Certain that I was going to face far worse at home when I showed my tattered shirt, ripped pocket and newly holed jeans, I doggedly persisted. It was a gentleman’s disagreement in which I found myself embroiled. I was around eight years old and in East Baton Rouge Parish in 1965, scholarly debates were conducted on the sun-baked clay of the playground ringed by thirty or so cheering onlookers and several scouts to warn us of monitors. Over the fence a field of sugarcane rustled its dry leaves to the accompaniment of droning cicadas. The vestiges of pistols at dawn under the Evangeline Oak echoed yet when honor was at stake.
The issue at hand was in essence, biological. I maintained that cats sweat. Copiously through their feet. My adversary howled his denial of this contention as if in intense psychological pain. It started as a mere casual remark by the monkey bars and soon escalated into Missouri style wrestling. I knew I was right and had lost a strip off my new shirt (the one with all the buttons) in defense of my claim. I had read about it just days before in a wonderful book of sea stories taken off my father’s big shelf on our living room wall.
After several bouts of grappling in the dust, we broke our sweaty holds inside the ring of children and slowly circled each other like knife fighters in a Bronx alleyway. Right about then a scout saw a monitor beginning to take notice and contemplate the long hot walk across the ground to break things up. This sentry strode briskly over and when the spectators parted to let him inside the circle, he demanded to know what the altercation was about.
His age and height trumped our combined adrenaline and my opponent, who had initiated the contest by taking issue with my simple statement of fact, spoke with pained exasperation, “This fool says that cats sweat – through their feet. Now if that ain’t some pure D bullshit, I don’t what is.”
“Copiously, through their feet,” I added.
The older boy looked at me like a prosecuting attorney.
I told him that I had read it and I cited the title and author of the book. The book was The Glencannon Omnibus and its author was Guy Gilpatric. The human arena went quiet while the twelve year old referee deliberated.
After a pregnant moment he looked hard at the other fellow and said, “They do. They do sweat. It’s in a book, dumb-ass.”
That broke the spell and the kids dispersed. I gathered up the pieces of my shirt, dusted myself off and began formulating a good story to tell my mother about the state of my garments. My combatant headed off alone in the direction of our school’s library, sensing that a source of great power must reside there.
“Yeah, dumb-ass. Copiously, through their feet,” taunted a dozen voices at his back.
For the next several weeks a new phenomenon began to materialize on that playground. Contrary to what it would have looked like to an observer, the children of my school proved that they would really rather not carry their teeth home in a rolled up Kleenex. At least a half dozen times I personally witnessed bloodshed avoided in the heat of an argument by the declaration, “It’s in a book, dumb-ass!”
All sorts of issues were dealt with while the magic lasted. Were whales really mammals? Can anacondas really reach over thirty feet in length and swallow a man? Does your hair continue to grow after you’re dead? Do fish ever sleep? If Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the apple and not been kicked out of The Garden, would their two sons have had to marry their future sisters or would God have rustled them up some new gals? How would they all fit in the space after thousands of years of breeding? What would God have done if Eve had screamed when she saw the snake and Adam had killed it with a stick? These debates all ended peaceably when truncated by the invocation of author and title. Well, excepting the last three. Indeed, the ring of battle crows usually chimed in whether or not they knew the alleged citation to be legitimate or not. These lessons in human nature stayed long with me although not in a conscious way.
As time went on, I continued eating books like an armadillo eats ants. I was well into my thirties when a colleague pointed out to me that the number of books one reads is less important than what one derives from any one of them. He wasn’t an avid reader, so I took his advice with a grain of salt and continued devouring the printed word. By my forties, I began researching the authors of books I read in order to get a better perspective on their biases and to learn where they were educated and by whom.
Several authors were so instructive to me that reading the entire body of their works was similar to chugging glass after glass of sweet lemony iced tea on a hot humid day. Effortless and blissful. Aldous Huxley and Friedrich Nietzsche were two examples of this in the non-fiction realm. By my fifties I had learned to digest what I read and to patiently wait for my own conjectures and conclusions after letting my mind run all the arguments for me while I attended to my physical needs and obligations.
