Since Rufus and Jason have covered Hobbes in such excellent detail thus far, my contribution to this discussion will be more about tying up loose ends.
As a student, I read Hobbes four different times in four different contexts for four different unrelated courses, and that’s how I feel Hobbes is best approached: through a plurality of heterodox methodologies and interpretive structures. We’ll attempt to do that below.
Claim 1: “Hobbesian” is a relative term.
A question at the center of any discussion on Hobbes is often: what does the eponym “Hobbesian” mean, essentially? Jason made reference to Wittgenstein in his most recent post on the topic. Rufus asked the question non-rhetorically. I’ll expand on the discussion of semantics and claim that the best definitions of “Hobbesian” stand in contrast to other prevailing ideas of the period.
Hobbes is usually studied in relation to the positions of Locke and Rousseau. Regarding Hobbes and Locke, Hobbes felt that universal surrender to an absolute sovereign is the only way to secure civil society, while Locke’s political thought went on to serve as a primary influence for the American democracy. In contrast to Rousseau’s optimism about human nature – that men are inherently good – Hobbes argued that men are inherently weak; in contrast to Rousseau’s belief in the noble savage and the morally-cancerous influence of civil society, Hobbes believed that the state of nature was a state of perpetual suffering and that only the stability of civil society could foster human flourishing.
These two ideas: (1) the Hobbesian positive (commonly called pessimism about human nature); and (2) the Hobbesian normative (the necessity of a strong, central authority) comprise an internally-consistent school of thought that stands with Lockeanism and Rousseauvianism as one of the three pillars of social contract theory. The debates hashed out centuries ago between these three thinkers still rage strong today.
Claim 2: More than Locke and Rousseau, Hobbes is overstated.
When we discuss Hobbes, the focus is on what is excluded. When we discuss Locke, we are eminently inclusive. Perhaps because our national mythos is so deeply rooted in Locke, every value judgment we’ve made on Hobbes’s normative has assumed a certain totalitarianism, that without some Seventeenth-Century despot sentencing traitors to death and razing villages for failing to meet turnip quotas the whole Hobbesian system falls apart and we all eat each other.
On the contrary, a cold and distant monarch is often a maximizing condition for liberty. It has been paraphrased that a libertarian (i.e. – one who places liberty above other societal values) is someone who wants the government to run only the military, the courts, and the police force. What are the military, courts, and police force but Hobbesian bulwarks to keep us from slaughtering each other? We tend to forget or neglect the Hobbesian base on which the Lockean superstructure is built – both in terms of American society and in terms of intellectual history. We conflate power with authority, assuming this authoritarian base must be a person – a totalitarian dictator – when it can just as easily be an institution or a shared belief.
But wouldn’t you need to reference Berkeley’s famous reference to Foucault’s refutation of Young Hegelian re-interpretation of Logical Positivism before re-contextualizing Hobbesian discourse in the context of decontexualizing reification?Report
Perhaps because our national mythos is so deeply rooted in Locke, every value judgment we’ve made on Hobbes’s normative has assumed a certain totalitarianism, that without some Seventeenth-Century despot sentencing traitors to death and razing villages for failing to meet turnip quotas the whole Hobbesian system falls apart and we all eat each other.
On the contrary, a cold and distant monarch is often a maximizing condition for liberty. It has been paraphrased that a libertarian (i.e. – one who places liberty above other societal values) is someone who wants the government to run only the military, the courts, and the police force. What are the military, courts, and police force but Hobbesian bulwarks to keep us from slaughtering each other?
This is correct. To put it somewhat differently, Leviathan is leviathan, not in virtue of being a megalomaniacal control freak, but because he is badass. The whole argument that Hobbes is making can be summarised thus: In order to stop the war of all against all, you need someone so badass that he will be able to kick the shit out of anyone who tries to disturb the peace and make said peace-breaker his bitch.Report
“In order to stop the war of all against all, you need someone so badass that he will be able to kick the shit out of anyone who tries to disturb the peace and make said peace-breaker his bitch.”
Or, you at least need people to believe in the threat. The Great and Powerful Oz was a Leviathan. So was the Catholic Church’s threat of excommunication. Or it can be more organic, like public shaming or shunning.Report
I always took Hobbes’ deference to the monarchical form of government as an admission a fairly large country would need executive leadership with essentially despotic powers. I particularly like this bit:
a cold and distant monarch is often a maximizing condition for liberty. It has been paraphrased that a libertarian (i.e. – one who places liberty above other societal values) is someone who wants the government to run only the military, the courts, and the police force. What are the military, courts, and police force but Hobbesian bulwarks to keep us from slaughtering each other?
