September 21, 2009


The picture above was the frontispiece to the 1651 edition of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. When I started writing Anti-Darwin, I said in the third sentence that Hobbes was an atheist. While it’s true that he was suspected of atheism during his life, he doesn’t at least from the opening chapters of Leviathan appear to have been an atheist, as much as a deist who probably held to a mechanist view of God. Christianity, and I may be wrong here, he probably claimed to believe because it was the accepted thing to do.

One point, and I think that it’s something that people like Newdow, the man who tried to get “under God” stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance, and possibly even the old coots in the Supremes, miss is that “God” is simply an empty counter without any real, defined meaning. Zeus, for example, is pretty well defined, and most literate humans have an image of Zeus, and a knowledge of Zeus drawn from fairly standard sources. “God,” however, is pretty much up for grabs. You can fill the word with associations ranging from Blake and Michelangelo to Monty Python, or Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. You can imagine God as cosmic thunderer, or as cosmic muffin, or a huge cosmic marshmallow like something from Ghostbusters. Your notion of God does not impose on your neighbor simply by saying the word God. So while Hobbes may have had notions of God that didn’t square with his contemporaries, and they don’t square with mine, he was not necessarily an atheist as we use the term today. His God, instead of being immanent and personal, appears to be largely impersonal.

Hobbes does not like Aristotle, or scholasticism, and prefers to use mathematics, particularly the geometry of Euclid, as his model for rational discourse. Thus he believes that you should begin by defining terms, and he does this in several part of Leviathan. He also believes that once the definitions are in place, and the basic axioms laid down, that you should be able to arrive at conclusions that are certain. That last word has a greater force for Hobbes and writers that came after him in the 17th and 18th centuries than it has today. Now when you reason geometrically in politics you arrive, or you should arrive, at something much like the proof of a theorem. I think that in Aristotle, particularly in his treatment of rhetoric, you don’t have anything that is quite as cut and dried as Hobbes would like it to be. Aristotle would, I think, recognize that there may be situations in which the results are unclear, and that there may be a range of answers, rather than one determinate, certain answer.

Since Hobbes is determined to apply Euclidean reasoning to everything, including man, his anthropology is mechanistic. He reduces everything to purely material causes. In I, 6 he rejects the idea of will as a rational appetite, which comes from scholasticism, and attributes it to deliberation, “In deliberation, the last appetite, or aversion, immediately adhering to the action, or the omission thereof, is that we call the will; the act, not the faculty, of wiling.” There is no separate faculty, or part of man, that can be called will, there is only the act of willing. So the will as a thing, as something that can be conceived of as having an existence apart from the things willed, is denied. Hobbes, as far as I know, does not address the question of whether in order to be able to have willed, one must have accomplished the act. If I want to lose a hundred pounds, can I be said to have willed the loss until I have actually lost the hundred pounds? Can the guy in a wheelchair will to walk until he actually walks? If my reading of Hobbes is correct, then you can only be said to have willed once the act is completed.

Hobbes makes a distinction between governing in the microcosm, such as the family, and the macrocosm, the city or nation: “To govern well a family and a kingdom are not different degrees of prudence, but different sorts of business; no more than to draw a picture in little, or as great or greater than the life, are different degrees of art. A plain husbandman is more prudent in affairs of his own house that a Privy Counselor in the affairs of another man” (chapter 8). That last sentence seems at first to be an anti-government sentiment, but Hobbes seems to indicate in the preceding sentences that because the micro and macro are not just different degrees but different things that the Privy Councilor, who is not in fact directly involved in another man’s affairs, is justified in his actions.

Hobbes does something that would later be practiced in the Soviet Union. In the days after the expulsion of Trotsky, when the Civil War was discussed anything that was good, any victory, was attributed to the Military Revolutionary Committee. Any defeat or mistake was attributed to Trotsky. Now Trotsky was the head of the MRC, so to some extent they were identical. Hobbes does this trick with Aristotle. He doesn’t like Aristotle, so anything that he says that he disagrees with gets the Aristotelian or Scholastic label stuck to it, while anything he agrees with is mentioned without Aristotle. He does that in I, 11 in his discussion of God.

“Curiosity, or love of the knowledge of causes, draws a man from consideration of the effect, to seek the cause; and again, the cause of that cause; till of necessity he must come to this thought at last, that there is some cause, whereof there is no former cause, but is eternal; which is it men call God. So that it is impossible to make any profound enquiry into natural causes, without being enclined thereby to believe there is one God Eternal; though they cannot have any Idea of him in their mind, answerable to his nature.”

