Thursday, April 05, 2007

Nasty, Brutish and Short


The pessimism of Thomas Hobbes' political philosophy is perennially summed up in a single "soundbite" from Hobbes' groundbreaking justification for the existence of sovereignty, Leviathan (1651): he argues that the natural human condition is a state of perpetual war in which "the life of people [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." In the 21st century, his words are altogether too compelling in the light of modern Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, or any number of other brutal battlegrounds. His more generic point, however, was that in a civilized world, the fear of violent death causes people to create a state by contracting to surrender individual rights to the authority of an absolute sovereign.

In his own day, Hobbes was accused of concocting a secular excuse for the absolute authority of any successful strong man (i.e. Cromwell, contemporarily), as contrasted with the religious excuse of the "divine right of kings" advanced by Robert Filmer, but what is better remembered about Hobbes today is his glumly mechanistic view of human social behavior, in which beings are compelled by their nature to act selfishly in an atmosphere of fear, mistrust and appetite.

He self-consciously blamed his outlook on his mother's fears of the Spanish Armada while she was pregnant with him, but one can as easily see the brutality of the Puritan Revolt as a fitting backdrop for his philosophy. Born on this day in 1588 in Westport, Wiltshire, Hobbes grew up in financially secure surroundings (despite the fact that his father, a vicar, deserted the family after getting into a brawl with some of his parishioners) and studied at Magdalen Hall, Oxford before becoming attached to the Cavendish household as tutor and secretary in 1610. He made several trips to the Continent, meeting with Descartes, Gassendi and Galileo among others, and shortly thereafter published a treatise on motion. He also wrote and privately circulated Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (1640), a defense of the royal prerogative of Charles I, on the eve of Cromwell's rise, and as Cromwell took power, Hobbes (describing himself as a "man of feminine courage") fled to France. There he was appointed tutor to young Charles II (who called Hobbes "the bear"), and continued his philosophical writing, principally an anonymous critique of Descartes' mind/body duality in which Hobbes introduced his materialistic view that the soul dies with the body.

In 1642, he published De Cive, an inkling of his theory of government which he described in greater detail in Leviathan 9 years later. The publication of Leviathan, which emphasized naked human motivation to the exclusion of the hand of God in its analysis of social organizations, raised the suspicion of the French clergy as well as English royalists in exile, so Hobbes returned to England and tried to keep a low profile, busying himself with mathematics. Upon the accession of his ex-pupil Charles II in 1660, Hobbes was again in favor, but in 1666 the House of Commons ordered an investigation of Hobbes due to the apparent atheism of Leviathan. In some measure proving his own thesis, fear of persecution drove Hobbes to "repair" Leviathan by adding an appendix to bring it into line with church doctrine, and to write a logical analysis of the law of heresy by which he concluded that no earthly court could judge the crime.

At 84, he wrote an autobiography in Latin verse (!), and by 1675 had published translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey before retiring to the estate of the Cavendish family. Although the conclusions of his political philosophy resembled those of the empty-suited Filmer in that they recommend an absolute monarch, his practical analysis of what moves humans to form governments was a revelation in its time, an early explication of modern psychological principles which paved the way for John Locke's less bleak view of the social contract, and provided a basis for a secular ethical framework. The ever-fearful Hobbes managed to act to preserve his own life until the ripe age of 91, when not even a lifetime's worth of sheepish diplomacy could save him; he died on December 4, 1679 at Hardwick, England.


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