Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hobbes, Not Rights

Thomas Hobbes developed one of the sternest political philosophies on record. His major work, The Leviathan, is careful to list the rights of the sovereign, i.e. the rights of the monarch over his subjects, but lists no rights belonging to the ordinary citizens.

Why was Hobbes willing to sacrifice the rights of the subject - including himself, inasmuch as he was not a member of the royal family? Hobbes had been witness in his lifetime to two major bloody conflicts: the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648) and the English Civil war. These conflicts were perhaps a bit more cruel than the usual war, and left Hobbes haunted by the atrocities. Historian Mark Levin writes:

Thomas Hobbes was a partisan of the English royalty who was appalled by the series of civil wars between the English Royalists and Parliamentarians, religious turmoil, and general anarchy that led to the execution of Charles I. He fled to France where, in 1651, he wrote Leviathan, which was influenced by what he had observed and experienced.

Hobbes generalized from his experiences and formed a hypothesis about human nature: he thought that humans were by nature selfish and violent. He then reasoned that the only way to ensure a peaceful and safe society would be to grant absolute, or nearly absolute, power to the ruler, who would ensure that men behaved in a civilized fashion. Anticipating objections, Hobbes believed that even a corrupt and evil ruler should retain absolute power, because to overthrow him would be to risk something even worse - anarchy.

Hobbes argued that as men live in a constant state of fear, anxiety, and conflict, they could not be trusted to govern themselves. As such, a "Sovereign" must be given absolute power over men ("Subjects") to protect them against themselves and outside invaders (a Sovereign can either be a single person such as a Monarch, or an assembly of men). The Sovereign was an all-powerful Leviathan - a totalitarian state with a vast bureaucracy controlling the lives of its Subjects.

Given the precarious nature of human life without a sovereign to provide security, Hobbes conceptualized absolute monarchy as a voluntary agreement: men would be willing to place themselves under a nearly limitless government in exchange for the law and order that would be imposed on society.

Submission to the Leviathan (or Commonwealth) mean transferring one's rights to the Sovereign. That way, Hobbes believed men could live in peace, stability, and contentment. The rights transferred included, among others, the control of the judicial system (what is right or wrong), control of the Subjects' free will (what Subjects could or could not do), control of Subjects' possessions, (what goods the Subject could enjoy), distribution of materials such as land, and control over foreign trade. Hobbes described this relationship as a social contract or compact.

Hobbes was not the first to frame this relationship in terms of a contract. Plato had described a contractual relationship between the individual and the state in the Crito. Nor was Hobbes the last: a century later Rousseau would write a book with the title The Social Contract.

With what are we left, if we accept Hobbes and his logic? Hobbes unfolds a system of government from the starting point of his version of the social contract. He describes it in the pages of his book.

From Leviathan springs not a virtuous government protective of the civil society but a totalitarian regime. As in Plato's Republic and More's Utopia, in Leviathan Hobbes rejects self-government because, he believes, the individual and man generally cannot be trusted to govern themselves. Hobbes designs another inhuman utopian structure that devours the individual.

We face a paradox: we see human nature as deeply flawed (wars allow us no other inference), and yet we see that to preserve man from his own nature, we should construct an inhumane government which violates man's liberties (the scheme of Hobbes). We are left with either evil run rampant, or evil enthroned: a poor menu indeed.

Hobbes, however, may have found a way out. After writing most of the Leviathan, he added the seldom-read last chapters, in which he hints at solution: if the source of the problem is human nature, perhaps we can patch that nature. If we can counteract or counterbalance the evil found in men by nature, then the possibility of peaceful and secure self-government will arise.

The solution, Hobbes intimates (he does not explicitly write this), lies in the realm of things spiritual. Meditation on sacred text and the activities of worship might cancel out or compensate for the flaws in human nature. If a society grooms its spiritual side, men may become suitable to engage in self-government. After having shown us why men's imperfect nature precludes self-government, Hobbes alludes to a course of action which might offset that corrupt nature and open the pat to self-government.