Apr 5, 2011

Happy Birthday, Thomas Hobbes

Today, as I fortunately learned from The Cult of Genius - in the midst of my day busied by projects, meetings, curriculum considerations, and student emails, as I prepared mentally (I'll finish the last physical and paperwork preparations after this) for a presentation on Plato I'll drive four hours in the morning to deliver - that the great English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, would be 423 years old today.  Hobbes indisputably occupies the rank of one of the fathers of early modern philosophy, political philosophy especially.

For me, more personally, he is like a strange somewhat unsavory, intense, but eminently well-spoken, attractive . . . . acquaintance? Friend?  Perhaps. . .  interlocutor. . . disputant . . . dialogue partner?  I have what a colleague once described a "quasi-pornographic fascination" with Hobbes, his thought, his writings even his very turns of phrase.  You know some wrong resides and lurks in allowing the eyes to linger too long over their contours, but you find yourself at times unable to tear away, and then you feel palpably, with the force of desire, the urge to look back, to peek, which then turns yet again into full perusal.  His works and his thought exert a magnetic effect upon my own, which through contact or even just recollection I discover taking on the boldness, the starkness, and the grimness of his own.  There is a side of me darkly drawn to what one commentator, Louis Roux, so rightly signaled, calling Hobbes preeminently late modern:
Hobbes is present among us: his fiery gaze, his dark and loveless world, his universe of war, of death, of commands and prohibitions, his mechanistic and soulless law, everything is there.
 The Sage of Malmesbury is a thinker in many respects incomparably deeper than most of his immediate contemporaries (I would have to except Rene Descartes, with whom Hobbes corresponded, and Blaise Pascal), but also more profoundly insightful into the nature of politics and society, violence and the play of desires, conflicts waged in word and thought, and human capacities for deception of self and other than were even greats such as the melancholy G.W.F. Hegel and the abyss-gazer Friedrich Nietzsche -- this will be disputed, I know.

Hobbes transcends his critics, who, in my view fail to grasp the full scope and majestic danger of his thought.  They realize, or at least dimly intuit, that he does more than propose or embody a way of thinking about politics and political theory that in pretending to rescue us from peril exposes us to yet greater ones, but they do not grasp the complexity, the strategic seeing-though, the persevering thoroughness of his reflections, determinations, and counsels.  They fail to sense that Hobbes neither mourns nor execrates, nor does he celebrate.  He tells, at times with good humor, but always deadly serious.  And so, his critics latch on to one aspect or another of his doctrine and then reduce him to that, stalking a paper Leviathan in the process.  Even the brilliant Hannah Arendt was not immune to this when she wrote:
It is significant that modern believers in power are in complete accord with the philosophy of the only great thinker who ever attempted to derive public good from private interest and who, for the sake of private good, conceived and outlined a Commonwealth whose basis and ultimate end is accumulation of power. . . . There is hardly a single bourgeois moral standard which has not been anticipated by the unequaled magnificence of Hobbes’ Logic
Yes, there is something to this. . .  something.  Arendt was grappling in that passage, in that book with the nature of totalitarianism, a yawning gulf of institutionalized, massively mobile unreason she had witnessed herself in her times, in her country.

And yet, what she doesn't see is that Hobbes reveals - not directly as such, but when you read through him, follow out the full implications of his arguments, his assertions, his condemnations, his explanations - that within human reason, within reason as it plays out and develops not only in human beings but between human beings, and inside and between institutions, organizations, states - all of these at once, all mutually affecting each other within multivariate ever-only-so-stable mechanisms of desire, power, action, and representation - there is a totalitarian temptation, almost ineradicably deep.  It can't be expunged, only avoided, fenced off, and sometimes forgotten.

But it is always there, waiting as a possibility.  Hobbes articulates an ever-present though overlooked condition, as well as what we might lapse into and what those lapses might prepare the way for - but this is a very different voice calling out in the wilderness, and the paths he calls to make straight are for an earthly dominus et deus, one that would even restrict, restrain, and reinterpret the divine and its signals, sings and codes - its worth remembering that Hobbes actually devotes half of Leviathan to his own admittedly peculiar but clearly purposive biblical interpretation.

Not Hobbes, but what glitters in the dark pupil of his eye, what fears beating tattoo in his heart that he inked out onto paper - those are not only the reflection of the first modern effort towards totalitarian rule, Cromwell's Puritan England, but also specters of our own age:  the national socialist, the fascist, the integral nationalist experiments -- and also the monsters communist bore forth and became enthralled by - and also those places where not so much an ideology as tyranny, a spoils systems, dislocations, injustice set their roots down and their heels on throats:  Zimbabwe, North Korea, for a genocidic spell Rwanda -- those are all possible Hobbesian termini, possible temporary endpoints for interactions between human agents structured by a logic, an embodied rationality of conflict.

