Tom and Jerry’s Discourses on How to be A Human…Or why “Everybody Wants to be a Cat” is Objectively True

In 1941’s “The Midnight Snack,” Hollywood icons William Hanna and Joseph Barbera introduced viewers to Jerry the Mouse for the first time, exiting a refrigerator, holding a wedge of cheese, sliding down a celery stalk that he positioned as an escape chute. Within the first 30 seconds we immediately know that we’re not dealing with some regular old mouse. Next we meet Tom, a cheesy-grinned cat who, despite observing Jerry’s craftiness, plays with him responsively, stacking plates and cups on top of his cache of food to weigh him down (in a very Atlas-esque posture). While it is observable in nature that cats often play with their prey, they usually do so from the position of agency, but is clear from their embodied movements and expressions, and the tone set by the musical scoring that it is Jerry, not Tom, who is playing puppet master in this animated world. (DISCLAIMER: The symbolism behind the African-American “mammy” trope in this episode would require a semester’s worth of classes to unpack. For the sake of this essay, I’m sitting on my fingers and putting her to the side for now, but suffice it to say, she too has epistemic meaning).

Tom and Jerry’s success as a cartoon goes beyond its mere ability to make its audience laugh because it speaks to certain essential truths and premises about human life that give it particular resonance, premises that I would claim form the basis of an epistemic understanding of what it means to be and live as a human. If one accepts the contention that “reason is the only oracle of man,” then one takes the view that success at the “game” of being a human, if you will, has come as a direct result of the human’s ability to use her reason to interpret sensory perceptions, to find patterns out of seemingly-caprice phenomena, to mediate and interpret the zone of our responsive emotions, and to deliberate and make purposeful, informed actions and decisions. The elevation of reason

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