Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).” Part II: The World According to Calvin and Hobbes.

Burton Weltman

I think, therefore I laugh… Parody as Reality.

Calvin: “Do you believe in the Devil?  You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption and destruction of man?”

Hobbes: “I’m not sure man needs help.”

This is a sample colloquy between the main characters of Calvin and Hobbes, a popular nationally syndicated comic strip produced by Bill Watterson from 1985 to 1995.  Calvin was a little boy.  Hobbes was his toy stuffed tiger who became a full-sized talking tiger whenever no one else was around.  The comic strip featured Calvin’s and Hobbes’ sardonic observations about the foibles and foolishness of adult humans and the hypocrisies and atrocities of human society.

The comic strip Calvin was named after John Calvin, a sixteenth century leader of the Protestant Reformation who founded a strict version of Protestantism. John Calvin and his followers focused on what they claimed is the lasting and pervasive effect of Adam’s Original Sin.  They insisted that humans are born in sin, inevitably live in sin whatever their best efforts to do good, and all deserve to be sent to Hell when they die.  That conclusion includes even newborn babies and children who have done little or nothing in their short lives.  Only God’s arbitrary forgiveness saves some few humans from the eternal damnation they all deserve.

John Calvin also insisted that it was up to each individual to read the Bible for him/herself, decide what it means, and determine at his/her peril how to lead a righteously God-dominated life.  This line of thought could sometimes lead to holier-than-thou competition among believers and vengeance-is-mine-on-behalf-of-the-Lord persecution of non-believers.  The comic strip Calvin often reflects the misanthropic John Calvin’s dark perspective.

The comic strip tiger was named Hobbes after Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth century philosopher and contemporary of Descartes, who believed that humans were voracious and vicious by nature, and that life without a dictatorial government to control people would consist of a “war of everyone against everyone.”  People would be in “continual fear and danger of violent death” and their lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Hobbes believed that people are inherently self-centered and selfish and that only an authoritarian government, “a common power to keep them in awe,” could save humans from themselves and society from chaos.  People were by nature free, independent and individualistic, but needed to be tightly leashed and dominated to survive.  Unlike Calvin, Hobbes did not believe in Divine Providence and insisted that only complete subservience to government, not God, could bring peace on earth.  The comic strip Hobbes often reflects the dour philosopher’s sour perspective.

In choosing to parody the perspectives of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes in his comic strip, Bill Watterson hit on two of the main tributaries to the mainstream of Western social thought over the past four hundred years.  As with most social thinkers during that time, including most conservatives, liberals and radicals, Calvin and Hobbes took individualism as the starting point of their theories and came to some form of authoritarianism as their conclusion — God domination for Calvin, government domination for Hobbes.  Descartes’ Cogito has been popularly understood to provide philosophical support for this line of thought.

 I think, therefore I am free…But not for long .

Hobbes: “Until you stalk and overrun, you cannot devour anyone.”

Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” has been widely understood to demonstrate that each of us is an isolated individual and is the center of his/her own universe.  It has also been understood to establish that society is merely a conglomeration of independent individuals, and that without some transcendent authority to connect us to each other, dictate moral values to us, and enforce law and order on us, there is no feasible way for ethical human beings and ethical societies to survive.  Chaos, violence and a dog-eat-dog cycle of predatory behavior would prevail.

This intellectual transition from a premise of individual freedom to an authoritarian conclusion follows logically from Descartes’ Cogito and is reflected in the theories of Calvin, Hobbes and many others over the last four hundred years.  If each of us is an isolated individual then each of us is theoretically a law unto him/herself.  The  logical result of this sort of self-willed insularity would be chaos if it was allowed to play out.  While exceptional individuals might on their own behave morally and even heroically in accord with what they perceive as a  common ethic, we cannot trust that others will do so.  Therefore, a transcendent authority, which is generally taken to be God or government or both, is required to establish a code of ethics that would be accepted by everyone.  And a transcendent enforcer, which can punish transgressors in this life and/or the next, is necessary to ensure that law and order prevails and that everyone obeys the code.  Although one can try to limit the ways and means and the extent to which a transcendent authority can restrict individual freedoms and inflict punishments on transgressors — through constitutions, checks and balances, division of powers, and other vehicles — individualism is a theory and practice that cannot sustain itself and authoritarianism seems to emerge inevitably from individualism even as the two theories contradict each other.