I remember it was also down in Louisiana the first time I was a participant in the board game Monopoly. On that occasion my whole family took part. I had been exposed to Chess prior to that time and I knew immediately that I preferred Chess by a great margin. The first thing that stood out was the importance of money and luck to the outcome which itself was only differentiated by larger or smaller piles of paper. I did, however, like the seeming randomness of the playing pieces, especially the old boot. The second thing I disliked was that if one was content with a very modest portfolio of properties, one was sure to fall behind due to unforeseen bad luck in the cards drawn.
Chess, by comparison, had elements of a much wider scope and of a higher degree of subtlety. The type of landscape wherein a boy might dare to dream. After all, both opponents were unencumbered with obtaining their Kingdoms, rather they were tasked with retaining Kingdoms already in their posession while under relentless and certain attack. In the end there could only be one King and in this respect I preferred the honesty and finality of Chess over the vague end game of Monopoly where the opponents are not vanquished in combat but merely forced into bankruptcy or into living paycheck to paycheck and hoping for a lucky card. My young mind began to perceive the very real difference between a loser and a conquered person.
I discovered similarities to Chess in the story of the Texas Band of Cherokees when researching my own family history. Rather than making a deal with a stronger contender to remain in the United States on subsistence rations, the Texas Cherokees chose to obtain lands from a different Sovereign State, Mexico. Their request was happily granted due to the geographically strategic placement of the lands in question as a natural buffer between some of the nicest farming land in Old Mexico, further US incursions and two nomadic tribes to the North and West, namely the Comanche and the Apache.
By contrast, the Eastern Band of Cherokees that accepted Removal to Oklahoma Territory at a later date can be likened to Monopoly players. A decision made by a few of their men sealed the fate of all. Thus, the Texas Cherokees received a Chessboard from Spanish authority and when they palyed the founding fathers of the Republic of Texas, they lost their lands. While they lived, they lived as free men and in defeat they were routed from the country and driven beyond the new borders of Mexico. The six individuals on record who trickled back across the Rio Grande simply signed a document of surrender at Bird Fort, Texas to became subjects of a new sovereign power and carried on their lives within the new system together with those few who had remained undetected due to mixed blood and white complexions.
Far from a tragedy, the story of the Battle of The Neches is to me a clear example of a contest entered into with both eyes open, while the Removal is an attempt by the few with the best of intentions on behalf of the many to play Monopoly with a little man in a top hat who happens to be the Banker, the Rule Maker and the author of the cards one draws during the game.
As I can personally attest, Chess is very easy to learn yet cannot be mastered in the average span of a man’s life. It is much the same with Go, a Japanese game of great antiquity. Any child can easily sense the truth inherent in Chess and the artificiality of Monopoly.
Here in Lillooet I have a little table on my back porch with four chairs. Generally, it is only myself in the flesh present at that table but I often let myself imagine that the other three chairs are occupied and that there are four mugs of coffee. The other people are friends, family, authors, musicians, historical figures, thinkers or characters from literature, stage and film; many of whom I honestly consider to be friends of the closest kind. After all, they have shared with me the contents of their hearts, their souls and their minds.
I once wrote to an acquaintance after viewing a short film he had made wherein he juxtaposed many images and musical sounds,”When the dragon of present time is slain by incongruity, magical things emerge and miracles occur.”
Upon reflection, that statement seems to serve as a perfect description of the benefits of my game of imaginary coffee mates. I am free to ask those assembled their individual opinions of any of my own theories and also to listen to them debate among themselves about their own. Furthermore, to our mutual benefit, time is no longer the master of ceremonies and Plato can engage Mark Twain while Lao Tzu patiently hears out Nietzsche.
Lately, there has been a new comer to the table. The new guy is an Englishman named Thomas Hobbes from Malmesbury in Wiltshire. I heard about him from a retired New York school teacher named John Gatto who recommended Hobbes’ book Leviathan during a broadcast of Brain Food For A Wednesday Eve on Radio Lillooet. I was intrigued and obtained a copy. It took me all Spring and part of the Summer to read the tome which was written in old English.
