A Hobbesian Philosophy of Technology

August 25, 2017

Thanks to David Seng, HMU doctoral student, for today's post.

One of things I admire most about the Great Authors is how relevant their ideas are to our particular time and place. Sometimes this relevancy shows up in surprising ways. As one who works in the intersection of philosophy and technology I was surprised to see how the ideas of Thomas Hobbes applied to the twenty first century issues of technology and our digital culture.

Hobbes was a keen student of human nature and focused on the fears, greed, and hubris that drive nearly all social arrangements. Interestingly, the same fears and motivations drive humans today as they did in the seventeenth century. In the world of internet communication technologies (ICTs) and as an important cultural phenomenon, social media has demonstrated that Hobbes’s view of human nature has important implications for our time. Further, Hobbes believes that human nature itself is the driving force behind the actions of both individuals and the states (and firms) that are made up of individuals. From a Hobbesian perspective, technology itself, being a social creation, brings with it all the aspects of human nature and provides a kind of technological realism that helps us develop an interesting conceptual scheme for understanding the social and cultural ramifications of technology and social media. Along the way, we’ll discover that Hobbes sets up the concerns that were addressed later by the Great Authors Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger regarding the effects of technology on society.

Hobbes famously described human nature as “brutish, nasty and short”. The idea is that without an all-powerful sovereign to keep society under control, mankind is essentially in a selfish and brutal war of all against all (he calls this humanity’s “natural state of nature”). According to Hobbes, human beings are simply unable to create free consensual governments based on reasonable laws. An all-powerful political force is therefore needed to keep everyone at bay. In order to overcome this fearful state of existence, individuals will create a social contract with the sovereign in exchange for a strong political power that will provide safety, security, and economic prosperity. Finally, according to Hobbes, the sovereign is clearly above the law. While political theorists debate this picture of human nature and reason presented by Hobbes, I think a very significant social element of his thought is overlooked and provides some interesting warnings to those of us living in the information age.

Long before Martin Heidegger became concerned about the impact and effects of technology on our understanding and view of the world, Thomas Hobbes presents and defends the position that human beings are essentially mechanical, material, and computational. Being overcome with the “new method” of his day, Hobbes essentially converts the scientific method into a new metaphysical system and uses the first six chapters of the Leviathan to explain that individuals are elemental parts of the great machine of the commonwealth. In this sense, Hobbes presents an instrumentalist view of human beings. People exist for the purposes of the state. In short, Hobbes gives us a view of human nature that is essentially greedy, brutal, and mechanistic but if harnessed through an all-powerful sovereign, individuals will collectively serve the state.

Perhaps, a response could be made that things have changed so much in the nearly four hundred years since Hobbes wrote the Leviathan that he has no bearing on cultural reality today. After all, we have the internet that has connected people and families across the world, and communication of all kinds is now nearly instantaneous. In the age of information, we have created new and more knowledge and disseminated it in mind-numbing speeds. Through technological advances, humans have discovered treatments and cures for diseases which before were thought to be impossible to address. We even have global capitalism, driven largely by technology firms, which has created more wealth for most of the people on the planet. Has technology, and the corporations that create our devices shaped humanity into a more rational, thoughtful, and compassionate existence?

In the age of ICTs that transcend geo-political realities and cross borders and boundaries in an immediate manner, social media firms have become Hobbesian states. The Hobbesian state is not simply about the structure of governance in monarchies or consensually governed nation states. It now has properties that apply across national boundaries with global, cultural, and social implications. Sadly, consumer capitalism driven by technology firms that make more money than the GDPs of many emerging countries, are not altogether altruistic. Individuals exist for the purposes of social media firms—a Leviathan that collects data from compliant individuals to be bought and sold. Developing markets understand this phenomenon and is the reason why India recently rejected Facebook’s attempt to be the sole internet provider in the region. India (the world’s largest democracy) neither wanted Facebook’s limited and controlled service, nor—worse—the data collection the social media company would conduct upon its citizens. India did not want its citizens to become instruments in digital colonization.

