Acton Institute Powerblog

The State of Nature in New Orleans

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Thomas Hobbes once described human life in the “state of nature” as that of war, in which, in addition to the lack of learning, commerce, and the arts, there is “continual fear, and danger of a violent death. And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The tales coming out of New Orleans give us a glimpse of the truth of Hobbes’ observation. When evacuations were made mandatory prior to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, those who were unable to leave were shepherded in large numbers to the shelter of the Louisiana Superdome.

In a recent New York Times article aptly titled, “Officials Struggle to Reverse a Growing Sense of Anarchy,” the authors write of “Joseph W. Matthews, a deputy fire chief who is the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for the city of New Orleans.” Matthews “described harrowing conditions both inside and outside the city’s Superdome and its convention center, facilities that had been intended to shelter victims of the storm and floods but where many people were finding themselves again victimized – by a lack of provisions, by an absence of basic services and by violence.”

“Some people there have not eaten or drunk water for three or four days, which is inexcusable,” Mr. Matthews said. “We need additional troops, food, water.” Mr. Matthews’ final request gets to the heart of Hobbes’ observation: “And we need personnel, law enforcement. This has turned into a situation where the city is being run by the thugs.”

While Hobbes is correct in his diagnosis of the corrupt nature of human beings, he is mistaken in his prescriptive cure. He assumed that the State or government is the solution to the problem of human nature. In an introduction to Hobbes’ Leviathan, the author summarizes the Hobbesian view: “For the sake of peace and order, religion cannot be allowed political power and conscientious authority it has so often claimed. To cure our political ills and contain the state of war we may have to submit to governments we thoroughly dislike. The most prevalent and powerful traits of human nature are unpleasant and socially destructive.”

Hobbes’ anthropology aptly accounts for a fallen human nature of the kind related to us in the Bible. But his soteriology is sorely lacking. Instead of juxtaposing the “conscientious authority” of religion and the curative role of the state, we would do better to arrive at a Christian and biblical account of the function of the State, which is not only powerful and important but also limited and penultimate.

To a certain extent Hobbes and the Christian tradition can agree on the immediate solution to outbreaks of anarchy and chaos such as have been seen over the last few days in New Orleans. Deputy Fire Chief Matthews gets at the need for government intervention to restore law and order. This is at the heart of the biblical depiction of the State, as when the apostle Paul writes of the civil magistrate in Romans 13, “he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV).

Luther, following this, viewed the role of the State as an agent of God’s “left hand,” which is “God’s rule or freely given grace, which is common to all.” The State, therefore, has the role of preserving the temporal grace of common justice in the world, and deters the outbreak of social unrest and violence.

But the religious view which Hobbes so despises goes beyond this mere left-handed rule for the ultimate cure for human sinfulness. The depraved human must not only be bounded externally by law and authority but must be renewed inwardly. This is represented by Luther as God’s right hand, which is firstly Christ, and secondly the resulting special favor of God on those who are in Christ, “the grace or faithfulness or work of God.” This special grace, salvation by Christ, gives rise to a third sense of God’s right hand, “the awarding of glory in the future.”

So our view of the human person, in depravity and in redemption, must go beyond merely the “left hand.” The situation isn’t an either/or between the State and religion as Hobbes has set up, but rather a both/and. The State must act as an agent of God’s preserving grace, limiting evil and violence while promoting justice, while conversion, the outworking of the Christian faith through evangelism, extends God’s church. Together, the two represent both the left and the right hands of God’s rule.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


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  • Francesco Giordano

    While I agree with the conclusions (i.e. the right and left hand that guides human nature) that Jordon Ballor makes in this article for the Acton Institute, I do not agree with the Lutheran assumption that human nature is corrupt, one which Calvin and Hobbes take on. Rousseau went the other extreme, thinking that everything is taught by society and that man outside of the social context is a noble savage. Both extreme views are wrong.

    We cannot have purely materialist ways of seeing things like Hobbes did (for he did deny miracles in Scripture in his Leviathan), but we still have to take our material bodily limits into consideration.

    The Catholic perspective has a more balanced view of human nature: good in itself but suffering from the negative inclinations of Original Sin and needing God’s grace and its own cooperation with this grace in order to grow in holiness. It is a dynamic interaction between the theological virtues (graces freely given by God) and the cardinal virtues (ascetic virties we develop with God’s help through different means, especially social), that lead people to become more and more like the God from whom Original Sin drew apart–yet whose image we still maintain. It is in that image that we know that our nature in itself is not evil but one that suffers the consequences of a transmitted Original Sin, one that is no longer like God but desirous, whether aware of it or not, to be like Him.

    Original Sin obfuscates the individual’s capacity to understand God’s will and to fall, but deep inside, the individual wants to be with God, to be happy. We learn this fundamental truth from St. Augustine.

  • Robert Bennett

    Law is the force government applies to arrest discordant force and justly (proportionately) resolve the outcomes arising from the occurrence of discordant force. This sums up Frຝéric Bastiat’s argument.

