I was preparing recently for a seminar ─ liberal arts classics for academic leadership ─ and found myself reviewing an amazing paragraph in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Hobbes is most famous, perhaps, for his characterization of life in the warlike state of nature: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Ample reasons, surely, to create a civil society, though not maybe one as absolutist as Hobbes himself imagined necessary.
In developing that account of the state of nature, Hobbes argues that mankind are prone to “quarrell.” So much so, indeed, that the state of nature is a state of war. Which he defines thus:
“. . .Warre consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known; and therefore the notion of Time is to be considered in the nature of Warre, as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of War (sic), consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto. . . .”
The comparison of war with weather strikes me as brilliant, not only because it makes a homely, familiar concept illuminate his grave topic, but also because the comparison points out something very general and very important about our take on the world. The notion of duration, of a state that lasts through time, gets at part of the idea. But more important is the notion of a duration through which a certain sort of thing is prone to happen, be it rain, or be it battle. It is this idea of what is prone to happen, even though it may not be happening at some given time, that is so important. This idea describes a world textured with possibilities, inclinations, potentialities tending toward realization.
What’s the big deal about that? The big deal about that is that such a world is far richer than a world of mere facts. In a world of mere facts some things happen to be the case, and others not. That, as Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus, is all there is to it. But in a world of possibilities and potentialities, it doesn’t all boil down to “is” and “is not.” There’s “might” and “probably will,” “tends to” and “inclined to.” The world bristles and bulges with what is not but could be. Understanding weather, let alone war, requires understanding much more than what is and is not. It requires understanding this present but invisible world of pending events, tendencies, imminent possibilities.
Our very bodies, shaped as they are by the evolutionary history of humanity, reflect this invisible world. So do the capacities we develop, including the ones that are seemingly inborn for emergence as our senses acquaint us with the external world, what Hume called our “natural beliefs.” The modalities of our verbs, including not only the being of “is” and “is not” but the various forms of contingency, reflect this imminence. “It might rain.” It is important not to entertain the metaphysical insanity that possible rainfall is real in some way. Rather, there is, that is to say, in some sense, the possible. And ─ this is the important part ─ the possible stands in relation to the real, shaping it. War, like weather, is shaped by what is possible. ‘Tis a richer world than those who attend only to the existing facts can tell.