Saturday, May 15, 2010

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.


PJ said...

Great start! I've got one other project that I need to wrap up, and then I'll put a response together. Expect something midweek.

Cheers, PJ

troutsky said...

I think the equality of which he speaks is equal dignity and right to be accorded respect when arguing for ones position/interests. This is politics, the substitution for war and the legitimating function of the neutral state.

PJ said...

Hey Eric,

I'll organize this first response around the notion of equality--for you rightly call attention to some peculiarities in Hobbes' account. Furthermore, his conception of equality is very interesting from a historical perspective because of the extent to which it marks a break with the political philosophy of the Ancients and Medievals.

For Plato and Aristotle, citizens, simply put, were not equal. As we saw in the Republic, some people are just mo re rational than others, and Plato argues that these ought to be the ones making decisions for the rest. In a similar way, Aristotle distinguishes between those whose souls rule their bodies and those whose bodies rule by their souls. The latter are natural-born slaves (see Princeton Reader pp.111-113).

Political equality is universalized with the rise of the Roman Empire, the philosophy of Stoicism, the spread of Christianity. The generic category of the person with rights simply as citizen emerges in the Roman Empire, as a consequence of its enormous scale. Stoicism is the philosophical response to a political system completely unresponsive to the demands of its citizens. We are free only in thought, and equal in that we are equally subject to the same rational laws of nature--a claim that Cicero converts into a political principle (see PR pp. 124-126). For Augustine, equality is construed primarily as equality in fallenness. We can talk about him later, if you like. Thomas, however, returns to Cicero in order to Christianize the doctrine of natural law by embedding it in a fourfold hierarchy of eternal, natural, human, and divine law. Natural law is simply our rational way of participating the divinely ordered cosmos, particularized in the variously instituted human systems of law and supplemented (by those who wish to get to heaven) by the scripturally revealed practices of the divine law.

Hobbes' materialistic notion of equality is a strong a departure from this tradition. We are indeed equal, he argues, against the Greeks, yet not, versus the Roman and Christians, on the basis of our rational faculties; rather, we are equal because any one of us is able to kill any other. Equality, here, has nothing to do with reason. It's entirely material.

As to his claim that that no man will admit any other to be wiser than himself, this may be empirically falsifiable, but it makes good sense as a political principle. Surely we could not ask anyone to submit to a contract, Hobbes' logic runs, according to which he is systematically subordinated to another? I stand with Hobbes on this: even though some people do admit their own imperfections, it would be terribly irrational to encode one's inferiority into law.

More later --


A Wiser Man Than I said...


Your brief summary of political philosophy in regards to equality was quite informative.

Surely we could not ask anyone to submit to a contract, Hobbes' logic runs, according to which he is systematically subordinated to another? I stand with Hobbes on this: even though some people do admit their own imperfections, it would be terribly irrational to encode one's inferiority into law.

But doesn't the contract subordinate everyone in the commonwealth to the monarch? Granted that this may be the way to solve the civil war that we are in a state of nature, it still require subordination.

As to encoding one's inferiority into law, it depends on what we mean by that. We would never sanction inequality only if we believe equality is more important than any other thing, liberty for instance. Thus it would be amenable to me to give up my right to vote in exchange for a reduction in the size of the State.

PJ said...

Yes, when men in the state of nature enter into a covenant with one another they do indeed subordinate themselves to a sovereign authority--unconditionally so. (Or, more precisely, upon the condition that the sovereign fulfill its sole legitimating function of preserving the peace.) Yet, the sovereign authority, for Hobbes, is external to the state, high above it, not a member thereof. This absolute authority is said to be the necessary condition for the security of each and all. Equality figures in his argument as a material assumption, not a political ideal. His ideal, it seems to me, is simply stability. He is manifestly uninterested in the democratic ideal of equal participation, and also seems unconcerned with economic inequality, let alone equality in opportunity for self-actualization, or anything of that sort. In fact, equality is the origin of the problem that his political philosophy is designed to overcome.

How we assess his political proposals, it seems to me, will depend heavily upon our assessment of his psychological egoism. Locke, for instance, has a more sociable conception of human nature, and he accordingly presents quite a different sort of political philosophy. I hope to have a look at the first part of Leviathan, "Of Man," later this week.

Even without reviewing the full text, however, I recall enough to make a few general remarks about the ontology informing Hobbes' political proposals. The division between what is objective and what is subjective -- the Greek distinction between physis (the laws of nature, how things simply are) and nomos (convention, revisable human law) -- has widened from Ancient times into a venerable gulf. He can write, for instance: "The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have [in the state of nature] no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice" (p. 209). Of which it is a consequence that the sovereign, no matter what it may do, does not commit injustice -- for its sovereignty is the very condition of our meaningful employment of the concept of justice (e.g. p. 223, 224). Politics, for Hobbes, is all nomos, and, it seems, the shape it takes is largely arbitrary, so long as it is able to protect us from the political dangers inherent in our fundamental self-interest.

