The Stand and the State of Nature
by M. Blake Wilson
When COVID-19––the pandemic itself but also the unprecedented social and political responses to it––hit the United States in March, 2020, savvy booksellers might have predicted that old books about plagues would start creeping back up the charts. After all, George Orwell’s 1984 was #1 on Amazon during the early years of the Trump Administration. Sure enough, as the pandemic grew and its victims began to multiply, readers sheltered in place, practiced social and physical distancing, and telecommuted––or lost their jobs altogether. The result? Online booksellers couldn’t keep copies of The Plague by French existentialist Albert Camus in stock.
Also back on the charts was The Stand, Stephen King’s perennially popular epic dark fantasy about good and evil fighting it out after a plague decimates all but a select few. Indeed, it reached bestseller status on Amazon in April and remains there. The novel was made into a well-received television miniseries in 1994, and there’s a new version coming out this year. As a twelve year old, I read it when it was first published in 1978, and it’s my favorite King novel. Having a bit of free time available after teaching a summer session course online, I wondered what would it be like to reread The Stand in light of COVID-19. More importantly (for this blog, at least) a reread would allow me to explore whether there’s anything philosophically interesting to be said about it, particularly in light of the current pandemic.
A couple of clicks and two days later, what arrived turned out to be quite a different animal than the book I read years ago. In the “complete and uncut edition,” King restored 300 pages that had been excised from his original manuscript, and he also added small but significant details to the book that better reflected its new 1990 setting (e.g. Madonna’s in the newer material but obviously not in the original). It’s now exactly 1200 pages, and reads like a hot knife in soft butter: I made it through in a week and a half. That’s what you call a “page turner.”
Brief synopsis: Extreme flu-like pandemic kills almost everyone. Through a shared dream, featuring both a benign savior and evil demon, mostly “good” survivors are drawn to Colorado to begin a new society, while “evil” ones repopulate “Sin City”: Las Vegas. A battle ensues. I won’t give it all away, but it’s a disturbingly violent story. Gas-filled corpses (lots). Televised public executions. Cannibalism. Murder. Nuclear weapons. More and more corpses. And a fair amount of sex. But, like Camus’s novel, The Stand isn’t really ‘about’ plague or disease. That’s just the plot, the narrative: what the characters do. Think about Jaws for example. Is Jaws about a shark that eats people? Well, sure: that’s the narrative. But Jaws is really about fear, responding to fear, and eventually overcoming the thing you fear (or just killing it).
The Stand is also about fear, but it’s primarily about good and evil. And on a much larger level, it’s about what philosophers call metaphysics. I’m not talking about the section at Barnes and Noble where you can find books about UFO sightings and past lives. For philosophers, questions about ultimate reality––what exists and what does not exist––are metaphysical questions. So, when we ask about the existence of God or the existence of evil, we are asking what philosophers call metaphysical questions. Metaphysics also trades on questions about categories and definition: what kind of animal are we? Is there such a thing as evil? Does free will exist? At various points, King explores all of these deep questions through his characters in The Stand, which King has characterized as a “long tale of dark Christianity.”
Regarding free will, different religious traditions (even different traditions within the same tradition) answer the question with radically different answers. For example, Christianity lends itself to at least two mutually exclusive teachings about the existence of free will. In the Calvinist tradition (which has had a powerful influence on American Protestantism), God determines whether people are good or evil before they are born. Fatalism is the theory that God’s already laid out the roadmap for each of us. In light of the current pandemic, some anti-maskers appear to believe that it’s God’s will whether a person gets or doesn’t get COVID-19. Catholicism, in contrast to Calvinism, emphasizes the belief that although we’re all born with original sin, God gave everyone free will in order to allow them to make a choice between good and evil: choose wisely, and Heaven is the reward. Choose otherwise, and welcome to Hell. (My fellow dark fantasy fans know that nowhere is this choice better depicted than in the Hellboy graphic novels and the subsequent films by Guillermo del Toro).
Beyond its obvious preoccupation with the metaphysical, The Stand also explores how personal beliefs (moral, political, and religious) are manifested in compromised and unprecedented social and political situations. The politics don’t kick in until the novel’s about half-way through, and it’s mostly through the character of sociologist Glen Bateman that King explores questions about social organization and the assertion of political authority that organization seems to demand. What happens, King asks us, when a society collapses? Given the opportunity to create a new social order, what rules would you choose? In my Jurisprudence, Law, and Society course, I often challenge students to tell me what five basic laws they would impose upon a newly-established colony on Mars. The less-intrepid repeat Sunday school-type moralisms (“thou shalt not steal” and the like) while the more nimble thinkers suggest procedures for ruling and further rule-making, whether felons should be denied the right to emigrate, what kinds of health requirements should be imposed, and whether or not colonists should be screened for illegal drugs. In other words, these students are not as concerned with laws that regulate behavior, but with laws that determine membership and laws that regulate how to make other laws. Obviously, these are fundamental question for political philosophy, and The Stand explores these when the “good” citizens of Boulder organize to deliberate about how their new society ought to be organized and governed as they transition out of what Thomas Hobbes and John Locke call a “state of nature” or the absence of government.
