Hobbes and Rousseau at the Movies: The Lord of the Rings and The Lord of the Flies

Carrying on from last post...

In this debate about the goodness of either human nature or culture, it is often fun to see the debate between Hobbes and Rousseau play out in the popular media. To illustrate this debate in my classes, I often compare and contrast two "Lord of the _____" movies. (I could compare the two books, but students seem to go for movies.)

The Lord of the Flies, based on William Golding's famous novel of the same name, has been made into a movie a few times (but it's never been a blockbuster). In a 1990 version the tagline of the movie was "No parents. No teachers. No rules... No mercy."

If you recall the book, and as can be surmised from the cheesy tagline, The Lord of the Flies would get a big thumbs up from Hobbes. Recall, Hobbes believed that "natural" man was a beast. Only civilization, well, "civilizes" us. And The Lord of the Flies dramatizes that idea. Boys from an English boarding school are marooned without adults on an island. Given that the English boarding school is often used as a great example of oppression and rigidity, the release of these boys into a island paradise should have resulted in Eden. Or so Rousseau would have predicted.

But Golding's vision is more Hobbesian. For without the adults, the boarding school, and the manners of civilized England (Tea, anyone?), the boys do not frolic in the surf of a blissful paradise. Rather, well, the following happens: "No parents. No teachers. No rules... No mercy." The boys regress back to savagery and superstition.

Contrast The Lord of the Flies with The Lord of the Rings, the masterpiece of J.R.R. Tolkien (and made into the blockbuster movies by Peter Jackson). If The Lord of the Flies is Hobbesian, than the The Lord of the Rings is Rousseauian. In the The Lord of the Rings the heroes are pastoral people called Hobbits. Furthermore, the "good" and the "wise" in the The Lord of the Rings are peoples in touch with nature or custodians of nature: Elves, Ents, Tom Bombadil, the Rangers, Eagles, organic wizards like Gandalf.

The evil people in The Lord of the Rings are the "technological" and those opposed to nature. Deep in the bowels of Mordor there are breeding experiments creating new "species" like orcs. Further, The orcs and trolls never show any respect for nature. Finally, both Mordor and Saruman are frequently displayed as gouging the earth to create war technology. The perfect example of this in the book and movie The Two Towers, is when Saruman cuts down all the trees to fuel the fires of his war machine.

Thus, the The Lord of the Rings is a Rousseauian vision: A natural, pastoral, village-based, and agricultural existence is good. Technology is bad and destructive. It is an expansive force that would destroy our Eden.

So, for today's movie reviews:

The Lord of the Flies
Hobbes: Thumbs Up!
Rousseau: Thumbs Down!

The Lord of the Rings
Hobbes: Thumbs Down!
Rousseau: Thumbs Up!

On a final note, generally speaking, Hollywood tends to make Rousseauian movies in that Rousseau was a granddaddy of the Romantic Movement with its similar emphasis on nature and pastoral existence. Artists tend to be more Romantic, thus movies generally go in this direction. But, it is not just a pastoral bent. Take the movie of the year, Crash. Crash is a Rousseauian movie in theme. Crash opens with and then reflects on how city life is making us all strangers. So much so, we need to "crash" to have any contact with each other. That sentiment is right out of Rousseau. Hobbes would have disagreed with Crash. Modern city life is hardly ideal, but it is a remarkable modern achievement to get such diversity living, in the main, harmoniously. Race is still a terrible problem in American cities, but look at the ethnic violence around the world in places where centralized authority has collapsed, it's The Lord of the Flies.

So, to bring this show to a close, thanks for joining our film critics today, Hobbes and Rousseau!

We'll see you at the movies!

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11 thoughts on “Hobbes and Rousseau at the Movies: The Lord of the Rings and The Lord of the Flies”

  1. Same mistake. You contrast the actions of adolescents with those of adults who have been "civilized", representative of two different states of human aculturalization...

    Nietzsche, "Genealogy of Morals"...

    We Germans certainly do not think of ourselves as a particularly cruel and hard-hearted people, even less as particularly careless people who live only in the present. But have a look at our old penal code in order to understand how much trouble it took on this earth to breed a "People of Thinkers" (by that I mean the peoples of Europe, among whom today we still find a maximum of trust, seriousness, tastelessness, and practicality, and who with these characteristics have a right to breed all sorts of European mandarins). These Germans have used terrible means to make themselves a memory in order to attain mastery over their vulgar and brutally crude basic instincts. Think of the old German punishments, for example, stoning (even the legend lets the mill stone fall on the head of the guilty person), breaking on the wheel (the unique invention and specialty of the German genius in the area of punishment!), impaling on a stake, ripping people apart or stamping them to death with horses ("quartering"), boiling the criminal in oil or wine (still done in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), the well-loved practice of flaying ("cutting flesh off in strips"), carving flesh out of the chest, along with, of course, covering the offender with honey and leaving him to the flies in the burning sun.