I decided to give those gathered at my table the Google on Thomas. He was born prematurely in April of 1588 when his mother heard of the coming invasion of the Spanish Armada. He once said that his mother gave birth to twins: Himself and Fear.
Hobbes was educated at the Westport Church from age four then at Malmesbury school and then at a private school kept by a young graduate of Oxford. Hobbes was a good pupil and around 1603 he went up to Magdalen Hall, the predecessor college to Hertford College at Oxford. His principal, John Wilkinson was a Puritan concerned with purifying the Anglican Church of all traces of Catholicism. While at university, Hobbes followed his own curriculum and was not too attracted by the scholastic learning. Mark Twain raised his cup and eyebrows at that information.
Ayn Rand seemed to be in awe of Hobbes and annoyed by him. She seemed to strongly agree with much he said about his foundational axioms yet vehemently disagreed with some of the conclusions he drew from those same planks of thought. She became visibly agitated.
Zorba managed to get her a wee bit tipsy on Irish whiskey and she giggled, “Who is John Gatto?”
Hobbes completed his B.A. degree in 1608 and was recommended by his master at Magdalen to be a tutor for William the son of William Cavendish, Baron of Hardwick and later Earl of Devonshire. Hobbes and William went on a tour of Europe in 1610. Hobbes was exposed to European scientific and critical methods that were in contrast to the scholastic philosophy he had learned in Oxford. He associated with the likes of Ben Jonson and briefly worked as Francis Bacon's amanuensis.
An amanuensis is a person employed to write or type what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another and also refers to a person who signs a document on behalf of another under the latter's authority. The word originated in ancient Rome, for a slave at his master's personal service "within hand reach", performing any command. Later it was specifically applied to an intimately trusted servant acting as a personal secretary. Amanuensis is what he does, not what he is.
His employer Cavendish, the Earl of Devonshire died of the plague in June 1628. The widow Cavendish dismissed Hobbes but he found work as a tutor again. That job was in Paris and it ended in 1631. Once more he worked for the Cavendish family as a tutor to another William, this one the eldest son of the previous Cavendish. For the next seven years of tutoring he cogitated on philosophy and wondered why rich people used the same names over and over again throughout generations. He was a regular debater in philosophic groups in Paris.
Nietzsche said through his prodigious mustache that although he and Hobbes shared a dislike for many aspects of Greek thought, he could still trounce Thomas in a debate if his verdammt headaches would just go away and he could find a decent Italian restaurant..
Hobbes's first area of study was the physical doctrine of motion and momentum. He went on to conceive a system of thought to which he would devote his life. His first objective was to show that physical phenomena were universally explicable in terms of motion. Next and mistakenly, in my own opinion, he singled out Man from the realm of Nature and Plants. Then he showed what bodily motions were involved in producing the sensations, knowledge, affections and passions by which people relate to each other. Finally he considered how humans were moved to enter into Society and he argued that this Society must be regulated to avoid falling back into brutishness and misery. Evidently, he never considered how women felt about any of it and this again, in my own opinion based upon three marriages, was another big miscalculation. When I pointed this out as politely as I could, I received high fives from Friedrich, Twain, Zorba and Ms. Rand.
All this work was wrapped up in a magnum opus entitled Leviathan which was published in 1651.
It was dedicated to Francis Godolphin who was the brother of Sidney Godolphin, an English poet, courtier and politician who sat in the House of Commons between 1628 and 1643. Sidney died of wounds received while fighting for the Royalist Army in the English Civil War. His will contained a bequest of £200 to Thomas Hobbes. It is alleged that Sidney Godolphin's ghost yet haunts The Three Crowns Hotel in Chagford. Striding the corridors in full uniform in spite of Hobbes’ disbelief of ghosts. Sidney died on February 9, 1643. He was survived by a brother named Francis to whom Hobbes dedicated Leviathan.
Soon Hobbes was more praised and cussed than any other thinker of his time. His book pissed off Anglicans, exiled Royalists and French Catholics alike. Hobbes appealed to the Revolutionary English Government for protection and fled back to London in the Winter of 1651. He had to submit to the authority of the Anglican Church via the Council of State and was allowed afterwards to live in Fetter Lane in the City of London.
