Subscribe to Computing Intelligence

Friday, December 12, 2008

Political Science Review: Hobbes

This will probably be my last post in the Political Science Review series. While we also read Locke, I ended up not getting past his early stuff. While it was interesting, particularly in relation to Aristotle's opening as they both discussed the role and organization of the family, I am not sure I remember enough of it to really do it justice. So, if you are interested in Locke you'll just have to read his stuff yourself, and I will end my sojourn into political science with a review of Hobbes' Leviathan.

Hobbes was an interesting thinker. While Leviathan is a rather difficult text to slog through (mostly owing to it being written in English used several centuries ago), his ideas and thinking quite impressed me all the way to chapter 19, at which point it seemed to all fall apart. Not to get ahead of myself, though, let me start at the beginning. Hobbes begins by discussing the nature of man, going so far as to look briefly at sensory perceptions and how a person knows what he knows. While his neuroscience is stifled a little by 17th century science, some of his basic ideas are interesting and, taken together, form a coherent, logical context for his later political analysis. He paints a rather dismal picture of mankind, though, in many ways accepting a similar view to Machiavelli on the nature of man as violently selfish and greedy. The main difference between Hobbes and Machiavelli, though, is Machiavelli stressed greed and desire for glory as the primary drives of men, while Hobbes emphasized fear (specifically of a violent death).

Given that Hobbes was a much more careful, academic, and theoretical thinker than Machiavelli, where Machiavelli dove straight into political discourse on realistic situations, Hobbes carefully defines his terms and thoughts about human nature. Probably the most important one Hobbes outlines is his definition of the state of nature, or state of war (they are the same thing for Hobbes) in which there is no government. This is essentially anarchy and, according to Hobbes, is an absolutely horrible, terrible state where people butcher each other and steal without qualms. He says, for example, than in the absence of a political authority, "every man is enemy to every man..." (13.9). Though Hobbes admits that there are other driving forces in the quarrels of men and the reasons they agree to live in peace, he emphasizes fear as the greatest of them all.

What is rather interesting about Hobbes' analysis, though, is he abandons the common normative views on morality and instead defines them in a rigid and clear manner. This has huge ramifications for his later thought, particularly justice, which he defines as, "injustice is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust, is just" (15.2). Importantly, though, Hobbes makes the caveat that if either party has legitimate fear that the other party will not follow through with their part of the covenant, that nullifies said agreement. Thus, "before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant... such power there is none before the erection of a commonwealth" (15.3). Hobbes therefore places fear as the root of the political power of a state, as it must enforce the political agreement undertaken by its citizens through fear of what it means to breach that agreement. Since he also points out that without some form of state there can be no outside coercive force, he subtly hints at what he later makes more explicit: there is no legitimacy for personal morality, but rather what the state dictates takes precedence. The explicit statement of such totalitarian thought comes much later, however, so at this point (chapter 15) I didn't notice the dictatorial undertones and was still rather impressed.

Taking the idea that the agreements which allow for civilized life cannot exist without a central government to enforce them, Hobbes begins to discuss how such a government should appear. It is at this point, in my opinion, that his analysis veers off the course or rationality and into the realm of 'where the hell did this come from?', if you will excuse my break in style. For, while Machiavelli made the, in my opinion true, statement "there is no doubt the public interest is never a guiding principle except in republics", Hobbes states (seemingly completely out of nowhere and not at all supported by reality), "in monarchy the private interest is the same with public" (Discourses pg. 166, 19.4). Hobbes even seems to contradict himself at several points very shortly after, first when he explains that any successful state institution must be essentially immortal or it would fall and need to be rebuilt with each generation, thereby returning its citizens to the horrors of anarchy in each interim. This requirement, as Hobbes aptly points out, means that such an institution must be designed without taking into account the natures of the men occupying it, something which a monarchy clearly fails to do. Likewise, as Hobbes even admits, a monarchy has an extremely high risk of failure at the death of each monarch.

Despite the drawbacks of a monarchy, however, Hobbes continues to argue in favour of one, with his specific description growing increasingly despotic. His main reason seems to be that, within the monarch's lifetime, a state run by a single powerful individual is the least open to civil strife and internal division, thereby minimizing the chance of a catastrophic meltdown into anarchy and civil war. Hobbes spends several chapters addressing (in my mind, inadequately) some of the drawbacks of a monarchy, particularly in the dangers of the monarch blatantly trampling on what we in our modern political outlook would recognize as the civil rights of the state's citizens, particularly in the case of their property rights. Recognizing that not all subjects can be expected to understand that revolt against the government will lead to anarchy which, no matter how terrible the government is, will be much worse, Hobbes states "the grounds of [the monarch's] rights... need to be diligently and truly taught..." (30.4). This struck me as an exceedingly weak argument in which Hobbes ensnared himself in his own rhetorical trap. If anarchy is such a terrible state that any government, no matter how bad, is better and proper education of that fact can make such a government stable through the citizens' fear of anarchy, then this could be used for any government and all the hoops Hobbes jumped through earlier to explain why a monarchy was the best form of government for its stability comes to naught. Education can make any government stable by playing upon the fears of its populace, which leaves the only reason for a monarchy being Hobbes' empty statement that a monarch has his interests aligned with those of the people.

Thus, I found myself unfortunately dissatisfied with Hobbes' political analysis towards the end of his text. I still think the first eighteen chapters were well developed, however, and it was especially interesting to read his thoughts on the fundamental nature of why a government needed to exist. Though I disagree with the initial theological underpinnings of the beginning of Locke's work, I think once he finishes quoting scripture to beat back the arguments of some contemporary of his, he gives a more approachable and, in the end, less flawed portrayal of the nature of government than Hobbes. Locke is also easier to read, being a little more contemporary, but if you have a lot of time to kill, reading Hobbes first will help give some grounding for Locke's work.

Also, this post was a little condensed to make it into an approachable blog post for easy perusal rather than into a daunting block of text which no one would want to read. If you find Hobbesian thought interesting, however, I am somewhat proud of my final essay in the political science course in which I compared Machiavelli and Hobbes on their analysis of the nature of man and how it leads to their formations of what a civil authority should be like. The essay focuses on Hobbes but uses Machiavelli as a backdrop with which to compare (and, since I agree more with Machiavelli's analysis, poke holes). If you want, you can contact me or leave a comment and I can send you my essay (though I will be wildly shocked if anyone takes me up on this offer).

One final note - the references. Except where noted that I was taking quotations from Machiavelli's Discourses, all quotations are given from my version of Leviathan in the format [chapter].[paragraph number].