Hobbesian political theory for each of these cases also provides some explanation of what transpired first, the transgressions of  the injunction, as a law of nature, a dictate of reason to seek peace . . . or else.  This is what so attracts me to Hobbes, that he saw and wrote about the potential for the very means by which we seek peace and try to live in society with each other are so readily subverted into means of striving for power over others, which then weakens the social fabric, the ties that keep us from tumbling into one of his "states of nature."  This is why I've found myself writing article after article unfolding Hobbes' thought -- not because I am a Hobbesian, a devotee, one who would like to put his thought into practice.  I'm a scholar who loves his brilliance, but fears after hearing his hard sayings , because I don't want -- but dread -- things following the logic he outlines.

I would never have thought I might become a Hobbes scholar, any more than an Anselm scholar, but there it is.  Reading and rereading Leviathan, correlating passages and their contents, their concepts, I've found myself arguing at length and in detail -- perhaps even with some of the passions Hobbes would mistrust -- that he has set and sketched multiple states of nature within his writings.  I have discussed the precarious condition of his proposed laws of nature as moral norms, and was drawn into defense of my interpretation against those of much more established political theorists.  I argued that the Hobbesian problematic remains especially relevant in fledgeling African democracies. I've examined the claims of certain scholars that Hobbes' moral thought might be robust enough to encompass virtue ethics -- taking the position, ultimately that his position represents a corruption of traditional virtue ethics.

Hobbes' revelation of a totalitarian moment to reason has also found its way into the thoughts of my heart, from there, onto paper -- one of my very first conference presentations, rethought, reworked down the years -- and then into print.  I'm going to finish this post off by reproducing several passages from that article, which perhaps gets at the nexus of Hobbes' conflictual rationality.
The problem of the state of nature is that of being confronted with an environment composed of beings more or less like oneself, other rational subjects. . . .Agents in the state of nature may deceive themselves as to their own acuity and wisdom, but they certainly do not, for that, assess too lowly the capacities of their fellow agents. . . .  This basic level of competition over resources is only the beginning. Rational agents realize that they will compete with their near-equals. The other person is not a threat simply because he or she shares with the subject a set of potentially infinite desires, but because the agents both share common structures of passions and desires, and even more importantly because each of the agents is reflexively aware of their similarity.

This reflexive awareness, not simply a function of passions or desire for more and more power, escalates the level of competition. Through ‘anticipation,’ each agent attempts, as the earlier cited passage runs, ‘to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him.’ Although this takes expression in aggressive behavior, Hobbes conceives of this attempt to achieve security through domination as primarily defensive in nature, as consideration of the structure of the fundamental motives for conflict in ch. 13 the ‘three principal causes of quarrel,’ which lie ‘in the nature of man,’ shows. These are competition, diffidence, and glory.
The first, maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other mens persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons, or by reflexion in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name. 
Leo Strauss, among others, has emphasized the role that the third reason, glory or vanity, plays within the motivation of Hobbes’ subject, going so far as to underplay the second reason, diffidence, safety, or defense. Other interpretations have echoed this theme. . . .  C. Fred Alford, who discusses Hobbes’ view of the self through the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and Hans Kohut, similarly argues that the Hobbesian self is more fundamentally concerned with avoidance of narcissistic injury, due to lack of recognition, than motivated by the fear of death. From this perspective, honor becomes at least as important as life, with violent death. . . being the ultimate narcissistic injury.

Is this my argument? The answer is yes and no, to put it as unambiguously as possible. At the archaic level of self-development about which Hobbes is writing, there is no distinction between power and honor, and there really is none between power, honor and the self. . . . .

Within Hobbes’ depiction of the motives for conflict, motives that steer humans toward a rational organization of society through the figure of the sovereign, there is a problematic in which the grave threat that human beings pose to other human beings is not constituted simply by the structures of human passions, interests, and desires, nor by the addition of a self-deceptive and egotistical desire for recognition and proof of one’s perhaps illusory power. In this moment, it the very rationality of other humans, reason in the broad sense, understood as roughly equal to oneself in both capacity and structure, that poses such a threat.
Happy Birthday, old bear -- as the king jokingly called you -- fabricator of ideas, perspicacious as far-sighted Plato, but so much more somber.  Happy Birthday, Thomas Hobbes


  1. Thanks Charlie. So, you like the vision of Hobbes? Or you like the fact that I confess my somewhat sordid fascination with his thought?