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Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Headless Leviathan

                It never occurred to Thomas Hobbes when he was describing the war of all against all that is the state of nature that the primary fact about humans could be anything other than the isolated individual. In fact it hardly ever occurs to anyone. Our experience of being a self is so strong. But our perspective being an individual gives us both the insight no other race from another planet could match into our being and a blindness, like the blindness every individual would have about his own face if not for mirrors. It never occurred to Hobbes that the default state of humanity was the group: the family, the tribe, the “race,” the nation, that we have this in common with ants and bees and elephants and gorillas. Our self is an expression of our role in the social unit at least as much as it is an expression of something innate, something, perhaps, we were born with or that, à la Freud, manifested and set in infancy. The self is fungible. The tyrannical group identity dictates certain roles and selves will always manifest to fill them, like an angel fish changing sex to keep the species going. Every classroom has a clown and a drama queen and a bully. This is why mobs act like mobs. This is why, when law cannot hold them down, every country, every culture has is terrorists.
                Unlike ants and elephants however human societies like human beings are in constant flux. Every classroom and every sports team and every neighborhood and every taste in music, every state and nation and gender and “race,” and church and state of being is at any moment its own organism. Could anything be more absurd than burning cars and killing strangers because your Spartans or your Red Sox won (or lost) the championship? The group organism, the anonymous group self (we can find this self in literature like nowhere else) takes control then. But it’s only the individual who is ever put in jail. We put them in jail because they exercised their part in the same group self that we are all subject to under the right conditions, depending on the moment’s need. (That’s why jails, though we cannot do without them, never solve the problem and aren’t about rehabilitation. They’re about removing the catalyst of past violence, their about taking the burnt candle out of the infinite box of candles.) The group self has no soul. It is a leviathan but not one that we become through reasonable reflection. It is a leviathan we are by default, by instinct the way any animal feels when to hunt and when to flee. A leviathan without a head.

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