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'CALVIN AND HOBBES' AND THE MORAL SENSE

11:00 PM, Dec 17, 1995 • By JAMES Q. WILSON
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Were you a newspaper editor, imagine your reaction if a cartoonist came to you and proposed a comic strip that would offer the reader moral instruction conveyed by the antics of a self-centered six-year-old boy whom only saintly parents could love and no other child could tolerate. The strip would have no running story line, would contain few if any jokes, and would from time to time be devoted to ruminations on the meaning of life. And, oh yes, the boy would talk to a stuffed tiger.

Whatever editor signed up Bill Watterson despite this rather unpromising scenario deserves the heartfelt thanks of all of us who have for years regarded reading "Calvin and Hobbes" as the necessary beginning of every day. Watterson has decided to bring his comic strip to a close at the end of December. So now we are to lose the boy, the tiger, and our only popular explication of the moral philosophy of Aristotle.

Whether they know it or not, most people are intuitive Aristotelians. They know that character is important, that it is formed by the routine activities of family and village life, and that having a good character is in the long run the only route to such happiness as people can achieve through their own efforts. Many people are, of course, more than Aristotelians; they are also Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, or whatever, but though faith often adds much to this ancient view, it rarely subtracts much.

The irony of the names of the main characters suggests that they cannot have been chosen by accident. The mischievous, self-indulgent boy is named after the stern Protestant theologian of Geneva, John Calvin; the fun-loving but sensible tiger is named after the relentlessly utilitarian British philosopher Thomas Hobbes. But it is the boy, Calvin, who exemplifies in most of his life the consequences of embracing the pure hedonistic calculus: He is an engine of self-interest without the interior governor supplied by a long time horizon.

While sailing down a steep hill on an unsteerable sled, Calvin remarks: "I hate waiting for things. I like to have everything immediately." Hobbes, noticing that they are about to plunge off the edge of a cliff, wonders whether they at least ought to anticipate the death that now seems inevitable. "I don't know why I bother trying to have a little discussion with you," Calvin responds. "You are always so morbid."

Sometimes Calvin plans, but only with great effort. To be able to send away for a beanie with a propeller on top, he must first eat four boxes of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs to get the proof-of-purchase seals. This he (barely) manages, and then only at the price of tremors induced by hyperglycemia. But waiting six weeks for the beanie to arrive induces near-hysteria.

His father frequently tells Calvin that waiting -- like camping, living in a cool house, shoveling snow, being bitten by bugs -- builds character. "Last year you said diarrhea builds character," the boy mutters, and wonders whether building character' might actually kill him.

Occasionally Calvin ponders what character may mean. As Christmas approaches, he knows he must be good for Santa Claus to deliver the countless presents (including a heat-seeking guided missile) that he covets. But, he wonders aloud, can he be thought truly good if he is good only to get the presents? "I mean, really, all I'm doing is saying that I can be bribed. Is that good enough, or do I have to be good in my heart and spirit?" But this brief insight quickly vanishes: "OK," he asks of Hobbes, "so exactly how good do you think I have to act?"

What Calvin most wants, other than to destroy Susie Derkins with a snowball, is not character but fame. "I am destined for greatness," he tells Hobbes. " Calvin the Great, they'll call me." He achieves fame in his fantasy life as either Stupendous Man or Spaceman Spiff, but in his real life he does absolutely nothing that would earn him fame. He is a very bright six-year-old with a vast knowledge of dinosaurs, but school is not about stegosauruses or brontosauruses; it is about spelling and arithmetic. Through sheer indolence and an utterly unrealistic belief that other people can readily be induced to do his work for him or easily fooled by work that is not relevant to the topic, Calvin can rarely do better than a D-minus-minus.

How, then, to win fame in this world? The answer, of course, is to be on television. "I think life should be more like TV," he says to Hobbes. "All of life's problems ought to be solved within 30 minutes with simple homilies." In that world, "All our desires should be instantly gratified. Women should always wear tight clothes, and men should carry powerful handguns." Then, after a pause, he becomes aware of a dilemma: "If life was really like that, what would we watch on TV?"