The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 1, Chapter 2: The Democracy of Sinners

Chapter 2: The Democracy of Sinners

In the last chapter we noted the places whenCalvin and Hobbes overtly, in a philosophical way, floats questions about the goodness of human nature. But the real commentary on human nature in Calvin and Hobbes comes from observing the personality of Calvin:

You could argue that Calvin and Hobbes is, at root, an extended meditation on the personality of Calvin. And what a personality it is! If John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes had dim views of human nature, six-year old Calvin is the incarnation of those views. Calvin is self-indulgent:



And not likely to feel remorse:

Is there anything therapeutic or helpful in dwelling on the personality of Calvin? I believe so. Obviously, we must begin with identification. Calvin is us. As Watterson has noted, "I suspect...that inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way." (1) We see ourselves in Calvin.

But we also laugh at Calvin. Here is this very dim portrayal of human nature and it is rendered funny, hilarious. Toward what end? Alan Jacobs, in his book Original Sin: A Cultural History, writes about the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of the doctrine of "original sin." Specifically, a dim view of human nature allows us to view the world as a "democracy of sinners," where pity is conferred upon those who fail and scorn is heaped upon those who attempt to elevate themselves above others as moral "superiors." Jacobs offers this wonderful quote from G.K. Chesterton:

Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin can we at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.
Original sin, the democracy of sinners, when properly understood is a radically egalitarian notion. It flattens all human hierarchies.

Further, the great leveling mechanism, according to Jacobs, is comic exposure. Original sin is the revelation of human folly, and none of us are immune. The exposure of our folly, personally and collectively, leaves us with little recourse but to adopt a position of humility and to seek forgiveness from one and all. As Jacob writes, "truest excellence is to know that you deserve the 'comic exposure'--to know you need forgiveness." (2)

Calvin and Hobbes is a prolonged comic exposure of human folly. We see ourselves and each other in the "bratty kid" and join the "democracy of sinners." These realizations are not morbid nor symptoms of a Christian self-loathing. They are, rather, liberating starting places. You and I are sinners, equally so, no one of us is better than the other.

This perspective has been nicely articulated by William Ian Miller:
Various political movements and moral theories have tended to divide humankind into two groups. We thus have saved and damned, faithful and infidel, Christian and Jew, left and right, East and West, capitalist and proletarian, black and white, woman and man, gay and straight, and so on...But in the kind of moral psychology that I am drawn to, none of these contrasting pairs does so well at capturing human foible as my preferred pair: Knave and fool...The Knave-fool paring differs from others because it gets at human behavior at its most interesting...It forces us to contemplate, sometimes mordantly, sometimes even lovingly, the wondrous complexity of the simplest face-to-face encounters, the comic pretensions of our hopes and dreams, our postures and poses, all our various forms of fakery. Knave-fool does not reduce us to one dimension but keeps all our motives, desires, fears, and hopes, all aspects of us--as workers, friends, sexual beings, parents, children, believers or unbelievers--on the table for discussion and gentle raillery. (3)
There are, perhaps, more serious discussions to have about human fallenness. Foibles only go a short way toward understanding human evil. But the comic exposure found in Calvin and Hobbes, the gentle raillery that highlights our self-absorption and folly, does go a fair way to truly humanizing us all. We are Calvin. And we laugh at what we see.

Welcome to the democracy of sinners.

(1) p. 21 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(2) p. 272 Original Sin: A Cultural History
(3) p. 235-237 Faking It

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7 thoughts on “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 1, Chapter 2: The Democracy of Sinners”

  1. Richard,

    You write: "As Watterson has noted, 'I suspect...that inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way.' We see ourselves in Calvin."

    More accurately, it seems to me, would be to say: We project our adult selves on to Calvin.

    Rather than seeing children for who they are (because we have largely forgotten our own childhood) we view the child through an Augustinian/Calvinistic/Freudian
    grid. That effectively blaimes and shames even an infant for our own failings and foibles. It seems to me that Alice Miller is correct when she says that the child is always innocent. She is paraphrasing Jesus by the way. And she is unwilling to engage in theological and psychological child abuse.


    George C.

  2. Hi George ... when then does adulthood begin? I know several adults who whilst in no way considered cognitively under-developed are psychologically infantile. This is in a large part because of their upbringings but one must at some point attribute responsibility. I wonder at what point you see the defense of innocence as being no longer applicable? (This is a sincere question not a criticism of your own point.)

    Best wishes, Andy

  3. Andy,

    I agree that at some point in human development an awareness of "personal" responsibility is necessary. But remember that that insight occurs within a social context and is likely to be ongoing until the day we die.

    A concrete example: my ten year-old grandson is growing in his awareness of the complexity of right/wrong categories. He is beginning to wrestle with both/and categories and learning how to respond "responsibly" with the aid and encouragement of his parents. He also knows that his parents, grandparents, his peers, and the large "world" are sometimes at odds. Blessedly, he takes most of his cues from family and sorts things out pretty well. When puberty starts, I think he'll become somewhat bewildered--all of which is part of his ethical development. Has he reached the "age of accountability"? Well, yes and no.

    In my opinion, our hyperindividualized American society has too few common social markers and rites of initiation into "adulthood" with its costly responsibility. Nothing the equivalent of the bar-Mitzvah or bas-Mitzvah. Nothing the equivalent of traditional Native American iniatory ceremonies. Nothing that occurs in the 12-15 year range that is socially very beneficial. That is why many remain stuck in an adolescent time warp.

    When someone is thirty, they are in no way innocent the way an infant is. They are sheltered, naive, unaware, or narcissistic.


    George C.

  4. Sir.
    Long time reader, first time commenter. Greatly enjoying this thread. Just wanted to un-lurk long enough to provide a brief affirmation.
    Keep it up!

  5. From a book that has challenged me more than anything I've read in the last 30 years:

    Gabriel Marcel describes one of his characters as realizing that she has lived by "a false charity, all of whose commands were lies. light of this inner revelation...she acknowledges [that]...there is a communion of sinners, as well as a communion of saints, and without a doubt it would be impossible to separate the one communion from the other." (The Mystery of Being, p. 169)

    Doesn't it take the cake that a comic strip can make the point without Marcel's challenging "secondary reflection"?

  6. Hi Heather,

    I do not read Dr. Beck's commentary here as applying to the historical John Calvin, but to cartoon Calvin. I read this:

    But the real commentary ... comes from observing the personality of Calvin[, the cartoon character]. You could argue that Calvin and Hobbes is, at root, an extended meditation on the personality of [cartoon] Calvin. ... Calvin is self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-centered, and not likely to feel remorse.

    What most of us plebes "observe" these days is not the writing or biography of the historical John Calvin, but that of the cartoon Calvin. That said, each of us including honored saints in our more truthful moments openly point to our root selfishness and gleefully, solemnly fall on the Lord of grace. (John Calvin would have way more of those moments than I.)

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