In Leviathan Hobbes set out his doctrine of the Foundation of States, Legitimate Governments and an Objective Science of Morality. Leviathan was written during the English Civil War, thus much of the book is occupied with demonstrating the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid civil war.
Walter Ralegh piped up, “Sirrah, I warned young Henry, Prince of Wales against civil war in 1618 and they cut me bloody head off.”
The outburst naturally concluded my Google briefing and Hobbes took the floor on my porch and began to explain his ideas while waving his book in his hand. This greatly animated both Nietzsche and Rand. Especially his Social Contract Theory.
Beginning from a mechanistic understanding of human beings and their passions, Hobbes postulated what life would be like without government, a condition which he called the State of Nature. In that state each person would have a right or license to everything in the world.
Mark Twain said, “That might be the case if each person grew up in Paris or was raised by wolves or was related to any of the various Royal Families of the world but if they were raised in a family by parents with siblings and a cat, I hold it very unlikely that the aforementioned Rights of a State of Nature would pan out.”
I saluted Mark.
Hobbes said, “A State of Nature would lead to a war of all against all or a bellum omnium contra omnes.” He put it in Latin to make it sound epic.
Twain said, “That Sir, is a vas autem bovis stercore or a crock of bull-shit.” He put it in Plain English to make it clear.
Hobbes’ description of the Natural State without a Political Community was this, "In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In such a state, people fear death, and lack both the things necessary to commodious living, and the hope of being able to toil to obtain them.”
In order to avoid this demise, he explained, people accede to a Social Contract and establish a Civil Society. According to Hobbes, Society is a Population and a Sovereign Authority, to whom all individuals in that Society cede some rights for the sake of protection. Any power exercised by this authority cannot be resisted, because the protector's sovereign power derives from individuals' surrendering their own sovereign power for protection. The individuals are thereby the authors of all decisions made by the Sovereign.
I wondered aloud about infants born into such schemes and unable to give or revoke their consent to participating in this contract. Hobbes just said that parents can justly make those decisions for them. A passing Swiss Anabaptist, Conrad Grebel took issue with that and Paul Morphy had to distract them both by playing simultaneous blindfold Chess.
Quoting from his book again, Hobbes said, "He that complaineth of injury from his Sovereign complaineth that whereof he himself is the author, and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himself, no nor himself of injury because to do injury to one's self is impossible".
“I humbly beg to differ,” said Siddhartha who had joined the standing room only crowd on my porch.
“So do I, my petal,” said Kamala in a sultry voice with a twinkle in her mischievous eye.
I also voiced my disagreement saying,” Given adequate access to food, water and shelter, men and women will behave quite rationally and peaceably, in my opinion and observation. In fact, after the exertion of providing for their brood, Mom and Dad just want to watch their stories and cuddle on the couch. Bees, ants and wasps however, will not function properly without a Queen, an Army and other dedicated drones. Nor will a ship reach its destination and return to port without a Captain who possesses almighty power and authority.”
“But those individuals who by accident of birth cannot process guilt, remorse or empathy are the perpetual fly in the ointment as they invariably rise to form the elite part of the artificial hives of Man’s devising. Perhaps the lack of humanity’s will in dealing with such individuals and their minions, as they are revealed is the key to our species history and an explanation of why some like you Hobbes feel the need to buy protection with their Personal Sovereignty.”
By way of avoiding a debate, Thomas explained to us that there is no doctrine of Separation of Powers in Hobbes' world. According to him the Sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers.
Sir Francis Bacon, one of Hobbes ex-employers took issue with Hobbes’ lack of Separation of Powers and began to speak of his unfinished 1627 Utopian novel New Atlantis, directing his voice to Thomas as if reminding him of previous conversations.
Bacon explained his vision of the future of human discovery and knowledge and his aspirations for humankind. He dreamed of a land where generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendor, piety and public spirit are the commonly held qualities of the inhabitants of the mythical Bensalem. The plan and organization of his ideal college, Salomon's House, envisioned our modern research universities in both applied and pure sciences.
Bacon quoted the Father of Salomon's House which revealed by dialogue that members of that institution decide on their own which of their discoveries to keep secret, even from the State: "And this we do also: we have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not; and take all an oath of secrecy for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret; though some of those we do reveal sometime to the State, and some not."
