For Robert “Bo” Burnham’s third album and second comedy special “what.,” released in 2013 in its entirety on YouTube and Netflix, he wrote a song called “From God’s Perspective.” He begins the comedy song by stating that he worries he comes across as thinking he’s superior to others, before launching into his “song from the perspective of God” (Burnham). The song questions widely held beliefs among theists, seeming to mainly allude to Christians, though they are not explicitly singled out. It’s especially impactful coming from “God” because it seems as though those who are religious are blindly following practices that “God” himself questions. Near the end of the song, Burnham, as God, claims to have lost faith in humanity and encourages theists to reclaim control of their lives and earn their God’s love.
To me, philosophy is critical reflection and thought regarding the way things are (and often whether they should be that way), typically as part of a larger quest of understanding the world and ourselves within it. This can often include taking different perspectives and approaches to the same concepts. Philosophy involves a method of questioning that transcends all subject matters, including our lives. In “Euthyphro” Plato’s depiction of Socrates embodies this when he relentlessly questions Euthyphro, a “professional religious prophet,” on his beliefs regarding piety (Plato 31). Socrates, in doing so, expresses his pursuit of a single definition of piety, the “one form [by which] impious things are somehow impious and pious things pious” (Plato 39, 6e). With each consecutive definition that Euthyphro provides, Socrates finds issues within them, showing his refusal to stop critically reflecting on piety. For example, Euthyphro suggests that “what is beloved by the gods is pious, and what is not beloved by them is pious,” but Socrates argues that the gods may disagree on what is pious, so some acts would be both pious and impious at once (Plato 39-43).
In a similar manner, philosopher Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus” questions “whether life is or is not worth living” which he considers the key to answering what the meaning of life is, the “fundamental question of philosophy” (Camus 3-4). Again, this aligns with the definition of philosophy as understanding our place in the world through critical thinking and questioning. As Plato’s Socrates mentions during his defence while he is on trial in “Apology,” he “examine[s] both [himself] and others (76, 38a). This demonstrates his ability to think critically about what he does and believes, as well as about those around him, rather than accepting it without question.
Likewise, Bo Burnham in “From God’s Perspective” refuses to accept the beliefs of theists without question. When he sings “I don’t watch you when you sleep/ Surprisingly I don’t use my omnipotence to be a …creep” (Burnham), he is questioning why anyone would believe an omnipotent God would spend time watching his disciples when there are more pressing matters in the world. This is reminiscent of an argument made by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. In his “Letter to Menoeceus” Epicurus writes that the gods exist, but not “like most people describe them” (Epicurus 1). He suggests that as a “god is an immortal and happy being” they are unconcerned with the affairs of mortal human beings (Epicurus “Letter to Menoeceus” 1).
Burnham goes on to sing that “you shouldn’t abstain from rape just because you think that I [God] want you to” but that it should be because you know that it is morally wrong (Burnham). He goes on to claim that masturbation, homosexuals, and eating pork are not things that “God” takes any issue with it, but theists have demonized these things anyway in the name of God (Burnham). In approaching these beliefs from the perspective of God, he is offering a different view of them, which leads to the question of why theists believe such things, and whether they should; this closely parallels my conception of philosophy. He questions why an omnipotent God that “created the universe…would draw the line at the …deli aisle,” a relatively insignificant thing (Burnham). Burnham sings “Eat a thousand crackers, sing a million hymns/ None of you are going to heaven/ You’re not my children, you’re a bad game of Sims” (Burnham). Here, he is specifically referring to the Christian ceremony of Eucharist with the inclusion of “crackers”. Burnham suggests that God would be ashamed of theists who focus on getting into heaven by singing or eating crackers which are trivial rather than meaningful. He is engaging in philosophical activity by thinking critically about religious practices and questioning things theists take for granted as true, like what it takes to get into heaven.
As the song nears its end, Burnham sings about religion as a divisive debate and questions why “no one entertains the thought that maybe God does not believe in [them]” (Burnham). With this line, he is expressing “God’s” lost faith in humanity. Then, he goes on to sing “maybe life on earth could be heaven” so that theists emphasize their finite, certain life rather than praying “so badly for heaven” (Burnham). In this sense, this is akin to Camus’ argument of acknowledging the absurd position in life you have and finding happiness in it anyway, as Sisyphus does. Sisyphus was condemned to keep pushing a boulder up a hill, knowing that whenever he reached the top, it would roll back down; yet, Camus writes that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” because he is in control of his own fate (Camus 3). Instead of praying for life after death, Burnham questions whether taking control of the life you know you already have and making the most of it is a better philosophy. In that way, Burnham suggests you can earn the love of God, but “when you earn it you won’t need it” because you will be happy with what you have done and become.
Based on my view of what philosophy is, I think engaging in philosophical activities is something people do regularly in their daily lives, consciously or not. In reading, conversations with friends, and even listening to music, I often find myself inspired to engage in critical thinking and questioning about the way things are in the world as well as my own life. For example, I recently read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which started the absurdist fiction movement called Theatre of the Absurd among European playwrights. In this tragicomedy, the characters, Vladimir and Estragon, await the arrival of a man named Godot, who never comes. While they are waiting, the two men engage in seemingly pointless conversations and repetitive, meaningless interactions with another two characters. The purpose of these interactions, their motivation for waiting, and the identity of the mysterious Godot are never revealed throughout the course of the play.
In this way, the play focuses on the idea of existentialism and human existence without meaning. Camus writes about this idea of meaningless life in “The Myth of Sisyphus” by focusing on absurdity. In the play, the characters even contemplate suicide, much like Camus discusses in his essay. Another play that I reread recently was William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which the eponymous character also contemplates suicide in the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, though he arrives at a slightly different conclusion. In reading these plays, I have really thought about the meaning of life, or whether there is one. Are we born astride a grave, as Beckett writes (Beckett 333)? More specifically, if life is meaningless and just leading to death, what is a good way to spend our time? And does it matter? If all action is distraction, is it any more meaningful to sit under a tree waiting for Godot than to do anything else? Or as Hamlet would suggest, is it only better to live and suffer as a result of living because it’s safer than the uncertainty of dying? I often think about these things when I am deciding what to do with my life, especially in choosing a career. I also frequently channel my thoughts on these matters into my own writing, which as a result, is another philosophical activity I engage in.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. Grove Press, 1954.