The latest Wisecrack philosophy video takes on one of my favorite shows of all time: Bojack Horseman. Under the pretext of comedy, colorful animation, and talking animals, the Netflix original sneaks in heartbreaking moments of raw human vulnerability. Its main character—the eponymous Bojack Horseman—is a charismatic, depressed, washed-out actor who in his chaotic search for happiness tramples on the feelings of those foolish enough to care about him.
Jared from Wisecrack does a great job of unraveling some of the philosophical premises of the show. Existential nihilism plays a massive role, underpinning perhaps the entire series. If, in the words of Mr. Peanut Butter (one of the characters in the show), “the universe is a cruel, uncaring void,” what can we do to assuage our avid thirst for meaning?
If Pascal was right and most of our problems stem from our inability to sit alone in a room with our thoughts, Bojack definitely has a huge problem. As a movie star who has achieved success, fame, and money, Bojack has all the time in the world to contemplate. But the problem with contemplation is that the more he muses, the more he is confronted with the frailty and misery of his human (or caballine?) condition.
The video looks at three strategies for coping with the realization of the meaninglessness of existence: filling your life with mundane distractions (as Mr. Peanut Butter puts it, “Just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”), radical freedom (as proposed by Sartre), and embracing the absurd (as suggested by Camus).
Which one of this will Bojack choose? And is there perhaps a fourth alternative? The video does a wonderful job of exploring these questions and breaking down the nuances of the beautiful philosophical spectrum that the show offers.
I would only like to add one more perspective: the problem of self-love.
The main reason why Bojack is unhappy, treats others like dirt, and cannot handle contemplating his own existence is, in my view, the fact that he doesn’t love himself.
A look at Aristotle might help us shed some light on Bojack’s life. For Aristotle, self-love is a crucial part of leading a good life, and some critics have even gone as far as suggesting self-love is the foundation of Aristotle’s ethics. As I’ve read him, self-love is definitely an indispensable component in the making of a virtuous and happy person (of which Bojack is neither).
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that without self-love, one cannot have any love for others. As we were discussing in our episode on friendship and love in Aristotle’s ethics, for Plato’s disciple a good friend is like “another self”’(1166a32) and the “peak of friendship is like friendship toward oneself” (1166b).
Our love and friendship toward others stem from our love and friendship toward ourselves. In Aristotle’s words (1166a4–5):
The marks of friendship in relation to those around us. . . seem to have arisen from things pertaining to oneself.
This idea has survived millennia of human history. As a concept, the fundamental role of self-love seems to have traversed our culture from Ancient Greece all the way to drag performer RuPaul, who ends each episode of his popular reality TV show with the eloquent mantra “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you’re gonna love somebody else?”. For Aristotle however, self-love is intimately connected with virtue and rationality, in a way that is complex but also conducive to happiness.
Bojack Horseman doesn’t love himself, and as a consequence, he is incapable of loving others. When it comes to friends, he either takes the few that he has for granted (as he does with Princess Carolyn, who built his career from scratch), crosses their boundaries (as he did when he kissed Diane, or when he tried to have sex with Charlotte’s teenage daughter), disrespects them, or downright sabotages them (as he did when he made Todd miss the audition of his life by exploiting his gaming addiction).
A good friendship is like having another self, Aristotle writes, but what kind of self is he referring to? Does loving oneself mean loving one’s worst flaws? One’s addictions, one’s excesses? Should Bojack love his obsession with being famous and revered? Should he love his drug binges, disrespect for others, and self-destructive tendencies?
Aristotle’s response would be a resounding “no.” For him, the self is equivalent to the intellect, one’s most “authoritative part.” He draws an analogy between a person and their sense of self, on the one hand, and a city, or indeed any other whole that is made of different parts: we would say the whole is defined by its most authoritative part, and a person’s most authoritative part is his intellect. Whether a person is good or bad, kind or unkind, restrained or lacking self-control—it all depends on whether they are exercising their reason.
A good person is indeed a person who loves themselves. But this is because their self is the noble exercise of reason. By contrast, the ignoble person cannot love themselves, as there is nothing good in them to love.
The good person ought to be a self-lover—he will both profit himself and benefit others by doing noble things—but the corrupt person ought not to be—he will harm both himself and his neighbors, since he follows his base passions (1169a11–14).
A good person, therefore, loves him or herself not because they’re famous, beautiful, or successful, but because they are good and they make noble use of what is most excellent in their human making—their intellect.
Bojack, on the other hand, has a warped idea of happiness and self-love, and seeks these things in all the wrong places. He’s not ready to love himself and derive calm contentment from his noble use of reason, but instead thinks that certain achievements will bring him happiness. He thinks going back to being a famous movie star will make him happy, but of course as soon as he’s nominated for an Oscar he feels as miserable as ever. He thinks he’s great if others think he’s great, and goes back to (self-)hatred and misery as soon as he gets the slightest criticism from a random stranger.
Bojack’s self-esteem doesn’t come from the inner use of his intellect, but from fleeting, external impressions that others have of him. His self-image is volatile and unreliable. Bojack doesn’t value himself from a place of self-reflection, he hasn’t filtered his perception and love of himself through his own understanding, but rather depends desperately (and heartbreakingly) on others’ approval of him. This is also what makes the monologue below (from season 1, episode 11) so terribly moving.
Bojack looks to unlock achievements in order to be happy, just like a character in a computer game who’s controlled by someone else. Not only are his choices inauthentic because they’re not really his own (as mentioned in the Wisecrack video), but unlocking the next achievement only gives him a short-lived rush of dopamine.
It is not the achievements at the end of the process that give us happiness, but the process itself. Eudaimonia, or the Aristotelian word for happiness, does not depend on other things. It is not wanted for the sake of something else, but rather it’s pursued and enjoyed for its own sake.
What’s more, eudaimonia is an activity. A creator feels joy and happiness in creating, and “feels affection for the work because he feels affection also for his own existence” (1168a9-11). Analogously, eudaimonia is happiness because it is the active, actualizing potential of what is the most excellent in ourselves as human beings.
Pascal wrote about the difficulties of contemplation. Humanity must learn to face the miserable frailty of the human condition that reveals itself once we examine it up close. But for Pascal, what can be a source of misery is also where lies our dignity. For Aristotle, contemplation brings us happiness.
In fact, for Aristotle, intellectual contemplation is happiness. Contemplation is wanted for its own sake. It is a deeply human activity, and one that helps a person keep their passions and intellect together. I’ve always imagined the Aristotelian ideal human being as a solid unity, an individual with an unshakeable core of inner, rational self-love. Our intellect, through its contemplative powers, gives us access to happiness, understood (and experienced) as the ability to fall perfectly in line with oneself. As Aristotle calls it, the ability to be “of like mind with himself” (1166a13).
Of all things, Bojack is certainly not “of like mind with himself.” In fact, he is in constant disarray and misalignment with himself. Only when he manages to pull in all the loose threads of his person will he be happy. Whether he will arrive there through self-loving contemplation, or arrive there at all, no one knows. As we’ve seen in one of our previous episodes, habit and education are crucial for Aristotle, so perhaps it is too late for Bojack.
But if he does get there, he will be not only happy, but without fail, he will also be good. It is sometimes difficult to tell which of the two comes first, happiness or virtue, but perhaps self-love is the key and foundation to both. When Bojack learns how to be a friend to himself, and finds value in the inner activity of his intellect, he will also be a wonderful friend to others. He will then truly be a “good person,” as good, decent people are “like-minded both with themselves, and with one another” (1167b5–6).
Ana Sandoiu is a writer and researcher living in Brighton, UK. You can follow her on Twitter @annasandoiu.