Hobbes in chapter 13 envisions a society of perpetual war, the bellum omnium contra omnes, or war of all against all with which his name is associated. It is because of the conflicts of the interests of individual men that this state exists: “Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.” This constant, interminable state of war leads to the life of man being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

From this condition of perpetual war Hobbes moves to the idea that there is nothing unjust. Force and fraud are a part of war, and their use is justified. Now this contradicts the Platonic idea, expressed in the Republic, that the state aims at justice, and I think it can pretty much be said to deny any Aristotelian concept of the state, though my recollection of Politics is that Aristotle discusses the types of state, and not so much justice in the state. His advocacy of fraud in war certainly goes against Just War theory, at least as Aquinas understood it. My recollection is that Aquinas does not believe that it is proper to deceive your enemy.

In chapter 15 Hobbes offers a set of what he terms natural laws. These are sociological principles more than what we understand by natural laws, i.e., they’re not like the laws of physics. Number sever is: “that in revenges (that is retribution of evil for evil), men look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow.” Hobbes maintains that this is “for the correction of the offender, or direction of others.” Is this truly applicable, and is it true in war time? I think that based on this principle that Hobbes would argue that the threat of imprisonment or death has a deterrent effect on would be perps. Deterrence works as long as you make a rational calculation of the cost. If you rob a bank, you risk death from nervous rent-a-cops, or, several years in prison. Since most bank heists yield a few thousand, rather than the megamillions in caper movies, and even at minimum wage you would out-earn the take from a heist, rational people don’t rob banks. Neither do they murder. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t people they wouldn’t like dead, just that they don’t carry it into action. So are the people who rob and murder rational?

How about the Nuremberg trials? They were necessary in order to document the evil of the Fascist regime in Germany. However, they set a dangerous precedent in that any war could be called a crime against humanity, and leaders hauled into court. The executions of Mary Stuart and Charles I set precedents that culminated in the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and the horrors of the French Revolution.

Does the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fall under this, or is Hobbes talking solely about judicial proceedings? I rather think he’s talking about judicial acts here. So far he doesn’t seem to give much thought to the rules, if any, of warfare.

Hobbes in chapter 18 says in reference to the execution of Charles I, that “no man that hath sovereign power can justly be put to death, or otherwise in any manner by his subjects punished. For seeing every subject is author of the actions of his sovereign, he punisheth another for the actions of himself.” Hobbes reasoned that because the people choose the sovereign, either explicitly in an initial election or contract or through continued residence in the realm that they ceded approval to all policies enacted by the sovereign. In a monarchy this would be the king/queen. In a democracy/republic this would be the chief executive or the legislature. Since the sovereign carries out the will of the people they are considered to be the authors of the action. Hence in acting against the sovereign, when his poll numbers wane, they act against themselves. In II, 20 Hobbes uses Matt: 21:2-3, in which Jesus tells the disciple to bring Him the ass and the colt, to justify the sovereign’s claim to the totality of a man’s wealth. I can’t be sure of this, but I think Jesus’ instruction to say “the Lord hath need of it,” refers to someone who knows what is going on. In other words, Jesus already had the man’s consent, and he’s just telling the disciples to be cool. Hobbes in II, 21 says , “it has already been shown that nothing the sovereign representative can do to a subject, on what pretence soever, can be called injustice or injury; because every subject is author of every act the sovereign doth, so that he never wanteth right to any thing, otherwise than as he himself is the subject of God, and bound thereby to observe the laws of nature.” So the state, as personified in the sovereign, is immune from suit. Now this principle is enshrined in the law, if I understand correctly, in the US, and the Feds cannot be sued, unless they consent to the suit.

At the same time there is something monstrous about Hobbes’ principle. He is saying that the sovereign cannot be accused of injustice, and tried by the people, but must await his punishment at the hands of God. So imagine a situation in which a person comes to power, uses an incident to gain total control of a country, in effect becoming a dictator, and then enacts legislation that legitimizes the persecution of a minority. That person, according to Hobbes is acting justly, because he acts for the people as a whole, including the persecuted minority, who have authorized his persecution of themselves.

