“Hobbes was fond of his dram,” sang the Pythons. But he was fonder of his stick. His walking stick. (See below.)
I was amused when my old friend said he’d just spent five weeks in Britain and came away with nothing more philosophical than a visit to a castle where Hobbes had tutored. My colleague answered rightly by noting that an ancient English castle’s more likely to stimulate the philosophical imagination than is a dusty library in Tennessee. But in any event, Hobbes is a fascinating and over-maligned figure whose steps I look forward to tracking. As I wrote for students awhile back,
Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, he lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say pre-social contract humans were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel Warburton in his Little History, why do you lock your doors?
Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?
I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to secure it? How much have you? How secure do you feel? Still relevant questions in our time, and Hobbes’s answers were extreme indeed. But he was no monster, he was a peace-seeker and a civilizer. Most walkers are.
But, would life in a state of nature really be as bad as Hobbes thought? Most of us find most people less than totally distrustful, hostile, aggressive, and vicious, most of the time. On the other hand, we’re most of us hardly “noble savages” either. Civilization and its discontent-engendering institutions account for a percentage of everyday bad behavior, but surely not all of it.
The Hobbesian threat of insecurity and fear of violent death, in our time, may be great enough for most people to override their desire for personal freedom. Is safety more important than liberty? “Better red (or whatever) than dead?” Better to have government snoops monitoring your calls, emails, etc., than… than what, exactly?
Even if you agree with Hobbes that humans left to themselves would revert to base, aggressive, instinctive behavior, you may still also hesitate to agree that the only corrective for this condition is an all-powerful and authoritative central state. You may prefer not to concede the mechanistic, material model of humans as incapable of changing, of choosing to become more kind and compassionate, less fearful and selfish. You may hold out for a species capable of rewriting its default programming.
Speculations about human nature as inherently good or bad have always slighted the individuality of persons, absorbing it in abstractions about universal nature. We should seek instead to grasp the particularity of our separate natures. Our separate plural natures.
“Common sense” gets things wrong often enough and egregiously enough – the flatness of earth, the rectitude of slavery, etc.? – to give serious pause. Uncommon sense is in shorter supply, and greater demand.
Finally today: Descartes’ dreams of reality and appearance, and ours. Mine are not usually so lucid, but others say otherwise of theirs. Is it really possible to alter the “real world” by controlling your dreams? I’m skeptical.
And can someone please explain “Inception” to me?
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