November 24, 2006

The City of God: St Augustine, Hobbes and Brazilian moviemaking

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?...Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor."St Augustine

The City of God is one of the most interesting films recently released- not merely for its searing portrayel of the Brazilian slums- but also for its profound political philosophy. The title and the way it refers not merely a region of Rio de Janeirio but also back to one of the most important texts ever written within religious philosophy and as the quotation above shows, about political power. Augustine understood, as very few have understood since his remarkable treatise, the elemental importance of violence within political society. He argued that there was a difference between just and unjust authority and that the second was merely the power that a thief or a robber held. The City of God in the film contains merely power- whether it be the power of the police that reinforces the elite in the main part of Rio de Janeirio or the power of the hoods who end up dominating the slum, power here proceeds from the barrel of the gun and as Augustine said that power is the equivalent of the power of a thief or a pirate.

However ironic the use of Augustine is, it is another political philosopher that can take us deeper into the world of the City of God. Thomas Hobbes the English philosopher of authority, argued that without government human kind degenerated into a state of lawless chaos, a war of all against all, with the only conclusion being bloodletting on a massive scale. In the City of God, where conversely there is no justice, no God, Hobbes's insight into the rationality of tyranny, into justifying the rule of the thief makes much sense. The film proceeds in three stages- the first being the establishment of the leading characters in a city hwere the police seem to be able to control the gangs, the second stage involves the rise to power of Little Ze over all the other drug lords- a rise which involves killings and violence and the third sees the war between Little Ze and Knockout Ned (there is a fourth largely unseen stage when the Runts a new gang seize power at the end of the film).

Hobbes therefore can be used to understand the situation. The slum under either the police or Little Ze is a reasonably peaceful place, violence is limited to those that actually take on authority. Little Ze turns to his friend Benni and tells him at one point that you know the law, anyone who kills anyone in my slum gets themselves killed. But during Civil War- violence errupts with a ferocity that makes the previous periods seem like idylls of peace- small kids are shot with impunity, the streets of the City of God run with blood. Hobbes's theory seems to work- authority no matter how much it tends to tyranny is better in the slum than even a good guy and a bad guy at war. In the second instance there is a race to the bottom- in the first the peace may be unjust and may develop through violence but its peace.

Look deeper at this slum polity though and you begin to see the problems in Hobbes's theory. Hobbes may tell us what we ought to do prudentially under tyranny, but he doesn't tell us what we will do. Furthermore he doesn't show us one last condition- by an act of injustice an authority may destroy its own power- Little Ze does this precisely to Knockout Ned- he creates his own opposition. The condition of his rule, its injustice, ultimately creates civil war. In the end we return back to Augustine that rule without justice, rule without legitimacy of some sort, ends in instability and violence- ends in the nightmare Hobbes diagnosed.

This film is like all good films about more than just this narrative of political structures- there are some wonderful characters here and some just analysis of the relationships between human beings- but it is an intriguing subplot to it- in many ways this film about the Brazilian slums brings to light much of the hypothetical thoughts of European philosophy- it highlights how similar tyrants and hoods are, how their rule can lead to temporary stability but how in the end illegitimate rule can undermine the very peace which as Hobbes was clear is its main offer to society.


Anonymous said...

I found this very useful. Im currently writing an essay on Thomas Hobbes and last week I came across the statement by St Augustine that you begin with and to be quite honest with you, its a coincidence that I was just surfing the net for info about the possible connection between the two and came across your article! You have given me some ideas.

All the best and Thank you!

Gracchi said...

Great I'm glad to hear that.

Joffrey said...

Thank you so much!
It is short yet enlightening!
At least now I already have a little idea on how I will organize my thesis!
God bless!

Gracchi said...

Thankyou, I would reccomend that you don't use an external website to structure your thesis.