The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 2, Chapter 4: The Wagon Ride

Part 2: Wagons and Will

Chapter 4: The Wagon Ride

In Part 1 of the Theology of Calvin and Hobbes we dwelt upon the dim view of human nature portrayed in Watterson’s work. Again, this view was not wholly unexpected given that the two protagonists of the strip are named after John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes. In Part 2, we will explore some related observations concerning human volition.

Given the dim view of human nature in Calvin and Hobbes it should come as no surprise that questions concerning human choice, volition, and will should also arise. Further, it also not surprising that the view of human volition in Calvin and Hobbes appears to be influenced by the theology espoused by its lead character’s namesake. As Watterson has noted, Calvin is “named for a sixteenth-century theologian who believed in predestination.” (1) Just as Calvin and Hobbes presents a dim view of human nature, it also presents a picture of a circumscribed human will. A will with little wiggle room, range, power, or scope. Calvin and Hobbes doesn’t espouse any religious view of “predestination,” but it shadows the idea by presenting human volition as anemic in it capabilities. Human choice is simply holding on for the ride.

Wagon and sled rides specifically.

As we saw in Part 1, Calvin and Hobbes often goes overtly philosophical and theological. That is, Calvin and Hobbes frequently talk directly about philosophy and theology. More often than not, these philosophical conversations generally support the overall tone, philosophically speaking, of the strip. And, sometimes, the explicit dim commentary on human nature partners with the implicit depiction of human nature in the personhood of Calvin:

When the philosophical issues of Calvin and Hobbes become overt Watterson typically has Calvin and Hobbes rushing headlong down a hill, barely in control, on a wagon or a sled. As Watterson has noted, “…I mostly use [the wagon] when Calvin gets longwinded or philosophical.” (2) The juxtaposition is often hilarious. The wild, kinetic, physicality of the wagon ride is the perfect comic counterpoint to Calvin’s airy, cerebral, and philosophical speculations:

But of more interest for our purposes is when the wagon ride itself becomes a metaphor for or a commentary upon Calvin’s speculations. As Watterson has also noted, “Sometimes the wagon ride even acts as a visual metaphor for Calvin’s topic of conversation.” (2):

What is this “visual metaphor,” particularly when Calvin’s topic, as it frequently is, deals with human choice and volition? It clearly suggests that human volition isn’t very much in control. The wagon ride becomes a metaphor for forces being already in play with little that can be done to change direction or prevent the inevitable outcome. Like the theologian John Calvin, the wagon rides of Calvin and Hobbes present us with a very pessimistic picture when it comes to the capacities of human choice. A kind of predestination is depicted in the wagon rides.

Now we don’t have to agree with any of this. It’s just the theological situation we find in Calvin and Hobbes. But I do find this depiction in Calvin and Hobbes important for a number of reasons.

Regardless as to whether one agrees with Reformed or Calvinist notions of election or predestination, modern science is slowly eroding our confidence in radical notions of “free will.” Neuroscience, cognitive science, and behavioral genetics are slowing raising questions as to whether or not we can causally transcend biological forces. Further, the more we study environmental, cultural, and social influences upon us, we are struck by the uneven starting places people face in beginning the race of life. Some of us are rich and others poor. Some are raised in Iran and others in England. Some of us are white and others black. Some of us were loved by parents and others sold as slaves or prostitutes. And slowly, as we contemplate the uneven starting places, this race toward happiness, virtue, and goodness seems rigged, fixed. It starts to seem that there are no truly good people. Just lucky people.

There are a great many theological systems and structures within Christian theology that require a specific view of human will. Many of these systems require a radically free human will. Yet it seems that this view of radical freedom (often called libertarianism in the free will debates) is growingly untenable. Strong volitional formulations are beginning to give way to weak volitional formulations, where the will is a player in human affairs but is not omnipotent in range and power. Nature and nurture will have a say.

And if this diagnosis is correct, Calvin and Hobbes is theologically prescient. It seems we all, the church included, are looking forward to a wild and woolly wagon ride.

(1) p. 21 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(2) p. 22 Ibid

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5 thoughts on “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 2, Chapter 4: The Wagon Ride”

  1. Dr. Beck,

    You made an interesting choice of comic for your last in this chapter. It seems Hobbes didn't believe his luck was completely outside his own volition to change it.

    Great series, I am enjoying it immensely.


  2. Dr. Beck

    I too am enjoying this series. I'm curious to know if you have noticed any progression of thought as the comic strip progressed? Not that I think the comic strip comes to a head in the later years, but I've observed that I usually favor the later books when I choose to flip through "C&H". Any observations?

  3. Hi Justin,
    Thanks. Regarding the last strip and Hobbes' final comment, I don't know, but it struck me to hint at a tone of fatalism or inevitability (i.e., Today is just like yesterday and will probably be like tomorrow). At least that is how I read it.

    Hi Bryce,
    That's a good question. I do think the characters are more fully realized in the later years, and, as a consequence, the quality and intimacy of the humor increases. Theologically and philosophically I didn't notice a huge shift. I do think Watterson deals with death more in the later years. Also, due to Watterson's epic battles over licensing with his syndicate many of the later strips dwell a lot one the superficiality of modern life (e.g., cheap and superficial consumerism). That is, there is a lot more harsh social commentary in later years.

  4. Dr. Beck,

    (A little late, I know.)
    This is what I love about this comic strip... there's so much depth.

    I read it differently, more as Hobbes' rebuttal to Calvin's fatalism. Hobbes sees the cliff and (I assume based on "yesterday's" experience) bails off. His choice is confirmed in his observation of Calvin's landing spot, from a location of relative safety--i.e. a better result. Meanwhile Calvin continues to expect to follow the same path with different results via changing luck.

    I don't know... I see a mini-debate here in the strip. The fact that others will read it differently--and be quite right in doing so--attests to Watterson's brilliance.

    I wonder if bible interpretation can be considered in a similar way?


  5. I think that all you said is a great summary of Calvin's views, but you don't seem to engage much with Hobbes'. Hobbes can be pessimistic and all that, but he isn't particularly deterministic. He seems to be practical in that he at times recognizes that he can prevent certain evils from occurring to him. (For example, in the last strip you included Hobbes jumps out of the wagon.)

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