28 January 2008
The wisdom of government is best understood by thinking about its absence. Why do we need government? Why do we even put up with the political class—including the fourth estate?
The great theorist on this matter is Thomas Hobbes whose Leviathan told us that without society our lives would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." We would find ourselves living in what he called the "state of nature"—the "war of all against all."
The point of civilization, as the name implies, is to civilize us. A number of novels have explored this theme: William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, Cormac McCarthy's The Road (I know, I know—but if it's any consolation I've read all his other books and read this the day it was published, long before Oprah's legions even heard about it.), Jose Saramago's Blindness, and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow to name a few of the better ones (not to mention the aforeblogged Disgrace).
There is the flavor of pessimism about the human condition in all these works—or unflinching realism, depending on your point of view—tempered with some hope for the future. Certainly, Christianity, with its focus on 'original sin' fuels this belief in our 'fallenness' and human fallibility. On the religious view, however, our only hope for redemption lies in the afterlife. Still, these unbridled subterranean forces of our own nature—these hopeful monsters— need to be kept in check. This is the function of civilization and government is merely the regulation and maintenance of civilization.