exercise? Turns out topic is everything, because this book raises questions that even I’ve wondered while watching “Supernatural” but haven’t taken the time to explore as deeply as done here.
In the first section, “Of Monsters and Morals,” one of the common questions raised is whether monsters truly deserve to be killed, especially the ones that act morally or try to live among the code of humanity despite their nature. As the show has cleverly depicted, sometimes killing monsters isn’t so black and white. Human free will seems to also wreak havoc on the grand scheme of things, and the consequences that come from exercising that free will haven’t always led to intended outcomes. Free will can be a dangerous thing, even if team free will is only made up of an ex-blood junkie, a high school dropout with six bucks to his name, and a comatose angel.
My favorite section of the book are the essays in the section, “Life, Liberty and The Apocalypse.” The essay, “Try Hell, It’s a Democracy and the Weather is Warm” is my favorite in the entire collection. It examines ancient philosopher Thomas Hobbes and his use of the term “Leviathan,” aka an organization of commonwealth among the people. It makes a case that even though the angels have the brute strength, the demons have the cunning and have a far better ability to organize. As it turns out, Hell is far more of a democracy that Heaven. It was quite a compelling argument. I also would have never compared “It’s A Terrible Life” to the works of Karl Marx, but somehow the essay “Hunting and The American Dream: Why Marx Would Think It’s a Terrible Life” manages to do that rather well. There’s also a very interesting comparison to “Jus In Bello” with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
The third section, “Evil By Design,” has essays that ambitiously take on the questions, “Why does God allow evil in the world?” “How can his existence be proven or disproven?” These are questions that Dean Winchester has especially struggled with, not to mention many angels, and while there’s still no clear cut answer, it is clear that this evil is a main driver behind the Winchesters and their destiny.
Finally, the fourth section, “It’s Supernatural,” takes on what the supernatural truly is, and how Sam and Dean can fight monsters, but not express feelings so well.
All in all, through reading this book, I realized philosophical and religious examinations are a lot more fun when they’re done side by side with the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester rather than traditional sources. The correlations make for a very good read. It will certainly change the way we fans see episodes both past and future. Thanks to pop culture, philosophy just isn’t for scholars anymore.
Supernatural and Philosophy: Metaphysics and Monsters…for Idjits is part of the Blackwell and Philosophy Pop Culture Series. It is published by John Wiley & Sons.
About the authors:
Galen A. Foresman is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where he teaches ethics and critical thinking. He is the author of “Why Batman Is Better than Superman” in Batman and Philosophy (Wiley, 2008) and “What’s Wrong with Camping?” in Halo and Philosophy (2011).
William Irwin is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College. He originated the philosophy and popular culture genre of books as coeditor of the bestselling The Simpsons and Philosophy and has overseen recent titles including Superman and Philosophy, Black Sabbath and Philosophy, and Spider-Man and Philosophy.