Hobbes: Honor and the Emperor’s New Clothes

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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28 Responses

  1. Rufus F. says:

    “The first of probably quite a few posts that I’ll be writing about Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan.”

    I’m about to go take a bath, but I just wanted to say that this makes me very happy on both counts: it’s more on Hobbes and more from Kuznicki.Report

  2. Stillwater says:

    I wonder if this idea of ‘honoring by agreeing’ goes back to Hobbes views about order and stability. Disageeing creates disorder. Of course, I get your point here, that if someone says something patently absurd you dishonor them (in some sense of that word) by letting them retain that false belief. But the idea that facts and sound arguments matter more than sentiments in social life may be a cultural/intellectual norm which didn’t exist in his era, a shift in thinking he helped foster.Report

  3. Stillwater says:

    Also this: My sense is that (2) is how most politics actually works. But it takes a rare genius to state it as baldly as Hobbes does.

    Do you think Hobbes was merely describing the relation between truth and honor in politics, or offering a normative (and instrumentally necessary) view of the relation between truth and honor in a formal political system?


    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Stillwater says:

      I know this might sound like a dodge, but Hobbes thought that he was attempting a science of politics that was every bit as certain as geometry.

      Because geometry is neither normative nor descriptive, I am often uncertain of what to make of Hobbes in this regard.  This is one of those times.  Rufus is right; the section about honor is truly a puzzle.Report

  4. Rufus F. says:

    I avoided discussing Honor for the most part because I still find Hobbes a bit confusing on the topic. My sense is that he sees it as basically a passion, if not a vice, since it’s one of the big reasons the state of nature leads to a scramble for power. When it comes to a King though be seems much more sanguine about it. On the other hand, like you say, he’s really just being realistic about how things actually work.Report

    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Aye, Rufus.  I get the sense that Hobbes means something different with “honor” than we might, and that more context is needed.  So many of our disagreements today are on the “science” of man, technocracy, wonkage.  Such things didn’t yet exist in Hobbes’ early 1600s.  It’s not about “policy.”

      Hobbes is all about order, and perhaps not coincidentally, his Britain of the 1600s was rife with disorder over religion, two civil wars.  So if the monarch wants Britain to be papist, or start his own Church of England and suppress both Catholicism and Calvinism, is that worth fighting, killing, dying over?  Who cares?  Is this “liberty” worth lives?

      According to Hobbes, man’s biggest fear and reason for unifying under a regime or government is to avoid one’s own violent death.  In this 21st century, we take liberty of religious conscience as a given, but it was not always so.  In Hobbes’ day, heresy wasn’t punished by the Church, but by the civil government, as sedition and a threat to public order.  That the totalitarians of the 20th century saw religion similarly, as an obstacle to public order and human progress, is no coincidence.  Man is better off without it.

      [BTW, is getting nominated for the Michael Moore Award an “honor”?  Just axin’.]Report

  5. Tod Kelly says:

    Since I have not read Leviathan, I have to ask: regarding the notion that “when it’s a question of honor, truth and falsehoods do not matter:”. Is this an observation by Hobbes, or a help position?Report

  6. Nathan says:

    For Hobbes, to honor or dishonor is to signify our opinion about the power of another (where a person’s power is their capacity to shape the future).  So for example if we think a person would be able to pick up heavy rocks we could honor them by saying, “Wow, I think you’re strong!”  However, if we disagree with a person about their opinion we must necessarily think they lack knowledge or good judgment about the matter at hand.  Of course, to have knowledge and good judgment is a power, as it makes a person better able to shape the future.  And so, an expression of disagreement necessarily dishonors, as it signifies our opinion that the other person currently lacks a particular power (even if only in a very limited domain).

    I like your metaphor about the physician and the sick patient.  Since reporting knowledge of an illness to the patient would be to signify an opinion about their lacking a power, it would indeed be dishonoring them in Hobbes’ sense.  Note that it would not be dishonoring in the contemporary sense of shunning or finding blameworthy (Hobbes makes this distinction clear later in the chapter).  More to your point, I’m not sure that it would honor the sick patient to lie and tell them they are healthy.  In that case we would not be signifying our actual opinion of their power and I’m not sure that Hobbes counts a false representation of our opinion as an instance of honoring.Report

    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Nathan says:

      Yo.  Nathan.  Dude.  This sings, this rings.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        As a description of Hobbes, I think Nathan nails it.  But that raises an immediate question:  Is Hobbes right?  Is this a definition of honor that we’re happy with?  And if so, is honor something worth having?

        Hobbes was surely aware of the scripture that held that a prophet is without honor in his own country.  Perhaps his idea of honor — and by extension much of his politics — is something that he personally was less comfortable with than is sometimes assumed.Report

  7. Michael Drew says:

    This seems to be the first of treatments of major thinkers here.  (I am drunkk.)  Why indeed is it Hobbes? This is not a challenge.  Simply why, of all the thinkers?  It could have been Locke or Mill.