Interestingly and ironically, those of us in the West, happily give up our property (pictures, documents, music, and other digital files), conversations, and privacy rights to the all-powerful Leviathan of social media firms or various internet service providers. As Hobbes explains it:

"I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a Commonwealth; in Latin, Civitas. This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence" (italics in original).

When it comes to social media firms, we seem to give up our rights to our own vital information, privacy, and property in exchange for very little. We may think that the tradeoff is of no consequence, that giving up our most valued information to the mortal god of a social media firm is harmless. However, when users accept the terms of service for a social media account they are immediately mined for their consumer data by eCommerce firms and surveilled by the government. What are users getting in return? Google, Facebook, and Twitter (just to name a few) are famous for changing and discontinuing services at will, leaving the user with no legal recourse. Like Hobbes’s sovereign, social media firms can create the rules and stand above them. From a Hobbesian perspective, social media firms and those that make them up will always act in their own interests

So what can we learn from this Hobbesian state of social media? It is important to remember that Hobbes emphasized one side of human nature to the exclusion of the rationality, creativity, and compassion of the human spirit. Human beings always carry over into their technology and social institutions the most vexing traits of the human condition itself. The fact is, our social and technological efforts are always a mixture of good and evil. That is why, sadly, whatever humans create for good can also be used in the most malicious ways. We should always carefully and rationally think through the claims of digital utopians who state that certain technologies are “good”. We must consider what the “good” is at hand and whether or not that which is new is better. In addition, the instrumentalist view of humans first seen in Hobbes and developed ever since in the West is the source of alienation pointed out by Karl Marx. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx describes the alienation of the instrumentalist view of human nature as it applies to work and the effects of technology on society. Marx and Heidegger continue this discussion set up by Hobbes and these Great Authors set the tone and issues we struggle with today. Finally, we must seek a balance between the positive and negative sides of technology. While technology can bring about many good and useful things, we must keep a vigilant eye on the Hobbesian and dehumanizing aspects of society that create our technology.

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Essay on The Great Idea of Man

November 11, 2016

Thanks to Ann Wagner, HMU doctoral student, for today's blog. Her essay introduces the contemporary struggle with the Great Idea of "Man". She offers helpful historical connections regarding the lack of a female voice in the updated version of the Great Idea of "Man". The essay is posted here in its entirety. Enjoy!

According to Adler the primary principle to be experienced by the reader when exploring an idea in The Great Books of the Western World is the conversation that evolves between the authors across the centuries and the awareness that this conversation has meaning today. He proposes the image of the authors sitting around a table — “totally oblivious to the circumstances of their own time and place and their diversity of tongues—confronting each other in agreement, disagreement” (28). This unique conversation across time is a phenomenon that the reader experiences in pursuing many of the topics within the Great Ideas when reading syntopically. Often it is a touchstone moment to witness the synchronicity that exists in the thoughts expressed from the ancient authors down through time to the authors of today.

But the premise of this essay explores a different experience for the syntopical reader when focusing on the subtopic, The Distinctive Characteristics of Men and Women and Their Differences, under the great idea of Man. It is the premise of this essay that the only way to remain open to the thoughts of many of the listed authors within this subtopic is by continually keeping in the forefront of one’s mind the circumstances of the authors’ own time and place. Only when the reader remains aware of the context of the times in which the author is writing and understands the elusive, sometimes insidious nature of social context can there be some bridge between then and now. The following discussion will present the difficulties that are present in studying and reading in the above named subtopic when not taking into consideration the social context of the authors and that without the consideration of social context along with understanding its power and nuances, the expectation of having a conversation over time is not possible. Although the theme of this essay goes against one of Adler’s primary principles in appreciating the authors in the Great Books set, it is the elephant in the room for this subtopic and bears examination.

