This is a very rare kind of comic book, a comic book about philosophy, about logic and ethics. The main thread is an imaginary lecture given by Bertrand Russell at an American college, at the time when Britain—not yet the U.S.—was involved in World War II. A group of hecklers want Russell to declare himself against the entry of the U.S. into the war, but the old pacifist refuses to do so, and instead launches into telling the story of his own life and work. As part of that story, we get a history of logic, roughly from Boole to Gödel, and we are introduced to a constellation of philosophers, mathematicians and logicians: Moore, Whitehead, Cantor, Frege, Hilbert, Poincaré, Peano, Wittgenstein, Schlick, Gödel, von Neumann, and still others. Not merely to their faces: to their ideas too.
Glimpses of Russell’s emotions, fear of madness, callousness, and marital troubles, are another part of his story; the absence of any sharp division between reason and the passions being one of the main ideas this comic book tries to convey. Of course, it is awfully hard to convey to any readership the passion for truth that seizes some minds, almost from the go. Vitam impendere vero, to dedicate one’s life to truth, if taken seriously, seems itself like a sort of madness. How do you explain this to the young? Logicomix makes a creditable effort. In one of the most memorable episodes, Whitehead’s son explains to Russell, at the outbreak of W.W.I, that he has enlisted as an airman not out of love for King and Country but because he doesn’t want to spend years, like his father, trying to find a solid logical basis for 2+2=4; no, he says, he wants to have fun. He wants to get a life. Instead he gets killed.
In Logicomix, the art of the comic book, now about a hundred years old, is not merely subordinate to the ideas. In one of the best frames, we see the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano, whose name is associated to the usual set of axioms for the natural numbers, and to the monstruous curve which is continuous everywhere and yet passes through every point of a square. Peano is shown at an outdoor café in Turin, walking in circles, agitated, hands crossed behind his back, and repeating, “Non è possibile!” What he finds impossible is the devastating paradox invented by Russell, which demolished the naive, Fregean form of set theory. The drawing is in the tradition of the Tintin et Milou comic books and their attention to small detail and flair for ambience. Those qualities are grandly deployed when modern Athens is shown in full shabbiness, with her thieves, whores and hustlers. Elsewhere we find humorous references to the Asterix comic books, to their refrain, “Ils sont fous, ces Romains”, here transformed in “They are crazy, these Britons” and “Ils sont fous, ces logiciens”.
Teaching twentieth-century formal logic is necessary and important work. When you see that educated people, university professors, even physicists, physicians, engineers (not to mention professors of the humanities) still conceive of logic, if at all, as it was taught in Paris circa 1230, your heart sinks. The vast majority of educated humanity have a medieval notion of necessity, and still think of “2+2=4” and “the sum of the angles of any triangle is equal to two right angles” as examples of inescapable, absolute and necessary truth. In the nineteenth century, after the Romantic storms, logic became associated with notaries, accountants, and pharmacists like Flaubert’s Monsieur Homais. Dostoevsky’s Man from the Underground sticks his tongue out to logic and to 2+2=4. Logic, even more so than saving accounts or philistinism, became the trademark of the bourgeois.
In my teens I used to be an enthusiastic reader of Miguel de Unamuno, of his Sentimiento trágico de la vida, and I remember admiring his defiance, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” Indeed, it may be a fact of life that we cannot avoid contradicting ourselves much of the time, by which I mean simultaneously holding incompatible opinions about some important fact. But as I grew older I noticed that people usually contradict themselves either out of sheer stupidity or out of greed, vanity, selfishness, lust, cowardice, or sloth. The only honest way I know of contradicting oneself is, first, to recognize the contradiction; second, to try to trace it back to its origin, and here logic is helpful together with psychological insight; and third, to look at one’s contradiction and its consequences with the sort of awe and fear with which one looks at a tragic dénouement. No honest self-contradictor will congratulate himself, nor say, “Very well then, I contradict myself.” To have to renounce inner coherence is always tragic.
It is so appropriate, then, that Logicomix ends with Aeschylus’ trial of Orestes, when the Furies are appeased and offered a home at Athens and a new name, Eumenides. Because it is thanks to logic that we are able to go to the bottom of things, to unravel the mess, and identify the incompatible axioms—in the case of Orestes, the duty to avenge his father’s murder, and the prohibition to kill his mother. In Aeschylus’ play, since the jury is evenly divided, it is the goddess Athena who decides. At the end of Russell’s lecture, to those who insist on getting a clear answer—whether or not the U.S. should get involved in the war against the Axis—he replies that his only answer is the tale of his life and the development of formal logic. That should be enough. It is wrong to expect logic to provide a criterion for choosing between incompatible axioms. Each person is free, once the facts of the case have been clarified by means of logical analysis, to choose for one of several alternatives. A fearful freedom, to be sure, yet it is still more fearful to renounce it. In this comic book, Russell makes it clear that personally he is unable to stomach a future under the Nazis, which settles the case as far as he is concerned. Everybody else has to decide for him-or-herself.
The foregoing double pronoun raises the one qualm I have about this comic book. There are women in it, to be sure, but not a single woman character who’s fleshed out the way men characters are.
Don’t let that detract from your enjoyment. Enjoy Logicomix, then give it to a favorite kid.