    I agree with Rousseau that society teaches its individual members those social norms, i.e. behaviors and conduct, it finds agreeable, but with one caveat: Proximity. As a collection of associated individuals, society’s influence is strongest where its members’ physical proximity is greatest, i.e. within the family, next neighborhood, etc.

    Society is usually very successful at enforcing its agreed norms by applying stigma to individuals in breach. This is why most adults pick their noses only within the privacy of their own homes or cars. Moreover, society tailors law to mirror its agreed social norms and demands law’s activation when stigma becomes insufficient to arrest forceful social discord.

    So, what happened in New Orleans? One way to measure the nature and strength of a society’s agreed norms at its most proximate levels is to remove law such that discordant forceful conduct, such as looting, becomes efficient. (This hypothesis incorporates elements of Hobbes and Rousseau.)

    As we observed, New Orleans experienced murder, rape, assault, and looting once law was removed, whereas many of the communities along the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast (self-labled “God’s country”) experienced none. In my view, these facts establish the nature and strength of the social norms proximate to these communities, neighborhoods, families, and individuals.

    In mainstream terms, I speak of the difference between a civil society whose social norms incorporate Christian ethics and one whose social norms incorporate ethics resembling the law of the jungle.

    The normal (agreed or equilibrium) force Christianity exerts on society when it is accepted at society’s most proximate levels is sufficient to support limited government (limited legal force) in turn. However, the weakness of one demands the increase of the other lest discordant violence be the outcome.

    As you may have guessed, this hypothesis is one of natural law, but not of the kind St. Augustine propounded.

  • joan nix

    Why is there so much emphasis placed on the looting in New Orleans? We have no scientifically valid statistics of its prevalence. Furthermore, we do not have reliable information about looting done to survive and looting to steal luxuries such as the now familar flat screen televisions. I’m waiting to hear stories of looting on the part of nursing home residents. We should judge a society by how it treats its most unfortunate members. By that measure, we have failed.

  • Robert Bennett

    The evidence against New Orleans’ looters is of the same type as the evidence against the cops who beat Rodney King: It’s on tape. Scientific enough?

    You’ll hear no stories of nursing home residents looting or leaving New Orleans under their own steam because both require a good pair of legs. Consequently, it seems to me that many who had good legs but stayed behind put them to the use they originally intended.

    Finally, what level of society in which location do you judge? Isn’t an obvious conclusion of this disaster that there is no such thing as an “American society” to judge? If you hold all Americans responsible for New Orleans’ poverty, then you must also award all Americans the cedit for Silicon Valley’s wealth, even New Orleans’ poor. Given the obvious lack of a logical causal connection for doing so, this would be foolish. Worse, it’s precisely this kind of foolishness that needlessly heaps national insult on poverty’s local injury (analogous to performing an amputation when a band aid will do).

  • I’ve finally had a chance to respond to this piece on Tech Central Station, “The State of Nature in New Orleans: What Hobbes Didn’t Know.” In this article, TCS contributing editor Lee Harris takes George Will to task for his citati

  • HELP! That is the best way that I can say it right now concerning what is about to happen here in New Orleans.

    Undoubtedly, the whole nation’s attention was upon New Orleans and the whole Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that followed when our levee system failed and we found New Orleans 80% under water!

    Well, the attention that we were getting has decreased and the type of attention that is being paid to the city now is not the attention that will truly have the biggest long term impact.

    While the Mayor, the Governor, the President, FEMA, the Army Corp of Engineers and a plethora of other private and governmental agencies argue and debate on the rebuilding of a city—the Church needs to instead be focusing on the unprecedented Harvest and Revival opportunity that this has presented the Gulf Coast and this Nation.

    HELP! Is how one could simply break down the vision that Paul received when his brother needed him to come to Macedonia at a pivotal time for that region.

    Acts 16:9-10 says, “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, Come over to Macedonia and help us. Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

    When we began our work full time here in New Orleans in 2003, the Holy Spirit spoke to us that (He) “was sending REVIVAL upon the Gulf Coast of the USA and that we needed to network with the Body of Christ in preparation for this time” Luke 5:1-7

    In a couple of months, February 24-28, 2006, RAVEN Ministries will be hosting their 10th annual Mardi Gras Outreach in New Orleans. This is a gathering of believers from all over the country who come to share the LIVING WORD with a DYING WORLD.

    In the months since Katrina we have personally seen approximately 400 people come to the Lord Jesus Christ in the French Quarter and on Bourbon Street. The “harvest is ready to be harvested but the labors are too few.”

    Please come and help us! You can get more information and contact us through our website at and then click on the Mardi Gras Outreach button or you can email me, Pastor Troy D. Bohn, at or call me at our offices anytime at 504-304-6535

    We NEED you here with us for this time. THIS is where we can break the back of the devil over this city and see revival spread throughout this nation—but we need your help to do it.