Lex, Flies, and Videotape:
Thomas Hobbes, William Golding, and Iraq
by Bruce Peabody
William Golding's Lord of
the Flies (1954) is a story of marooned British schoolboys
who tear apart a social order of their own making. The book has
become a touchstone for exploring the limits of human reason
and morality, as well as our capacity for extreme indifference,
cruelty, and even iniquity.
But Lord of the Flies
is also a tale about law. The 50th anniversary of Golding's work
provides an occasion for reflecting on the enduring significance
of the book and the two films it inspired (1963, 1990) by retrieving
this somewhat neglected narrative of law founded, undermined,
and seemingly reclaimed.
make this case by interpreting Peter Brooks' 1963 film through
the lens of political theory. Using Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan
to push and extend Golding's story helps us rediscover telling
insights bypassed in more traditional accounts of these works.
And it provides fresh lessons for a contemporary setting marked
by strife, the limits of human foresight, and bloodshed: Iraq.
From the outset, Brooks suggests
the power and constancy of the forces pushing to undo a fragile
social order. He begins with a contrast of grainy still images
- the organized life of the boys' boarding school, and the symbols
of a war that forces their evacuation and exile. The first live
action scene has Ralph stepping somewhat gingerly through an
island jungle, still dressed in his anomalous school uniform
and accompanied by the drone of a fly. Again we confront the
tension between humans in civil society and more chaotic surroundings.
The children sense the potential
for discord and attempt to intervene by recreating some of the
conventions and structures from their former life. They convene,
elect a leader, and establish rules. "Got to have rules
and obey them," Jack enthusiastically proclaims. "After
all, we're not savages. We're English, and the English are best
at everything. Lots of rules, and when anybody breaks them
The sanction is not discussed, but the raucous hooting of Jack's
classmates implies the consequences will be severe.
The children's experiment in
self-rule is initially successful, yielding the benefits of cooperation.
They make decisions collectively and delegate vital tasks of
reconnaissance, food gathering, and starting a fire. But things
start to go awry when Jack and his band of hunters let the fire
go out, compromising the boys' chance of being rescued by a passing
plane. The children's society is strained further as they grapple
with runaway anxiety over a shadowy "beast" on the
island, and as factions develop between Ralph and Jack, who is
increasingly prone to violence. By the end of the film, Simon
and Piggy have been killed, and Jack and his followers pursue
Ralph with lethal purpose. The rout of civilization seems complete.
The Lord of the Flies
has been depicted as a study in evil, but, more accurately, it
makes a desperate, implicit case for convention and law. For
Golding and Brooks, our salvation and undoing come from the same
source: our own incapacity to form human institutions based on
deliberation and rational planning, rather than submitting to
force, fear, and violence.
Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan
tells a remarkably similar story about our weakness and creativity.
Hobbes begins his famous work by painting a picture of human
motivation and behavior prior to society. While some associate
this "state of nature" with lawlessness and entropy,
Hobbes is more careful in his depiction.
People are not impelled by
inherent malice or bloodthirstiness he says. Instead, they are
largely motivated by deep seated fear and egoism - satisfying
their own passions and escaping harm. These elements of human
behavior are prominently displayed in Lord of Flies. They
are captured, for example, by the terror induced by the fantastic
beast, and the self-regard of Jack, who neglects common projects
and forms a breakaway group "to hunt and have feasts and
For Hobbes, people are also
rational, albeit in a somewhat restricted form. We use reason
to help obtain our objectives, but not to choose amongst competing
goals or values. Golding's schoolboys certainly exhibit this
limited, instrumental rationality in creating shelter, fashioning
weapons, and hunting prey.
People in the state of nature
are also somewhat law-regarding, according to Hobbes, insofar
as they discover and act upon natural law. Notably, we are authorized
in trying to preserve ourselves, and doing anything to protect
that existence, including acquiring power and subjugating, even
But these arrangements are
extremely unstable, and the state of nature quickly lapses into
a state "of war of every one against every one." Individuals
exercise their right to self-preservation in an atmosphere of
distrust and anxiety, fearing that others will deprive them of
their interests and the means (wealth, honor, or power) to securing
The resulting tumult and disorder
is inhospitable to culture, science, and human achievement generally.
As Hobbes puts it, in this environment, there will be "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 [will
be] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Since there
is no body of laws, or authority to enforce them, the state of
nature is also devoid of property, justice, and a sense of good
and evil outside of what harms or pleases us. "Where there
is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice."
This grim moral landscape is
reproduced in Lord of the Flies. The boys initially cooperate
for self-defense, but their collaboration proves friable, and
competition and incipient violence hangs heavily over all their
interactions. When Jack first appears, he is accompanied by his
choir, marching in militaristic fashion. Indeed, they go on to
become the island's hunters who ultimately kill Simon and Piggy
and pursue Ralph.
the outset, Ralph and Jack struggle over their respective claims
to rule and what Hobbes calls a love of "dominion over others."
In forming his own splinter political community, Jack denies
that Ralph can provide security to others and that his decision-making
extends to others:
Jack: Who are you anyway just
sitting there telling people what to do? You can't hunt. You
Ralph: I am chief. I was chosen.