Authoritarianism is, however, also a fragile system that almost invariably produces the chaos and violence it is intended to prevent.  The logic of this outcome was described by Hegel in his discussion of the master-slave relationship.  Individualism generates a war of each against all for security and supremacy.  This war will invariably result in might making right and the stronger imposing their will as masters on the weaker.  Peace will be imposed on the populace but it will be a fragile peace.  Any victory in this war will be inherently precarious and fraught with peril for the masters because the self-esteem and the security of the masters depend on the slaves accepting their subordination.  If the slaves insist on their equality with the masters, either through outright rebellion or even just insubordination, then the masters’ self-esteem is undermined and their safety is threatened.  The pride of the masters goeth before their fall.  The result, says Hegel, is that masters are as much enslaved by their domination of their slaves as the slaves are by their masters, and masters are inevitably insecure.

Hegel’s conclusions were exemplified in the ante-bellum American South by the exaggerated fears of slave masters of slave rebellions.  Most slave owners lived in constant fear of slave uprisings and imposed all sorts of onerous restrictions on their own activities out of fear of their slaves.  Slave owners also frequently undertook preemptive violence against their slaves, thereby coarsening their own lives as a means of protecting themselves, and for the same reason often made their plantations less efficient and profitable than they otherwise would have been.

Hegel’s master-slave analysis has been applied to other unequal relationships and winner/loser outcomes that result from individualistic struggles for supremacy and survival.  Winner/loser outcomes and have/have-not relationships almost inevitably generate self-fulfilling vicious cycles of fear and violence as the winners and the haves try to protect their dominant positions.  We can see this vicious cycle over the last one hundred years in the United States in the exaggerated fears of the upper classes of uprisings by workers, blacks, immigrants, Muslims, and other have-not groups.  These fears have led to preemptive repression and violence by ruling class winners against downtrodden losers, with the result that the rulers have often brought about the violence that they feared and also generated cycles of seemingly endless conflict with many of those they rule.

I think, therefore I cry: The Cogito and Social Theory

Calvin:”There’s no problem so awful that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”

Individualism and its consequences have preoccupied Western thinkers since the sixteenth century, albeit with a tremendous amount of ambivalence and guilt built into the theory and practice of it.  Both in theory and in practice people have been whipsawed back and forth, for example, between commitment to absolute individual freedom and the necessity of law and order discipline, between belief in individual responsibility and belief in charity toward the have-nots, and between the integrity of the isolated individual and the warmth of a shared community.  Whichever way people have turned, they seem to experience loss and guilt.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and especially Calvinism, significantly changed the way in which believers related to each other and to their God.  The Catholic Church, which had dominated religious life during the European Middle Ages, portrayed the church as a community of believers and a society for mutual aid toward salvation.  In this view, the Church acted as an intermediary between people and God to help them get right with the Lord.

In contrast, Protestants promoted individual self-help toward salvation.  Protestants proclaimed the responsibility of each individual to get straight with God on his/her own.  Each person was free to do as he/she pleased but would be condemned to eternal torment in Hell if he/she did not strictly follow the dictates of God in the Bible.  Protestant ministers, except for a few preachers who occasionally claimed to be inspired by God or in some kind of direct contact with Him, did not provide the help that Catholic priests offered to mediate between people and God.

