Saturday, May 15, 2010


This post will contain all of the posts PJ and I put up in our discussion of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes. The division into parts has no relations to the text itself.

Part I

Leviathan - Part I

Summer is almost here, which means it's time for another round of discussions of philosophic tracts with PJ and yours truly. This year, we're going to examine some selections from Princeton Readings in Political Thought.

This first post deals with Thomas Hobbes. Naturally, the text contains selections from Leviathan, which I was able to find the time to read in full earlier this year. In addition to the text, I'll also be utilizing Chapter II of Volume V of Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy, as well as Chapter XX of Will and Ariel Durant's The Age of Louis XIV.

Context is often very helpful in facilitating a greater understanding of a text; it seems especially so in reading Hobbes. From 1641-1651, England was convulsed in civil war. Leviathan was published at the end of this period. Therein, Hobbes argues for absolutism as a check against the civil war of man against man that he saw in his state of nature, and which seemed concomitant with a government which divided power between King and parliament.

is divided into four parts: Of Man, Of Common-wealth, Of a Christian Common-wealth, and Of the Kingdom of Darknesse. The text is well-organized, and proceeds systematically; Hobbes's philosophy of man fits with his conception of common-wealth. The reader may experience minor difficulties in reading Leviathan, but no more than he would reading anything else written in the middle of the seventeenth century. For a philosophical text, the writing is quite clear. As Will and Ariel Durant puts it: "One clear debt we owe [Hobbes]: he formulated his philosophy in logical order and lucid prose." (The Age of Louis XIV, p. 564).

One last point about context: some knowledge of the Reformation in general, and the English Reformation in particular, would assist in reading Hobbes. As he was writing, the disastrous and futile Thirty Years War had recently finished; nothing more exemplifies the absurdities of the period than fellow Christians butchering each other for three decades, finally ending in an exhausted draw. While some arguments for toleration were made, uniform religion under one sovereign seemed to lend itself more readily to peace. Factor in the Catholic Church's insistence that temporal power did not trump spiritual power, and we can comprehend the seething criticism Hobbes levels at the Church in the fourth part of the book.

Enough with the background and onto the text. All references are to Princeton Readings in Political Thought unless otherwise noted.

In the introduction Hobbes defines his subject, and also tells us its intention: "Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of Nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended..." (p. 205)

Regarding man, Hobbes speaks of his power, which he defines: "his present means to obtain some future apparent good, and is either original or instrumental." This power can be augmented by that of others, so that a common-wealth, comprised of many men, has more power than a single man--as does a faction. He enumerates that which adds further to power based on this principle: "to have servants... to have friends...riches joined with liberality... reputation of love of a man's country, etc." (p.206)

Hobbes discusses "the Natural Condition of Mankind." Although some men may be stronger than others, nonetheless "Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of the body and mind." This is proved because even the strongest may be killed by the weakest, "either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself." (p.207)

This is clear enough, but it strikes me as debatable, though not as much as it was in Hobbes's day. The invention and dissemination of firearms has leveled the playing field between the weak and the strong. Still, it seems to me that the strong are giving up more than the weak, being as the latter have more to gain, when it comes to forming a contract.

Continuing his argument concerning the equality of men, Hobbes writes: "For such is the nature of men that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent or more learned, yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves; for they see their own wit at hand, and other men's at a distance." This is very well put. He goes on: "But this proveth rather that men are in that point equal, than unequal. For there is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of anything than that every man is contented with his share." I don't buy this. Granted that no man will readily admit that he is an imbecile, this does not mean that all are equally gifted with intelligence. It may only mean that most have sufficient pride to overcome their want of brains. I harp on Hobbes here because while equality is something we take for granted—especially as good democratic Americans—it strikes me as a difficult thing to prove. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this.

This assumption of equality is important for the next argument. Because men are equal, their hope in attaining a desired end is also equal. They therefore become enemies in their competition for this end. This is a reasonable argument to make, but only for goods which can only be attained by one person. For many goods, cooperation will yield greater benefits for all. Whether or not man is wise enough to understand this is another matter, but if Hobbes is right that man is often at war with man, we should emphasize the possibility of man existing peaceably. I do not say this to posit my own state of nature, only to correct what I see as too heavy an emphasis on man's proclivity to war by Hobbes.

