Hobbes For English Majors
When most people think of an English major, they think of that person who loves to sit at home reading Shakespeare; they think of someone slightly dramatic, a thespian at heart. These are the people I sit next to in my classes. While I admire them, I am far from one. When it comes to literature of the 1500’s (and anything before or directly after), I take any bit of inspiration I can get.
The other day, for example, I arrived to my English class unenthused–to say the least–to discuss Christopher Marlowe’s literary work “Doctor Faustus.” The discussion progressed as usual, as we began talking about the main points of the plot. Doctor Faustus is a scholar in Germany, who decides to take up magic out of boredom and frustration with typical forms of knowledge in society. Our class then transitioned into conversation about themes in “Doctor Faustus.” We were brought to question what Faustus’ motives were for resorting to magic, and concluded that they were primarily for his own profit, delight, power, and omnipotence.
The lightbulb still wasn’t switching on. I continued to remain merely a physical presence in class as my mind wandered on events taking place out the window, only noting key words I deemed worthy enough to include in my notes. Then our discussion made its way to the context of Marlowe’s work. “Doctor Faustus” was written during a time of strict Calvinism in Germany, meaning that all of society believed in predestination and the omniscience of God. In attempting to rise dead spirits, Doctor Faustus challenges the conventional system of predestination by calling to question the effect of his actions on his eventual salvation or damnation. However, by choosing to impose upon himself a world of evil and demons, one might argue he was better off remaining within the norms of Calvinist thought and knowledge.
All of a sudden, Faustus’ situation brought me to consider the concepts introduced by Hobbes. Hobbes argues that we have the best liberty under a sovereign, as opposed to in the state of nature, because our actions are not constrained by constant fear. This is a thought that can be applied to “Doctor Faustus.” The religion of Calvinism and all those that it unites is the equivalent of Hobbes’ concept of the commonwealth, or the sovereign. Like in the sovereign, members of the Calvinist community are protected; however, if one chooses to stray from the Calvinist principles, they may face execution. The decision to lead a life outside of the Calvinist community is similar to the entry into Hobbes’ state of nature, as those bold enough are alienated from society and left to fend for themselves against corruption and selfishness.
As my English teacher asked whether we thought “Doctor Faustus” was meant to uphold the principles of Calvinism, or to resist this societal norm, I was reminded of Hobbes’ theory and its core debate: what are we willing to give up in order to be safe and secure? Was Doctor Faustus better off remaining within the intellectual boundaries of conventional society, or was his decision to challenge predestination a more fortunate fate? While we have the luxury of contemplation, the answer to this essential question may have cost Marlowe is life.