    Happy New Year. Go Packers.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I’m just cuirous. Why him first?Report

      • Murali in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I’m not Jason, but my guess is going to be because he was the first. In at last some ways, Lock was responding to Hobbes. Hobbes was all life in the state ofnature is nasty brtusih and short while Locke was going no way!Report

        • Murali in reply to Murali says:

          Also, Mill came after Locke. Mill in many ways was following the tradition of Bentham who disagreed with Locke as to whether there were natural rights.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Murali says:

          This would be a perfectly sensible way to go about producing a series treating the line of thinkers I think we are more or less on the same page about, Murali, (though I think you’d want to say a few words about Machiavelli by way of throat clearing).  But I wasn’t getting the sense that such a chronological undertaking was what was underway here, and the authors’ responses seem to confirm that perception as accurate.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I’m not sure this would really qualify as “the first of treatments of major thinkers here.”  I’ve made many posts about well-known figures in the western canon, and Rufus is way, way out ahead of me in that regard.

      I’ve chosen to write a series on Hobbes because (1) I find him interesting and (2) I have the sense that many people know almost nothing about him.

      Still, I hadn’t thought of this series as my first.  First was my series on Ludwig von Mises several years ago at my old blog.  Second was my series on Karl Popper.  Third would be the long conversation on this blog about Kevin Carson, in which quite a few of the regulars participated, as well as Carson himself.


      • kenB in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        I’m eagerly waiting to see whether Hobbes will show up and participate in this one.Report

      • Yeah, I was going to say, I know I’ve been lax lately, but I did something like 20 posts on Socrates alone. At one point, we nearly changed the name to the League of Socratic Gentlemen.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Rufus F. says:

          Most assuredly.  “The major thinkers” was a completely inadequate term to describe the part of the tradition I meant – my mistake.  I guess I was meaning to talk about to the modern line of (mostly northern with the significant exception of Machiavelli) European political theorists that so directly influenced our systematic approach to the relation of the sovereign to the polity.  Not that Socrates (Plato) didn’t do that, but your posts seemed to focus to a great extent on the remoteness of the world of Antiquity to ours – that seemed, in great part, the focus of the work.  Your Hobbes piece and now Jason’s seems to be dealing with the subject in a way in which his ideas are much more directly with us via the direct influence of the work itself on politics through the relatively small removes in time and political space that stand between 17th Century England and today (which I think is unavoidable).  So I guess I didn’t quite see the piece of Hobbes as quite so much a part of that earlier enterprise of yours, but rather a bit of more explicitly political turn.  As you mention, this perception is I somewhat caused by your having paused in producing entries in that earlier series, and also by the fact that it coincides with Jason taking up Hobbes for reasons that remain a bit unclear to me. (Surely there are more than a few thinkers about whom he know much while the readership knows little – I’d venture to guess there are examples for which the disparity is for more pronounced than for Hobbes – though by all means I can personally get behind a series on Hobbes based solely on the proposition that he’s an interesting figure and thinker).


          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Drew says:

            Jason taking up Hobbes for reasons that remain a bit unclear to me.

            It obviously gives you great pleasure to suggest that I have ulterior motives.

            Just as obviously, I haven’t been able to rob you of that pleasure by denying them.  We’re at a bit of an impasse here, aren’t we?

            An intellectual historian of 17th- and 18th-century Europe shouldn’t need to be defensive about taking an interest in Hobbes.  The guy was important, and he’s a wonderfully original thinker.  That’s all that’s required, or all that should be required.  This is my training from college, it’s not what I do for a living, and I miss it.

            And lastly, as a method of argumentation, the suggestion of ulterior motives is both cheap and lazy.  It’s cheap because it can be applied to any statement by any interlocutor whatsoever.  It’s lazy because it need never present any evidence — it makes no claim in particular, so it’s actually stronger, in its own terms, when it advances no specific evidence at all, but just insinuates that there might be some.

            This method is beneath good arguers, but sadly I’ve come to expect it of you.


            • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              Oy.  Kuznicki on Hobbes is worthy in its own right.  Having read the former for years now, that he’s a Hobbesian is an absurd thought.  But even if he were, as another great thinker said, it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

              In fact, it’s in the entertaining of “unacceptable” thoughts that the mind becomes educated in the first place.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              I’ve obviously misstepped.  I’m sorry to hear that essentially you have a low opinion of me.  I’m not insinuating ulterior motives, I’m just curious what brought this focus on Hobbes about now. And since I’m making no argument whatsoever, I can’t really see how it applies to my argumentation.  (Generally, I guess I’m not sure how insinuating ulterior motives could ever masquerade as argument – it seems to me like it just isn’t).  You take me to be making some argument here, not just trying to understand the impetus for the sudden focus on Hobbes?  I don’t know what you base this on.Report

        • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Rufus F. says:

          That would have been a great mission statement, Rufus.  On the other hand, we have much trouble even keeping to the “Gentlemen” part.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        I did say, “here.”  I’ll explain my overlooking Rufus’ posts below under his comment.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Jason, I don’t recall earlier one-off posts of yours that are direct treatments of thinkers in this tradition in their own right (rather than ones dealing with them by way of a question of topical concern in which the writers or their ideas are invoked).  I’d certainly be interested in reviewing them.Report