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City Life: A Modern Hobbesian State of Nature

October 7, 2010

I lived 7 years of my life in New York City, and now live just outside of its boundaries; in my experiences on the streets of the city, I see absolutely no problem in comparing it to “that condition which is called war”(159). It was briefly mentioned in lecture that the New York City subway stations are a rather obvious example of Hobbes’s State of Nature, with everyone looking to travel their own paths and reach their destination with no concern for those around them, and often at the expense of the smaller people moving in the opposite direction of, say, a mob exiting a train.

The existence of a “state of war” within modern society exist in NYC beyond just the subway system. Have you ever tried to get a cab around Times Square, especially after a popular Broadway show has just ended? Thousands of people swarm around the entrance, and in such a crowd, everyone suddenly loses whatever previous concern they had for others around them, and I have even seen fights break out over who claimed a cab first. Similarly, at the Yankees parade after they won the World Series last season, in order to get a better view of the stage where the players were, I actually witnessed people climbing up the sides of buildings and knocking over the police boundaries, swarming into blocked off areas.

The way that the attitudes of people change so completely in a mob is truly petrifying. Once the laws that are generally applied to all people are no longer enforceable because of the excessive amount of people in a small space, people naturally try to take advantage of the lawless situations to a point where it really becomes a “war of every man against every man”(159). Even the regard for the lives of others seems seriously numbed within a large crowd with a goal or destination. On Black Friday in 2008 in Long Island, this reality was horrifyingly proven, as a Wall-Mart employee was trampled to death by a viciously determined crowd smashing through the doors of the store, seeking the huge annual sales. What’s even scarier about the situation is that someone can be brutally murdered by the unrelenting feet of a mob and no one can be charged for the killing, because the usual restrictions of the law are negated in an uncontrollable crowd. This is not the first or only incident in which someone’s life was painfully ended at the hands of a crowd or some hidden member of a crowd, and it is a clear instance in which the state of nature, as Hobbes defines it, really shines through the shield of civilization.

2 Comments
  1. katelyn09 permalink
    October 7, 2010 3:41 PM

    I too agree with this modern life being a “state of nature.” As you mentioned above, the idealogy of a mob completely changes a person as the focus easily shifts from a possibly caring person to that of a person with only one goal in mind, to get the desire one searches for in which case “they become enemies, and in the way to their end…endeavour to destroy, or subdue one another” (Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch.13). As you said, shopping malls during the holidays are a great example of this. It is not uncommon to see mothers get in fights over the most coveted toy of the season that little Jimmy or Suzie wants. Hobbes laws of nature are clearly not on the minds of these mothers. They do not aim to “seek peace” like Hobbes suggested, but rather to destroy and satisfy their own needs or at least the needs of their families which as Hobbes stated could lead to a short and nasty life.

  2. schearer permalink
    October 7, 2010 9:12 PM

    I really like this point you bring up. I have been to New York City and I have walked all over and seen this war. I have also been to Chicago numerous times and seen this as well. It seems as though the city feeling gives these people the tendency to act in a way that is influenced by the environment that surrounds them. There are those that are not intimidated by the big city feel and then the ones that “get trampled on”. It seems that the people that prosper in the city are the ones who aren’t intimidated and take advantage of the tentative people nervously trying to get a cab.

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