‘After all, everyone wants to go on living – or so Hobbes wanted to believe’


Suicide Bomber, Adam Neate, 2007

From Literary Review:

In Leviathan Hobbes writes of ‘the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only’. Nothing could be more absurd, according to Hobbes’s way of thinking, than killing oneself – except perhaps killing oneself in order to kill others. War shows the law of self-preservation working itself out in practice: humans kill other humans because they fear being killed themselves. But if that is so then any type of warfare that involves certain death for the combatants will be self-defeating. Soldiers who sacrifice their lives in order to protect their comrades are committing suicide – an attitude that Hobbes, for whom a self-interested fear of death was the primary human motivation, could never account for. Behaviour of this kind is not only irrational, but – Hobbes at times suggested – a symptom of madness.

Though he is commonly seen as a grimly realistic thinker, Hobbes’s account of human conflict is a long way from the reality of violence. For all his insight into how humans are impelled to prey upon one another he would have been horrified by the world portrayed in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, in which violence has come to be a way of life practised for its own sake. For Hobbes violence is instrumental: either it serves the goal of self-preservation, or it is pointless. Seeing humans as essentially driven by their passions, Hobbes cherished little hope that they would ever be guided by reason. Still, he never doubted that if people were more rational they would be less prone to violence. How could any sane person not seek peace? After all, everyone wants to go on living – or so Hobbes wanted to believe.

Something like Hobbes’s analysis (though without his refreshing pessimism or his wonderfully terse prose style) has resurfaced today in regard to suicide bombing. If you read evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins, you will be told that suicide bombers are driven by their irrational religious beliefs. ‘Suicide bombers do what they do’, writes Dawkins in a passage cited by Scott Atran, ‘because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools; that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise.’ What is striking about claims of this kind is that they are rarely accompanied by evidence. They are asserted as self-evident truths – in other words, articles of faith. In fact, as Atran writes, religion is not particularly prominent in the formation of jihadi groups:

Though there are few similarities in personality profiles, some general demographic and social tendencies exist: in age (usually early twenties), where they grew up (neighbourhood is often key), in schooling (mostly non-religious and often science-oriented), in socio-economic status (middle-class and married, though increasingly marginalized), in family relationships (friends tend to marry one another’s sisters and cousins). If you want to track a group, look to where one of its members eats or hangs out, in the neighbourhood or on the Internet, and you’ll likely find the other members.

“The Privilege Of Absurdity”, John Gray, Literary Review