Tuesday, August 13, 2019

If the law of the jungle reigned

In his classic work Leviathan, the seventeenth-century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described what he called “the state of nature” that would exist if government and society completely broke down and the law of the jungle reigned.

In such a condition, wrote Hobbes, “where every man is enemy to every man … there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes, who at the time of his writing was trying to defend the idea of absolute monarchy, believed that men escaped from nastiness and brutishness—the state of nature—only by forming societies wherein rulership was vested in a single authority with absolute powers. Man, he argued, is moral only in a social context. Therefore, a state, backed by force, was needed to socialize men, to curb their savage instincts, and to prevent them from chaotic behavior and the war of all against all.

I don't know if Beirut is a perfect Hobbesian state of nature, but it is probably the closest thing to it that exists in the world today. If so, Hobbes was right about life in such a world being “nasty, brutish, and short,” but he was quite wrong about it being “poor” and “solitary.”

Indeed, if I learned any lesson from living in Beirut it is that when authority breaks down and a society collapses into a state of nature, men will do anything to avoid being poor or solitary.

This instinctive desire to bring order and comfort to one's life amid chaos is precisely what gave Beirut its distinctive and bizarre flavor—a flavor best captured for me in a single sentence uttered by a Lebanese socialite who had invited an American friend of mine for dinner on Christmas Eve.

The elegant holiday banquet was held at her apartment near the Green Line, a swath of gutted and burned-out buildings that formed the no-man's-land between predominantly Muslim West Beirut and Christian East Beirut.

On this particular Christmas Eve in 1983, despite the holiday, rival Christian and Muslim militiamen were trading artillery salvos and machine-gun fire into the early evening, rocking the whole neighborhood. The hostess put off serving dinner, hoping things would settle down, but she could see that her friends were getting hungry, not to mention nervous.

Finally, in an overture you won't find in Emily Post's book of etiquette, she turned to her guests and asked, “Would you like to eat now or wait for the cease-fire?”
— From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman

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