Tuesday, May 23, 2006

In Leviathan's Long Shadow

In considering government and all of the maddening things that it does, one may forget the roots of ideas of government and the relation of the people to it. Different systems have different roots, naturally, but I think it would be hard to argue that the "Western tradition" is predominant in most governments (in one degree or another) across the globe. Why this is could be considered at another time, but it is well to note that the political tradition of early modern Europe, in all its complexity, is at the root of our current system in the United States.

The system of state in the U.S. descends in most ways from the political thought and tradition extant in early modern England. Perhaps the most controversial and studied figure of this tradition (with the possible exception of John Locke) is Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). After considering the nature of Hobbes's thought on the nature of man and the state of nature, the origins of government and the nature of sovereignty, some connections will be made to the present day and generally argue that we have not, in many ways, escaped the world that Hobbes described in Leviathan. In many ways, thankfully enough though, we have.

One must start any consideration of Hobbes with an idea of his notion of the state of nature, that is, the state of human society and relations before organization and codification. Hobbes viewed the state of nature as a state of constant war and struggle. People, driven by the desire for self preservation and their personal passions, constantly attacked each other in the attempt to survive. It was in this consideration that Hobbes coined the phrase that life in the state of nature is "nasty, brutish and short." So, the state of nature for Hobbes is a negative state and one in which there is no safety or security beyond that which the individual can provide for himself.

From this state of nature, the people involved come to realize that the constant war and insecurity is untenable and that there must be born a higher authority. In other words, there must be a transfer of sovereignty from the individual (state of nature) to another entity. It is here that Hobbes forwards his conception of the social contract. Hobbes's social contract involves the individuals agreeing with each other to transfer power to a sovereign entity. This differs significantly with the social contract as discussed by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The key occurrence for Hobbes's social contract is the fact that once the sovereignty is transfered from the people to the sovereign, it cannot be taken back. The transfer is final and the sovereign is freed from taking the people's desires and opinions into consideration. This also, for Hobbes, precludes any idea of resistance to the sovereign as it is not in the right of the people to question the power that they decided (mutually, at first) would rule over them.

In doing this, Hobbes argues that the sovereign is an artificial man, an independent entity, not bound by the same constraints as regular people. The sovereign is not bound even to obey its own laws, but it is expected that the sovereign will always have the best interests of the people in mind when making the decisions of state.

As depicted visually on the frontspiece to the original 1651 edition, this artificial man created by the transfer of sovereignty is show as a king. To be sure, Hobbes was quite royalist in his leanings. A pupil-cum-patron of his, Thomas Hardwick, the Second Earl of Devonshire, began Hobbes's long association with Royalist forces and this extended into the English Civil War. Hobbes actually fled England during the Civil War (after the execution of Charles I on January 31, 1649), and part of the Commonwealth and Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. It was during this period when Hobbes was in France that he wrote Leviathan (approx. 1649-1650). He also, at this time, met Rene Descartes and provided commentary on his Discourses.

Back to the ideas, though, Hobbes was a Royalist, but it did not really matter to him what form the government was to take. The important factor for Hobbes was the indivisibility of sovereignty once it is given by the people. This, in other words, precludes ideas such as separation of powers, federalism, checks and balances (another Montesquieu idea) or devolved government. The sovereignty, to be effective, must be vested in one body, quite literally if the analogy of commonwealth as an artificial man is to be believed.

With this framework, it is not hard to imagine what Hobbes thought about free will. He was a thoroughgoing determinist. He did not believe that individuals could be free actors and live in a stable society separated from the violence of the state of nature. This also relates to his materialism, the belief that the human life is nothing but the moving of uncontrollable inner biology (although he would not have used that word) and therefore the artificial man that was Leviathan can have the life force just as any man can. The human person is nothing but its instrumental functions; for Hobbes, the state is no different.

As you can see, these ideas concerning the nature of man, state of nature and the genesis of the state are all related and provide a pretty bleak picture of society and human nature. How can this be explained? As aluded to above, Hobbes was indeed a product of his times. The seventeenth century in England (and in Europe generally) was a bloody one filled with uncertainty, war and death. The absolutist idea ruled in government, most famously displayed (although this can be debated) by King Louis XIV of France. England had its absolutist tradition, too, although inspired and backed by such French theorists as Jean Bodin who, in his Six Books of the Commonwealth laid out the rationalization for the absolutist state. King James I of England (who was also King James VI of Scotland) was a dedicated absolutist, believing in the divine right of kings and seeing his place as the undisputed ruler of the land.

It is out of such times, which combined the horrors of protracted war with the notions of a powerful central government, that can be seen as the backdrop of Hobbes and Leviathan. Hobbes lived in unstable times and one can understand that this would influence the thought of someone concerned not only with government but human nature as well.

