Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Bruce Peabody
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Fairleigh Dickinson University (Ph.D., U. of Texas, Austin) teaches courses in criminal
justice, law and society, legal process, and American political
institutions. His recent publications have appeared in American University Law Review, Law and Social Inquiry, and Presidential Studies Quarterly.
Professor Peabody is the co-founder of Lexicon, an undergraduate law

Read other reviews:

Lord of the Flies 1963
Internet Movie Database
All Movie Guide

Lord of the Flies 1990
Internet Movie Database
All Movie Guide

Readers' comments


Individuals exercise their right to self-preservation in an atmosphere of distrust and anxiety, fearing that others will deprive them of their interests and the means (wealth, honor, or power) to securing these ends.

Lex, Flies, and Videotape: Thomas Hobbes, William Golding, and Iraq

by Bruce Peabody

William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954) is a story of marooned British schoolboys who tear apart a social order of their own making. The book has become a touchstone for exploring the limits of human reason and morality, as well as our capacity for extreme indifference, cruelty, and even iniquity.

But Lord of the Flies is also a tale about law. The 50th anniversary of Golding's work provides an occasion for reflecting on the enduring significance of the book and the two films it inspired (1963, 1990) by retrieving this somewhat neglected narrative of law founded, undermined, and seemingly reclaimed.

I make this case by interpreting Peter Brooks' 1963 film through the lens of political theory. Using Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan to push and extend Golding's story helps us rediscover telling insights bypassed in more traditional accounts of these works. And it provides fresh lessons for a contemporary setting marked by strife, the limits of human foresight, and bloodshed: Iraq.

From the outset, Brooks suggests the power and constancy of the forces pushing to undo a fragile social order. He begins with a contrast of grainy still images - the organized life of the boys' boarding school, and the symbols of a war that forces their evacuation and exile. The first live action scene has Ralph stepping somewhat gingerly through an island jungle, still dressed in his anomalous school uniform and accompanied by the drone of a fly. Again we confront the tension between humans in civil society and more chaotic surroundings.

The children sense the potential for discord and attempt to intervene by recreating some of the conventions and structures from their former life. They convene, elect a leader, and establish rules. "Got to have rules and obey them," Jack enthusiastically proclaims. "After all, we're not savages. We're English, and the English are best at everything. Lots of rules, and when anybody breaks them…" The sanction is not discussed, but the raucous hooting of Jack's classmates implies the consequences will be severe.

The children's experiment in self-rule is initially successful, yielding the benefits of cooperation. They make decisions collectively and delegate vital tasks of reconnaissance, food gathering, and starting a fire. But things start to go awry when Jack and his band of hunters let the fire go out, compromising the boys' chance of being rescued by a passing plane. The children's society is strained further as they grapple with runaway anxiety over a shadowy "beast" on the island, and as factions develop between Ralph and Jack, who is increasingly prone to violence. By the end of the film, Simon and Piggy have been killed, and Jack and his followers pursue Ralph with lethal purpose. The rout of civilization seems complete.

The Lord of the Flies has been depicted as a study in evil, but, more accurately, it makes a desperate, implicit case for convention and law. For Golding and Brooks, our salvation and undoing come from the same source: our own incapacity to form human institutions based on deliberation and rational planning, rather than submitting to force, fear, and violence.

Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan tells a remarkably similar story about our weakness and creativity. Hobbes begins his famous work by painting a picture of human motivation and behavior prior to society. While some associate this "state of nature" with lawlessness and entropy, Hobbes is more careful in his depiction.

People are not impelled by inherent malice or bloodthirstiness he says. Instead, they are largely motivated by deep seated fear and egoism - satisfying their own passions and escaping harm. These elements of human behavior are prominently displayed in Lord of Flies. They are captured, for example, by the terror induced by the fantastic beast, and the self-regard of Jack, who neglects common projects and forms a breakaway group "to hunt and have feasts and have fun."

For Hobbes, people are also rational, albeit in a somewhat restricted form. We use reason to help obtain our objectives, but not to choose amongst competing goals or values. Golding's schoolboys certainly exhibit this limited, instrumental rationality in creating shelter, fashioning weapons, and hunting prey.

People in the state of nature are also somewhat law-regarding, according to Hobbes, insofar as they discover and act upon natural law. Notably, we are authorized in trying to preserve ourselves, and doing anything to protect that existence, including acquiring power and subjugating, even destroying, competitors.

But these arrangements are extremely unstable, and the state of nature quickly lapses into a state "of war of every one against every one." Individuals exercise their right to self-preservation in an atmosphere of distrust and anxiety, fearing that others will deprive them of their interests and the means (wealth, honor, or power) to securing these ends.

The resulting tumult and disorder is inhospitable to culture, science, and human achievement generally. As Hobbes puts it, in this environment, there will be "no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man [will be] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Since there is no body of laws, or authority to enforce them, the state of nature is also devoid of property, justice, and a sense of good and evil outside of what harms or pleases us. "Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice."

This grim moral landscape is reproduced in Lord of the Flies. The boys initially cooperate for self-defense, but their collaboration proves friable, and competition and incipient violence hangs heavily over all their interactions. When Jack first appears, he is accompanied by his choir, marching in militaristic fashion. Indeed, they go on to become the island's hunters who ultimately kill Simon and Piggy and pursue Ralph.

From the outset, Ralph and Jack struggle over their respective claims to rule and what Hobbes calls a love of "dominion over others." In forming his own splinter political community, Jack denies that Ralph can provide security to others and that his decision-making extends to others:

Jack: Who are you anyway just sitting there telling people what to do? You can't hunt. You can't sing.

