25 August 2008

The Importance of Savages

In his Leviathan (Full Text), Thomas Hobbes laid out a pragmatic argument for the necessity of government. Left to their own devices, devoid of societal framework, of structure, human beings are beasts. We savagely attack our neighbors, sometimes for no other reason but then to hit them before they hit us. Baruch de Spinoza expanded upon this idea. Those who are rational can lead a moral life. The irrational majority of humanity needs the helpful restrictions of government and society to help them along.

To a point, I think these two men--and the long list of others who've submitted similar ideas--have got quite a lot right. We H. sapiens have never really gotten completely away from the days when our only king was natural selection. The greatest triumph of our species has been to grow beyond that simple and cruel selection. And civilization is the greatest safeguard we have to keep us from backsliding away from our relatively-newfound compassion.

That being said, compare the societal vision of Hobbes and Spinoza to that of Karl Marx. Hobbes and Spinoza have society in place to control, as it were, the irrational. It is safe to infer from this that they do not hold out much hope for the betterment of these poor irrational savages. To Marx, however, the best hope for total-society reorganization, for movement beyond class-struggle to a newer, better world, is not the intellectual elite. He looks to the poor, the weak--the very slobs Hobbes and Spinoza would have society control.

To my accounting of the progression of philosophical thought, this turn is a major step in the right direction. Breaking free of the constraints of natural selection, thinking beyond the number of grandchildren we will have, embracing the idea of non-zero-sum, putting in place the safeguards to further this growth--this is the triumph of our species. But if this advancement, this civilizing, is reserved for the privileged alone, if only the rich or the smart or the strong can benefit from this humanity--how small does the gain become when we take the mean growth of the species?

We are only ever as strong--as civilized--as the weakest among us. The chief goal of any society should not be the advancement of its upper echelons. Rather, the society that seeks to truly bolster itself, to raise up bastions against the savagery and bestiality that will forever lurk in our hearts, must begin from the ground and work its way up. Any notion of trickle-down is a happy delusion. Something to quiet the consciences of the fortuned. Something to placate everyone else.

Sadly, in this nation, we are presently too hopeless caught up in the American Lie Dream, too enamored of the idiotic notion that we all can be Donald Trumps and Bill Gates. And when a politician dares to say that our country has never and will never live up to the promises of its founding principles so long as one person remains in poverty, we listen. At least, until someone starts talking about gay marriage. Then we all promptly snatch up our signs and get to the important business of shouting.

And the nation continues to crumble from the inside out. From the bottom up.

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