Hobbes finds three principle causes of quarrel: competition, diffidence, and glory. No man can secure himself from these quarrels. Hence, "during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man." This war is not fighting only, but also "the known disposition thereto." So long as man exists in this state of war, there can be no: industry, navigation, trade, knowledge of the earth, arts, letters, or even society. And in a famous line, "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." (p.208)

Hobbes rejects any sort of natural law for man. "[T]he actions that proceed from [man's] passions [are not sinful] till they know a law that forbids them; which till laws be made they cannot know, nor can any law be made till they have agreed upon the person that shall make it." (p.209) Undoubtedly, this caused much consternation for religious contemporaries of Hobbes. If Christianity has generally suggested that man obey the State, it has also recognized a realm for conscience outside of the State. Hobbes is arguing here that man must agree upon the law—we will learn later that this is by contract—in order for it to be binding on him. This is a far cry from the law which Judeo-Christianity teaches that God has written on the hearts of man.

Later, Hobbes points out that kingdoms maintain a "posture of war" towards one another. He insists that misery does not follow from this, though it does follow when it applies to individual men. (p.209) This strikes me as one of the weakest points of his theory. His argument is that the state of war between men demands that power be given to one man to lord over them. This power will be absolute, but only over a limited area—a nation, let us say. This implies that some balance can be achieved between nations in which the state of war does not destroy civilization. Yet the impossibility of achieving some balance was the very impetus for the monarch in the first place. If a balance can be achieved between States, it's unclear why a balance could not be maintained between individuals as well. Hobbes should have argued that only a world state under one monarch could give peace to the inhabitants of his common-wealth. This would have been an exceptional argument to make in 1651, but it strikes me as more consistent with his principles.

He writes: "To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice." (p. 209) But, to return to my point from the previous paragraph, how can there be justice between States if there is no law between them?

I've only managed to cover five pages, but I think I'll leave off here for now.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Towards a Mutual Understanding

I was first introduced to Christopher Dawson while reading a delightful essay written by Dermot Quinn in The American Conservative. I thus decided to pick up The Dividing of Christendom. If this book is any indication Quinn is correct: Dawson ought to be read more readily.

One should be aware of two things before reading this book. First, although it is concerned with Christendom's division, less than half of the book is devoted to a narration of its principle cause, namely the Reformation. Indeed, much of the work focuses on the tremendous effects of Luther's call to revolt, from the rise of Baroque culture, to the colonization of America, up to the Enlightenment, with which the book concludes. This is not meant as criticism, but a reader who is expecting a general history of the Reformation itself should look elsewhere.

The second point is related to the first: although the book is rather short, it is packed with ample density of thought. Dawson will not weigh one down with tendentious academic prose—thank heavens—but his book requires critical engagement, as well as a modicum of knowledge of history

As a Catholic, and perhaps especially as a convert, Dawson is concerned with the disunity of Christendom. While recognizing the importance of theological controversies, he writes: "as an historian, I am convinced that the main sources of Christian division and the chief obstacle to Christian unity have been and are cultural rather than theological." In this sense, The Dividing of Christendom could be considered a work of apologetics, but I think this misunderstands his book, as well as underrates Dawson's power as an historian.

He notes that neither the ecclesiastical historians—who study the theological origins of the schism—nor the secular historians have "paid much attention to the development of the new forms of religious culture which took the place of the old common culture of medieval Christendom." With the rise of secularism, we look to the State and its agents as the supreme actors of history. Any problem which confronts us can be solved by appeal to its authority. But Dawson understands what Alexis de Tocqueville discovered while visiting America: culture is more important than politics. Consequently, Dawson's learned discussions of cultural developments from the Reformation to the French Revolution are well worth one's study.

One of the most important observations in this book is made near the end. Dawson writes: "For a generation—during the last third of the 18th century—the Religion of Nature became a real religion and no mere ideological fantasy, a faith in which men believed with their whole souls and for which they were prepared to die." But then, "the present spiritual crisis of our culture is due not so much to the loss of the traditional faith in Christianity, which had already occurred by the time of the French Revolution, as to the collapse of this new religion which has occurred in the [twentieth] century, especially after two world wars."

The Reformation was made possible because medieval Christianity was sick, and proved incapable of healing itself before it was divided. Whatever one's opinion of the Reformation, in many respects, at least for a time, divided Christendom seemed to lack this sickness. If it often warred amongst itself—as medieval Christianity did—it also produced spectacular works of art and made prodigious industrial advancements. But it cannot be denied that our present civilization is sick, sicker even than the medieval society which Luther sought to reform. After surveying the wreckage of the Reformation, the prospects of unity look bleak. But the alternatives look bleaker still.

Dawson believed that a greater understanding of cultural differences was a necessary prerequisite for cultural unity. Those who share his hopes for unity would do well to foster the understanding which his book so richly provides.