    With the help of such images and procedures people finally retained five or six "I will not's" in their memory, and so far as these precepts were concerned they gave their word in order to live with the advantages of society—and that was that! With the assistance of this sort of memory people finally came to "reason"! Ah, reason, seriousness, mastery over emotions, the whole gloomy business called reflection, all these privileges and ceremonies of human beings—how expensive they were! How much blood and horror is the basis for all "good things."


  2. Dear anonymous,
    Your last two comments are confusing to me. If I read you correctly, you seem to think I'm making some kind of argument in these last two posts. I'm not. I'm only comparing and contrasting the views of Hobbes and Rousseau. If you have a disagreement it is with them. You should address you critiques to their specific works rather than any illustrations I've offered of their views.

  3. One of the problems Hobbes and Rousseau appear to have suffered from was the idea that there was one "static" human nature, and not an evolving or "evolutionary" one (post Darwin). Both men were "right", only they made different assumptions about the "stage" of man's evolution brught about through nurture. These "stages" are also evident in the life-cycle and psychological development of single every man... from infant, to boyhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age, old age, infirmity/death, for he is a product of both "nature" AND "nurture". For one is born a tyrant (infant), becomes a king, gets married and forms a monarchy, has children and rules a benevolent democracy, becomes and empty nestor and reverts to a monarchy, gets old and when spouse dies becomes a king, and finally when sick and dying on his deathbed, reverts to tyrant (Plato, "Republic"). Civilizations follow similar patterns, because they are comprised of men (Plato, "Republic")

    I have criticized your examples, because you choose to compare apples and oranges in terms of developmental stages of individuals and civilizations. And you are not using the examples of Hobbes and Rousseau, and so are NOT making the same arguments (if any) that they may have had.

    I'm not familiar with Hobbes arguments, but I am familiar with those between Rousseau and Voltaire. Rousseau believed that the most "nurturing" environment for creating a self-moving and therefore "equal" "individual" was a natural one, and so in his "Emile" rcommended raising children "outside" cities and self-dependent (ala Robinson Crusoe). That way, they would become "self-reliant" rather than "other reliant".

    Volatire, on the other hand, had no objection to the idea of a hierarchical society in which some men "used" others, and was very much enamored with social life in the city (an artificial environment), especially, gay Paris.

    They had different "ends" in mind, and ideas of what constituted a "good life".

    One only has to look at the red-state blue-state voting patterns in the United States to recognize the effect "nurture" has on human nature. City folk become more "socialistic". Country folk more "individualistic".


  4. ...and so the answer to your questions about human nature and civilization... one includes the effects of "nurture" (civilization - although based upon the ages of individuals, there may be "degrees" of aculturalization existing within a single civilization), and the other (nature and the basic "tabla rasa" genetic body and mind) may not. For civilization "requires" a specific form of nurturing to occur. Without that "specific" form of nurturing, the civilization either "evolves" or "collapses" (hence all the worries about 30%+ of babies being born these days out of wedlock, leading to rising crime, etc.).

    And so there really are no "good" and "bad" human natures or civilizations. They must judged by their suitability and the contributions by measures of human health and fitness in specific environmental conditions. Hence moral judgements of "good" and "bad" also evolve.

    Nietzsche, "The Gay Science"

    The Four Errors. Man has been reared by his errors: firstly, he saw himself always imperfect; secondly, he attributed to himself imaginary qualities; thirdly, he felt himself in a false position in relation to the animals and nature; fourthly, he always devised new tables of values, and accepted them for a time as eternal and unconditioned, so that at one time this, and at another time that human impulse or state stood first, and was ennobled in consequence. When one has deducted the effect of these four errors, one has also deducted humanity, humaneness, and "human dignity."


  5. Example:

    Rousseauian parents and spanking. Why didn't Rousseau appear to approve of spanking? Because the child's tutor/mentor totally manipulated and controlled the environment in which the child grew up to such an extent that the child would suffer "other" penalties if he failed to cooperate (ie absense of a reward), like going fishing, or having his planted "beans" torn up by some third party. (Rousseau, "Emile"). Hobbes most likely did not envision this carefully controlled and manipulated childhood environment (a guess on my part... differing assumptions).


