Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Thought about Hobbes and civilization!

I had a thought that is worth sharing. One of my reasonably guilty pleasures is the comic Action Philosophers. They're brief descriptions of various philosophy set in humorous comic form! I like them because I like philosophy and I find them funny. In reading number nine - the last, alas - they had a bit about Hobbes and, of course, quoted his bit about without civilization that life was brutish, nasty and short.

My first interesting thought - interesting me at any rate - is that Hobbes is wrong. We are extremely lucky to live in civilization during the period that it works. It took about ten thousand years for civilization to actually work. Humans, generally, were much better off in a pre-civilized state. The average paleolithic human lived to be in their fifties. The average ancient Hellene? About eighteen. This would creep up as time went on, but even when Hobbes was writing those paleolithic humans were better off in terms of diet, longevity, freedom from disease and general quality of life. Interestingly enough, they were also much freer. It takes a pretty organized society to seriously oppress people. Hobbes was just factually wrong, which I find interesting. I've long disliked Hobbes, and it's nice to realize that he's factually wrong.

My second interesting thought is about the nature of intelligence. If humans were just a trifle bit less intelligent than we are, just a little less clever with things, our civilization would never have gotten to the point where the median lifespan was greater than those paleolithic hunter gatherers.

To me, this begs the question if we are seed AI - an intelligence smart enough to make itself smarter indefinitely. For reasons of ego, if nothing else, I'm inclined to think that the answer is "yes", that we are smart enough to get better and better. Saner, smarter, more prosperous, etc. But it wasn't until today, right now, that I realized how close we were to never getting to that point. If we had just been a trifle less intelligent, we could be stuck in a perpetual dark age.

Which might not be much of an original thought, or even very original, but it's the one I had.


Randy said...

Of course Hobbes was wrong. He comes from a tradition of European thought that hates life.

But even more so, this type of thinking stretches back to the first empires. _Leviathan_ was written during the English Civil War, when England believed that to maintain "order" it had to subjugate everyone to its authority: first the other British Isles; later, the rest of the world.

Are you drawing some parallel between Hobbes and our current political situation in America? I think you'll find Hobbes in any culture that seeks an empire.

Of course, Hobbes based his entire philosophy around the idea that humans feared violent death above all other fears. His Leviathan was supposed to safeguard people against assault and murder. I think that in order to tackle Hobbes one must first address our ability to die. Violently.

The obvious answer is that empires create more wanton death and destruction than anything else. The ultimate paradox of the Leviathan is that it must use widespread violence in order to bring about its "peace."

And, I'd argue, the Leviathan must perpetually use violence to maintain its power over its subjects.

At least for now.

handmaiden said...

life is brutish, nasty and short.

Hobbes was wrong of course, as we all will be proved to be wrong down the road. As the saying goes," The only thing constant is change". The paradox is, in all of that we find some constancy.

"It takes a pretty organized society to seriously oppress people". Does it? I believe oppression is most relevant to the particular circumstances in which it is enacted.
Granted, oppression seems to increase in seriousness as human consciousness develops. But, it is no less relevant to the person being oppressed.

What is interesting to me is that every age, creates it's own style of oppression.

Nothing really has changed...