May 24, 2006


Caption: According to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life is "a war of each against all," particularly of boxers against toy monkeys.

The current rulers of the United States have turned their back on a largely benevolent political tradition going back from Jefferson and other founders of the Republic to Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke to classical antiquity. This tradition emphasizes checks and balances, and promotes liberty and human rights in theory if not always in practice.

They have replaced the ideals of civic republicanism with a justification of arbitrary power based on fear which was best articulated by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who lived from 1588 to 1679. For Hobbes, whose best known book is Leviathan, the natural state of humanity “is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

According to Hobbes, “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 of 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, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The only solution was to surrender all power to an absolute sovereign who would wield absolute power and enforce laws and agreements with the force, because “covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

There are several fatal flaws to Hobbes political theory. For one thing, in the mythical state of nature--which is always already social--while some people may go to war with other people from time to time under certain conditions, everyone doesn’t do it all the time to everyone else.

The main problem, though, is that the prescription is worse than the disease. Surrendering all power to a ruler in the name of security creates the conditions for the abuse of power much worse than would be the case if power were distributed more equitably. Ironically, it actually contributes to more insecurity.

In a sense, Hobbes didn’t go far enough. Assuming for the moment that his dark view of human nature is correct, there would be nothing to keep the sovereign from arbitrary rule over powerless subjects. As the mad poet William Blake put it in “The Proverbs of Hell,” “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

As the great Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it in his classic book on political theory The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness, the problem here is one of moral naïveté which “fails to recognize that the nation is also an egocentric force in history, tempted on the one hand to claim a too unconditioned position in relation to the individuals and to the subordinate institutions in the national community; and on the other hand to become a source of moral anarchy in the larger community of nations.”

In addition, “it identifies the interests of the ruler or the ruling oligarchy of a community too simply with the interests of the community. Therefore it fails to provide checks against the inordinate impulses of power, to which all rulers are tempted.”

As the late great Bob Marley sang, “Who the cap fit, let them wear it.”


1 comment:

Ted B said...

I always thought this quote from Thucydides sumed up the neo-con ethos: "the strong do as they can, while the weak suffer what they must"

Indeed, Hobbes is a dark character, not to mention a big influence on the 'realist' school of international realtions. His writings also precluded sympathy and other good attributes that human beings have demonstrated throughout the ages. His biggest failings, however, is that he thinks he understood human nature - something no scientist has ever successfully understood, it's just too complex. However, it does make some sense to proceed with an idea of what we think human nature is.

I think Reinhold Niebuhr has his shortcomings as well. About 60 years ago he explained that “Rationality belongs to the cool observer and becasue of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith, his naive faith requires necessary illusions and emotionally potent over-simplification.”

To me this understanding was not only elitist, but leninist in it's implications. The Kennedy administration exhibited a lot of this too - "the best and the brightest" RN was very influential on policy makers in the post-war period and the early neo-cons (Irving Kristol & Michael Novak) found a lot of inspiration in his thoughts, especially Moral Man and Immoral Society