Throughout the movie Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, conflict between Natural Law and Positive Law appears to be an underlying theme. The story is of a group of African slaves that effected a mutiny on their slave ship. After killing many Spaniards, the African slaves were then captured and put on trial. The story is based on a historical trial which took place in the United States during the years of 1939-1940. This trial ultimately became a very tricky political game between the North and South of the United States over the case of slavery, as well as an international issue between the U.S and Spain. The main question being posed throughout the movie is, were the slaves justified in their actions, and should they have been rewarded or punished for their actions? When referring to the two philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Plato, it is evident to see that both believed the slaves actions were in fact justified, however, and both believed they should not have been rewarded.
Philosopher Thomas Hobbes, born April 5th 1588, was a strong believer in positive law. The definition of positive law is the theory that law is a body of rules formulated by the state, and that citizens are obligated to obey the law for the good of the state as a whole. (Alexandrowicz et al., 617) Thomas Hobbes believed people were naturally war-like and evil, (77) and also believed that all men were created equally; it is because of this equality that conflict would constantly occur because of the human properties of competition, diffidence, and glory. (Stanford University) These three factors are evidently found throughout the primary actions of the slaves in Amistad. Initially, Cinque, the main character of the movie, breaks lose from his slave chains and initiates fighting and chaos between the Africans and Spaniards.
In Thomas Hobbes mind, he would justify Cinques actions as a man in competition with the men around him, which is one of his described war-like qualities. An example of diffidence can be seen when Cinques face reveals a sense of shock and anguish after he steps back and looks at what he had done to the Spanish man. And finally, a sense of glory is seen when Cinque slowly raises the sword out of the mans chest, leaving him with his last breath. Although Hobbes would believe that the slaves actions were in fact justified, he would also believe that they should be punished for what they have done. Again, it all goes back to positive law Hobbes believed that since people are war-like and evil, law should be set in order to rule over evil and maintain law and order in society. Since Cinque and the slaves acted on their war-like, evil qualities, in Thomas Hobbes mind, they should be punished.
Opposite to the beliefs of Thomas Hobbes, another philosopher named Plato believed very strongly in the philosophy of Natural law. Natural law is the theory that human laws are derived from eternal and unchangeable principles that regulate the natural world and that people can become aware of these laws through the use of reason. (Alexandrowicz et al., 617) Opposing Hobbes, Plato believed that people are naturally born as good people. He believed that God gave us the ability to make good decisions and gave us instincts to live our life with. All men are by nature equal, made of all the same earth by one working man (www.publicquotes.com) This famous quote by Plato is a perfect example to describe why Cinque and the slaves acted in violence, and why they are in fact justified in their actions.
Cinque and the slaves recognized that all individuals are equal and therefore, no one person has control over anothers life. Once the slaves saw the treacherous pain their fellow friends were going through, they resorted to their God-given survival instincts. Although Plato, like Hobbes, would agree that what Cinque and the slaves did was in fact justified, Plato would ultimately believe the slaves should be punished for their actions. Plato, who was a student of Socrates, believed that each person is to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. Even though the slaves were in a life threatening situation, the law is still the law, and should be followed inevitably.
When comparing and contrasting Thomas Hobbes and Plato, it is evident to see that both would in fact feel the slaves had a justifiable reason for their actions, however, the motives as to why are contradictory to one another. Thomas Hobbes believed that since all humans are born evil, it is simply in their nature to act out in such violence. Whereas Plato believed that all humans are born good and have God-given instincts; the slaves defended themselves using their survival instincts. On the other hand, a comparison between the two is also evident. The reasoning as to why both believed the slaves should be punished has the same underlying principle; the law. Both believed that laws are created to maintain order in society, and refusal to obey the law would both ultimately end with consequence.
Steven Spielbergs Amistad is an excellent representation of the many ways the law can be interpreted. Thomas Hobbes believed all law and justice is based on the fact that people are born evil, while Plato believed that humans are born naturally good and laws are created by the use of reason. Natural law and Positive law are two very diverse views, which in the case of Amistad contain one crucial similarity; the importance of following the law. Both philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Plato evidently believe Cinque and the slaves actions were in fact justified, however, deserved punishment.
1) Alexandrowicz, George et al.. Dimensions of Law. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications Ltd., 2004.
2) Stanford University. Hobbes Moral and Political Philosophy Feb 12, 2002. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes-moral (march 29,2008).
3) Public Quotes. Quote: God is truth and light his shadow http://publicquotes.com/quote/7118/god-is-truth-and-light-his-shadow.html (March 29, 2008).