Rick and Morty is an animated comedy tv series in which nearly anything can happen. The writers of Rick and Morty draw heavily on nihilist and existentialist philosophic views and use cosmic horror to explore the insignificance of human life within the universe. By exploring nihilism in a comedic way, Rick and Morty helps the viewer to feel at peace with their insignificance and in a paradoxical fashion empowers the viewer. Through the philosophy of cosmic nihilism, Rick and Morty demystifies many deep-rooted fears of the unknown, and takes on difficult existential questions, such as: “is my life significant?”. However, before we get to the answer to this question according to the show (hint: no!), lets define philosophy.
What is philosophy exactly? To me, philosophy is the reflexive study of the essential questions of the universe, and the interrogation of how one’s existence fits within the universe. I believe that through practicing philosophy, one can confront the things that they are uneasy or unknowledgeable about and begin to rationalize them, in order to bring greater peace to their existence. Within my definition, practicing philosophy can involve discussion and productive argument on any matter with the intent of demystifying it, meditation on one’s troubles, analysis of the value of human life, and political activism (such as arguing for why we should have human rights), non-exhaustively.
Socrates is an excellent source to look at when attempting to define philosophy. While his definition that “[a] philosopher’s mission [is to] search… into [oneself] and other men” (Plato, “Apology” 8) is slightly narrower in scope than my more universal definition, the practices he associates with philosophy are quite similar. While his definition may exclude looking into existential questions as a primary goal, it does still encompass discussing existential questions with other people, as Socrates was often seen doing with the men of Athens. Given that argument (and discussion) was a pillar of philosophical activity to Socrates, let’s talk about it!
Productive argument is something that I am very passionate about, and Socrates is perhaps the most famous arguer in all of history. While productive might be used lightly when applied to some of Socrates’ arguments, such as his discussion with Euthyphro on the definition of the word “pious”, where he constantly baits Euthyphro into contradicting himself all the while sarcastically mocking him (Plato, “Euthyphro”), his strategy of sparking philosophical discussion with whoever will listen displays his intrinsic desire to enlighten himself and others. And that, being the enlightenment of oneself and others, is what I too believe the productive goal of philosophy is. To quote Socrates, “[philosophy is] the greatest improvement of the soul” (Plato, “Apology” 9), meaning that he believes there is nothing better one can do to reach intellectual enlightenment, as well as spiritual enlightenment if you seek it. Therefore, philosophy is a way of studying the world whose practice provides enlightenment and knowledge to oneself at the cost of interesting and productive discourse with oneself and other people; hardly a cost for such great benefits!
Now that we have a good idea of what philosophy is, we can apply it to Rick and Morty. The YouTube channel Wisecrack has many excellent videos on the philosophy of Rick and Morty, and one that I have linked as follows contains an entertaining and concise overview of cosmic nihilism, which is the prevailing philosophical view within the show. Here is the video, in which the portion on Rick and Morty begins at the 8:25 mark:
Within this video, cosmic nihilism is defined as “[a] hyper-rational [philosophic school of thought], which argues that there is no truth or meaning to be found in the universe” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsotfzGpby8). While this sounds rather gloomy, to the contrary my opinion is that cosmic nihilism is one of the most empowering philosophical ideas in existence. If there is no meaning to be found in the universe, then “there isn’t anything on which to ground ethics,” and “if there is no value on which to build an ethical system, then one is free to do whatever they want” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsotfzGpby8). What could possibly be more freeing and empowering than that?
While in practice a philosophy that tells you that nothing matters and that you can do whatever you want might not be a healthy foundation for your life, as Michael Burns writes for Wisecrack: “nihilism [isn’t] about giving up completely, but rather… [offering an approach] to moving forward in a largely uncertain world” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsotfzGpby8). This is the reason that the potentially depressing topics tackled by Rick and Morty end up empowering the viewer; one does not need to fully adopt nihilism, but only to find comfort in facets of it that move them, such as the reassurance that they are fully autonomous and unrestricted beings, or the knowledge that the answer to the question “is my life significant?” is “no!”. To me this answer is wonderfully empowering, as it frees the mind from the dark existential musings which have the potential to eat away at you, and allows you to focus on the things you have control over. If nothing matters, then you have just as good a reason to live your best life as not, except you can now, having accepted that nothing matters, live your best life free from the burden of the existential questions of the universe!
To demonstrate one of the countless practical applications of philosophy, I will now discuss one way I engage in philosophical activity in my life, which is through what I consider to be my favourite hobby and biggest passion: music. I absolutely love critically engaging with the music I listen to as well as analysing how it can challenge my ways of thinking. As far as philosophical activities I partake in through music, I thoroughly enjoy discussing the meaning and value of music with other fans, as Socrates enjoyed discussing the meaning of life with the citizens of Athens. I also partake in meditation during the act of listening to music, which is another method of philosophical practice under my definition. One can listen to music that fits whatever mood they are in, and which speaks to whatever problems they are facing, or questions of the universe one is attempting to interrogate at any given time. This extreme level of flexible applicability turns music itself into an always-ready partner in your own private philosophical discussions, and makes music one of the best ways to interrogate the universe through looking within oneself.
I hope that my definition of philosophy can be of service to you as you attempt to interrogate and de-mystify the questions of the universe. I also hope that you can see how the deceptively simple activities in your life, such as watching cartoons like Rick and Morty, can provide deep philosophical insights into the nature of your existence, and can empower you to live your best life. Socrates would be proud of your insights, knowing that his legacy still lives on in the 21st century.