Ralph: I am chief. I was chosen.

Jack: Why should choosing make any difference? [Contemptuously]Telling people what to do…

In addition to these dynamics, the children battle over objects of common interest - Piggy's glasses, food, shelter, and fire. Eventually, the continued eruption of conflict destroys the fruit of the boys' nascent society and plunges them into chaos. In addition to letting the fire go out, Jack and his followers destroy the huts of Ralph's camp and smash Piggy's glasses.

These conditions do not create a fertile medium for claims to justice. After Simon's death, Ralph despairs that the children have committed "murder." Piggy, heretofore a figure of reason and humanity, bristles at this suggestion. "You stop it," he tells Ralph. "What good are you doing talking like that? It was dark. There was that bloody dance. There was thunder and lightning and rain. We were scared. It wasn't…what you said."

For Hobbes, there is one path out of these bleak circumstances. Fear of death and the desire for security and the fruits of human organization, lead people to renounce their natural right to self-defense and to embrace instead "convenient articles of peace." We leave the state of war and enter civil society by recognizing and empowering a sovereign with ultimate, unchallenged authority over its subjects.

This Leviathan, or "mortal god," holds and exercises an overwhelming and visible "coercive" power over everyone else. It is the terrible threat of the Leviathan's monopoly of power that quells individual passions and creates an environment in which people can better "preserve peace [and] recognize obligations to one another, to enforce agreements, to move beyond mere individual enforcement of the right to self preservation."

In Lord of the Flies, the children's longing for an authoritative sentinel of order is a recurrent motif. In the initial scene, Piggy asks hopefully: "Are there any grownups?" Ralph confidently promises that "Daddy's a commander in the navy - one day when he gets leave, he'll come and rescue us." Even Jack asks to see "the man with the trumpet" after Ralph blows a conch shell to summon the boys to a meeting. Upon being informed that this figure does not exist, Jack surmises "we'll have to look after ourselves."

The importance of unified, identifiable authority is further suggested by Ralph's subsequent plea to a rebellious Jack:

Ralph: The rules. You're breaking the rules…

Jack: Who cares?

Ralph: Because the rules are the only thing we got…

The importance of Hobbes's "mortal god" is arguably captured most powerfully in the film's final scene. With Jack and his hunters in close and feral pursuit, Ralph stumbles away from the burning jungle and onto the beach. As his pursuers close, Ralph falls before a pair of feet - and the camera pans upward to reveal a towering figure in military uniform. The children are speechless, awed. Ralph weeps in relief, while Jack looks on, defeated and cowed. In a moment, chaos is repelled, and order is restored with this vision of authority bolstered by the incipient threat of arms (in the 1990 film, a helicopter gunship hovers in the background).

Hobbes's and Golding's raw depictions of the instability of social life can be usefully imported to the present. The violent streets of Baghdad and Falluja resemble the brutality depicted in both Leviathan and Lord of the Flies. But more interestingly, the Bush Administration's efforts to secure and somehow transmit the conditions for sovereignty can be mapped alongside both Hobbes's project and the struggles of the schoolboys. Among other implications, these works suggest the enormity of the challenges facing those hoping for a secure and stable postwar Iraq.

For Hobbes, we leave the turmoil of the state of nature by reducing all our passions and interests "unto one will," and conferring nearly all of our power to the Leviathan. This transfer of authority will be legitimated by each citizen recognizing him or herself as the "author" of the new government.

In contemporary Iraq, there is surely widespread agreement that greater order is needed in the country. But the continued hostility of radical and more moderate Iraqis to both American troops and the nation's fledgling institutions and leaders, suggests that many do not see themselves as the "authors" of the U.S. sponsored regime.

Complementing this observation, Leviathan and Lord of the Flies remind us that governance and the rule of law depend not so much upon removing authority, as establishing it. Hobbes and Golding both suggest that discord is "natural," and that the state, while necessary, is essentially artificial and imposed. Seen in this light, the ouster of Saddam Hussein was the "easy" part of the Iraqi campaign.

Political unity is vital to securing a new polity. Divisions over a political community's legitimacy threaten its preeminent purpose - maintaining peace internally and checking hostility from abroad. Indeed, Hobbes argues, if the state fails to guarantee the basic security of its subjects, individuals may rightfully revert to self-preservation. In this sense, even the all-powerful Leviathan operates on strictly borrowed time. "You've got to be tough," Piggy admonishes Ralph, as the boys' society threatens to unravel completely. "Make them do what you want." But Ralph worries. "If I blow the conch and they don't come back, then we've had it."

In other words, the emperor's clothes can fall away in a moment. The inability of U.S. and Iraqi military and civilian forces to prevent lethal attacks is, therefore, not just bad press, but a direct challenge to the status of the nascent government as a coherent political entity.

On July 1, the United States has committed to handing sovereignty to the Iraqi people. The images of political disarray powerfully captured in Lord of the Flies and Leviathan suggest both the stakes and the uncertainty of this transfer. Should the new government falter, of course, the U.S. would seem poised to "return" as the resident power - the Leviathan. But this prospect is unnerving, not reassuring, and suggests that this summer may mark the beginning rather than the end of U.S. involvement in an unstable nation and region.

Posted May 12, 2004

Would you like to comment on this article? Please submit your comments here.

 Top of page

 Home | Silver Screen | Small Screen | News & Views