Reasserting our humanity

| 1st April 2009
How to be free
In writing <i>Leviathan</i>, Thomas Hobbes created a monster: us. By reasserting our humanity we can correct the mistakes of the social scientists, says Tom Hodgkinson
Hobbes's idea was world peace, and we frantically pursued it at the cost of many deaths. Had any century before the 20th seen genocide on such a massive scale?

According to Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, published in 1651, the central task of man was to avoid falling into what he called a ‘state of nature’. Without man’s ingenuity, hard work, self-interested business dealings and desire for self-preservation, a chaos and disorder awaited.

There would be: no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

Leviathan was written at a time when a new social system was emerging, one based on hard work and competition. The previous medieval system, which had taken Aristotle as its guide, had a more providential outlook, and saw humans as co-operative animals rather than competitive ones. Life was less about hard work, self-improvement and planning for the future, and more about contemplation, living in the moment, letting things take their course.

But the Hobbesian view clearly won out. It is the view that has led to the creation of our current system or approach to things. You can see Thomas Hobbes in Little House on the Prairie. Through Herculean will and determination, Ma and Pa cross America, and build a house. They make a fireplace, they sow seeds, they put fences up and introduce the idea of property ownership, and they suffer all weathers. The American Indians, meanwhile, live lightly on the earth. They move around, they camp, they wear beautiful clothes. There is no concept of property.

The old Indian ways died out or were forcefully killed off by the settlers. Instead, ‘commodious Buildings’ such as the Twin Towers sprung up on US soil. Hobbes’s idea was world peace, and we frantically pursued it at the cost, it might be said, of many deaths. Had any century before the 20th seen genocide on such a massive scale?

In the world of contemporary Californian futurology, epitomised by the hedge fund philosopher Peter Thiel, one of the three board members of Facebook and co-founder of PayPal, nature is a hostile force which man uses his ingenuity to overcome. Thiel commonly cites Hobbes as a philosophical inspiration. After all, the philosophy is flattering: it esteems man and his abilities very highly. In his own lectures, Thiel characterises the ‘state of nature’ as a time when we would eat raw flesh with our bare hands. It is thanks to hard work and creativity that man is able to develop cooking and culture. A recent Hollywood articulation of this idea can be seen in the movie Ratatouille, where a humble rat becomes a great chef. Computers help in this battle against nature.

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley almost satirically took this process, this Hobbesian plan, to its natural conclusion. In the Brave New World, the state of nature is something seen outside the city walls. Inside the Brave New World, the people are kept happy with endless sex and of course with soma, the drug that the citizens take when uncomfortable and messy reality – the state of nature – or passion—threaten to wreck the carefully constructed state of happiness.

Brave New World was published in 1932, and 10 years later Huxley was already seeing some his prophecies materialise: he cites, for example, that American divorce rates were on the rise. Now, even more elements of the Brave New World have come true: we have Prozac, ecstasy and Viagra; we work in air-conditioned offices; we have separated ourselves from nature; we go on mini-breaks; we use online dating agencies to find sexual partners; we are squeamish; we are huge
consumers of transport.

And more: we have become stupid. Hobbes’s idea that the recreation of the world by man would lead to a flowering of culture, to world peace and to the end of fear, has simply not happened. Instead, his fears have been realised: we feel more lonely and afraid than ever. We are truly solitary, separated from each other by work and by machines; we are impoverished in the sense that there is not enough Shakespeare and Keats in our lives (banned in Brave New World); we are nasty to one another, certainly brutish, and while we may have extended life expectancy, the lives we lead are slavish and passionless. The economic system is clearly anything but stable.

Hobbes was wrong. The task now is to create a world where life is convivial, rich, kind, civilised and full. A step away from arrogance and towards humility and a reverence for nature would be a good start.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of The Idler and author of How to be Free (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)

Hobbes's idea was world peace, and we frantically pursued it at the cost of many deaths. Had any century before the 20th seen genocide on such a massive scale?

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