The idea of the divine right of kings leads to a consideration of Hobbes and religion. In other words, how important is religion to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes? It was a much debated subject in Hobbes's time and ours, the debate centering on the exact religious disposition of Hobbes himself. There were arguments for everything from Anglican to Protestant Dissenter to (most provocatively) a Deist or even an Atheist. God does not seem to do much in Leviathan, apart from the Creation. People are the sum total of their desires and vices and it is not up to God to stop them or introduce moral sanction. It is the people who erect governments and not God. He does spend a considerable time rubbishing the Catholics, for who he had considerable contempt (although Locke was no big supporter of Rome either).

So, is religion necessary for the commonwealth described to function? As I have hopefully shown, religion can be a part of the state but it does not seem instrumental to state formation or maintenance. If anything, Hobbes believes that religion, while it can pacify people and make the obedient, it can also lead to dissention and challenge to the leadership (here again, he blames the Catholics).

Bearing all of this in mind, what can be said of Hobbes considering the political landscape of today? It is tempting, given the problems and horrors that confront us daily, to agree with Hobbes in saying that people are inherently evil, selfish and will do anything to get their way if left ungoverned. This position is convienent when one throws one's hands up in exaspiration at the world and says "Fine. Maybe people just need a strong-fisted, brutally repressive regime that will rule absolutely and keep everyone in line." Is this reasonable? Incidentally, Hobbes thought that reason was central to the orderly functioning of society but that it was not a priori. That is, people are not born with reason; reason develops from human industry.

I cannot accept Hobbes's idea of the permanent transfer of sovereignty or the indivisibility of power in a government. As has been shown, his times and position may have influenced these ideas, but they are troubling nonetheless. If a government ceases to perform its function (the protection of the human rights of its people), the people should be free to resist it at all harms. For Hobbes (personally and theoretically), the only manner of acceptable resistance was to flee the country.

Why should people be free to resist the government? Because the government exists at their behest and at their service. After all, the reason for setting up the state in the first place was a desire of people for safety, right? Even Hobbes would seemingly agree. Hobbes also sets his framework on shaky ground when he asserts that this transfer of sovereignty may not have to be a real act, but can be a foundational, explanatory myth. The countermanding of this idea comes with Locke and his idea of "tacit consent," whereby individuals rebind themselves to the idea of the state automatically (for lack of a better word). Remember, though, that Locke had a completely different notion of the state of nature, natural law and the relation of the individual to the collectivity than did Hobbes. We will discuss Locke in future.

I also disagree with Hobbes's denial of free will for all people. Why? Well, there is a religious argument that contends that people must be free to choose even if the morality of the choice is already known. In other words, people, to be truly dedicated to the service of God, must be free to choose wrong. They must be ready to accept the consequences, but this is the price humankind must pay for being created in "God's own image."

Is there a non-religious argument for free will? Perhaps the full implications of this question are not germane to the present discussion, but suffice to say that if society is indeed composed of individuals and those individuals want to live together in groups, there must be a balance stricken between individual and group. This can only arise if the individuals are free actors, not coerced to react from outside forces visible or otherwise. It is the opposite of this notion that leads to repression through the abrogation of the very basis of society as a collection of individuals and nothing approaching the artificial man of Leviathan.

Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan have a long shadow indeed. In many ways, we still have not completely escaped from Hobbes's view of humankind, their nature and relations to each other. How is this true? Superficially, people do indeed seem to react how Hobbes describes. People want what they want and will do whatever it takes to get it. On a deeper level, when power is transfered from the individual to the commonwealth, it does seem to take on a mind of its own. Ideas of power get entrenched in institutions that are hard to change and almost impossible to get rid of. We seem trapped in a system where even the access to the organs of organized change (the legislative process, for example) seem ever more resistant to evolution or even closed to active participation by the citizenry.

The transfer of power being original and irrevocable, we seem stuck in a system that cannot be changed easily. I would argue, however, that while this may be the case, it is a rather pessimistic view of humankind to take and one that leads to the perpetuation of a bloated and out-of-control state acting completely in its own interest. It is through rediscovery of our nature as free actors and granters of the reins of power that real change can be fostered. We all must realize that the individual is at the heart of society, not the collectivity or the government it supposedly put into power in the past.

Humans should be free-born, individual actors and the center of a system where the power descends from their consent (tacit or otherwise), all in the knowledge that the system can be changed or scrapped if it ceases to perform its function. Human weakness in the face of such responsibility is what leads to chaos and disorder, and I do believe that human beings are weak but not inherently evil. Hobbes believed that humans were not up to the task.

The price of liberty is indeed eternal vigilance. Are we willing to stand guard?

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