Western Thought for Class Clowns and Erstwhile Nationalists

Just to explain a bit more about why we'll be grappling with Hobbes, I think some oft-repeated history is order. We had a small row over Augustine a few weeks back. One thing I wanted to emphasize, but did not is that don't think it's ever cool to be ignorant. I dropped out of college. Before that I didn't take college seriously. Before that I didn't take high school seriously. Before that I didn't take middle school seriously. The consequence of those decisions are mixed. The good part is I've cultivated an aesthetic of auto-didacticism. The bad is that there are many gaps in my formal education. Augustine and my relatively late arrival to a foreign language among them.

I was raised in what you might crudely term an Afrocentric intellectual environment. I say "crude" because that wasn't a term that was really used in my house. We didn't celebrate Kwanzaa. We didn't really wear daishikis or speak in Swahili. I knew people who did all of those things, and they certainly influenced me, but that wasn't where we were at. It might nw because my Dad came out of the Panthers, a group that always evinced a skepticism of black nationalism. But the works and history of black people were essential to my upbringing. My Dad was a bibliophile. There were books by black people literally spilling off the wall. What there was not was much Fitzgerald, Augustine, Nietzche, Gramsci, Melville or much of anything out of the "Western" canon.

I don't regret that. It's my particular rooting in the black struggle that has brought me here with you. But I suspect most writers and thinkers begin with a grounding in the general, and then go to the specific. For me, I started with the specificity of the black experience and in conversation, mainly, with people thinking about that experience. Now I find confronting the West and somewhat underprepared. I need more guns.

This occurred to me recently as I reviewed this post on African-Americans and the "social contract." The fact is that I haven't read any significant thinkers on the subject. After the show on Saturday, Chris Hayes was nice enough to set with me and talk social contract, a bit. We joked about how people so often throw the term "social contract" but often don't really know the ends and outs of it. And then Chris suggested the classics--Hobbes, Locke and Rosseau, with a little Scanlon sprinkled in.

So that's it. That's what we're going to do less we slip into "the canting of Schoole-men." Dissertations have been written on this subject so I doubt I'll get the full extent of it. I'm going to basically start with Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. I might make it to Rawls, I'm not sure. But I'm opening the journey up. I can't go alone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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