Bojack Horseman and the Danger of the Partially Examined Life
Tessa Brunnenmeyer and Kristopher G. Phillips
Bojack Horseman is a Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Netflix cartoon project that is in many ways deeply confusing. The show follows the titular character, a washed-up former sit-com actor who happens to be a cartoon horse. Bojack Horseman offers a different feel from most cartoons. We find out immediately that Bojack is struggling with crippling depression, alcoholism, serial self-sabotage, and a lifetime of emotional abuse from his mother. There is a lot we can learn from Bojack himself. He is the perfect example of a person (?) who could really benefit from a little philosophical reflection, but is likely turned off by it due to those few moments of lucidity wherein he finds himself most miserable. We intend to discuss the ways in which Bojack’s approach to post Horsin’ Around life exemplifies the dangers that self-knowledge can have. In Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography Force of Circumstance she warns that “Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it.” While Bojack does have moments of self knowledge, he has been beaten down so consistently that he has learned to shut it off and has lost the courage to “fight” for happiness.
In the Apology, Socrates argues that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Before we can really engage with Socrates’s claim, we must answer two questions: (a) what is the unexamined life? and (b) why is it not worth living? We can take as a provisional answer to (a) the following: one leads an unexamined life when they just go through the motions without thinking about what is actually good or why they’re doing what they’re doing. The kind of life where one buys, without critical examination, into whatever they are told is a good life. Without examining what it is that we value we won’t know what a good life is. This provides us a rough and ready answer to (b) as well. It’s not worth living because not only is there no guarantee that we will be flourish, but it’s impossible to know what that even means.
How does Socrates think we can lead a good life? The short answer is ‘self-knowledge.’ If we examine our values, beliefs, and the stories we are told about what it is to be successful or to lead a good life, we will determine what it is to actually flourish (as opposed to what we are told it is to do so). But examining our life alone is not going to be enough to guarantee that we’ll succeed at leading the good life. Bojack serves as an illustration of Beauvoir’s warning because at some level he seems to know what it is to flourish, but he either doesn’t know how to do it, or he just doesn’t do it.
Despite Bojack’s languid facade, he engages in self-reflection more often than most of us care to. Bojack’s self-reflective behaviors, though, are deeply flawed. Both depressed and a substance abuser, Bojack engages in alcohol and drug-induced escapism to avoid confronting how unstable his life is (get it, stable? Because horses live in stables and Bojack is a horse? Do you get it?). We see Bojack’s deepest fears emerge in his hallucinogenic trip which he induces to finish his book in the most interesting (and entirely fictional) way (S1 E9 “Downer Ending”). Bojack sees his fears of insignificance and loss realized and (at some subconscious level) recognizes that he is on a path that will not make him happy. Everyday-Bojack thinks that fame and recognition are the indicators of a life worth living, but tripping-Bojack knows that he would be much better off living simply—perhaps on a ranch in Maine with a certain doe.
If Socrates is right, moments of self-awareness like this one should place Bojack on track to the good life. But despite his painfully vivid awareness, Bojack is not happy and is certainly not leading the kind of life we’d seek for ourselves. In fact, when he is self-aware he is more miserable than when he pretends to be unaffected. Beauvoir tells us that knowledge of oneself and of the values that would lead to the good life do not guarantee we will get there, but instead potentially provides the “courage to fight for it.” Bojack, unfortunately, does not have the courage he needs to change his life.
Additionally, Bojack searches for fulfillment through methods that are obviously misinformed. Key influences in Bojack’s life—his mother, the public, his agents, etc.—have led him to believe that certain accomplishments (fame, money, a huge house, etc.) are important to anthropomorphic-horse flourishing. Bojack was on a hit TV show, he realized his dream of playing Secretariat, he’s rich, he’s famous, yet he’s overwhelmingly depressed. It is evident that Bojack entirely misunderstands what it is that would make his life valuable. Bojack chases physical, extravagant desires—a big house, lots of sex, drugs, drinking—but through these he does not find the satisfaction for which he searches; quite the opposite, actually. It is in these moments—or soon after—that we see Bojack the most miserable. Bojack enlists the help of Sarah Lynn to acquire drugs in an attempt to write the most interesting (and entirely fictional) version of his life story. Here we see Bojack intending to use drugs as an escape, and instead being confronted with his deep fears of failure and obsolescence. We can see that these escapist behaviors that Bojack engages in are not the proper way to achieve the good life.
In his claim, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates makes no judgements regarding the pleasure and happiness that one might achieve through examining, only that an examined life has at least some potential to be worthy of pursuing. There is a danger in conflating a life that is happy and fulfilled, and a life that is good enough to be lived. It could be that Bojack, through self-reflection, has a life that is worthy of being lived, but does not have a life that is happy. There is an important distinction between happiness and worthiness. A genuinely happy life would be a worthy one, but a worthy life might not be a happy one.
In addition to just being generally unhappy, Bojack knows that he is often a real jerk. On the basis of this, he wonders if he is unworthy of praise or happiness. Thanks to a flippant “I don’t care, just give the money to some orphans or something” remark he made to Princess Carolyn, Bojack has an orphanage dedicated to him. When the orphans praised him as a hero, Bojack realized that his deeds might not have been good because he didn’t intend to do them. Donating the money to the orphans was “the best thing [he] ever did, and [he] didn’t even do it on purpose” (S2 E12 “Out to Sea”). It is important to note that he did suggest this donation during one of his few moments of self-reflection and awareness–at Herb’s funeral. Perhaps Bojack’s life is worth living because he is continuing to be self-reflective, but he is unworthy of happiness because he doesn’t follow through. Bojack’s belief that he isn’t a good person is consistent with the possibility that his life is still worth living. Bojack might be reflective enough to pursue a life not entirely devoid of worth, but not sufficiently reflective to actually understand and do the things which would make him truly flourish. We will just have to wait for season three.
Tessa Brunnenmeyer is an Honors student at Southern Utah University and is double-majoring in Philosophy and Art History. She is interested in aesthetics and ancient philosophy, specifically the role of poetry in Plato’s Republic. She is currently three little kids stacked on top of each other, doing that thing from the Little Rascals.
Kristopher G. Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern Utah University. He is co-editor of Arrested Development and Philosophy, and has published on the history of neuroscience; his primary research interests lie in early modern philosophy. Luckily, he has adopted a BNA, which has allowed him to let go of the burdens of his life-sofa.