As every student of political philosophy knows, these 17th century thinkers both used the hypothetical state of nature as a heuristic device for understanding why government and authority are beneficial for human beings. For Hobbes, human life without authority in a state of nature is free, but it’s also “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because humans are constantly at war with each other over resources on the one hand, or just because of human avarice and greed on the other. Even an overarching or dictatorial state is better than anarchy, so fearful people give up their liberty and entrust it to their government as a way to preserve their own self-interest. For Locke, the state of nature’s actually not that bad: human beings enjoy extensive liberty as ‘self-owners’ and through this they gather together nature’s abundant land and other resources in order to produce goods for the benefit of themselves and others, which they truck and barter for through mutual assent or contract. But Locke recognizes that some people (we’d call them thieves) will not respect the property of others, and despite the fact that each individual in the state of nature is justified in punishing (and even killing) those who transgress against them (or others), this will inevitably lead to blood feuds, revenge killings, and eventually the kind of chaos Hobbes thought would characterize the state of nature. Like Hobbes, Locke thought that individuals give up their individual liberty to the state (here, it would be the liberty to punish), but, contrary to Hobbes, Locke argues that this is because of purely rational considerations such as the need for fair and neutral judges and the establishment of a reliable legal system. (He also talks a lot about God, which I am going to sidestep here).
For The Stand and its extended meditations on good and evil, what’s interesting about the Hobbes/Locke debate about the origins and justifications for government is their underlying metaphysical assumptions about human nature: for Hobbes (whose view of human nature and political organization is echoed in Flagg’s totalitarian Las Vegas), the human being is basically non-moral, unreasonable, and motivated purely by fear and self–interest. Locke, on the other hand, believed that human beings were essentially good-natured, rational creatures who, given the right circumstances, would improve their own lot while also improving that of humankind: cue Abigail’s Boulder Free Zone colony. This debate plays out in The Stand’s final confrontation between good and evil, a literary representation of a battle that, contrary to Hobbes’ and Locke’s more rigid categorizations, probably plays out in every human being based less upon ‘human nature’ than upon their upbringing, socialization, and material circumstances in terms of adequate nutrition, shelter, emotional support, and so forth.
It’s here, I think, where both Hobbes and Locke fail in their attempt to make the state of nature thought experiment work, and where it perhaps also fails in The Stand: the individuals who populate the various states of nature (that of Hobbes, Locke, or King) are always already socialized by their community––perhaps the better term is pre-socialized. Admittedly, the state of nature is hypothetical––there’s no actual state of nature now, and there never was one in the past––but it only works as a thought experiment and learning device if the hypothetical people in it act like real people. Unless they are Tarzan or they were raised by wolves, all human beings are socialized by a community of other human beings. No human being––even a hypothetical one––bursts out into ‘nature’ and then behaves like Hobbes or Locke says they do. They are going to behave, for better or for worse and to varying degrees, within the general boundaries of their community, and it is only a pathological human being who lacks community. The worst offender here, I think, is Locke, who argues that a single, autonomous individual can justify their spontaneous acquisition of a part of the state of nature (their property) by “mixing” their labor with it. Somehow, the other people mulling about simply know that they ought to respect another’s property by not taking it by force, and that the proper way to transfer the property is by contracting for it. In Locke’s nature, people don’t learn this: they just do it. (For more on the idea that the various state of nature parables are incoherent and unhelpful, see Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).
Political theory aside, but perhaps not far removed from the war of good and evil in The Stand, COVID-19 has unleashed a bizarrely unexpected sub-battle in the culture wars: maskers vs. anti-maskers. What’s interesting about this conflict is its apparent political basis: mask-wearers (and the businesses that enforce health/mask regulations) appear liberally progressive, while some conservatives complain that mask-enforcers are “obeying the Devil’s laws” because their God-given rights to use their lungs and breathe freely are being infringed. In this very-real scenario, King’s parable of good and evil is being played out through a bizarre turn of events: it’s not the plague that’s evil. It’s the people trying to stop it.
So, thanks in part to COVID-19 and what might appear to be the rather morbid literary taste of the vox populi, The Stand is hot right now. I enjoyed rereading it through a philosopher’s lens and I’m looking out for the new television series. Admittedly, it’s rather suspect that another filmed version of it is on the horizon, but that’s purely coincidental: filming of this latest interpretation was completed just as the virus became a worldwide issue in March, 2020. COVID-19 notwithstanding, perhaps it’s no surprise that The Stand is a bestseller again and not an omnimous portent of more “evil” yet to come: even after three years of the Trump presidency, resulting in a country wracked by massive civil unrest and increased militarization––all of which is clearly amplified by the apparently interminable pandemic––Orwell’s 1984 is still a bestseller on Amazon’s charts. If King’s novel is still moving so briskly in three years, I hope it’s because of its literary and philosophical worth and not it’s timeliness.
Blake Wilson is assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Stanislaus.