Protestantism has, however, been full of conflicts, contradictions and agonizing ambivalence that is a consequence of its individualistic premises.  Can, for example, someone who has had a salvation experience do whatever he/she wants without any of his/her acts being deemed sins, as Anne Hutchinson and other seventeenth century antinomian Protestants claimed?  Is absolute individual freedom the meaning of Jesus’ death for our sins and Paul’s repudiation of the Law?  Or must everyone still obey the letter of Biblical Law, and even then possibly be damned to Hell?  Are some of us innocent at least sometimes or are all of us always guilty?  Is it fair that newborn babies are considered sinners and are damned if they die without baptism?  The history of Protestantism has from its inception been replete with conflicts between individualism and authoritarianism, and recurring cycles of antinomian radicalism and orthodox conservatism.

Like Protestantism, most political philosophy over the last four hundred years has started with the isolated individual and then tried to explain and justify society, social control and government.  Most thinkers have come to some sort of unstable compromise between freedom and authority in which government is seen as a necessary evil.  This conclusion has been reached and preached by conservative theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, liberal theorists such as John Locke, who heavily influenced the American Founding Fathers, and more recent radical thinkers such as John Rawls.  It is a conclusion that inevitably breeds distrust of government as a repressive institution that threatens to swallow up individuals and their freedoms.

Political theorizing during this time has typically started with a “state of nature” (Hobbes and Locke) or an “original position” (Rawls) in which isolated individuals face each other and face a choice of how to establish social relations with each other.  This choice is typically accomplished through some sort of social contract in which individuals agree to relinquish some of their rights (Locke and Rawls) or all of their freedom (Hobbes) to the government in return for protection and social services.  This is a deal that tends to be portrayed as a devil’s bargain that makes government a constant threat to people.

Even most socialistic theories, such as those of the influential nineteenth century radicals Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, have been premised with individualism.  This is a starting point that puts cooperative and communitarian programs at a disadvantage, and led Owen and Fourier to make compromises with authoritarianism that contradicted many of their socialistic goals.

Mainstream economic theories in the modern era, such as those of David Ricardo, Alfred Marshall, and Milton Friedman, have similarly started with the individual producer and consumer who is then required to submit him/herself to domination by so-called market-place principles and to let the “invisible hand” of competition determine his/her life choices.  These theories insist that individuals be free to make their own decisions but also insist that people make those decisions according to the demands of the marketplace, thereby mixing freedom with submission.  The theories also generally insist as a matter of personal responsibility and economic rationality that the haves deserve to enjoy their wealth and the have-nots deserve to suffer their poverty.  Charity is often lauded in individual cases but discouraged as a general practice because it breeds sloth and it wastes resources that might otherwise be productively and profitably invested.  In these theories, government involvement in the economy is seen as at best an occasional necessary evil  and government is invariably blamed for anything that goes wrong.

Finally, ethical theories over the last four hundred years as diverse as those of Descartes, Kant, Herbert Spencer, Nietzsche, and Sartre have all started with isolated individuals and ended by either applauding or denouncing the imposition of moral and social codes on people.  The conclusions of Calvin and Hobbes that individualism requires repression has been reflected in most social and political theory and practice since his time, and the idea that people might willingly behave according to the Golden Rule or some other cooperative ethic has generally been rejected and even ridiculed.

I think, therefore I choose: Individualism in History

Calvin:”It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.”

Conventional thought tends to portray individualism and individual freedom as the central issue in history, as though arguments and struggles for and against individualism were the most important thing for everyone.  This was not, however, the case in most societies and prior times in which Descartes’ Cogito and the idea of individualism would not have made sense to people.

In ancient Greece, for example, Aristotle  reflected the general sentiment when he claimed that man is a social animal who gains an identity from those around him not from himself.  The concept of “We” came before the idea of “I.”  For Aristotle and most other Greek thinkers, an isolated individual was literally an idiot.  Reality derives from society not from the individual.  While the Greeks recognized and focused on the problematic relationship of the one to the many, and the difficulty of integrating and interrelating individuals and society, the idea of “one for all and all for one” was for most Greeks not an ideal that was largely honored in the breach but a statement of  fact that explained how they saw themselves and justified their actions, even when they were not ideal.

