Saturday, April 14, 2012

Calvin and Hobbes

Though I don't now if this is what Bill Watterson had in mind when he launched his beloved comic strip in 1985, I find it amusing that if you ask folks to free associate with the names of the two main characters separately, you get replies that veer in a altogether different direction.

Calvin (1509-1564)
While one of my favorite bridge partners, Leon McCarty, has a son named Calvin and I've no doubt that's who'd first pop into his head, I suspect most of us would come back with John Calvin, the influential French theologian who lived smack in the midst of the Protestant Reformation.

He followed in the Augustinian tradition and believed in predestination—where your assignment to heaven or hell is known to God (the Omniscient) right from the get-go and there ain't nothing you or anyone else is going to do about it. While a lot of folks have trouble reconciling that notion with the concept of free will, and the idea that humans may choose to accept God or not, I have, fortunately, not been asked to facilitate that conversation.

Calvin's brand of reformed Catholicism ultimately led to the creation of the Presbyterian Church. While this seedling mainly grew to maturity in Scotland (not France or Switzerland, where Calvin held sway), Presbyterian doctrine was rooted in the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through accepting Christ as the son of God.

Hobbes (1588-1679)
For this one, I think most would come up with Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher and author of Leviathan, which was profoundly influential in framing Western political philosophy from the perspective that good government necessarily entails a social contract between the government and the governed.

While Hobbes believed in the absolute power of the monarchy (meaning kings and queens were above the law), he also was an early advancer of a number of political principles that have become the bedrock of modern liberal thinking:
o the concept of an individual's rights
o the inherent equality of all people (though I don't believe that Hobbes extended this to gender equality)
o legitimate authority must be representative and based on the consent of the governed
o people should be free to do whatever the law does not expressly forbid

• • •
While I have no inside information about what it was like to sit around and shoot the shit with either John Calvin or Thomas Hobbes, there is nothing about their biographies that suggests these two were "wild and crazy guys," a la Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd. I mean you don't naturally associate "Presbyterian" with "fanciful child with a vivid imagination and robust fantasy life"; you don't automatically link "political philosophy" with "stuffed tiger."

Maybe the name of the comic strip was just Watterson pulling everyone's leg ("Hmm. What character names least suggest what I'm going to develop?") After all, shouldn't whimsy have a place at the table alongside gravitas and pontification? I had a friend in college who called his black lab, "Red" and I just howled when I found out that the maid's horse in Mel Brooks' 1993 spoof Robin Hood: Men in Tights was named Fahrvergnügen.

Remember the joke about Al Gore's lack of charisma as a public speaker? It led to this bumper sticker 12 years ago: "Nixon in 2000; he's still not as stiff as Gore"

The way I see it, after four centuries or so, John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes could probably use a little limbering up. Think of it as fluffing their auras. You know Calvin & Hobbes would.

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