Hobbes bristled at this and narrowed his eyes.
“It’s in a book, dumb-ass,” said Ayn in a laughing fit.
“That would seem to imply that the State does not hold the monopoly on authority and that Salomon's House must in some sense be superior to the State”, said Robert Service while rolling a smoke from my own poke.
“Exactly the problem I have mentioned and dealt with conclusively in my book if you were paying attention,” retorted Hobbes.
Catherine The Great, who had joined our company when Bacon first appeared and was busy munching on fresh apricots clapped her bejeweled hands together.
I spoke again to the group as a whole,”His logic is sound and if he were employed by Hasbro to design a board game, I would commend him greatly. But – and it’s a BIG BUTT, in a world mostly scared of dealing with evil, great harm is caused by ignorance attempting to do good and I humbly suggest that everyone subject to a Commonwealth system read Hobbes’ Leviathan in order to finally understand that your tax return determines which National Football Team you can play for, not the color of your skin.”
Old Hobbes didn't trust the Pope as far as he could throw him and so he threw him at least that far via a meticulous mining of Scripture and a thorough review of religious and political history as if he were engaged in preparing for a prodigious legal battle. Indeed, the last portion of his great book is dedicated to this purpose and he gave a very good reading of it to all assembled.
“Vaffanculo! You think you had a problem with the Pope?” asked Giordano Bruno who had been burned alive for pointing out obvious planetary motions when Thomas was only a twelve year old boy.
“Who is John Gauden?” giggled Ayn Rand who was sitting in Zorba’s lap and had kicked off her clogs.
I went for more coffee and googled the name up. Before reporting to those assembled that he was the Englishman, who at the Restoration was made Bishop of Exeter, I realized that Ayn wasn’t as drunk as she wanted us to think nor was she naive. As soon as Gauden was installed at Exeter he began to complain to Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon of the poverty of that particular Holy See. In January of 1661 he based his demand for a better posting on a Secret Service Mission he had undertaken.
The mission alluded to was nothing short of claiming to be the author and publisher of The Eikon Basilike, The Portraiture of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings. This highly influential book was and is an important plank in all subsequent and present theories of the Divine Right of Kings. Not unlike the terrorists’ passports found intact in the rubble of the Twin Towers on 9/11, the document was conveniently “discovered” within a few hours of the execution of Charles I.
It was published on February 9, 1649, ten days after King Charles I was beheaded by Parliament in the aftermath of the English Civil War and six years to the day after the death of Sidney Godolphin, the Ghost of the Three Crowns Hotel. The Eikon Basilike was promoted as the spiritual autobiography of King Charles I of England and was said to have been written by the King’s own hand.
Clarendon’s reply to Gauden’s demands was that he was already well acquainted with that secret and had often wished that he was ignorant of it. Gauden was subsequently posted to Worcester in 1662 and died there before the year was out.
"Now I get it," said Floki the Viking boat builder who had listened to the entire discussion without interrupting once. “But I don't entirely agree with the wisdom of an inflexible logic built upon a platform made out of a combination of the physical laws of motion and any one individual human creation myth chosen at random from among the dazzling variety available to our species, regardless of which one is chosen. Particularly when its stated goal is to encompass the globe with good intentions. I think I’m going to be sick.”
Ragnar Lothbrok laughed a hearty laugh while the King of Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria bit his lip and curled his fist into a little white ball of self hate.
Which reminded me of the last words that were said to have been uttered by Thomas Hobbes in his final conscious moments, "A great leap in the dark." I spoke them aloud and old Tom vanished from the scene.
Mean Mary James who was strumming her guitar on the back steps sang, “I was tired of clocks and taking hard knocks and locking my dreams in a drawer.”
“Boys and girls,” said Huey P. Long chugging on a root beer, “Let me tell ya’ll how to set this turtle back on its feet once and for all. We have to limit the wealth of any one individual and realize that every man is a King. Hell, its all in my book.”
“Yay Kingfish!” yelled Gatemouth Brown who was jamming with Mary.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.