Politics and participation in government were considered by Aristotle and most other Greeks to be the highest forms of activity.  Freedom was exercised through government, not against it, and government was the expression of freedom, not its enemy.  Exile and exclusion from society were widely considered fates worse than death, as exemplified by Socrates’ choice of death rather than escape from Athens when he was convicted of blasphemy.  Human sociability, the willingness and need of people to be with other people and to get along with them, rather than authoritarian imposition of law and order, was considered by most Greek thinkers to be the best source of ethics and ethical enforcement.

A similar communal emphasis permeated mainstream thought in the European Middle Ages, during which intellectual and ethical debate was dominated by the Catholic Church.  Reiterating the idea that man is a social animal, Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s preeminent philosopher, claimed that natural law was innate in humans and coexisted with divine law.  Even an atheist, he argued, was capable of ethical behavior in fulfillment of his/her best self and most enlightened self-interest.  Monastic communalism was the highest ideal of medieval society and the model for Thomas More’s critique in his Utopia of the emerging individualism in Western society during the 1500’s.  Exemplifying this communalism, artistic and architectural creations in medieval Europe were done anonymously and were considered collective creations of the community not the product of individuals. “We” came before “I.”

The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation changed this.  We know today who did most of the creative work during that time because Renaissance artists aggressively sought individual fame.  Reflecting the consequences of the emerging individualism in society, most Western societies starting in the 1500s developed both dictatorial churches and dictatorial governments, ruled by absolute monarchs, so-called divine right kings, in conjunction with government-controlled churches, pray my way or die institutions.

This too began to pass starting in the late eighteenth century.  Since then, most Western societies have gradually become less authoritarian in government, albeit with totalitarian spasms such as the fascist and Nazi regimes of the twentieth century, and most have also moved toward religious tolerance and even indifference.  In turn, most countries have replaced extreme forms of individualism with modest forms of social democracy and have been able to adopt cooperative ethical codes without resorting to religious coercion or political oppression.  The reasons for this change are complex but they include the collectivism that is inherent in the industrialization and urbanization that have characterized this period, and the labor unions and socialistic movements that emerged.

These changes have, nonetheless, been largely understood and undertaken as modifications of the individualistic logic that stems from Descartes’ Cogito rather than a rejection of individualism.  The continued prevalence of an individualist ethos has inhibited the more humane theory and practice that would be a consequence of recognizing that “We” precedes “I” and enacting the Golden Rule.  Individualism has been particularly persistent in the United States where the fear of the authoritarian consequences of their own laissez-faire individualism has led so-called libertarians such Ron and Rand Paul and other far-right wingers to resent and reject almost all government programs.  Projecting onto government the fears generated by the imagined consequences of their own individualistic premises, they warn that any and every government program is the beginning of authoritarianism and the end of freedom.  They are hoisted on their own petards and aim to hoist the rest of us in the same way.

I think, therefore what would the Founding Fathers do?

Calvin: Today at school I tried to decide whether to cheat on my test or not…I wondered whether it is better to do the right thing and fail…or is it better to do the wrong thing and succeed.

Hobbes: So what did you decide?

Calvin: Nothing.  I ran out of time and I had to turn in a blank paper.

Hobbes: Anyway, simply acknowledging the issue is a moral victory.

Calvin: Well, it just seemed wrong to cheat on an ethics test.


But it does not have to be this way and the American Founding Fathers knew it.  Most of the Founders were not adherents of individualism and they rejected both a dictatorial God and a dictatorial government as the guarantor of an ethical society.  Theirs was a social theory that was based on communalism and that incorporated an ethic based on the Golden Rule.  They believed that there can be worlds other than the world according to Calvin and Hobbes, and their belief still has validity.  I will discuss this contention in the third part of this essay: Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito:”I think, therefore we are (not I am).”  Part III:  A Cross of Gold and the Golden Rule.


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