Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The great undoer?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was one of the founders of modernist philosophy. I've always thought that his account of human nature was radically and obviously false. So it was with considerable interest that I began to read the section on Hobbes in Jean Bethke Elshtain's book Sovereignty: God, State, and Self.

Professor Elshtain begins her account of Hobbes (in a section titled Hobbes: the Great Undoer) by noting how one-sided Hobbes' account of human nature is:

[Hobbes] joins Machiavelli as an allegedly 'scientific' student of politics, this despite his extreme views on human nature and his relentless focus on worst-case scenarios as if these were the norm ... (p.104)

One finds in Hobbes, as in Machiavelli, a world of extremes represented as normal, a world of exceptions represented as the rule. (p.105)

Hobbes is a masterful reductionist. His "man" is an atom flung about by appetite and aversion. (p.106)

According to Hobbes, man is not by nature a social creature who fulfils his nature in relationship with others. There are no natural ties between men giving rise to a human society and to forms of governance. Instead, man in a state of nature lives a brutal and solitary life marked by fear of a war of all against all. This fear leads men to make a social contract in which they cede power to an absolute ruler to keep the peace.

Professor Elshtain continues:

What drives human beings, Hobbes tells us, is a desire for safety and whatever is good to ourselves. Whatever we give we do in anticipation of a reward ...

Human beings do not require human society to fulfill their natures ... but, rather, to protect them from their natures ... There can be no commonwealth unless it is directed by one judgement - otherwise particular appetites triumph and lead inevitably to the breakdown and a return of the "natural" state of a war of all against all. Men are continually in competition ... and they do not work together for a common good but, instead, for the immediate gratification of private benefits.

All moderns who see society as being made up of millions of competing wills have to come up with a way for such a society to hold together. Right-liberals have often looked to the free market to harmonise wills; left-liberals have preferred the idea of technocratic regulation by experts. Hobbes had a different idea: he wanted a uniting of wills through an absolute ruler:

Once brought into being the sovereign is above the law. Laws take the form of his untrammeled will ... Law as command flows from the uniting of wills, one having come out of many, a melee of contending wills is pressed into one will ...(p.108)

Hobbes was a relativist, believing that there was nothing inherently good or evil:

For strong nominalists, like Hobbes, neither reason nor nature gives any guidance about what is good and evil - unsurprising, therefore, that Hobbes reduces evil - and good - to the more or less arbitrary names we attach to things: "Good and Evil are names that signify our Appetites, and Aversions; which in different tempers, customes, and doctrines of men, are different." (p.110)

Hobbes does not even believe that the family is a natural institution:

He cannot permit the family to have its own being ... he argues that the family, too, arises from a coercive contract, with both parents as masters over the children who "sign on," so to speak, because they know that, being weak, they could be starved to death or otherwise eliminated by the more powerful parents. (p.111)

Modern liberalism is not cast entirely in the pattern set by Hobbes. Modern liberals would reject the idea of harmonising wills through an absolute ruler. But there is much in Hobbes that passed into the liberal tradition, such as an understanding of man as an asocial creature lacking natural ties or common interests.

It's a weakness at the very beginning of liberal philosophy that calls out for the kind of criticism delivered by Professor Elshtain.


  1. "Modern liberalism is not cast entirely in the pattern set by Hobbes. Modern liberals would reject the idea of harmonising wills through an absolute ruler. ..."

    I don't see where "modern liberals" ever really object to "the idea of harmonising wills through an absolute ruler." It seems to me that they *always love* the idea -- they just don't want to call it what it is.

  2. The "Good and Evil" quote from Hobbes came out "God and Evil."

  3. Strauss argues (in his 1936 essay on Hobbes) that the original impetus leading to the social compact is multiform: fear of violent death; self reproach secondary to vanity; subsequent shame once this fear is recognized; and a further recognition that the fear is not, strictly speaking, the fear of an individual human enemy, but, rather, the fear of a "common enemy," i.e., Death. Finally, he argues that because of this nascent introduction of guilt, the sovereign State arising from the contract must have a moral quality.

    Therefore, it may not be accurate to believe, as some do, that the state of nature was ever an amoral war of all against all. Hobbes explains that in nature, although every action is permitted (this is the basis of natural right), not every intention is. The determining judgment turns on whether the intention is based on self preservation. Thus, justice is a legitimate concept, even in nature.

    In Natural Right and History Strauss argues the notion of classical versus modern natural right, with Hobbes being an example of the latter. Classical natural right asked the question, what is the end of man? Modern natural right looked for the beginning. If one is concerned only with beginnings, what is most distinctly human is ignored. That much is certain, and it is the major flaw of Hobbes (and many other moderns).

