The Aftermath of Katrina

Michael Metzger

People rarely see a catastrophe like Katrina as a philosophical struggle, but the next few days are partly a battle to see who is right – Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) or the Hebrews Scriptures. Hobbes, a pessimistic atheist, believed that humans were basically selfish creatures who would do anything to better their position (like loot, plunder, and rape in a chaotic situation). Left to themselves, he thought people would act on their evil impulses. To prove his point, Hobbes wrote, if people are created with inclinations toward good (from God), then “why do they always carry arms and why do they have keys to lock their doors?”1 In Hobbes’ view, governments were created to protect people from their own selfishness and evil – not to promote virtue (as the Hebrew Scriptures taught). The best government was one that had the great power of a leviathan, or sea monster. Because people were only interested in promoting their own self-interests, Hobbes believed democracy – allowing citizens to vote for government leaders – would never work. At the end of the day, Hobbes believed life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I’ll grant you – watching the national news last night – there seems to be a great deal of empirical evidence that supports Hobbes. But remember that a half-truth is a whole lie. I think Hobbes got it half right.

The Hebrew Scriptures recognize that people are “bent;”2 but they are not inherently evil. We were created for good, but have fallen. Government can be representative and should promote virtue while restraining evil. Finally, the Hebrew Scriptures introduced the call to love our neighbors as ourselves. This has always been center stage in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which upholds the idea that life can also be communal, rich in its experiences, giving and selfless, and eternal.

The race is on over the next few days, weeks, and months to see which view will win the most people. Remember that men and women are not influenced by philosophical abstractions as much as by people who are praying, giving, and going. You can easily do two out of the three, and I hope you will.

1 To read more on Hobbes’ political philosopher, read his most famous book Leviathan (1651).
2This is C. S. Lewis’ description of fallen humankind.


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