For all the problems inherent in monarchy, it’s terribly efficient. A king can get things done, pronto. Maybe it’s lost on us today, but it wasn’t lost on Hobbes. The power and well being of a monarch varied with the power and well being of his people. A monarch could correct injustices as quickly as he could create them.Report
Cromwell and Charles II might have had something to do with it…Report
As I understand it, and truth is, I haven’t been through Leviathan in years, just working from some crispy yellowed old notes from college, (with their perforated dot-matrix print strips still attached) Hobbes got in more trouble from the royalists than from the Commonwealth.
Hobbes’ Monarch is a theoretical being, more along the lines of the Philosopher King. The Hobbesian Monarch will always have his critics, what with a few sacred cows being led off to market. But an oligarchy would be no better, he observed, they’d be even worse, what with their secret connivances and intramural bickering. The worst state would be one ruled by the mob, hence that eponymous adjective, the Hobbesian State. At least a monarch would consider his realm in its totality.
The English monarchs were always constrained by their inability to directly tax the people and Hobbes never advocated an absolute monarchy. That’s why I think Hobbes asserted the monarch would be motivated to build up his own nation rather than oppress it. I just found Chapter 19 of Leviathan, Hobbes enumerates a host of “inconveniences” in monarchy.
Fifthly, that in monarchy there is this inconvenience; that any subject, by the power of one man, for the enriching of a favourite or flatterer, may be deprived of all he possesseth; which I confess is a great an inevitable inconvenience. But the same may as well happen where the sovereign power is in an assembly: for their power is the same; and they are as subject to evil counsel, and to be seduced by orators, as a monarch by flatterers; and becoming one another’s flatterers, serve one another’s covetousness and ambition by turns. And whereas the favourites of monarchs are few, and they have none else to advance but their own kindred; the favourites of an assembly are many, and the kindred much more numerous than of any monarch. Besides, there is no favourite of a monarch which cannot as well succour his friends as hurt his enemies: but orators, that is to say, favourites of sovereign assemblies, though they have great power to hurt, have little to save. For to accuse requires less eloquence (such is man’s nature) than to excuse; and condemnation, than absolution, more resembles justice.Report
I can’t re-read Hobbes right now, which is too bad because after all the writing that’s been done on him recently I very much want to do so.
I need something that isn’t going to require my brain to operate at a level much higher than, “Og want food!”Report
what does the eponym “Hobbesian” mean, essentially?
Aren’t the Hobbesians a race of people who are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?
I think Margaret Meade visited them and tried to persuade the world that they were actually quite sociable and generous.Report
On her advice, Michael Rockefeller went a-visitin’ and was eaten forthwith.Report
My anthropology book didn’t mention anything about cannibalism, but that would explain a lot.
I think you’d enjoy Secrets of the Tribe.Report
Congrats on the best post on Hobbes here yet, Christopher. I agree that he can’t be understood through any one frame or entry point.
I felt this recent perspective was additive to my understanding of the man and his work: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2012/01/hbc-90008381Report
Thanks for the link. And, I’m flattered. But, Rufus and Jason’s posts are much more scholarly and complete undertakings than mine.Report
That’s true enough but not inconsistent with my evaluation. 😉Report
Jeeeeeez! Thanks! I had no idea there was a contest. Ah well, I’m still pretty sure I’ve got the best post here about Empedocles.Report
Well, I mean after Shawn’s The Purifications of Gordon Gecko: Empedocles & The Occupy Movement of course. That piece was dreamy.Report
I liked yours too, Rufus! I just think Chris’s draws out implications (perhaps just the ones I’m most interested in) in a slightly more additive way. Yours was a much closer reading, seeking more to clarify and pin down Hobbes than to build him out. I guess I’m maybe more interested in exploring the implications of the work than in a close explication of his rhetorical methods (which as Chris notes is likely not the way rigorous academicians would go about trying to understand an author).
I was in part engaging in that kind of slight overclaim that a person does when trying to advance an opinion for discussion, cf “This was an excellent movie!” vice “I really enjoyed this movie”, and also to compliment Chris.
I would really value even more on Hobbes, specifically a more full exploration of the historical political context in which he wrote, which is discussed by the scholar in the interview I linked to, but I thought from a somewhat sharp analytical and philosophical evaluative angle (though not an unfair one, at least that I could see).Report
I totally agree with this from the Harpers article, by the way: “Mathematics made it possible for men to be most god-like in their creative, not descriptive, power.”Report