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The Subway: a Hobbesian State of War

March 24, 2011

I was visiting my sister in New York City over spring break just a few weeks ago.

After losing myself in the illuminating lights and fluorescent colors of Grand Central Station’s famous ceiling, I found myself taking the subway to 2nd street. Before I even stepped foot on the train however I took notice at the chaos taking place around me. Women and children pushing and shoving other families to get to their destination, competing against others to get to their train car first. I myself experienced this adrenaline rush as I was past by a man near sprinting to get as far ahead in line to swipe his metro card to avoid the wait. A blanket of anxiety coated my body as I began to sprint towards my train in fear that the doors would close leaving me lost and defeated by those that had reached it first.

In Hobbes’ state of nature, we are at war with a familiar species, ourselves and every day people around us. He felt that during times when laws and guidelines were absent, every person has the right to do whatever it takes to preserve their own liberties of life.

In a place like the subway, laws and strict rules aren’t necessarily enforced, it is every man for himself. It is without doubt a state of war. Each and every person is striving to find what Hobbes considered peace, in this case it’s simply an act of making your train. Competing against others knowing that they all possess the same goal, willing yourself to run faster than those next to you, or find a seat before them. One is constantly trying to defend themselves from others, as if everyone is an enemy who seeks to abuse and diminish your natural rights.

I never realized it until I took a step back and stopped thinking about my own needs. As I gazed into the crowd I could see that no one was thinking about anything but themselves. Aside from the noise of the subways screeching by, and the rustling of feet, there was no communication amongst people. It was a sight of individuals unknowingly at war with each other, a crowd of people willing themselves to defeat and compete with everyone around them. The subway presents in interesting case, it shows people’s morals when no specific guidelines are given towards how to act. Each and every person acts for themselves and only to benefit their intuitions and needs. No one takes into account the rules and restrictions by which they live in any other instance of life. Instead people act recklessly and solely for their own good. When there are no constraints people are only focused on there own liberties, and likewise have no concern for other’s pursuit of their natural rights.

This may seem like an odd proposition, but that is only because it is something never expected or truly analyzed. It is just an act of everyday life. One where people expose their inner morals and lack of interest in other people’s needs. It doesn’t have to be televised to be considered a state of war. There doesn’t need to be violence or a declaration for a course of action. No dictators or generals have to be present. Rather a crowd of people all fighting for their own selfish needs. Competing for the preservation of one’s liberties against those around you. The subway is a modern day representation of a state of war. It is a real-life example that is never recognized because people never take the time to realize how they are acting. They proceed without hesitation and are determined in their course of action without anyone intruding upon their path.

Next time you’re running to catch your train, or sprinting to cut the line so you can swipe your metro card, think about where you are and how everyone is acting around you. Odds are no one will be focusing on your problems, rather they will be fighting to preserve their necessities in defense from you.

  1. Rebecca Birnbaum permalink
    March 24, 2011 2:12 PM

    I think this is hilarious because it’s so true. Trying to get onto a subway during rush hour is such a pain for all of these reasons. Not only is there a HUGE number of people all going in different directions, but everyone is in a rush and rarely cares if they accidentally knock someone down as they sprint to the platform. Also, there is always THAT person who forces himself into the subway car even though it’s jam-packed and the doors are about to close – making everyone wait that extra 3 seconds and causing even more discomfort inside the car. I think the subways at rush hour pretty much define the stereotype that New Yorkers are rude, impatient, and always in a rush. Great post.

  2. alexqhe permalink
    March 24, 2011 2:58 PM

    This is a great entry. I think that anybody who’s ever lived on North Campus can understand what I mean when I say that this post reminds me of my experiences as a freshman with the Bursley-Baits bus route. Maybe it’s just because the student population is so large this year, but a lot of the times getting onto the Bursley-Baits bus really is a fight, just like it is on the subways of New York.

    During the middle of the winter, there are people literally shoving to get a spot on the bus in their haste to find some sort of reprieve from the cold. People shove, people cut into the front of the line, and people squeeze themselves onto the bus even though it’s clearly past capacity. Courtesy is a thought very far removed from the minds of most people when it comes to getting out of the cold and back to their residence halls faster. I suppose the Bursley-Baits route is just another example of a psuedo-Hobbesian state of nature.

  3. Stephan Sakhai permalink
    March 24, 2011 3:37 PM

    Although I have gone through your “subway experience” as well, I truly don’t find it as violent or reckless as you claim it to be. Being from New York City, I have been taking subways there for years, and although it may seem violent, reckless, and disorderly to outsiders, it is actually very systematic and easy to navigate.

    Some notes for when you ride the subway in New York.
    1) Try and stay on the right side wherever your walking/jogging/running too.
    2) If there is a large person that you will eventually run into if you keep walking in the line you are in, MOVE! because he wont, and its easier to take a step aside then get trampled.
    3) If everyone else is running or moving quickly, do the same.
    4) If people continuously squeeze into the cabin you are in, just move back and embrace the body warmth… that time you are the one squeezing in you’ll appreciate it.
    5)If you cant handle this… take a taxi or walk.

    Maybe i just think this way because i’m just another “rude, impatient, and always in a rush” new yorker.

    • Bobby Marshall permalink
      March 24, 2011 5:23 PM

      I thought this was a great post. Very true assesment that trying to get on a Subway, our species has somewhat reverted back to a Hobbesian state of nature where it is truly one versus the other trying to accomplish a similar goal. I thought that this was a very creative and out-of-the-box way of thinking of if there are any Hobbesian states of nature in todays current society and for that great post. I think this post also provokes one to think of modern day society and think of any other times when there seems to be a hobbesian state of nature, perhaps leaving a football game or stadium, when there seems to be mass confusion and everyone is just trying to get out as fast as possible to avoid the traffic, and because of so is pushy and very self-oriented. I think it an interesting idea to try to apply this Hobbesian state of nature to modern day activities and implore anyone to try and come up with a modern day one which they see a Locksian one, because as of now i cant think of one. Overall, great post, very creative and thought-provoking.

    • jamescimina permalink
      March 25, 2011 3:54 PM

      I too am from the east coast and have been riding subways my whole life in the city, thanks for the honest post, much appreciated. I know very well the east coast speed and pace of things, I was merely explaining how the subway experience is much faster than most other aspects of life. The violence part was simply to relate to Hobbes. Thanks for the comment though!

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