Some Thoughts on Social Contracts

When I was 17, I read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Not on my own—it was for an Ethics class in high school. We also read Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Golding, Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment over Winter Break!), Mishima, and Descartes. And when I wrote “Not on my own,” I lied. I chose the class, and I gobbled down everything Fritz Marks put in front of us. I still refer to Hobbes (40+ years later). I expanded on my understanding of the rationale behind Descartes in grad school, when I pulled apart the “cogito ergo sum” as it applied to ideas in William Blake’s prophetic poems. We are never done.

Hobbes’s vision of mankind, based so much on what was observable—limited, one might say—was grim—is grim—and foreboding. The social contract—or some kind of explicit and implicit agreement—was all that stood between us and the enduring war of all against all. Kant threw us a life preserver—the notion of the sunnum bonnum—but tell me when in history that any group of people could agree on a greatest good for more than 26 minutes. Hobbes hangs around the same way that Thrasymachus is craftily ushered out of Plato’s Republic. We may move on from the dark vision, but it’s hard to wash that blood off your hands.

This essay will head in two directions, and I’ll get the weighty one off first. I’m not sure how you feel about the social contract. We give it more than a little bit of lip service—some implicit set of agreements that keeps us from (figuratively and literally) eating each other. I once pointed out the difficulty of claiming a moral high ground because of the numerous daily petit disruptions to the explicit contracts. In a sermon, I pointed out speed limits as an indication of a rule that was almost designed to be broken—and was taken to task for asserting that people knowingly violated laws. But what high moral ground can we claim? I lived in West Philadelphia when the mayor allowed the police to drop an incendiary device—a bomb—on a row home; the resulting fire consumed 61 homes and killed eleven. In the final days of the US evacuation from Afghanistan, a drone strike killed 10 Afghan citizens, in what the US military admitted was a “fatal mistake.” Yesterday, 2000 people died of COVID in the United States, and we will never know how many of those were infected by people who refused vaccines or masks. We are always living in the fog of the war. Is it the war of all against all? I don’t know, but I know that despite best intentions or assertions of individual freedoms, someone, somewhere, is getting served. Again.

The will to power, in whatever form it takes, is hard to set aside. Jack Merridew (from Golding’s Lord of the Flies) stands as a perpetual caution. We want meat (metaphorical and actual), and we have Roger to keep the boys in order. I know that some point to the schoolboys who disproved Golding’s fictional account of our race to destruction. I will point to the differences: the Tongan schoolboys were not British schoolboys; the boys were friends and not assembled hodgepodge to avoid an oncoming nuclear war; there were only 5 boys joined in a common purpose as opposed to the 20-50 in Golding’s novel. And one is true, and the other rings true. So yes, given the circumstances, we can avoid eating each other. If we are those boys. An obvious common purpose wrapped in the warm cloth of friendship creates the conditions for a reasonable implicit contract.

In the end, I suspect that the social contract is a useful fiction, but I also acknowledge the power of story in our lives. We need good stories. Linda Cron says that we are “Wired for Story,” and I show my students clips of Marlon Brando weaving the story of Caesar’s assassination. Do you want to win the argument? Tell a better story. A bloodied body helps. Of course, Brando has the advantage of Shakespeare, but who hasn’t been swayed by rhetoric as sharp and story-bound? The line will be short.

One story is that we are brutish, that we are only a few thousand years removed from a more animal existence, and we must acknowledge that former life and behave accordingly. Our inherent biology drives us to fuck and fight and eat (Paleo!). This kind of biological absolutism ignores that whatever we evolved from, we did evolve (if in fits and starts) and continue to evolve. We are, always, changing—from our guts to our brains. One startling aspect of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary is how it posits an almost lightning-like speed of change.

Another story is that we are imbued with goodness or holiness. Or that at least a few of us have been chosen for such rewards. Can I not unpack the problems of us/them either/or here or the tribalism that religious fervor unleashes? The moment any group names itself “Select,” all those who do not face immediate peril. When a supreme being is the source of authority and man (any man) wields the will of God (any God), then disagreement and diversity become less than second thoughts. Or, to quote Hume, “[O]ne party by tracing up government to the DEITY, endeavor to render it so sacred and inviolate that it must be little less than sacrilege, however tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it in the smallest article.” What you call Sharia, I call Texas.

