This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
“There be beasts, that at a year old observe more, and pursue that which is for their good, more prudently, than a child can do at ten.”
A somewhat bleak and strange book arguing that human life is often brutal and senseless, and that therefore we should all accept a “social contract” that acknowledges the greater authority of a sovereign leader.
I knew Thomas Hobbes was going to be hardcore when I read these lines: “For as for Witches, I think not that their witchcraft is any reall power; but yet that they are justly punished, for the false beliefe they have, that they can do such mischiefe, joyned with their purpose to do it if they can: their trade being neerer to a new Religion, than to a Craft or Science.” So, in other words, if I’m reading this right on a bleary-eyed Sunday, thought crimes are worthy of death, and witches deserve what they get not because of what they cannot do but because they’re close to creating a new religion.
Certainly it seems to me that Hobbes by taking this position–and several others in the book–would have been persona non grata with most forms of organized Christianity. Although there’s a bit of the Bible in Hobbes’ style, Of Man is starkly secular. And by starkly, I mean without humor and so intent on straining out the spiritual that it seems unconceivable that Hobbes might entertain an organic vision of the world–biospheres, ecosystems, symbiosis. There’s a clanking metal bucket quality that’s both off-putting and oddly endearing.
I must admit that for much of this book, Hobbes seemed to me like a hulking, ungainly giant, festooned and be-ribboned with Themes and Terms presented All in Capital Letters, Just So–with me as a rabbit trying to escape his tread. (Which is to say here’s a title that I will have to revisit.)
And yet, if Hobbes is a rough giant, then he has a surgeon’s hands, because there is so much interesting detail here about the Senses and about human emotions. I know this is just the support for comparing the human body to political systems, but that detail is what most interested me.
Here’s Hobbes on Dreams:
The most difficult discerning of a mans Dream, from his waking thoughts, is then, when by some accident we observe not that we have slept: which is easie to happen to a man full of fearful thoughts; and whose conscience is much troubled; and that sleepeth, without the circumstances, of going to bed, or putting off his clothes, as one noddeth in a chayre. For he that taketh pains, and industriously layes himself to sleep, in case any uncouth and exorbitant fancy come unto him, cannot easily think it other than a Dream.
What follows, with “fearful apparition” and talk of “Satyres, Fawnes, Nymphs, and the like” is almost like a twisted, dark version of and vision from A Midsummer Night’s Dream–one that Hobbes is trying to push as far away as possible. And the reader, finding such images in this context, will find them drab and tawdry and sad. I felt at times as if I were in Narnia during the White Witch’s rule. (In a sense, then, Hobbes is the forefather of non-escapist fantasy.*)
The discussions of the need for the precision of language that follow, along with Hobbes’ combination and re-combination of how, for example, Appetite is linked to hope and despair, is not only fascinating but of interest to fiction writers (different aims, but similar emphasis).
At times while reading Of Men, Hobbes seemed, unexpectedly, like a fusion of Schopenhauer and Lucretius. At other times, I was reminded of the huge structures, filled with human beings, in Clive Barker’s “In the Cities, the Hills” by which the villagers of fight each other–and through which they eventually die, crushed, as they fall to earth.
* I am partially joking here.
Note: I lost my entire Hobbes post this morning due to a quirk of WordPress and accidentially deleting my back-up in Outlook. This is a reconstruction, and not as complete, for which I apologize. But taking more time to re-do it would probably lead to me running into the street screaming “Stella! Stella!” Life is indeed brutish and short. Like a shark, if I do not keep swimming forward, I will drown.
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury would have found Disney movies long and tedious.
Question for Readers
Just how brutish is life, and how would Hobbes view modern U.S. government and society?
Next up, going from a laugh riot to a giggle fest, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne-Burial…