    At the same time, it is easy to see that without a concern for the natural end of man, Hobbes description of the actual life of man in nature is not far off. Think of the savage goings on in Richmond a few days ago, the Knoxville murder trial just ending, street life in inner city Detroit, Oakland, and so forth.

  4. Modern liberals love the idea of an absolute ruler. It seems to be a part of their DNA

  5. Yeppers. "Modern liberals" love them some dictatorship (and mass murder).

    Lenin -- they loved him, and still love him. They like to pretend he was different-in-kind fron Stalin.

    Stalin -- they loved him when he was top-dog. Nowdays, they clain to not love him. But then, they lie about just about everything, so who can know it they're speaking true about this.

    Mussolini -- when Mussolini began to gain world attention, and especially after he gained power in Italy, the "progressives" could say enough good about Fascism. FDR's "New Deal" was intentionally modelled on Mussolini's programs, and especially the "partnership" between Big Government and Big Labor and Big Business. The idea, in Italy and in America, was that private -- and free -- enterprise was too inefficient for the "modern age" and thus had to be brought under central command-and-control. To put it another way, the modern age "demanded" that government bureaucrats determine who wins and who loses (and after all, "liberals" cannot but see the economy, and life in general, as a sum-zero game).

    Hitler -- they loved him until Stalin said hate him. And that hatred burns burns white-hot to this day (though, some of them are beginning to see the "wisdom" of the Nazi Jew-hatred) ... which indicates that Stalin may still hold a special place in their hearts.

    Ché -- they adore him.

    Castro -- they adore him.

    Chávez -- the adore him.

    Mao -- the adore him.

    Pol Pot -- they adored him when he had power.

  6. Hobbes is correct in intuiting that the family is not in the natural order of things, but is imposed on us by civilization. And a good thing, too, because advanced civilization requires the nuclear family for social cohesion.

    Empirical evidence is pretty stark that the history of our species is not a history of monogamy. Currently, our species is the product of about twice as many females as males and that ratio has been steadily falling. A millenia ago the ratio might have been closer to four procreating females to each procreating male.

    Conservatives just stick their heads in the sand by not acknowledging that circumscribing nature is the sine qua non of civilization. You know, Oz, sometimes I think you almost get it and then you let me down, like here.

  7. Asher, you're making a somewhat different point.

    Do children really sign on to a coercive contract of family life because they fear, being weaker than their parents, that otherwise their parents will kill them?

    Is this the only basis for the relationship between parent and child?

    I don't think so. I do think it's natural for men and women to want to have children; that there are natural paternal and maternal bonds between parent and child; that young children do naturally love their parents and so on.

    So Hobbes's model of human motivation is wrong - it's way too reductive.

    This doesn't mean that the single law to follow is "do what comes naturally". I don't know of any conservatives who take such a view.

    Is the family natural? Yes, in the sense that no human community could survive by leaving mother and child alone to fend for themselves. Yes, in the sense that there are, in human nature, strong instincts and impulses tending toward family life.

    This doesn't mean, though, that a monagamous form of marriage will always prevail. There are plenty of human societies in which polygamy is the common form of family life.

    I do believe that monogamy is the highest form of family life and that it takes a certain amount of discipline at the personal and social level to keep it working well.

    Remember, though, that polygamy requires an even stronger set of social sanctions to keep in place.

    So I'm not sure I'm willing to sign on to the "polygamy is natural, monogamy is an artificial product of civilisation" theory.

  8. Hobbes was a great analyst of power, and, after Burke, perhapst the greatest political thinker who ever lived, but you are right that his methodological individualism was his greatest weakness and lead to many falsities in political thought.

    I think a lot of Hobbes' individualism comes from the fact that, like a lot of nerds, he was probably a bit aspergery.

  9. I think a lot of Hobbes' individualism comes from the fact that, like a lot of nerds, he was probably a bit aspergery.

    Interesting. I've wondered the same thing myself.

  10. Thursday said... Hobbes was a great analyst of power, and, after Burke, perhapst the greatest political thinker who ever lived.

    The second greatest? Perhaps you mean "modern" political thinker, for which a case could be made (if one discounts Machiavelli and the later contract theorists, Rousseau and Locke). But it would be wrong to exclude the classical theorists (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas). And even Hobbes understood the classical tradition well, and showed respect as is evident by comparing sections of Aristotle's Rhetoric with Hobbes's Elements, Leviathan, and De homine; along with his translation of Thucydides.

    Finally, to ignore classical political theory in favor of the kind of work Hobbes produced is to greatly underestimate what is important in the human sciences, I think.