Becker and Hobbes

Bruce Floyd | January 17, 2012

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

This weekend I found myself reading a little about Thomas Hobbes, who, or so it seems to me, anticipates Becker somewhat in that Hobbes believed that the chief horror of a person’s living in nature is the person’s fear of death, especially sudden and violent death. Using the example of Prometheus having his liver eaten each day and repaired each night (imagine the anxiety), Hobbes says “to that man which looks too far before him, in the care of future time, hath his heart all the day long gnawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity, and has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep.”

Hobbes had little use for clever but meaningless phrases. We should, I suppose, do our best to live in the Now, as contrasted with the past and the future, and those who keep saying this are no doubt right, but, sadly, living in just the Now is impossible for a self-conscious creature. It takes a better and wiser man than I to comprehend this living in the Now. The few withered leaves on the trees outside my study window are, surely, in the Now, but, ah, they remind me of what it to come. The resplendent beauty of autumn is fading now, the leaves bare, the brightly colored leaves sodden. Winter looms ahead. I can prate all I want about the wonder of the moment, but in my imagination I am always standing beside the newly-dug grave when the gravedigger heaves up the jawless skull of Yorick, and all I can say is, “That skull had a tongue in it once and could sing.” What “Now” can erase that tune from my memory?

Hobbes wanted to know what was the answer to this awful problem. Hobbes chose not to consider religion, since he finds is “not a safeguard against fear, but a parasite on it.” No, the answer Hobbes provides is secular. To avoid and to escape the consequences of his impotence, his mortality, his tenuous existence, his self-consciousness which fills him with anxiety, mankind must construct “an authority . . . whose opinions are truth, whose orders are justice.” Becker would say, of course, that Hobbes is talking about “cultural heroics.” The culture absorbs the anxiety, “takes over” the life of the citizen, enables him to live a truncated but comfortable life, one in which he knows his place. Men are, as Hobbes knew, eager to give up their freedom, to abdicate from responsibility for their own lives. They are sheep who want to be led, to be taken care of, to be protected.

What happens, though, when one of the sheep understands that the shepherd knows no more than the sheep?

2 Comments

  1. I like the way you pharased this: “The culture absorbs the anxiety, “takes over” the life of the citizen, enables him to live a truncated but comfortable life, one in which he knows his place. Men are, as Hobbes knew, eager to give up their freedom, to abdicate from responsibility for their own lives.”

    What are the alternatives for us? A dedication to the ideal of “the Knight of Faith”, or perhaps a committment to the Bodhisattva Ideal? This is where Becker leaves me in an existential ditch. Can we really choose our own transference object?

  2. Interesting post.
    Life is a journey of NOWS. Best to keep in mind that we are just passing through something that we don’t understand at all. We are the lucky ones who can at least sense this mystery for a short time. Emphasize the wonder, forget the ego.

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