Jack: Why should choosing make
any difference? [Contemptuously]Telling people what to do
In addition to these dynamics,
the children battle over objects of common interest - Piggy's
glasses, food, shelter, and fire. Eventually, the continued eruption
of conflict destroys the fruit of the boys' nascent society and
plunges them into chaos. In addition to letting the fire go out,
Jack and his followers destroy the huts of Ralph's camp and smash
These conditions do not create
a fertile medium for claims to justice. After Simon's death,
Ralph despairs that the children have committed "murder."
Piggy, heretofore a figure of reason and humanity, bristles at
this suggestion. "You stop it," he tells Ralph. "What
good are you doing talking like that? It was dark. There was
that bloody dance. There was thunder and lightning and rain.
We were scared. It wasn't
what you said."
For Hobbes, there is one path
out of these bleak circumstances. Fear of death and the desire
for security and the fruits of human organization, lead people
to renounce their natural right to self-defense and to embrace
instead "convenient articles of peace." We leave the
state of war and enter civil society by recognizing and empowering
a sovereign with ultimate, unchallenged authority over its subjects.
This Leviathan, or "mortal
god," holds and exercises an overwhelming and visible "coercive"
power over everyone else. It is the terrible threat of the Leviathan's
monopoly of power that quells individual passions and creates
an environment in which people can better "preserve peace
[and] recognize obligations to one another, to enforce agreements,
to move beyond mere individual enforcement of the right to self
In Lord of the Flies,
the children's longing for an authoritative sentinel of order
is a recurrent motif. In the initial scene, Piggy asks hopefully:
"Are there any grownups?" Ralph confidently promises
that "Daddy's a commander in the navy - one day when he
gets leave, he'll come and rescue us." Even Jack asks to
see "the man with the trumpet" after Ralph blows a
conch shell to summon the boys to a meeting. Upon being informed
that this figure does not exist, Jack surmises "we'll have
to look after ourselves."
The importance of unified,
identifiable authority is further suggested by Ralph's subsequent
plea to a rebellious Jack:
Ralph: The rules. You're breaking
Jack: Who cares?
Ralph: Because the rules are
the only thing we got
The importance of Hobbes's
"mortal god" is arguably captured most powerfully in
the film's final scene. With Jack and his hunters in close and
feral pursuit, Ralph stumbles away from the burning jungle and
onto the beach. As his pursuers close, Ralph falls before a pair
of feet - and the camera pans upward to reveal a towering figure
in military uniform. The children are speechless, awed. Ralph
weeps in relief, while Jack looks on, defeated and cowed. In
a moment, chaos is repelled, and order is restored with this
vision of authority bolstered by the incipient threat of arms
(in the 1990 film, a helicopter gunship hovers in the background).
Hobbes's and Golding's raw
depictions of the instability of social life can be usefully
imported to the present. The violent streets of Baghdad and Falluja
resemble the brutality depicted in both Leviathan and
Lord of the Flies. But more interestingly, the Bush Administration's
efforts to secure and somehow transmit the conditions for sovereignty
can be mapped alongside both Hobbes's project and the struggles
of the schoolboys. Among other implications, these works suggest
the enormity of the challenges facing those hoping for a secure
and stable postwar Iraq.
For Hobbes, we leave the turmoil
of the state of nature by reducing all our passions and interests
"unto one will," and conferring nearly all of our power
to the Leviathan. This transfer of authority will be legitimated
by each citizen recognizing him or herself as the "author"
of the new government.
In contemporary Iraq, there
is surely widespread agreement that greater order is needed in
the country. But the continued hostility of radical and more
moderate Iraqis to both American troops and the nation's fledgling
institutions and leaders, suggests that many do not see themselves
as the "authors" of the U.S. sponsored regime.
Complementing this observation,
Leviathan and Lord of the Flies remind us that
governance and the rule of law depend not so much upon removing
authority, as establishing it. Hobbes and Golding both suggest
that discord is "natural," and that the state, while
necessary, is essentially artificial and imposed. Seen in this
light, the ouster of Saddam Hussein was the "easy"
part of the Iraqi campaign.
Political unity is vital to
securing a new polity. Divisions over a political community's
legitimacy threaten its preeminent purpose - maintaining peace
internally and checking hostility from abroad. Indeed, Hobbes
argues, if the state fails to guarantee the basic security of
its subjects, individuals may rightfully revert to self-preservation.
In this sense, even the all-powerful Leviathan operates on strictly
borrowed time. "You've got to be tough," Piggy admonishes
Ralph, as the boys' society threatens to unravel completely.
"Make them do what you want." But Ralph worries. "If
I blow the conch and they don't come back, then we've had it."
In other words, the emperor's
clothes can fall away in a moment. The inability of U.S. and
Iraqi military and civilian forces to prevent lethal attacks
is, therefore, not just bad press, but a direct challenge to
the status of the nascent government as a coherent political
On July 1, the United States
has committed to handing sovereignty to the Iraqi people. The
images of political disarray powerfully captured in Lord of
the Flies and Leviathan suggest both the stakes and
the uncertainty of this transfer. Should the new government falter,
of course, the U.S. would seem poised to "return" as
the resident power - the Leviathan. But this prospect is unnerving,
not reassuring, and suggests that this summer may mark the beginning
rather than the end of U.S. involvement in an unstable nation
Posted May 12, 2004