the privilege of absurdity


In Leviathan Hobbes writes of ‘the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only’. Nothing could be more absurd, according to Hobbes’s way of thinking, than killing oneself – except perhaps killing oneself in order to kill others. War shows the law of self-preservation working itself out in practice: humans kill other humans because they fear being killed themselves. But if that is so then any type of warfare that involves certain death for the combatants will be self-defeating. Soldiers who sacrifice their lives in order to protect their comrades are committing suicide – an attitude that Hobbes, for whom a self-interested fear of death was the primary human motivation, could never account for. Behaviour of this kind is not only irrational, but – Hobbes at times suggested – a symptom of madness. Though he is commonly seen as a grimly realistic thinker, Hobbes’s account of human conflict is a long way from the reality of violence. For all his insight into how humans are impelled to prey upon one another he would have been horrified by the world portrayed in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, in which violence has come to be a way of life practised for its own sake. For Hobbes violence is instrumental: either it serves the goal of self-preservation, or it is pointless. Seeing humans as essentially driven by their passions, Hobbes cherished little hope that they would ever be guided by reason. Still, he never doubted that if people were more rational they would be less prone to violence. How could any sane person not seek peace? After all, everyone wants to go on living – or so Hobbes wanted to believe.

more from John Gray at Literary Review here.