The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 1, Chapter 3: "A Vindictive, Twisted Elf"

1. In my essays on The Theology of Peanuts one of the chapters was devoted to the duplex self, the experience of feeling morally divided, as if two warring impulses, one good and one bad, battle in the depths of our soul.

This experience of feeling morally divided was famously captured in the New Testament by Paul:

Romans 7: 14-24a
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!
As I wrote we often see this struggle depicted in Peanuts:

Paul's description parallels a Jewish conception of the person, where the soul is viewed as a battleground with two competing impulses within it. There is an evil impulse, the yezer ha-ra, which corresponds with Paul's "sinful nature." Struggling against the yezer ha-ra is the impulse for good, the yezer ha-tov. The soul is duplex, divided.

Although the duplex self appears in Peanuts it is not a dominant theme. By contrast, in Calvin and Hobbes the internal battle between good and evil saturates the strips. Moral struggle is a major theme in Calvin and Hobbes.

Watterson has written that he uses the Christmas strips in Calvin and Hobbes to show Calvin's battles between his good and bad impulses. (1)

True to the dim view of human nature presented in the strip, Calvin mainly approaches the battle between good and evil from a punishment/reward stance. That is, he struggles to be good during the Christmas season so that Santa will bring him Christmas presents. As a consequence, Calvin and Santa have a very strained relationship:

Through the annual struggles with Santa Calvin and Hobbes highlights the yezer ha-ra and Calvin's Herculean attempts to manage it. More often than not, he fails:

However, sometimes he succeeds:

But even when Calvin succeeds we are acutely aware that his motives for being "good" remain self-interested:

This self-interest contaminates, morally speaking, all of Calvin's Christmastime efforts to be good. And it highlights a very real struggle we all face. We all desire that our goodness be rewarded. If it were not it is doubtful that goodness would ever gain a foothold on this earth. And yet, as Kant famously noted, for goodness to be true virtue it must be pursued as an end in itself, not as a means to an end. Calvin nicely illustrates Kan't point. Calvin's "goodness" is a means toward the end of getting Christmas presents and this strikes us as shallow and, well, not very good.

But consider the mixed ethical messages we send children about virtue. Take, for instance, the Kantian muddle in this popular Christmas song:
You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He's making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice

Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
How confusing is this song? Are we to be good because Santa is making a list and checking twice, going to find out who is naughty or nice? Being good in this way, according to Kant, undermines the whole enterprise. This is amply demonstrated by Calvin. But perhaps, as the song goes on to suggest, we should be good for goodness sake? Good for the sake of being good. That's the Kantian goal. But it is so elusive when a reward is in the offing.

In the first three essays we've been dwelling on the dim view of human nature presented in Calvin and Hobbes. Thinking through Calvin's struggles with Santa we see how dim this commentary truly is. Even our moral apparatus is contaminated by self-interest. Kant's shining categorical imperative seems so lofty as to be unattainable to us, psychologically speaking. Can we ever pursue goodness with no thought about potential positive outcomes? Is that humanly possible?

But this is not to say that we should give up. Just that goodness might require something more than duty and categorical imperatives. Calvin and Hobbes does offer a nuanced portrait of Calvin's Christmastime goodness.

In the relationship between Calvin and Hobbes we see something that cracks Calvin's self-interest: Love. It is undoubtedly true that a cold adherence to moral duty can rescue us from evil. Duty is necessary to stand in the gap when feelings fail. But duty is too thin to carry the day all by itself.

I think Calvin and Hobbes shows us how human goodness ultimately works. Our passions must be engaged to get us to step outside ourselves.

We are often good simply because we love.

(1) p. 198 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book

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6 thoughts on “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 1, Chapter 3: "A Vindictive, Twisted Elf"

  1. Awesome! Great Blog! These posts along with Freud's Ghost have been incredibly timely and helpful.


  2. "We are often good simply because we love."
    The "true" rest of the story. How appropriate! Thanks for this wonderful series of posts.

  3. Thanks for this series, though I'll be honest...
    ...I'm pretty much reading only for the healthy dose of comics.

  4. This reminds me of Tim Keller's articulation of the gospel; namely, that there are two ways of being your own savior and lord: (1) by being very bad, and (2) by being very good.

    With regards to your point on Kant and Santa, then, humans often use God as a means to get something else (status, protection, blessings, wealth, etc.), and not an end in Himself. In this sense God is Santa, not Lord and Savior. One can be very, very good for Santa, without ever loving him.

  5. djb,
    Thanks. It's nice to know people are still looking at past posts.

    Hi Don,
    I've really appreciated you encouragement throughout this series. It makes me look forward to writing.

    Very funny :-)

    I appreciate that Kantian take on God. I had not thought of it that way.

  6. Just (re)discovered this blog! I had forgotten all about it only to see that there is a lengthy discussion about the comic strip that really helped me to develop a love for philosophy early on in life (though i just laughed my sunday afternoons away as a kid) :)
    I was reminded of a wonderful phrase from Lao Tzu: "the softest things in the world can overcome the hardest things in the world."

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