Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot

by John MacBeath Watkins

In this post, I described a project dear to my heart that I seldom have time to put any effort into. I've decided to proceed by putting down some of my thoughts on this blog and linking the posts together, so that the few people who follow it can get an idea of what I'm talking about, and if I'm very fortunate, I'll get a little feedback.

Liberal democracies are the envy people living under all other forms of government, for their wealth and their freedom. While democracy is a form of government that goes back at least to the ancient Greeks, and the ideas behind it go back as far, I'm going to be dealing with the modern, Northern European idea of liberalism, since that's the sort the civilization I grew up in is based upon.

Thomas Hobbes was the first, and to my way of thinking, the deepest, of the liberal theorists, although he might not have agreed that he was one, and in any case the "liberal" tag is a 19th-century invention. Hobbes wrote Leviathan, the book that lays out the system of values and the moral structure that underlies modern liberal democracies.

Hobbes was a brilliant man, a scientist as well as a political theorist, and fortunately for him, the tutor of the child who would become Charles II, king of England. I say fortunately, because during the reign of Charles II, parliament put some blasphemy laws on the books that bear some resemblance to those which are currently controversial in Pakistan, and Hobbes was one of the intended targets.

Hobbes was a dedicated materialist. The views that got him in trouble were related to this, as Hobbes claimed to believe in God, but believed that since only the material universe existed, God must be a material being, just one with great powers, sort of like Superman. It's well to keep this in mind when people tell us that we are in a "Christian nation." Hobbes sought a legitimacy for government not founded in religion, because his sort of religion wasn't what most Christians would regard as Christianity. He also saw that a new source of legitimacy for the state was needed, because kings and priests had been working very hard at destroying their own legitimacy.

He wrote Leviathan during the English Civil War, which he sat out in France tutoring the heir to the throne while Charles I was losing his head, literally, because of the Civil War (beheaded after a trial for treason in 1649.) In 1648, the Thirty Years War ended, while the English Civil War started in 1642 and didn't really end until 1651, the year Leviathan was published.

Both of these wars were about religion, and since the 30 Years War ended with Germany's population about a third smaller than when it started, you can imagine the sort of world Hobbes was writing about. In Chapter X of Leviathan, he lays out man's "state of nature," which was really the sort of breakdown of society that Hobbes saw happening throughout Europe:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
 That was the world religious conflicts had given us, and in fact, much of the conflict had been about which rulers could claim the divine right to rule. After all, if you were an apostate, how could you have God's blessing?

Karl Marx looked at the misery ministry brought to man, and thought the solution was to eliminate religion, but did not propose a working system of values to replace it. Hobbes, instead of proposing the elimination of religion, simply showed what source of government legitimacy might replace it, perhaps understanding that if the sovereign was legitimate regardless of religion, that would mean religious conflict could be confined to the civil sphere, and not involved armies marching against each other. He saw that somehow, we had to find a way for a government to legitimately govern a society as divided by religion as England or Germany, a lesson nations split between Shia and Sunni might benefit from.

But how could government be legitimate if the sovereign wasn't God's chosen?

Hobbes, being a materialist, decided that government must exist because it was man's nature to have government. Man in the state of nature, he reasoned, must be like man when government has broken down. And what happened in that circumstance? See the above quotation.

But a society must be based on the need for a society, and the devastation of the  Thirty Year's War showed why it was needed. Without someone to adjudicate disputes and enforce laws, chaos reigned instead. To be protected from violent death, therefore, we needed a government. We valued government for what it could do for us, just as we value people for what they can do for us. From Chapter X of Leviathan:

The Value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another. An able conductor of Souldiers, is of great Price in time of War present, or imminent; but in Peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt Judge, is much Worth in time of Peace; but not so much in War. And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves as the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.
 This sounds terribly philistine, but the remarkable thing here is that Hobbes was describing a subjective system of value, "dependent on the need and judgment of another," not on God as interpreted by His priests, not to be determined after your death, but here and now and judged by your fellow man.

I find it ironic that modern libertarians think the system of value that Hobbes described means that we don't need government. For Hobbes, it was why we need government: The sovereign does us a service by ruling, because without the sovereign, "...there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death..."

I can only think that libertarian anarchists have not read Hobbes, and do not understand the history that caused him to write his book. Hobbes wanted the younger Charles to return to rule England, not just for the sake of his student, but for the sake of his country. Yet the very system of thought that helped justify the rule of Charles II proved a threat to Hobbes' own life.  In 1666, parliament passed a law against atheism and profaneness,  and, as Wikipedia notes:
That same year, on 17 October 1666, it was ordered that the committee to which the bill was referred "should be empowered to receive information touching such books as tend to atheism, blasphemy and profaneness... in particular... the book of Mr. Hobbes called the Leviathan.
Hobbes, in fear of his life, destroyed some incriminating papers. But he was protected by Charles II, by then sitting on the throne of England again. Eventually he wrote some essays regarding the heresy laws, published in Amsterdam as appendices  the Leviathan because he could not get a censors license to publish in England, and never again was able to get such a license for any writing on the conduct of human affairs.

I find his notion that society is formed so that we may be free of violent death a little unsatisfying. Wolves are really good at killing, and they manage to have a society where they don't kill each other. Perhaps Hobbes would say that's the point, a pack without a leader will have its participants struggling to establish social position, sort of like high school red in tooth and claw.

And he would have a point. But it seems to me that human societies are different from animal societies. They involve cooperation between humans who are not related to one another by blood, which in the animal world would be very unusual. There must be something more to human cooperation, and John Locke, another Englishman who wrote in France because politics made it unhealthy for him to live in England, suggested the answer we've been using as long as America has been a nation, which I also find unsatisfying.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy


Popular Posts