Adler addresses in The Great Conversation the unexpected awareness he experienced upon updating the list of authors for the second edition of The Great Books of the Western World in 1990—that the continuity of the conversation between the authors over time had been clearly broken with the addition of new authors, especially the 20th century authors. A continuity of thought that had been present for 25 centuries was no longer present between the 19th and 20th centuries (30). With the addition of the new authors, he cites the need for rewriting the introductory essays, adding new topics and altering old topics to “call attention to the disagreements of the 20th century authors with their predecessors, or their departures from the ground that had been covered in earlier centuries, and the breaking of new ground” (31).

This break in the continuity of the conversation among the authors becomes understandable to Adler when he considers the ”revolution in the physical and biological sciences” (31) and the advances in economics that had taken place in the 20th century; his concern to provide the necessary updates to keep the conversation fluid over time in the areas mentioned above is apparent (31). Interestingly he makes no mention of the revolution in the 20th century that addressed women’s issues, the feminist movement, nor any mention of the changes that were needed within the idea of Man and the subtopics that were related specifically to women. And yet with the update, for the first time women were included in the list of authors within the Great Books set; for the first time woman’s voice was added to the conversation. The feminist movement significantly changed women’s place and voice in the world in the 20th century. It leaves one with questions – Why was there no comment from Adler on the impact of this movement as a part of his discussion in The Great Conversation concerning the break in continuity that he discovered with the addition of the new authors (31)? Was the break in the continuity of the conversation regarding the subtopics related to women not so easy to address?

One of the first observations is that there is a difference in definition between the revolution of the physical, natural and economic sciences that Adler does address and revolution as it applies to the feminist movement. The definition for a revolution in the sciences according to Meriam-Webster’s Dictionary refers to a “fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something; a change of paradigm” (1068 ). In this form of revolution what has come before is built upon, it forms a foundation from which to proceed. The feminist movement fits closer to another definition of revolution: over a short period of time in the 20th century the movement brought about a “sudden, radical or complete change” (1068). The feminist movement began to change the way people lived and thought about possibilities in their everyday lives and it changed the way people responded to each other. With this definition of revolution there is not a desire to build on the past; the focus is to bring about change. What came before is challenged on social, moral, and political levels. In the revolution of the sciences there were ideas, laws, facts, past truths to be studied, revised, expanded upon; in the feminist movement there was a social context that was named, proclaimed as wrong and demands were made for change. What is the conversation that can bridge the past with the present across time with a break in continuity such as this? A discussion of social context, of the time and place in which the authors wrote, would at least bring to the conversation that there was not intent to harm by the many authors who wrote about men’s superiority over women, it would bring some understanding to the anger, frustration or complete discounting of the authors’ words that one experiences in reading within this subtopic.

Adler does acknowledge in the introductory essay to the Idea of Man in the Syntopicon that the 20th century brought forward the problem of gender. In the introductory essay the reader is advised that the word “man” signifies both men and women for all the authors included in the great books. (11) Also acknowledged is that almost inclusively the authors from “Aristotle to Nietzsche regard males as superior to females” (11). Clearly Adler is trying to bridge the conversation between the first 25 centuries and the 20th century with these two sentences, but for the subtopic specified this is not very helpful.

While reading in many of the disciplines, translating man to mankind does not present a problem, but reading in the subtopic that addresses the characteristics of men and women and their differences that translation does not work. The authors mentioned in the introductory essay and authors later in time than Nietzsche continue to speak to the superiority of man over woman and many of the arguments for the lesser status of women are presented as scientific fact. Darwin speaks to the process of sexual selection and the law of the deviation from averages as evidence of man’s greater intellectual power (566); William James describes brain development and concludes that although woman’s brain is more instinctive initially, it is “least educated in the end” (691) and the male brain “becomes so much more efficient than the woman’s” (691); Freud, in his lecture on The Psychology of Women, clarifies that “psycho-analysis does not try to describe what women are... it investigates the way in which women develop [sexually] out of children” (855) and that with regard to this investigation his lecture “contains nothing but facts, with hardly any speculative additions” (853). In detailing the sexual development of women he speaks to their frigidity, greater narcissism, passivity, little sense of justice, weaker social interests and a more complex sexual development process that often does not reach mature completion (862-864); but despite the far reaching influence of this factor, “an individual woman may [italics added] be a human being apart from this” (864). Clearly man refers to man and woman is something other in the above discussions. The superiority of man over women is presented in the expertise of the various authors as though it were scientific fact. It becomes difficult after reading authors with these perspectives on women to read the other writings within their specialty areas without wondering to what degree man really does mean male only and to question where woman does fit in the author’s perspective. What does a reader of the 21st century do with this? The only helpful response, again, is for the reader to keep in mind the social context of the author at that time of his writing, but there is not the opportunity to bring the time and place of an author’s writing into the conversation.

