Nasty nature

19 11 2013


scene from film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road:

Thomas Hobbes would not have been surprised at the revelations this week that former co-op bank chairman Paul Flowers, now known forever as the ‘Crystal Methodist,’ took drugs to ease the pressure of his demanding job.

The influential political philosopher Hobbes, who lived through the whole of the English Civil War, recognised that life is pretty lonely at the top and that most people are driven by fear. Fear had been with Hobbes from birth when on hearing that the Spanish Armada was approaching, his mother went into labour early. ‘Fear and I were born twins,’ Hobbes later said.

In complete opposition to Epicurus who argued that death is nothing and therefore something that we really need not be afraid of, Hobbes believed that fear of death is a very real anxiety for most people. Most people would trade their freedom and security in exchange for protection from violent death. Police states and military dictatorships are preferable to what Hobbes called a ‘state of nature’ in which humans turn feral. According to Hobbes, humans left to their own devices could not help but take advantage of each other and would end up tearing each other to pieces.

Cormac McCarthy’s magnificent novel The Road, set in a post-apocalyptic America, takes a powerful and poetic look at what happens to people when society becomes extinct, and he comes to similar conclusions to Hobbes.

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe.” The Road.

As McCarthy observes, few humans will show mercy to others when in a state of intense deprivation and fear. We have plenty of examples of crimes of human evil from the holocaust and world wars that fully support Hobbes. We also have plenty of examples of humans helping themselves from the world of business banking. When a natural disaster breaks, such as in the Philippines, one of the first priorities is to restore law and order so that scarce resources can be shared out fairly. By Hobbes’ account we are incapable of being fair on our own. We need systems with people in uniform telling us what to do.

Hobbes wrote as a systems thinker, a top-down man, who believed that only way of curbing man’s natural uncontrollable desires to loot, to cheat, to lie, to steal and help himself is to put in charge a dictator who would rule with an iron fist.

Our discussion tonight found much to agree with in Hobbes. Why is it that people cannot get along? Why is it that Protestants and Catholics continue their civil wars through their football teams? Why is it that in today’s democratic Britain we have never had a period of social harmony that has not been interrupted by gang violence or street riots? People will always have splintered beliefs, argued one member of the group. Even if we dissolved all religion, people would still fall out with each other.

So maybe Hobbes is right: it really is ‘a war of all against all,’ but several among us tonight felt that mankind was certainly not lost. Even though we might recognise the terrible landscape painted by McCarthy and other writers who explore the theme of dystopia, we are making progress as a human race.

We’ve certainly moved on from the seventeenth century when Hobbes was writing his political treatise. Hobbes believed that humans behaved like animated machines. It was our physical makeup that made us unruly and driven by our own desires. We are not right or wrong in a state of nature, we are in a sense innocent of society’s civilising influence. Morality is only possible after we have created a structure for it.

This narrow view of mankind, still influential in some areas of education and psychology, limits us. Hobbes did not consider the creative aspect of mankind; the idea that we hold the solution to the problems we have created would have been alien to him. For Hobbes, too much freedom led to anarchy and chaos. For less rigid philosophers, including Aristotle, who Hobbes blamed for spreading the idea that humans could choose how to live virtuously, a free-thinking rational way of life is essential for growth, for experimentation, for innovation. Without reasoned free thinking, how can we ever learn to advance on the old worn-out ideas that no longer apply? We all know plenty of institutions that cling to a Hobbesian world-view that doing what we’ve always done keeps us safe and protected, and we all know how stultifying and often dehumanising it is to spend even a short time in such places.

The chance to flourish and grow, as Aristotle argued, is what gives people a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Deprived of the opportunity to make something of our lives, to find something for which we can live or die, we are indeed on the road to chaos.

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