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Back In the Saddle Again
June 20, 2010
A couple of months ago, I remarked on my surprise at hearing George Costanza quote a phrase from Pythagoras, a phrase I had used in a lecture a few hours earlier. Yesterday I had a similar experience.

In preparation for my fall course on Ethics, I was reading Chapters XIII and XIV of Hobbes' Leviathan. One sentence struck me especially, perhaps because it is so primitively modern:

"For though they that speak of this subject use to confound jus and lex, right and law, yet they ought to be distinguished, because right consisteth in liberty to do, or to forbear; whereas law determineth and bindeth to one of them: so that law and right differ as much as obligation and liberty..."

Hobbes argues that in a state of nature, which is "a condition of war of every one against every one," every man has a natural right (jus naturale) to do whatever he needs to do to preserve his life. But because in such a state every person is under constant threat, men use their powers of reason to discover the first principle of natural law (lex naturalis): to make peace by giving over as much of their liberty as they would have others give over of theirs.

An hour of so later, I was listening to Pandora as I fixed dinner. There, amid a selection of old Country and Western songs, Gene Autry's Back in the Saddle Again came on, with the verse:

Ridin' the range once more
Totin' my old .44
Where you sleep out every night
And the only law is right
Back in the saddle again

I had always interpreted this verse as a sanguine commentary on the benevolent cowboy brotherhood, which relied not on the laws of civilized society, but on the 'rightness' of one's fellow cowboys. In this view, the range is a congenial place - where a cowboy can sleep out under the stars, guided by no law other than doing what is right. The old .44, in my imagination, was used primarily for plugging the occasional rattlesnake.

Hearing the lyric in conjunction with the reading from Hobbes gave it a completely different slant. Now ridin' the range once more is a return to the state of nature. The .44 is no longer a costume accessory, but a tool for preserving life. Out on the range it's every man for himself and the only law is the right to do whatever one wills with his old .44.

Ray Whitley
Regardless of its hermeneutical implications, what strikes me about this experience is the discovery of a phrase from classic philosophy in popular culture. When I asked my students how they might explain the Costanza/Pythagoras coincidence, one suggested that perhaps a Seinfeld writer had studied philosophy - a plausible theory. But I would be surprised if Gene Auttry or Ray Whitely, who wrote the original version of Back in the Saddle Again, read the Leviathan.

I'm beginning to think that the classical philosophers are deeply embedded in our culture, and that they 'pop out' every now and again, the way deep-rooted vines emerge every now and again in the garden.