Tocqueville is the first among the original authors of the Great Books to bring into the conversation the idea of social context in discussing the inequality between men and women in Democracy In America. In observing the American woman in a young, developing country, Tocqueville observes her in a social context that requires of her and allows her an expanded role, a more equal partnership with man, he observes:

I have shown how democracy destroys or modifies those various Inequalities which are in origin social. [based on the context of the time] But is that the end of the matter? May it not ultimately come to change the great inequality between man and woman which has up till now seemed based on the eternal foundations of nature? [a truth or law of nature]
I think that the same social impetus which brings nearer to the same level father and son, master and servant, and generally every inferior to every superior does raise the status of women and should make them more and more nearly equal to men. (323)


Tocqueville has great praise for the American women, he praises the separate functions that man and woman performed in early America so that by working together and respecting each other’s role they accomplished great work, but he tempers his hope for equality when he clarifies that a woman could never be in charge of the external affairs of the family or interfere in politics or in the authority of the husband. Despite these defined limits on equality, he does take a giant step in changing the conversation from the superiority of man over woman as a truth to a social construct that can be changed and changed for the good of all – but of course with limits (323-325).

The authors added in the second edition of The Great Books continued the movement away from accepting men’s superiority to women as a fact of nature to the discussion of social context as the basis for this belief. Eliot in her novel Middlemarch serves as not only the narrator of her story, but also provides an aside voice that comments on the superior attitude men have towards women and the long standing assumptions (tradition) that make that possible.

A man’s mind—what there is of it—has always the advantage of being masculine—as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm—and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality. Sir James might not have originated this estimate; but a kind Providence furnishes the limpest personality with a little gum or starch in the form of tradition. (212)


Another scene from Middlemarch describes the engagement party for Miss Brooke, a bright, religious, pretty in her own way, serious young woman and central character in the story. Two invited male guests have some assessments of Miss Brooke, one is a middle age bachelor, Mr. Chichely, set in his ways, with an Easter egg complexion and a few well arranged hairs across the top of his head: “not my style of woman: I like a woman who lays herself out a little more to please us. . . Ay, to be sure, there should be a little devil in woman, ... And I like them blond, with a certain gait, and a swan neck” (244).

The other gentleman is Mr. Lydgate, the new, young doctor in town: “She is a good creature ... but a little too earnest... It is troublesome to talk to such women. They are always wanting reasons, yet they are too ignorant to understand the merits of any questions, and usually fall back on their moral sense to settle things after their own taste.” (246)

Eliot offers her aside comment in which she has no hope for the elder Mr. Chichely to change, but puts out hope for Mr. Lydgate to realize the errors of his thinking; she suggests that a man can recognize the social context of the time and choose to act differently: For Chichely “whose mind was matured, she [Miss Brooke] was altogether a mistake, . . .But Lydgate was less ripe, and might possibly have experience before him which would modify his opinion as to the most excellent things in woman” (246).

Jane Austen did not directly challenge the traditional thinking of the time as did Eliot, but created a female character in her novel, Emma, that spoke words of independence and of having no need of a husband for the sake of standing and security. For a woman to say the words that Jane Austen gives Emma was a definite break from traditional expectations at that time. It presented another way for women to think about themselves.

I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry... Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; ... I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield... a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else ... mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; (36)


Although Austen, Tocqueville and Eliot were bringing social context into the discussion of the superiority of men over women, William James and Freud published works that kept the superiority of men over women in the realm of scientific fact. Austen published Emma in 1815, Eliot, Middlemarch in 1870. Freud wrote his lectures on New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis in 1932. Not much was changing very fast.

