Friday, January 29, 2016

That Interesting State of Nature

Not so curiously (when I think about it) gloomy, coldish, and wet weather brings to my mind that interesting seventeenth, eighteenth century concept of “the State of Nature.” One doesn’t hear much about it these days—although one ought to; we may be headed back in that direction.

The thought tends to arise early in the morning when (in this house anyway), getting the morning paper takes a fair walk; I have to dress for it, and bundling up is even better. Sleet, remnants of snow lie (and often are just then falling) on the ground; wind that sometimes shatters my half-asleep balance with its gusts, and never mind its distant majestic roaring in the sky—together these phenomena make me think, for the two minutes I’m outside, that I am in the State of Nature; I do so even when the temperature is almost warm, 20° to 32° F, say. I’m in that state just long enough to realize that (thank the Lord) I’m not permanently there. Physical discomfort, to be sure, was not what Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Hume had in mind. These luminaries of the Enlightenment were using the lens of Reason, with variable application of actual observation, to illuminate how organized societies came about. But “state of nature” may also be understood my way, thus as exposure to it; and then I’m also reminded of the philosophical meaning of the phrase.

There was no TV back in the seventeenth century—and no endless choice between programs eager to show us how monkeys, penguins, elephants, and countless other species still live (if they are lucky), in the state of nature. Thus Hobbes could speak of man as an isolated creature at war with all other men, his life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and [thankfully during my short paper-walk] short.” Hobbes represents one pole of State of Nature—the negative; the cure for which was Leviathan, the mortal god. The other pole is represented by Rousseau; for him the State of Nature was a kind of mundane paradise; the State then becomes something oppressive by introducing, applying, and exploiting the dangerous concept of property. Hume’s stand on the subject is closest to mine; which makes sense: he is the youngest of those luminaries, born in 1711 (versus Hobbes born in 1588). Hume in effect dismisses the State of Nature as a fiction; but he grants it a minor status as a philosophical concept to think about.

Observation of Nature and its creatures—not least anthropological studies of remnants of primitive cultures—show that humans have never really lived in the State of Nature, at least as philosophically understood, whether negatively or positively. But all people who’ve ever lived have reacted to weather like we have had lately with my rather jaundiced view of it. Hence tents, huts, settlements. Hence interaction with helpful others. Hence the State—which is just a function of population density—always at least potentially present, its rudiments always visible.

Those rudiments of the State, of course, include cooperation, voluntary self-limitation, and obedience to rules held in common. Hobbes' solitary man could do anything he pleased; the stamp on his forehead said libertarian. But that way lies chaos—which we’ve never found in actuality except in times when the State begins to wither and, in the process, a return to a much more decentralized state of affairs is in process. Chaos observed? Yes. In Syria for instance. And in a milder variety here at home as well. The parts are separating, hence things seem chaotic; let’s hope that that situation is only temporarily. Let’s hope that the center will too hold.

That hopeful note because, this morning, the sun is bright; it’s lovely out there in Nature, especially when viewed though a window looking at the trees in the distance while listening to the crackling in the walls as the radiators are getting a nice supply of hot, hot water to keep this micro-Leviathan cozy.

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