Hegel, Hobbes, and the Dialectical Wisdom of Billy the Kid

The 1965-75 salad days of the baby boomers brought much political excitement on university campuses, but seldom of a very learned kind. Liberal and radical professors tried to breathe new life into the thought of Karl Marx, or of Marx’s own mentor, Hegel, but radical students mostly preferred simpler stuff, finding the Hegelian dialectic a secret well-kept. But various Canadian scholars continued to expound its mysteries. Charles Taylor, having first terrified undergraduates with a 600-page 1975 book on Hegel, took pity on them four years later with a less painful 150-page compression called Hegel and Modern Society. Starting earlier, George Grant managed a rather overpowering synthesis of Christianity, conservative traditionalism, Hegelian Marxism, existentialism, anti-American nationalism, and Spenglerian gloom, and achieved all this in little monographs of very modest size.

Perhaps he noted that large books of political philosophy by professors are mostly read by other professors. His little 1965 bombshell, Lament for a Nation, covered a huge waterfront in only 97 pages, encapsulating all of Canadian history from the 18th century to what he saw as the failures of both the Diefenbaker Conservatives and Pearson Liberals. Despite his bleak pessimism, he had a large public influence for the next couple of decades, affecting all three federal political parties.

The other Canadian quasi-Marxist scholar who had some impact in the same era was the U. of T. philosopher C. B. Macpherson, mentor of NDP Leader Ed Broadbent, and many other eternally hopeful Platonists. His favourite theme was the meaning of ‘democracy’, and his magnum opus was The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, which stretched Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on a Procrustean bed of Marxian analysis, with Hobbes emerging less bruised. Unlike Locke, Hobbes may not have had much influence on ordinary politics in his own time or since, but his relentless logic and fine 17th century prose has always attracted intellectuals, including many on the left like Macpherson, much as that would probably have surprised Hobbes himself.

Hobbes (1588-1679) left some thoughts for the ages, although not necessarily the ones that most interested Macpherson, like his useful caution to all pundits in all times: “For such is the nature of man, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; Yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: For they see their own wit at hand, and other men’s at a distance.” But the two Hobbesian concepts most often retained by both scholars and the wider educated public are these: that without the authority of the state, man ‘in a state of nature’ is condemned to a life that is ‘nasty brutish and short’, and his accompanying distinctive defence of human equality: any man can kill another.

Critics of Hobbes, past and present, have argued that both these claims can be disputed in terms of anthropology and history. The ‘state of nature’ of Hobbes, Locke, and other social contract thinkers has always been an abstract model, not an intended description of early human society. But his argument about ‘an equality of potential killers’ is more suggestive, and has turned up in surprising times and places, far from lecture halls and learned journals.

Consider the example of William Bonney, born William McCarty Jr., but best-known as Billy the Kid (1859-81). As a mythic Western outlaw and folk hero, inaccurately portrayed in countless Hollywood movies, it is not easy to separate the real Billy from many imagined ones. The only existing photographs of him, for example, appeared to show that he was left-handed, packing his gun on his left hip, but the photo was eventually proved to be a reversed print from the negative. There is also no agreement on his height and weight, true of many other mythic historical figures. Wikipedia gives his height as a fairly normal 5′ 8”, but many other sources claim he was much smaller. Some claiming he was as little as 5′ 2”, weighing only a little over 100 lbs. There is no disagreement, however, that he struck everyone who knew him as being slight and slender, and he undoubtedly had smaller hands than average; he once made a famous jail escape because he was able to slip his small wrists through his handcuffs.

There was additional evidence about his small hands. He claimed to have killed ’21 men, not counting Mexicans and Indians’, a likely exaggeration, although four can be identified by name, and another nine or twelve are quite possible, mostly in the course of the Murphy-Chisum ‘Lincoln County War’ of the late 1870s. However, while all the movie versions of Billy shows him using the famous 1873 single-action Colt .44 or 45, he did not do so. He was known to favour a less familiar 1877 .41 double-action, which he found necessary because he couldn’t fit his small hand around the larger guns.

The New Mexico territory of the 1870s was not a bad approximation of the ‘state of nature’, and Billy’s life, like that of several men who crossed his path, was ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. But before his early demise, shot by his former friend Pat Garrett, Billy, an untutored disciple of Hobbes, left behind one memorable assertion, “All men are the same size, back of a Colt.”

This profundity would be demonstrated and improved on through the following century-and-a quarter. The first major users of the Thompson submachine gun, on its appearance just after the end of World War I, were not soldiers or police officers, but members of the Irish Republican Army and big-city American gangsters. Tommy guns were also popular with Depression-era American bank robbers. That led to the arming of F.B.I. Agents and state police with the same ‘equalizing’ Thompsons. During World War II, British aircraft made night drops of boxes containing thousands of much cheaper Sten submachine guns to resistance groups on the Nazi-occupied Continent. Mass-produced for 18 schillings, they gave lots of short-range firepower to their recipients. A few years later, AK-47 Kalashnikovs became the murderous equalizers of irregular fighting groups worldwide.

These could all be called examples of the ‘Hobbes-Bonney Theorem’. But they also suggest a less fatal future variation, say a ‘Jobs-Zuckerberg Theorem’. For what Billy’s .41 did for him until he ran into Pat Garrett’s .44 one night, is almost what i-phones and social media can now do for everyone. All human beings are ‘the same size’ back of a Tweet, from presidents, prime ministers, and billionaires to giddy adolescents. Fierce men with firearms can still readily disperse even the largest assemblies of Facebook Nation, showing this lately from Egypt to Ukraine. But not all political tests reach Hobbes-Bonney denouements. Here in Quebec, it was fascinating to observe how rapidly Pierre-Karl Peladeau, a legend in his own mind, found himself reduced to a figure of province-wide comic ridicule in a matter of hours. Similar instant transformations will surely follow over the coming decades. They may even engulf and devour radical Hegelian professors.

PAH Fifth 2014 Article