It is Shaw who most clearly and completely discusses social context and its power in the Preface to Saint Joan. There are parallels between Shaw’s discussion of social context as it relates to the understanding of Saint Joan and her persecution and his discussion of social context as it relates to the break in the conversation over time with the subtopic, the characteristics between men and women and their differences and the many century’s belief of man’s superiority over woman.

Shaw tells us that for someone to understand Joan, her strength, her sanity, her vitality, they “must be capable of throwing off sex partialities and their romance and regarding women as the female of their species,” (38). In the same vein, for someone, today, to read the early authors’ writings regarding women and their presumed inferiority over the ages, there must be an acknowledgement that the authors in the first edition of The Great Books were not able to throw off sex partialities and their romance and regard women as the female of the species and that although their defining of woman as inferior was presented as fact, it was, in fact, the result of the social context of the time. Why is it so important for the impact of social context to be a part of the conversation? Why can it not remain the quiet elephant in the room that everyone knows is there, but cannot mention?

The real problem here is that with so many of the other topics within the great ideas there can be a difference of opinion or some previously perceived truth can be found wrong, but in the process no author in the conversation has their humanity insulted, demeaned or denied. The conversation for most topics and subtopics is about the idea, which is apart and separate from each person’s humanity. This is not the case with the subtopic of the characteristics of men and women and their differences; the conversation here is about human dignity. A women author included in the readings for the concerned subtopic, who would be sitting at the imaginary table in the conversation on this subtopic, or any women reading the list of works under the concerned subtopic, would find themselves demeaned and alone in this conversation, without the means to question the context of any author claiming the superiority of man over woman because context cannot enter the conversation. Each author holding to the superiority of men over women would continue to remain the expert within his field as to how man is superior to woman without having the impact of his time and place of writing brought into the conversation. Is it any wonder there is a break in the continuity of the conversation around this subtopic?

Shaw speaks to the invisible nature of social context, to mankind’s blindness to its effect, “it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period” (59). Saint Joan was burned at the stake in the 15th century and not canonized as a saint until 1920. Shaw postulates that had she not been such an unwomanly figure, so out of context in her time, she may have been canonized sooner. The authors of The Great Books who held men superior to women were certainly geniuses and saw beyond the context of their time to thoughts and ideas that were timeless, but they also lived within a social context and as with all people, they, too, could be blinded by the social context of their time. In relation to this discussion, they were blinded to the possibility of the equality of women. It is important to separate what is their genius and what is their humanness. The only way to bring their humanness into play is to bring to the conversation their time and place in history. And what happens when over a long period of time, centuries, a belief, a supposed truth is held in place by the blindness to social context?

Shaw warns:

unless there is a large liberty to shock conventional people, and a well informed sense of the value of originality, individuality, and eccentricity, the result will be apparent stagnation covering a repression of evolutionary forces which will eventually explode with extravagant and probably destructive violence. (56)

There was no explosion over the injustices done to Saint Joan for her unwomanly behavior and her audacity to act outside of the context of her time, but there was an explosion in the last part of the 20th century to the long standing assumption of the superiority of man over woman and the rights and privileges that had been denied her. The addition of authors like Eliot, Austen and Shaw to The Great Books indicated some movement in the direction of seeing women as the female of the human species, of changing the conversation as it relates to the subtopic of the characteristics of men and women and their differences, but that was not enough to keep the conversation over time fluid, to make the conversation relevant to the 21st century. The feminist movement was a revolution that wanted, demanded, worked hard for change; women wanted their human dignity, their human equality acknowledged.

