Lake and Sumter Style Magazine
8:26 pm EDT
Mon, July 6, 2020

Forget about Aristotle—study Johnny Cash 

Illustration: Josh Clark

Today’s great philosophers can be found among the country singers and their storied lyrics..

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll confess: I was a philosophy major in college. It was less of an academic decision and more of a practical one. I figured that majoring in philosophy would be easier than majoring in English, because I wouldn’t have to read all those dull books and my ability to BS would probably fly better in a philosophy paper than in an English term paper.

So, I learned about Occam’s Razor, Aristotelian logic, René Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and similar gloomy things.

My college friends all supported me in my choice of a major. They said it would certainly lend itself to financial success in the future. They predicted in 20 years or so I’d have a regular spot on the corner—standing behind an orange crate with a sign that read, “Philosophizing, 25¢.”

Somehow, I managed to muddle along and make a living, philosophy degree and all. I will admit, though, there were very few opportunities at dinner parties or staff meetings to discuss Plato’s Allegory of the Cave or Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

Philosophy rarely comes up in today’s conversations because all the philosophers we’re familiar with have one thing in common—they’ve been stone-cold dead for a long, long time.

We may not realize it, but there are great philosophers today. We just haven’t recognized them as philosophers. We call them country and western singers. Listen to the words of their songs and you’ll realize that Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and many others are the David Hume, Thomas Aquinas and Søren Kierkegaards of today. There’s even a book titled, “Johnny Cash and Philosophy.”

There are dozens of examples of philosophy in country music. One of the main branches of philosophy is ethics—the study of what is right and what is wrong. No medieval philosopher outlined the penalties and rewards of ethics better than Loretta Lynn’s treatise on “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind.” The plaintive message delivered by Philosopher Lynn clearly spells out the dire consequences of drinking and the rich compensations of abstaining. She succinctly summarizes that pleasures will await her husband if he lives a good life and, consequently, torment awaits him for a life of evil. In her words. She assures him liquor and love don’t mix, and it’s her or the bottle.

Another important branch of philosophy is aesthetics—the study of what constitutes beauty. The topic of aesthetics is discussed in depth in the classic philosophical work, “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home.” In this charming allegory, the wife describes adding a new level of beauty to her home by redecorating it as a bar to please her beloved husband. She offers to put a bar in the dining room instead of a table with a neon sign indicating where the bathroom is. We again are faced with the centuries-old dilemma: Is beauty merely in the eye of the beholder or is it quantified in an objet d’art—a neon sign pointing to the bathroom, for example?

Another important branch of philosophy is epistemology, or the study of knowledge and how we obtain information. Singer/philosopher Bill Anderson poses the dilemma in obtaining knowledge when he asks his lover to walk away from him backwards so he’ll think she’s coming in. He points out that our senses are conflicted on whether the individual is, in fact, walking out or walking in. It is a classic struggle between perception and reality.

There are many examples in country music/philosophy of the combination of metaphysics, ethics, and cosmology in the same treatise. Philosopher Cash delves into all these branches of philosophy in the essay on “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” The unworldly creatures serve as a metaphor for the judgment of good and evil. The ghost riders explain the consequences of leading a life of evil to a cowboy. It appears the only way to assure your place in heaven is to change their bad ways. Otherwise, they’re changing the devil’s herd forever in the sky.

A similar combination of cosmology and ethics take place in two other classical philosophical works: “Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life” and Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”

No doubt serious philosophical issues are discussed in the music of other genres. We should immediately begin studies of the works of Lawrence Welk and Snoop Dogg.