Wealth and Benefits of Spanish Monarchy under Charles III, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

It may seem as if misanthropy is the only safe harbor once one heaves the contract away. Still, this afternoon, I joked with complete strangers about the title of Tiepolo’s Wealth and Benefits of the Spanish Monarchy under Charles III. Beautiful painting. Hilarious title. I asked a guard about the signs surrounding parts of Sarah Cain’s installation. Huge single-colored circular inserts into stone benches have signs exhorting, “Please do not sit or stand on the colored circles.” As if. The guard laughed about the kids who could not help themselves. My daughter gets embarrassed by my exchanges, but they keep me sane. Without an esprit de corps, life becomes too ponderous. We are all in this together.

We all know this, especially after the past year. The virus ignored all divisions: class, race, gender, religion. The virus—as viruses always have—leaped across boundaries as nimbly as a 9-year-old leaping over hopscotch squares. COVID could have (should have?) been an occasion for recognizing our togetherness. After all, viruses have happened before and will happen again. Calling it a name or blaming someone (an animal, a person, a city, a nation) ignores history and biology. Viruses don’t mean to do anything; they have neither will nor strategy. Like the lilies of the field, they neither reap nor toil. You cannot go to war with a virus. We tried. And on a war footing, we—and this “we” is a particularly American “we”— got angry—and not at life in general or some god, but at each other. Perhaps, in our relatively comfortable lives, we forget that life is hard, that living in the world requires work and alteration.

A friend texted me Sunday morning with news of his family’s encounter with COVID. His daughter’s classmate brought the virus to school from her infected parents, and you can guess the rest. My initial response was anger, disgust, relief, and commiseration. I am a parent, and I teach.

I understand why we want our kids in school. Students do better when energized by each other and by teachers. Teachers also get more from the verbal and nonverbal give and take of the classroom. But schools, private schools too, are confluences of race, class, gender, religion, and now, attitude. We now claim attitude (I don’t like masks. What?) as a fundamental right, which strains even the fictional social contract. The virus has no attitude and no philosophy. Take a lesson.

I began this essay by explaining my first encounter with Hobbes. One of the initial contracts I entered into was a student. Throughout my life, I was an enthusiastic student, save for a few unfortunate cases. I never took to Mr. Ewell in chemistry, and as much as astronomy holds a charm for me today, I failed Wulff Henitz’s class at Swarthmore. Otherwise, I chased rabbits down the deepest holes, and learning never felt like a chore. Call me crazy (or seriously misguided), but I expected my students to feel the same way. I quickly recognized that I would need to persuade many of my students to my way of thinking, and I did. I cajoled. I amused. I swam across desks to demonstrate the power of metaphor. I taught for 25 years at various levels and enjoyed much of the task. This past year, when the pandemic tore the school year to shreds and sent us to zoom screens, I felt as if the implicit contract between my students and me—in fact, most of the unspoken agreements between administrators and teachers and parents—got tossed in the shredder. Contract, my foot.

Teaching English has always been a matter of teaching about humans. Writers may care about structure and grammar, but what matters most is the human condition. As a writer, the only thing that matters is getting a fully human experience onto the page. When I write “fully human experience,” I mean one that grapples with our brightest gifts and most dreadful failings. We live our lives veering from one to the other in some vast internal and external landscape. Mountain ranges and inward seas. Admirable struggles await.

Several years ago, I worked as a principal at an Orthodox Jewish Boys’ School, a Yeshiva. One of the Rabbis called me “The Warden,” and at that moment, I knew my time at that helm was short. I do not blindly accept authority, even my own, and I know there is so much that I do not know, and this goads me on to learn more, think harder, and dig deeper into this loamy life. The Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera has a story about a man who devours a mountain. If I am going to do the impossible, I will need to focus my efforts. This work will not devour itself.

I have chosen my mountain, and my ocean, my desert, and my city. I will write about what I find there, but I am no longer interested in standing at some imaginary gate telling students they didn’t qualify—either for entrance or escape. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am absolutely not interested in being the warden. I will wrestle with existential “no’s” in my work—and the existential “yes’s.” Always the Yes!  I choose to cheer in my life among the young. They have hills enough to chew (read the Piñera). That is my contract. For now.