Adler accomplished so much with his conceptualization of The Great Books set and the design of the Syntopicon. He made the classics accessible and the browsing among the authors with some sense of order possible for anyone interested in pursuing the classics. To read some of the ancient authors and experience how connected their thoughts are to the concerns and experiences of today is no less mind boggling than to stand in the open amphitheater in Ephesus and realize that one is standing where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians – 21 centuries of history collapses and there is a connection across time. It is important to acknowledge timelessness, the continuation of great ideas over time, but there is an equally important need to acknowledge social context and its importance, to be aware of the harm caused when something that is held to be timeless is really under the influence of social context.

Why did Adler not address what he called the problem of gender, the feminist movement, in his update of the second edition of The Great Books of the Western World? Was he caught in the blindness of social context? Was he too attached to his belief in the timelessness of ideas? As Shaw tells us, “There are no villains . . . It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must do in spite of their intentions” (61) – that is the tragedy of social context.



Works Cited

Adler, Mortimer J. The Great Conversation Revisited, The Great Conversation. Ed. Mortimer J. Adler et al. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1993. 28-31. Print.

Adler, Mortimer J. “Introduction to Man” The Syntopicon, The Great Books of the Western World. Ed. Mortimer J. Adler et al. Vol 2. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica 2007. 11.

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400 Anniversary Celebration of the Life of William Shakespeare

March 11, 2016

Thanks to Peter Ponzio, HMU doctoral student, for today's post.

Lake County, Illinois developed a series of events to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. A copy of the First Folio, one of the 82 copies owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library, was exhibited during the month of February at the Lake County Discovery Museum.

Other events included a performance of the Tempest at the College of Lake County; an original performance entitled "Sounds and Sweet Aires: A Shakespearean Collage," by the Kirk Players; performances by actors from the Bristol Renaissance Faire located in Bristol, Wisconsin; "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," by the David Adler Music and Arts center located in Libertyville, Illinois; a presentation entitled “The Bard of Avon,” at the Fremont Public Library; and a kick-off presentation entitled “Why Shakespeare is Relevant” at the Fremont Public Library, presented by HMU student Peter Ponzio.

Shakespeare’s influence can be felt in a number of ways, including the number of phrases he introduced to the language, as well as the number of actors who have portrayed one of his characters on stage or in films. Phrases such as “All’s well that ends well,” “Bated breath,” “Beggar all description,” “Brave New World,” “Brevity is the soul of wit,” “Cold comfort,” “Crack of doom,” “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,” “Dead as a door nail,” “Eaten me out of house and home,” “For goodness’ sake,” “Foregone conclusion,” “The game is afoot,” “It was Greek to me,” “Heart of gold,” “In a pickle,” “In my mind’s eye,” “Kill with kindness,” “Love is blind,” “Melted into thin air,” “Make a virtue of necessity,” “More sinned against than sinning,” “Much ado about nothing,” “Murder most foul,” “Once more into the breach,” “One fell swoop,” “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” “A Pound of flesh,” “Primrose path,” “Sea change,” “Something wicked this way comes,” “Sound and the fury,” “Sweets to the sweet,” “Thereby hangs a tale,” “This mortal coil,” “Truth will out,” “Wear my heart upon my sleeve,” “The better part of valor is discretion,” “The world’s my oyster,” “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” all were coined by the bard of Avon.

The list of actors who have performed in a play written by Shakespeare in the 20th and 21st centuries reads like a who’s who and includes: Sir Patrick Stewart, Dame Judy Dench, Christopher Plummer, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Sir Laurence Olivier, Laurence Fishburne, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Dame Helen Mirren, Kevin Spacey, Sir Ben Kingsley, Al Pacino, Mel Gibson, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, and Orson Welles among others.

But perhaps the most telling measure of Shakespeare’s influence is akin to that of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Where we would be without Shakespeare? How different would the language be? How many great characters would we miss? What if there were no Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Richard III, or Falstaff? What if we had no Bottom, no Mercutio, no Romeo and Juliet? How would other writers be affected? George Bernard Shaw would have no one to compare himself to. Charles Dickens could not quote his favorite poet. Ben Jonson would have no rival to spur him on. Who would plumb the depths of men’s souls and write about the kings and queens of England? Who could the Klingons claim as their poet laureate? What would have happened if John Heminges and Henry Condell did not publish the First Folio, to say nothing of the conspiracy theorists who maintain that someone, anyone, other than Shakespeare wrote the plays? Who would know about the Dark Lady and the young man of the sonnets? Would women still be compared to a summer’s day, or would we know a rose by any other name? A little bit of magic would be lost from our lives, and we would walk away stage left without the benefit of seeing Prospero work his magic on stage, and then abjure it at the end of the play.