Closely related to his subjectivism, is Hobbes' deep-seated individualism. This too is a distinctly modern dimension of his thought. The best way I've found for talking about this is in terms of the "logical priority" of society over individual or of individual over society. The assumption governing Ancient and Medieval thought is that society has logical priority over individuality: who you are is a consequence of your social position, so that the idea of a man outside of the polis simply has no theoretical traction. As Aristotle puts it, such a man would have to be "either a beast of a god," and the, the implication is, has no place in political philosophy (p.110).

For Hobbes, by contrast, the individual is logically prior to society. (This is of a piece with the more general modern rejection of a teleological ontology in favor of nature as mechanism, meaningless apart from the subjective ends imposed upon it by free agents.) Whereas for the Ancients the primary question was the most just organization of the state, the Moderns face an even more basic question: how is it that any state should ever come to exercise legitimate authority over originally independent individuals? Hobbes responds with the model of the covenant. The state of nature is such that we are rationally obliged, by our own interest in self-preservation, to submit to a sovereign authority. In this way we are bound to retroactively give the state our legitimizing seal of individual consent.

PJ said...

Like many philosophers of late Antiquity and into the early modern period, Hobbes sets out to ground his political theory in a philosophy of natural law. His use of the term is misleading, however, because he divorces it entirely from its original theoretically scaffolding. Cicero could write, "True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions," or, later, "Justice is one; it binds all human society, and is based on one Law, which is right reason applied to command and prohibition" (PR 125, 126).

Hobbes, however, has a very different conception of nature, and so also of reason. The first part of Leviathan advances a doctrine according to which all thought is caused by external bodies bumping against sensory organs (ch.1). "Imagination," of which memory is a variant, is then "nothing but decaying sense" (ch.2). Furthermore, what we call "understanding," is just a sequentially sort of imagining carried out with the help of linguistic signs (ch.3). And "reasoning," again, is just adding and subtracting consequences with the aid of signs (ch.5). This is to say that Hobbes explicitly rejects any notion of "right Reason constituted by Nature," on which the natural law tradition up to his time depended (ch.5). Of the moral order, he writes, "these words of Good, Evill, and Contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: There being nothing simply and absolutely so" (ch.6).

(Incidentally, this account raises potentially serious issues with regard to the possibility of genuine agency, subjectivity, free will, etc. Hobbes attempts to address this problem with his discussion of "voluntary motion" in chapter VI; yet, construing voluntary motion always in terms of appetite and aversion, mechanical responses on his account, it's not clear to me that this actually gets him anywhere. "Will," he says, is just "the last Appetite in Deliberating" (ch.6). I'm afraid that to resolve this issue would require moving beyond Leviathan, which I don't have time to do, but we can pursue it a bit further if you like--particularly if you think I've overlooked some resource by which he might be able to successfully address the concern.)

Having effectively subjectivized the concept of reason, Hobbes' strategy will be to derive the *laws* of nature from what he regards as the fundamental *right* of nature: "the liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life; and, consequently, of doing anything which in his own judgment, and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto" (PR 210). The justification for conceiving this as the first and fundamental right of nature is, presumably, that it captures the most basic biological fact that must be addressed by any successful political theory; individuals, he reasons, place an absolute value on their own lives, and the political structure must be able to accommodate this fact.

(It is significant here that he fails to make any distinction between mere, biological life and what Aristotle called the "good life." Because one could certainly make a case that it can be fully rational to put one's life on the line to preserve the conditions of proper self-actualization. Confer with the Pericles and Aristotle sections from the PR, if interested.)

PJ said...

In any case, these are the first three laws that he derives:

1) "to seek peace and follow all means we can, to defend ourselves" (PR 210)

2) "that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself" (PR 210)

3) "that men perform their covenants made" (PR 214)

The first two follow from his description of the state of nature, and the third from his disenchanted view of nature according to which all normative questions are relegated to subjective nomos, i.e., revisable convention.

I might do another post fleshing out some more of the details. Is there anything else that you'd especially like to discuss? Any of his arguments or remarks that strike you as particularly brilliant insights--or exceptionally awful blunders?

Cheers, PJ

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Any of his arguments or remarks that strike you as particularly brilliant insights--or exceptionally awful blunders?

Just the stuff I've written already: namely, how Leviathan would have to encompass world government for consistency sake. We can get to that later.

Nice job regarding Hobbes and the natural law.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

After a brief respite, we return to Hobbes. I'll be starting with Of Other Laws of Nature on p. 214 of Princeton Readings in Political Thought.

