22 February 2017

Genesis and The State of Nature

The two most recent installments of "Blogging the Bible"--a simple quest for any truth or truths it may contain-- looked briefly at the so-called "fall of man." You know the story: God creates mankind in his image, places him in a garden that provides for his nutritional needs, and subjects him to one law: do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Through the wiles of a talking serpent, mankind disobeys. God curses mankind, the ground he tilled, and apparently all other species of animals. He casts mankind from the garden. Some years later, Adam and Eve bring forth children. One of them commits the first act of fratricide. God casts him away as well.

Does the philosophical idea of a "state of nature" fit anywhere in this narrative?

Can it fit anywhere in this narrative?

The answer depends on how the state of nature is described.

Thomas Hobbes traditionally receives credit for originating the concept of a state of nature, although I do not recall that he actually uses the term. He entitles the chapter in Leviathan in which he introduces the concept "On the Natural Condition of Man, As Concerning Their Felicity and Misery." He describes individuals as created by nature equal in both mind and body. In addition, every man also possesses equal hope of acquiring his desires. This creates the philosophical problem that Hobbes tries to revolve. Individuals will inevitably desire the same things. And without the means to resolve conflicting claims to the same objects of desire, individuals potentially may  engage in violent conflict. And according to Hobbes, "Hereby it is manifest,that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called WARRE." Hobbes asserts that this is war not because men actually engage in fighting, but that their willingness to fight is known. Under these conditions, as Hobbes famously writes, life is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." Consequently, according to Hobbes, men covenant with each other to create a common power, or artificial person, called the sovereign to "overawe" individuals and maintain the peace.

More famous for the concept of the "state of nature" is John Locke. He begins his account by  closely following  Hobbes. Like Hobbes, Locke sees individuals a free and equal. Instead of a state of war, however, Locke quotes Richard Hooker to establish that this state of nature is "that foundation of that obligation to mutual love amongst men."  In Locke's view, the state of nature is one of "Peace, Good Will, Mutual Assistance, and Preservation." Locke is hardly a naive optimist. He, too, recognizes the potential for conflict. Instead of calling such a state of affairs a state of  war,  however, he calls it merely one of the "inconveniences" of living in a state of nature. According to Locke, God appointed civil government as "the proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of nature. Because God put mankind "under strong Obligations of Necessity, Convenience, and Inclinations to drive him into Society," individuals eventually unite into  a political or civil society--establishing an authority to enact and enforce law for the common good.

So what about Genesis?

As different as they are, element of both accounts by Hobbes and Locke can be seen in Genesis. As readers follow the Biblical narrative, they see examples of  "Peace, Good Will, Mutual Assistance, and Preservation." Even under the primitive conditions in the Genesis narrative, agreements between individuals and tribes abound over land, wells, marriages, etc. But readers also encounter encounter marauding bands engaging in war, murder, theft, slaving, and rape. And in the second book of the Bible, Exodus, God's people become the marauding bands

There is one very important difference between Genesis and the state of nature as elucidated by Hobbes and Locke. In the Biblical narrative, a common power already exists to "keep them all in awe;" Almighty God. Throughout Genesis (and even the whole Bible), he is talking, guiding, warning, and even punishing not only the Hebrews, but also foreign peoples as well.

Hobbes and Locke share the goal of  justifying an earthly authority to maintain justice--however much they believe such an authority may be derived from a divine plan.

Their contrasting conceptions of  the law of nature and the different conclusion they make result from the intentions of their writings. Hobbes, writing after the English Civil War, builds a case for the duty of obedience. Locke, writing under the threat of Stuart absolutism, builds a case for the right of revolution.

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