Part of the fascination we have with Shakespeare is that so little is known about his private life. The official documents of his life are scant: a birth and marriage certificate, a surety of £40 for his marriage to Anne Hathaway, ownership of a portion of the Globe Theatre, his famous last will which left his second best bed to his wife. As obsessed as we are with seeking fifteen minutes of fame, the idea that the life of the most famous writer in the English language is surrounded by obscurity seems incongruous. And yet, the paucity of evidence about his life is appealing in some way. In a very real sense, Shakespeare is everyman and his life provides hope to those who reflect on the fact that the son of a glove-maker could become the greatest author the world has known.

There is a famous picture of Charles Dickens surrounded by his characters; what would such a picture depict if Shakespeare’s characters were painted on a canvas? I think it would encompass the whole world: “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players,” it would fill the canvas with life, passion, humor, tragedy, comedy. Thousands of characters would fill the canvas to overflowing, with the bard smiling on, looking at his creation. Through his plays, poems and sonnets, Shakespeare taught us how to be human; a rare feat indeed.

“We are such stuff/as dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” Sleep well, on this the 400th anniversary of your entrance into the undiscover’d country, sweet prince, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Image ID: 252134389. Copyright: Everett Historical.

Image ID: 252134389. Copyright: Everett Historical.

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Of Barbarism and Civilization

December 4, 2015

Thanks to James Keller, HMU Graduate Student, for today's blog post.

Life in this world provides one with many opportunities for pleasure if one will seek them out. One such pleasure is interpretive discussion over a meaningful work of literature. Four times a year, Harrison Middleton University hosts such a discussion, and I have found them to be quite pleasurable. Last October, I participated in a discussion of Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” which was both stimulating and enriching, providing the mind with material for contemplation long after the reading and discussion had both been concluded. In the essay, Montaigne criticizes civilized man for too readily judging others to be barbarians while ignoring their own barbarous actions or at least the barbarity of their own societies. This criticism is worthy of consideration and hopefully provokes one to self-reflection. However, in his defense of so-called barbarous peoples, he goes too far, defending even reprehensible acts of murder.

Barbarism is for Montaigne a troubling term. Specifically considering a Brazilian tribe of cannibals, he writes: “...I think there is nothing barbarous and savage in that nation from what I have been told, except that each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice” (144). When men employ the term “barbarism” they really mean that the customs of another people are foreign, that they are not like us. He finds this use of the term quite distasteful. Yet he does write that undeveloped peoples can be considered barbarous in that they have little artifice: “The laws of nature still rule them, very little corrupted by ours....” (145). He turns the term “barbarian” into a badge of honor. It is the civilized man who is corrupt and whose life would be praised by Lycurgus and Plato (145).

It is too easy for civilized man to condemn the customs of barbarians, who live lives more natural, and therefore more beautiful, than civilized man. After all, they dine on human flesh. Montaigne will not allow civilized man to hypocritically assess the failings of other people, however. He admits that the acts of these Brazilian cannibals contain “barbarous horror” but is “heartily sorry that judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own” (147). To what faults is civilized man blind? Civilized man puts his religious enemies to the rack, tortures his enemies in fire, or allows him to be torn apart by dogs and pigs. The barbarian is decent enough to eat the flesh of his enemies only once they are dead. Civilized man eats his enemies while they yet live. Who, then, is the barbarian?

This call to societal introspection is admirable. No society is likely to improve itself by declaring other societies inadequate, particularly if the standard of judgment is dissimilarity of custom rather than reason. If one uses his own society as the standard of good, then he will find no reason to criticize it. He implicitly assumes its perfection. The only way to betterment is to consider the failings of one’s own self and society and effect a change.