Hobbes defines his third law of nature, which PJ has already pointed out, but which merits repeating: that men perform their covenants made. (p. 214) For Hobbes, the covenant is necessary for the commonwealth, which is imperative if we wish to live other than in a state of war. He also notes that justice and injustice exist with the creation of a commonwealth: "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, and to make good that propriety which by mutual contract men acquire in recompense of the universal right they abandon: and such power there is none before the erection of a Commonwealth." (p. 215)

His meaning here is reasonably clear, but I wish to make two comments. First, it's interesting that Hobbes doesn't consider God to be a sufficient source of coercive power. We may overstate things if we insist that everyone was ardently religious during the 17th century, but surely fear of God exerted a powerful influence toward good behavior for many of Hobbes's contemporaries.

Second, the sovereign in his commonwealth evidently has no need of anything to make him abide by the third law of nature. This is probably inevitable with his overall scheme, but it merits mentioning. I find this especially curious given Hobbes's emphasis on equality. We may wish to give a philosopher-king special rights and privileges, but if men is as depraved as Hobbes insists, it strikes me as unwise to leave the power of the sovereign unchecked.

Hobbes has something very interesting to say later on: "He, therefore, that breaketh his covenant, and consequently declareth that he thinks he may with reason do so, cannot be received into any society that unite themselves for peace and defence but by the error of them that receive him; nor when he is received be retained in it without seeing the danger of their error; which errors a man cannot reasonably reckon upon as the means of his security: and therefore if he be left, or cast out of society, he perisheth; and if he live in society, it is by the errors of other men, which he could not foresee nor reckon upon, and consequently against the reason of his preservation; and so, as all men that contribute not to his destruction forbear him only out of ignorance of what is good for themselves." (p. 216, emphasis mine)

Here we have a hint as to another reason covenants must be enforced. If I continually break covenant, word will get out, so that no one will make a covenant with me. We find a similar lesson in Aesop's fable of the boy who cried wolf. In other words, covenants may be worked out with some success even if the subjects do not fear their sovereign--or even if he does not exist.

The additional laws of nature which he gives strike me as less worthy of comment, so I'll leave off here.

PJ said...

Eric: First, it's interesting that Hobbes doesn't consider God to be a sufficient source of coercive power. We may overstate things if we insist that everyone was ardently religious during the 17th century, but surely fear of God exerted a powerful influence toward good behavior for many of Hobbes's contemporaries.

PJ: Yes, this is an important point. It is crucial to Hobbes' argument that citizens *not* fear God more than the sovereign. After all, on Hobbes' account, we are motivated primarily by our "passions," with fear foremost among them. A citizen more afraid of hell than the wrath of the sovereign might do anything at all, and then anarchy looms. Hobbes explicitly rejects the right of conscience on p.237, declaring it to be merely a lofty sounding word for fallible, subjective judgment. Hobbes needs to either deny the existence of God or else to instate the sovereign as God's representative on earth. He opts for the latter (though some of his contemporaries suspected him of being a closet atheist--it was not lost on anyone that God does essentially no normative work in his theory). On the frontispiece to the book, the monarch holds both the sword and crozier. I vaguely recall the argument being scriptural, rather than philosophical, but I can't find the passage just now.

Eric: Second, the sovereign in his commonwealth evidently has no need of anything to make him abide by the third law of nature. This is probably inevitable with his overall scheme, but it merits mentioning. I find this especially curious given Hobbes's emphasis on equality. We may wish to give a philosopher-king special rights and privileges, but if men is as depraved as Hobbes insists, it strikes me as unwise to leave the power of the sovereign unchecked.

PJ: Indeed, look through the chapter "Of Those Things that Weaken, or Tend to the Dissolution of a Commonwealth." The items he lists are all the same: failing to give the sovereign absolute power. It is an opinion "repugnant to the nature of a commonwealth" that "he that hath the sovereign power is subject to civil laws" (237). As I argued in one of my previous posts, equality is not an ideal for Hobbes. It is the origin of conflict, the fundamental problem for political philosophy. (Incidentally, it's worth noting that Hobbes does not insist upon a monarchy, though he prefers it. An aristocracy or democracy would also be acceptable so long as it is given absolute sovereignty, i.e., anything but a division of power with checks and balances--for "a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand" (226-7).)

Eric: The additional laws of nature which he gives strike me as less worthy of comment, so I'll leave off here.

PJ: Agreed, Hobbes was rather too impressed by the Euclidean method and the lure of a priori certainty. A political treatise, however, calls for a rather different mode of presentation than a geometrical proof.

I don't think we're done with Hobbes, but I'll try to compose something on Locke this weekend. Another early modern social contract theorist, he provides an interesting point of contrast.