There are many ways to imagine or describe human existence. Perhaps the darkest of all can be seen in the writings of the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. He essentially described human beings as living in a constant state of competition. Our “natural state” is one of self-interest. He famously wrote of the state of nature:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; 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, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
His answer to this was the concept of government as a “social contract.” We agree to give away a certain amount of our power and self-interest in order to make a better life possible. Of course, the contract is always under pressure as our natures war with one another.
A “Hobbesian” view of the world is one that sees the need for the strong hand of government. In his defense, his life spanned one of the most tumultuous periods of English history, including the English Civil War. During that period, the King was beheaded, the state Church largely dismantled, and pitched battles ravaged the land while self-appointed preachers (and pamphleteers) kept the population in turmoil and strife. Interestingly, it was a period that provided the seedbed for many of the religious movements in later America.
There is a practicality in Hobbes’ view of the world. At our worst, human beings are quite brutish, indeed. There is an inherent need for order in our lives and in the world around us. In patristic thought, this necessary order was described under the heading of the “garments of skin.” Adam and Eve are naked and vulnerable after their sin. God provided assistance and covered them. St. Basil describes a number of ways this assistance was manifested:
You expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ Himself. For You, O good One, did not desert forever Your creature whom You had made. Nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but through the tender compassion of Your mercy, You visited him in various ways: You sent prophets. You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation were well-pleasing to You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants, the prophets, who foretold to us the salvation which was to come. You gave us the law as a help. You appointed angels as guardians.
St. Paul went so far as to say that the Law was “written on our hearts” (Rom. 2:15). Thus, there is an instinct for order beyond the mere brutality described by Hobbes. That same law, however, is frequently obscured by so much that surrounds us. Were it utterly lacking, we would long ago have devoured one another. But it is insufficient for the construction of paradise itself.
The discovery of paradise within the heart is a profound struggle. The Macarian homilies famously say:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet there also are dragons and there are lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. And there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices. But there is also God, also the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the Apostles, the treasures of grace—there are all things.
The heart is a battleground.
We are created in the image and likeness of God. I believe the most straightforward explanation of that revelation is found in the image of the crucified Christ. For the Adam we see in Genesis, is an Adam who is put to sleep on the Sixth Day, an Adam from whose side Eve is formed. Christ Crucified is the Second Adam who “sleeps” on the Sixth Day (crucified on Friday), whose side is pierced, yielding blood and water, the formation of His bride, the Church. It is the image of the crucified Christ that we are directed to imitate in Philippians 2:5-11. Christ crucified is the revelation of the self-emptying God, the “Giver of Life.”
The most profound, life-giving examples of human existence are seen in our acts of self-emptying. The birth and nurture of a child is, at its best, an act of love in which the self-emptying of its parents is on full display. To my knowledge, no other mammal enters the world with such helpless vulnerability as a human being. Most mammals can walk within hours of their birth. Our helplessness requires self-emptying love for an extended period of time. Doubtless, various theoreticians can suggest any number of practical reasons that we begin life in such a state. But, no matter how it is described, our infancy and childhood reveal that the “law” that is written in the heart extends far beyond a social contract. Love itself is written there.
It is commonplace in the modern world to “search for the self,” to look for the means of self-fulfillment. Often those searches are “sponsored” by various commercial interests (if you need to spend money in order to achieve your identity you might need to ask more questions). Christ said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:25) This is an interesting translation. The word rendered as “life,” is the word, “psyche,” which is elsewhere translated as “soul.” This is not “life” as in “life-force.” Rather, it is “life,” as in, “the life that is uniquely you.” This is more than martyrdom.
The martyr loses his “life” but once. There is, however, a martyrdom of the self, a continuing act of self-emptying in which we “find” ourselves even as we lay the self aside. Above all, this is the nature of love. It is revealed to us supremely in Christ’s self-offering on the Cross. The crucifixion is more than an event – it is a revelation, making known the image according to which we are created. Humanity becomes itself only in its self-emptying.
The bulk of the world (particularly in modernity) lives in the image of Hobbes. We have made a contract with our culture. It gives us the tools for constructing the various false identities that it rewards as “fulfilling.” It agrees to cooperate with our self-delusion, hiding the various hypocrisies and lies that would undermine that identity. However, chipping away at this devil’s bargain, there is the abiding reality of self-emptying love. A parent discovers in a child a fulfillment that comes in the life of the other. A spouse learns that who they themselves are is a secret hidden within the heart of their beloved. And, here and there, some discover that the only “self” that matters is the one that is hid with Christ in God, Who has hidden Himself within us that He might come and find us, treasures buried in a field, pearls of great price, lost coins awaiting the widow’s hand.
And we all await the wonder.