The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 1, Chapter 1: "Virtue needs some cheaper thrills"

Part 1: Human Nature
Chapter 1: "Virtue needs some cheaper thrills"

Are humans good or bad? From the dawn of human self-reflection we have wrestled with this question. Are we naturally inclined toward self-interest and violence? Or does society and environment only make us so? Intrinsically, who are we? What is our essential nature?

Obviously, many reject these questions out of hand. Perhaps these questions are ill-formed or nonsensical. Perhaps humans have no intrinsic nature. Perhaps it is inappropriate to evaluate human nature in moral terms. Is a rock or a squirrel "good" or "bad"? If such questions are inappropriate for these aspects of nature what makes us think they are applicable to human nature? No doubt our actions can be morally evaluated, but our nature?

And yet, we can't seem to shake the feeling that something is wrong with us. That we are not as good as we ought to be. We ask: It is obvious to all that goodness and virtue are best. But if this is so, why is being good so hard? Why is vice so easy? Why is being bad so much fun?

If Calvin and Hobbes has a central theological core it centers on these questions. Many Calvin and Hobbes strips directly pose the question: Are we good or bad? (As always, click on the strips for a closer look.)

Oftentimes, the question is explicitly posed from within Christian theology:

For readers new to Calvin and Hobbes it is difficult to overstate just how much this question dominates the strip. This should not be suprising given the names of the two lead characters. Calvin is named after John Calvin, the 16th Century theologian who strongly endorsed St. Augustine's notion of Peccatum Originale, what Christians refer to as "original sin." Notoriously for some, Calvin preached a doctrine of the "total depravity" of man. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther framed this doctrine in an interesting way, stating that "every good work is a sin." That is, human self-interest contaminates all human endeavors, nothing we ever touch can be "clean." We are all stained.

This view of human nature is echoed in the character of Hobbes. As most know, Watterson named Hobbes "after the seventeenth-centruy philosopher with a dim view of human nature." (1) Thomas Hobbes's great work Leviathan is famous for his grim commentary and diagnosis of human nature, that the life of man in his "natural state" is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Similar to the great philosopher who is his namesake, Calvin's Hobbes often functions as a political or philosophical commentator upon human nature:

Thus, Calvin and Hobbes function as a dialectic. Calvin is "human depravity" and Hobbes provides the diagnostic color commentary. Further, the irony of the commentary is highlighted by the fact that the "animal" is commenting upon the "human." As Watterson has said, "I use a way to comment on human nature." (2)

What is the commentary on human nature? As noted, given the fact that the two lead characters are named after John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes, Calvin and Hobbes presents a dim view of human nature. As discussed above, a running theme in Calvin and Hobbes is why virtue is so hard and vice so fun:

This notion that "being bad is so fun" even allows Calvin and Hobbes to pose interesting questions for Christian theology:

Alan Jacobs, in his book Original Sin: A Cultural History, notes that the doctrine of original sin is often rejected, even by Christians, as a repugnant notion. No doubt the doctrine can be formulated in excessive ways. But Jacobs notes that may Christians find the teaching of original sin "utterly indispensable." (3) As G.K.Chesterton wryly noted, original sin is the only Christian doctrine for which we have ample empirical proof. (4) As Jacob notes, "Any moderately perceptive and reasonably honest observer of humanity has to acknowledge that we are remarkable prone to doing bad things--and, more disturbingly, things we acknowledge to be wrong. And when we add to this calculus the deeds we insist are justified even when the unanimous testimony of our friends and neighbors condemns us--well, the picture is anything but pretty." (5)

Why are we this way? Are the answers to be found in theology or in our genes? Regardless, most agree that we seem to be "wired" this way. Watterson, in his 10th Anniversary Book, underneath the "Virtue needs some cheaper thrills" strip shown above, makes the following comment: "I don't know why we're wired this way, but we are." (6)

In short, Calvin and Hobbes stands within a long tradition of commentators who have articulated a dim view of human nature. But is such an articulation useful? Isn't it just empty cynicism? No, I think Watterson would answer. This dim view of humanity is important for self-understanding. As Blaise Pascal has written, "Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than [the doctrine of original sin], and yet but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves." (7) Watterson has echoed this sentiment: "I wouldn't want Calvin in my house, but on paper, he helps me sort through my life and understand it." (8) Further, Hobbes's constant diagnostic commentary upon human self-interest helps move us toward deeper moral reflection.

As Watterson has written, "I don't know how much Hobbes helps Calvin gain perspective, but Hobbes certainly helps me." (9)

(1) p. 22 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(2) p. 21 Ibid
(3) p. ix Original Sin: A Cultural History
(4) p. x Ibid
(5) p. xv Ibid
(6) p. 203 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(7) p. xviii Original Sin: A Cultural History
(8) p. 21 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(9) p. 202 Ibid

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3 thoughts on “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 1, Chapter 1: "Virtue needs some cheaper thrills"

  1. Richard,

    Regarding so-called "original sin," my take is close to Hobbes. We don't have an evil nature (nature simply is)--rather we are "quick studies." We are creatures of space and time and the roiling culture into which we are born. We are wired (and re-wired based on experience) to sort out perceptions for survival--immediate and long-term. What we do with that is shaped by our society and culture--largely after we have (individually and collectively) secured survival. That we individually have choices within limits is a given. That we move in the wrong direction is due to weakness, fear (especially of death), and limits. It seems to me that the Apostle Paul nails it when he says: "In my deepest self, I delight in the law of God." Sin--a bad habit--takes up residence in our hearts and rules without relationship make things worse.

    Free Pelagius!


    George C.

  2. Hi George,
    I agree with your take on this. As biological creatures in a finite world we are born with a kind of minimal "survival selfishness" which doesn't take much to activate. But I also think we are born with strong instincts for friendship, love, and intimacy.

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