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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?"

The puzzlement is only momentary, however, as Calvin endlessly watches television and daydreams about getting the big break that would put him on the screen. The "big break" usually turns out to be something such as spotting the first robin of the spring or inventing a Transmogrifier in the form of an empty cardboard box. "I don't need an education," he explains to Hobbes. Hobbes, characteristically prudent, asks how Calvin will make it in the world bereft of knowledge and skills. "I'll go on talk shows and hype myself," the boy replies. "Television validates life." Besides, "if something is so complicated that you can't explain it in 10 seconds, then it's probably not worth knowing anyway."

When his absurd ambitions come to nothing, or his school grades remain low, Calvin's defense is rationalization. He may be the most skilled rationalizer to appear in print since Ring Lardher's Alibi Ike. Everything is somebody else's fault. But sometimes the "somebody" has an identity that implies there may be more to Calvin than he lets on. After finally smacking Susie with a snowball "right in the kisser," he realizes that Susie or her mother will be in touch with Calvin's mother. He prepares her: "Bad news, Morn. I promised my soul to the devil this afternoon." "Oh?" she responds. "That recently?"

Being a calculating, rationalizing Economic Boy, Calvin naturally takes the dimmest view of how the world is organized. It is filled with people just like Calvin, all out for themselves. He observes to Hobbes that we don't trust the government, the media, the legal system, or each other. And then cheerfully adds, "It's like a six-year-old's dream come true."

Indeed. If the world is filled only with duplicates of Calvin, then it corresponds exactly to the moral sense of a six-year-old who is having a temper tantrum. The difficulty with maintaining this view is having to live with its inevitable consequences. On a walk in the woods, Calvin tells Hobbes that he doesn't believe in ethics anymore; as far as he is concerned, "the ends justify the means." Get what you can while the getting is good; "might makes right." Hobbes promptly pushes Calvin into a mud hole. "Why'd you do that?" Calvin protests. "You were in my way," Hobbes replies. "Now you're not. The ends justify the means." A brief moment of partial enlightenment touches Calvin, but of course he manages to reconcile it with self-interest in an utterly implausible way: "I didn't mean for everyone, you dolt. Just me. "

Since Calvin's social life is confined to his parents and Hobbes, it is easy to see how he might fail to grasp the principle that one cannot easily claim the protection of a moral rule for oneself without granting it to others. If he played marbles with Susie instead of trying to hit her or "gross her out" with ghastly descriptions of the worm intestines in his school lunch, he would have to accommodate her views at least enough to keep the game going, and by doing that might learn that the rules of marbles (for example, taking turns, not cheating) have general applicability to life. But it would be an uphill struggle: He even treats his parents, most of the time, as the means to his immediate end. A Mother's Day greeting to his long-suffering mom contains the blunt acknowledgment that she is getting a hand-made card because he would rather spend the money on himself, an obvious hint that his allowance be increased, and a forthright suggestion that she get up and make his breakfast. Never mind that no real six-year-old would ever write such a card; Calvin is the distillation of the self-centered instincts that people have, without the fig-leaf of make-believe affection.

But Calvin does face a few others who can help him acquire the recognition that his well-being depends to some degree on the existence of a moral order. There is Moe, the schoolyard bully, who extorts Calvin's lunch money with supreme indifference to any rules of fair play, and Rosalyn, the dreaded babysitter, who, though often defeated in her efforts to maintain a semblance of order, usually wins in the final inning.

One of Calvin's "scientific" experiments almost confronts him with the reality of his social nature. He builds a Duplicator that turns out five more Calvins who the real Calvin thinks can be used to do his homework, go to school, and clean up his room while he loafs. But he soon discovers that, since they are his moral as well as physical doubles, all they really do is get him in trouble at five times the rate he got in trouble by himself.

"I'm being framed by my own doubles," Calvin complains. "The worst part is that I don't even have the fun of doing the stuff I'm getting blamed for."

His attempt to change this is met by the perfectly reasonable response of his amoral doubles: "Let's put it to a vote." Democracy is a good political system, but it presupposes some moral convictions.

There is one part of his life that is beyond mere self-interest or quick calculation: Hobbes. Though the tiger greets Calvin with ferocious leaps that nearly bury the boy in the lawn, though Calvin and Hobbes fight over the silliest disagreements, Hobbes has a nature that compels Calvin's affection. The presocial Calvin learns something from the nonhuman Hobbes because Hobbes is warm, furry, loyal, understanding. The tiger is everything six-year-olds are not. Calvin's essential humanity is aroused by being with his tiger.

The saddest episodes in the short life of the comic strip were when the house was burgled and for a few desperate hours Calvin thought Hobbes had been stolen. Their reunion was genuinely touching, as were the many times when they played Calvin Ball or lay in front of a warm fire nestled against each other.

Why have so many people found Calvin to be so amusing and absorbing? Because, I suspect, there is a part of our minds -- a part Adam Smith called the Impartial Spectator -- that examines our lives. Its inspection reveals in each of us a six-year-old struggling to assert itself. It wins the struggle when we give way to excessive greed, intemperate rage, or preening self-adulation. And with our immense capacities for rationalization, we can justify this with the same excuses Calvin uses -- "everybody does it" or "I am entitled to it." Only in our calmer, more reflective moments do we listen to the inner voice of reproach. For many of us, there is no calmer moment than that afforded by a quiet breakfast and no better perspective than that supplied by the antics of a little boy and his tiger.

Thank you, Calvin; thank you, Hobbes; thank you, Bill Watterson.