NEW YORK — The book opens with a sizzling scene — Giordano Bruno being burnt alive at the stake for espousing his philosophy that Earth isn’t the center of the universe.
In their new graphic book “Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy” by Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler, the father and son duo take readers on a historical journey starring a group of thinkers who used reason and evidence to triumph over the authority of religion, royalty and antiquity.
The inquisitive philosophers in the book were imprisoned, exiled, excommunicated and sometimes executed. Of course, those who raise such questions today don’t face such dire consequences, but nevertheless there is a contingent in the United States that not only challenges, but also dismisses, science and evidence-based research.
“The title ‘Heretics’ now has sort of a sardonic ring to it since we are living in a time where truth and accuracy and facts are heretic,” said Steven Nadler, professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The book is a refresher for those who forgot what they studied in history and philosophy. Written over the course of two years, it covers the 1600s through the early 1700s. It seeks to entertain and enlighten, said the authors in a conversation with The Times of Israel via Skype.
“We wanted to take philosophy and make it accessible but avoid patronizing or oversimplification. We didn’t want to be too rigid about the details. Our main goal was to be accessible and stimulating,” Steven Nadler said.
The challenge for them was to avoid presenting it as Church versus Reason, Science versus Philosophy, Religion versus Science. The Catholic Church wasn’t opposed to science, it just wanted to control it. It was not black and white; many of the philosophers in the book were men of faith and science. For example, Sir Isaac Newton was a devout Catholic and serious student of the Bible.
“People’s first impression might be that there is a science-religion dichotomy. I think people can’t help but draw parallels to today, but it’s more complicated than that,” Ben Nadler said.
As an illustrator and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Ben Nadler said he used strong visuals to draw in younger viewers and hold the attention of adults. To achieve this he researched each era’s dress and architecture as well as the biographies of each man presented in the book. He also needed figure out how to illustrate the book’s more spiritual and abstract ideas, such as how to draw God.
The work was both challenging and intriguing, he said.
“I had to do a lot of sketching to figure out how to draw a monad [God’s essence] and a spirit, how to visualize a soul and how to draw God. I had to decide whether to go for a conventional image of God or a subversive image,” Ben Nadler said.
He went with the former. The God depicted in “Heretics” is gray and bearded. But he’s not intimidating and he’s most definitely not technology averse. In fact, this God uses a MacBook Air in heaven and, on occasion, can even be a tad cheeky.
While those kinds of narrative devices and anachronisms may unsettle some readers, they were done with a purpose, said Steven Nadler. For example, Galileo Gallilei purportedly dropped two spheres of different masses from the tower to show that their time of descent was independent of their mass.
“Galileo didn’t really go to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but everyone knows the story and it was a great way to visualize his experiment,” said Steven Nadler, who is also the author of “Spinoza: A Life” for which he won the Koret Jewish Book Award and “Rembrandt’s Jews” for which he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Galileo and Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and John Locke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton — each man helped shape the way people think about the world, society and humanity.
Whether it was asking questions about where Earth fits in the universe, whether kings have a divine right to rule, or what the natural state of man is, each philosopher questioned the status quo.
“In the ‘Treatise,’ Spinoza argues that political stability and social well-being require intellectual freedom, democracy and a civil government free of ecclesiastical interference,” the book says.
Of all the philosophers showcased in the book, it is perhaps Spinoza who will resonate among Jewish readers, Steven Nadler said. He added that while he can be lucky to have 50 people show for a lecture, it’s not uncommon for 500 people to pack a synagogue on a Sunday afternoon to learn about the Dutch philosopher of Portuguese descent.
“As a philosopher, a Jew, and a Spinoza obsessive — yes we’re out there — I enjoy talking about Spinoza. He represents the best of philosophy and what’s important about Judaism. He represents the Jewish intellectual tradition. He wrestled with the same kinds of questions as Maimonides,” said Steven Nadler.
Their collaboration gave father and son an appreciation for the other’s field of expertise. For Steven Nadler it was watching his son translate a manuscript into illustrations that conveyed humor and depth. For Ben Nadler it was a chance to delve into what has been the academic focus of his father’s life.
‘Spinoza wrestled with the same kinds of questions as Maimonides’
When the Nadlers started working on the book, they didn’t imagine American politics would look like they do today. Had they known Donald Trump would be elected president, there might have been an additional character where Francis Bacon considers his idea about the Idols of Human Understanding, or prejudices that inhibit true inquiry,
“If I knew the political landscape today I would have put Trump in there. He stands in the way of clear thinking and an honest assessment of facts,” Steven Nadler said. “It takes a great deal of stupidity, and I don’t mean being uneducated, to have elected this man. By stupidity I mean a refusal to modify one’s beliefs in the face of incontrovertible evidence.”
With that in mind, the Nadlers said if “Heretics” gets people talking, gets people to start reading and ask questions, it will have done its job. One theme in the book emerges: the quest for knowledge and understanding can’t be curbed, no matter how hard authorities try to police thought or sanction science.
“I hope people will read it with an open mind and take away what they can,” Steven Nadler said.