  6. The actual man Rousseau (and not the philosopher writing about his "imaginary" ward "Emile") in "real life" gave up ALL his many children for adoption. Does that sound like a man who cared about "spanking"? I suspect he wanted his children raised in an environment devoid of luxury and priveledge, where he, through love, would not be tempted to "spoil" them. I suspect his own kids got lots and lots of spankings fom their adoptive parents, but probably emerged from the process much more "self-reliant" than they would have been if they had been brought up as "proper gentleman/ladies" and used to ordering servants around, flattering their patrons, and "using" other people to accomplish their own ends.


  7. Anonymous,
    I appreciate the amount of time you are devoting to my blog, but I'm still not sure you are understanding the point of these posts. All I've done is to set up a dialectic between Hobbes and Rousseau to bring certain perspectives to light. At no point have I ever suggested that either man was correct or that we should agree with them. Rather, I'm using each as a lens to differentially highlight aspects of life (e.g., parenting practices, movies). Do you see what I'm doing? I didn't discuss parenting to support either Rousseau or Hobbes, but rather use the dialectic between them to take a fresh look at parenting (or movie themes).

    So, although you can go off on Rousseau, you're still not really seeing my posts clearly.

    I'll keep talking with you, but only if you truly take the time and effort to understand what the posts were about.

  8. Sorry,

    I thought I was explaining my "theory of human nature and its' manifestations" in a manner that might account for the reasons "why" the views of Rousseau and Hobbes may have "differed" (if they really did on these subjects). Isn't that the purpose of a dialectic? To explore and reconcile the differences between two opinions and thereby attempt to arrive at a better understanding of them and the reasoning behind them?

    In this case, I believe that the premises upon which their opinions may have been expressed were "different", primarily on the basis that they were made (pre-Darwin) and therefore before the omnipresent popular idea that human nature (if it included nurture) was not a "constant", but has "evolved" to suit changing environmental conditions.

    I enjoyed your examples and the challenges they represented... but I also don't think they "truely" represent the actual views of the two men described (Hobbes and Rousseau) (ie - Rousseauian parents de-emphasize structure... quite the opposite is true...Emile's constant mentor companion). But please, don't take that as a criticism... Plato often used "representative men" and put words in their mouths that they never spoke and gave them views they never held... But you need to understand that Rousseau's "real" idea of parenting was "that it was for someone else to do"... and to abdigate responsibility for a child's upbringing to "someone else"... either (ideally)a sagascious "mentor" or (in his real life) an "adoptive parent". Again, this is not a criticism. You caused me to think upon the subject, and hopefully, achieved your original intent.

    But I would add, perhaps, one question for you. In his book "Emile", do you think Rousseau was actually talking about how to raise a "child", or do you think he may have obliquely been attempting to describe how to create a new government/ society, in a time of (Straussian) "censorship" and to "intellectually" get around the censor by making a "representative" large problem smaller, and therefore "easier" to understand? For what is society, but an individual man "writ large"?


  9. Anonymous,
    Okay, now I think I see where you are going. So, I apologize as well.

    So, to clarify. My dialectic is, admittedly, an over-simplification. Scholars of Hobbes and Rousseau would have much to argue with me about. And I also admit that once I set Hobbes and Rousseau up as "types" my subsequent use of them as adjectives has more to do with my (over) simplifications than the actual views of the two men. That is, I'm not claiming that Hobbes and Rousseau would have agreed with how I've attached their name to certain things.

    And you are also correct that once the dialectic is proposed the goal is to resolve it by pointing out the problems of each position. I'm actually going to do my version of this resolution in my next post. But I appreciate you posting your own version of a resolution here as well.

    Finally, regarding your question concerning "Emile." My guess is that Rousseau had both kinds of goals in mind (locally recommending a way to raise children and globally how to "raise" a society). But that is just an opinion.

  10. You are right that I missed your point. I was talking more about "philosophy" than movies or parenting.

    ps - Rousseau had no objection to "technology" so much as I suspect he had an aversion to the economic "division of labor" (anticipating Adam Smith "Wealth of Nations" 1776) and economic "inter-dependencies" that tended to make men "cogs" in a "social machine"... especially in the larger cities.

    Hence the expression "man is born free yet everywhere in chains". I suspect Rousseau may have anticipated Thomas Malthus' "Essay on the Principle of Population" by several years as well.

    (He taught Emile to be a "blacksmith" as well as several other technological trades... although he made Emile do "everything" himself, ergo no "division of labor" and corresponding economic "surplus profits" for Marx to fight over against the capitalists.


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