Yet, Montaigne excuses the needless fighting of the cannibals, a step too far. He writes: “Their warfare is wholly noble and generous, and as excusable and beautiful as this human disease can be; its only basis among them is their rivalry in valor” (147). This is an exceedingly troubling statement. While it is true that he is not advocating war, calling it a disease, he expresses such admiration for needless violence when these ‘barbarians’ practice it. Yet, of all peoples in the world, they have less need of violence than almost any other. The way their world is understood by him, it is as close to a paradise as any place in the world can be. They do not fight for territory or food; they live in a land of plenty. They fight only to prove themselves to be men of courage.

It alludes this reader what is so noble about making war for the sake of ego gratification. Should the warrior be willing to risk his life and take another only to prove his courage? Because these so-called barbarians, living in a near-paradise, have little opportunity to practice virtue and avoid vice, they must seek for opportunities it seems. And they believe they have found the way, by making war on their neighbors, by proving that they are willing to risk their lives in war. But they have failed the true test of courage. The truly courageous warrior will be the one who puts down the weapon though he knows that his compatriots will call him coward, who will accept ignominy and worse to avoid needlessly wasting the life of himself or others.

Any virtue is diminished when displayed through a prism of vice. A man who steals and gives his ill-gotten gains to charity is not noble. He does not exhibit generosity, for the goods he gives away are not his to give. Similarly, the courage of a man who makes war, not out of necessity, but to prove his nobility is ignoble. He practices his virtue out of season, turning it to vice.

Also, in an attempt to make the ‘barbarian’ appear nobler, Montaigne embellishes the reason for the war. This is not war devoid of hatred, a mere exercise of martial virtue. The Brazilians eat one another by way of revenge, and when the Portuguese introduce to them a more vicious form of revenge, they seize upon it, burying their enemies up to the waist, riddling them with arrows, and hanging their corpses (146). This is not a dispassionate exercise to prove valor but a longstanding feud.

It is remarkable that he should praise their valor so thoroughly, especially as he compares them favorably to ‘civilized’ man. He writes that the Brazilians who are captured in war and awaiting their dinner date are defiant until the bitter end. They taunt their captors with the idea that the flesh their captors will soon feast upon is made up of the victors’ own ancestors, upon whom their captors once dined after a previous war (148). And they are not stripped of their courage even on the day of their deaths, hurling insults to the last breaths. “Truly here are real savages by our standard; for either they must be thoroughly so, or we must be; there is an amazing distance between their character and ours” (148).

The comparison is unfair. According to his own admission, these ‘barbarians’ are treated well and afforded the greatest hospitality (146). It is the captor who shows the real valor through his restraint during all this taunting. But comparing Brazilian captives to European captives, with the intention of proving the superiority of Brazilian courage, is gratuitous. According to Montaigne, the European is much more barbaric, eating his enemies alive, so to speak. The courage exhibited by those subjected to the torments of the inquisition must therefore be the greater. Certainly the courage of many failed, but being subjected to such great horrors, this is hardly neither surprising nor blameworthy. And for those few whose courage never failed them, even while experiencing such torment, surely their courage can be admired as much as—if not more than—those who stoically endured the hospitality of their captors.

I can understand the urge to defend ‘barbarians’ from the smug hypocrisy of the ‘civilized’. And it is surely correct to make greater note of one’s own flaws than the flaws of others. However, in his defense of the Brazilian cannibal, Montaigne goes beyond what is just. He expresses admiration for needless violence, whitewashing an animosity existing between different tribes to emphasize the nobility of their courage. Moreover, while arguing for the great valor of the Brazilian, he needlessly diminishes the valor of his own people. Montaigne is caught up in the zeal of his cause and ends up exaggerating his arguments.

Sources Cited:

Montaigne, Michel de. “Of Cannibals”. Great Books of the Western World. Ed. Mortimer J. Adler. Trans. Donald M. Frame. Vol. 23. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990. 143-149.


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