TCS Daily

The State of Nature in New Orleans: What Hobbes Didn't Know

By Lee Harris - September 8, 2005 12:00 AM

In the most recent issue of Newsweek, George F. Will has written a remarkably thoughtful essay on the significance of Katrina.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Will observes, the city of New Orleans reverted back to what the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called "the state of nature," a condition characterized by the absence of any established governmental authority sufficient to keep in check the violent and aggressive impulses of the individuals who compose it.

On the reversion of New Orleans to the state of nature, I could not agree more. Where I must disagree is not with Mr. Will so much, but with Thomas Hobbes himself; and my point of disagreement is with Hobbes' famous and often quoted characterization of man's original state of nature as one in which human life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

The problem I have is with the first adjective: solitary.

If you step back and look at what really happened in New Orleans, the fact will jump out at you that human beings, instead of running around solitary and alone, immediately clumped together into gangs and groups, of two fundamental divergent types: one purely aggressive, and the other purely defensive.

On the one hand, you had gangs of ruthless young men who looted, raped, and murdered, doing whatever they pleased and taking whatever they wanted. On the other hand, you had weak and frightened individuals who could only defend themselves by gathering into protective clumps -- circling the wagons, so to speak.

No doubt, some must have been stranded in solitude; but for the most part, solitude was avoided if there was anyway that the individual could escape from it. In a world where there are gangs of ruthless boys and young men roving about, nothing can be worse than to be come across one of them when you are alone. You become their instant prey. Hence, each individual would quickly rush from the state of lonely insecurity in order to become allied with a more powerful association.

Looked at from the perspective of post-Katrina New Orleans, Hobbes does not come across as the pessimist that he is often represented as being. After all, in Hobbes' state of nature, the worst enemy you could possibly encounter would be another solitary individual like yourself, with whom you could stand a fair chance in a fist fight, or with whom you might work out some fair deal. But when your worst enemy comes in the form of a bunch of ruthless thugs, what chance against them would the average man have?

In short, in the real and not merely theoretical state of nature, human beings tend to clump together, and these clumps tend to be clumps of the strong and the ruthless, on the one hand, and the weak and the defenseless, on the other. So Hobbes was quite obviously wrong in his assertion that life in a state of nature would be solitary. On the contrary, it would be clump-like.

But what about the rest of the characterization -- the part about "poor, nasty, brutish, and short?" Did Hobbes get that part right, at least?

To see how Hobbes scored on this one, perform a simple thought-experiment. Suppose that New Orleans had been an island, and that it was solitary and alone, without any hope of outside help coming in. Imagine that there was no National Guard or United States military to come to the rescue of those human clumps made by the weak and defenseless, or to check the aggression of those human clumps made up by the strong and the ruthless. What, over the course of time, would have resulted from this situation?

There can be no question that the life of the weak and defenseless clumps would be "poor, nasty, brutish" -- and very possibly quite short as well. This is because the members of the weak clumps would either be quickly killed off by the strong clumps or that they would, if lucky or good-looking, become the slaves, the sex toys, or servants of whatever gangs came out on top in the struggle that would obviously take place between rival gangs.

Now this struggle would, of course, be violent and it would cut short the life of many of the strong and the ruthless; but in the end, the gangsters would rule, either in the form of a single dominant gang, or else in the form of a multitude of continually feuding gangs.

The gangs that came out on top might well continue to be brutish and nasty in their behavior, but they would not be poor. At least, they would be exempt from all need to toil and to work, since they would have their slaves and servants to take care of their needs. If not rich in the kind of material goods that constitutes our idea of wealth, they would have plenty of liquor and food and concubines and catamites -- all the things that make the good life as the gangster sees it.

This, in fact, is the genesis of every warrior elite that has dominated every tribute paying class since at least the time of the Assyrian Empire, if not long before.

Hobbes, however, did not grasp any of this.

Hobbes firmly believed that in his state of nature all individuals were exposed to exactly the same risk and the same challenges. Indeed, that was an essential premise of his general theory of politics: it was why Hobbes believed people could be persuaded, by rational argument alone, to enter into the social contract: it was in everyone's self interest to enter to do so. Because each of us was solitary, and because each was (more or less) equal in our strength and cleverness, each of us would have precisely the same interest in creating a government to protect us. Since we all were alone, anarchy was equally disadvantageous to us all.

But is that what the state of nature in New Orleans revealed? Not remotely. There it quickly became apparent that the state of nature favored certain individual far more than others -- namely, the strong, the young, the male, and the ruthless. Within hours of the catastrophe, they had seized the streets and ruled them to their own advantage. In the state of nature, they were the natural masters of the situation.

But if Hobbes got it wrong, then who got it right?

The answer is that Aristotle did, but without quite realizing it.

Curiously enough, Hobbes loathed Aristotle, and in particular he objected to Aristotle's theory that, for some men, slavery was their natural state. To Hobbes, as to all modern liberals, such an idea was deeply abhorrent and shocking. All men were equal in their gifts; all men were solitary in their self-interests.

Aristotle's idea of the natural slave, however, turns out to be the correct one; but not quite in the way that Aristotle meant it. For Aristotle, the natural slave was the person who could not control his own impulses, and who was therefore better off with a master who forced him to control himself.

In fact, this was a fairly transparent ideological gloss on the brutal reality of how the Greek world of Aristotle's time operated. Contrary to Aristotle's claim, people were not enslaved because they scored low on IQ tests, or because they exhibited a high degree of co-dependency on standardized psychological profiles. They were made slaves because they could be made slaves; they were made slaves because they were too weak and too helpless to defend themselves against the ruthless and heartless warrior elite that happened to come across them.

We have a first hand account of this process in Xenophon's The Persian Expedition. Here the Greek mercenary forces who have found themselves trapped in the middle of the Persian Empire decide to fight their way back to Greece, and while on their way, they support themselves by capturing men, boys, girls, and women, herding them together and selling them at the next slave market they come to, in order to buy provisions for themselves. Does anyone feel the slightest guilt about it? No -- none at all. Not more guilt than the young looters and rapists of New Orleans felt during their rampage.

So there are, in a way, natural slaves, just as there are, in a way, natural masters. Alas, it has always been the peaceful and the hard-working who have proven to be the natural slaves, and the ruthless and idle who have proven to be the natural masters.

That is the truth about the state of nature; and it is a truth that all liberals from the time of Thomas Hobbes have tried hard to hide from themselves.

Reason is not enough to make the strong and the ruthless renounce their natural mastery over the weak and frail.

In which case, it is only sensible to ask, What is?

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.


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