The problem is that we know of a vast number of instances, starting with the French Revolution, and continuing to the present day, in which rulers, who by any standard except Hobbes’, are unjust and tyrannical. I think that Hobbes’ doctrine of sovereign immunity, while to some extent justifiable, falls apart in extreme cases. So since agents under authorization waterboarded suspects, I would suggest that they would be and should be immune from prosecution, on the other hand, a N. Korean or Iranian nutcase should be prosecuted.

As with many, if not all, things, the trick is in knowing where to draw the line.

In chapter 22 Hobbes offers this opinion:

“And as factions for kindred, so also factions for government of religion, as of Papists, Protestants, etc., or of state as patricians and prebeians of old time in Rome, and of aristocraticals democriticals of old time in Greece are unjust, as being contrary to the peace and safety of the people, and a taking of the sword out of the hand of the sovereign.”

I’m not quite sure what to make of this. He seems to be advocating a rather heavy-handed approach to suppressing dissident factions in the interest of a peaceable state.

Hobbes reiterates the idea of sovereign immunity in 26:

“The Sovereign of a Commonwealth, be it an Assembly, or one Man, is not subject to the Civil Laws. For having power to make, and repeal Laws, he may when he pleaseth, free himself from that subjection, by repealing those Laws that trouble him, and making of new; and consequently he was free before. For he is free, that can be free when he will: Nor is it possible for any person to be bound to himself; because he that can bind, can release; and therefore he that is bound to himself only, is not bound.”

Later in 26 he gives something that first sounds like the idea of originalist interpretation:

“The Legislator known; and the Laws, either by writing, or by the light of Nature, sufficiently published; there wanteth yet another very material circumstance to make them obligatory. For it is not the Letter, but the Intendment, or Meaning; that is to say, the authentic Interpretation of the Law (which is the sense of the Legislator,) in which the nature of the Law consisteth; And therefore the Interpretation of all Laws dependeth on the Authority Sovereign; and the Interpreters can be none but those, which the Soveraign, (to whom only the Subject oweth obedience) shall appoint. For else, by the craft of an Interpreter, the Law my be made to bear a sense, contrary to that of the Sovereign; by which means the Interpreter becomes the Legislator.”

Does this argue for originalist interpretation, if applied to the US Constitution, or not? Hobbes is writing and conceives of the government, in the context of either monarchy or republican government, and he conceives of one body as exercising sovereign power. He doesn’t deal with the possibility of the power being split among three branches of government. So the law is evidently to be interpreted according to the will of either whoever is in power, in which case it does not suit originalism, or whoever made the law, in which case it does suit originalism. Note that Hobbes is aware of the possibility that judicial interpretation can pass over into judicial activism, or judges who “legislate from the bench.”

Could a written constitution be regarded as fixing the will of the sovereign in such a way that later generations are bound by that historical moment (originalism)? Or are previous generations free to adapt as circumstances change (the living constitution)? The court rulings that removed censorship laws that affected movies, could they be made under an originalist understanding of the constitution? I think it could reasonably be argued that stage drama was or is considered speech under the terms of the first amendment. That being the case, the film is simply a record of a performance that could be given on a properly equipped stage. Since television is also a transmission of material that would be permitted on stage, it too is subject to the first amendment. The internet is a means of distribution of written content, so that too is under the first amendment. I don’t think it is necessary to resort to absurd constructs like a “living constitution” to achieve that result. Whether the same could be said of other court cases I don’t know.

In 27 Hobbes addresses what are known as ex post facto laws, laws made after the fact. His position is that something cannot retroactively be made a crime. If I took LSD back in 1966 or thereabouts before it was criminalized, I committed not crime. If I take it today, since it is subsequent to its criminalization, I commit a crime.

He also addresses theTed Kennedy/Bill Clinton problem:

“And that such as have multitude of potent kindred, and popular men that have gained reputation amongst the multitude, take courage to violate the laws from a hope of oppressing the power to whom it belongeth to put them in execution.”

These men are capable of getting away with murder, or at least manslaughter, and perjury, so they feel free to give in to their passions.

Back during the Clinton impeachment proceedings there was some argument over whether perjury constituted either a high crime or a high misdemeanor. (The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” was read so that “high” applied to both, not solely to “crimes.”) Now the Constitution lists treason and bribery by name. The U. S. Code assigns one year imprisonment for bribery, and five for perjury. So I argued that perjury also constitutes grounds for impeachment, since the punishment being greater, the evil of the deed should be greater. Hobbes gives an argument in 27 that concurs in this:

“Likewise those crimes which render judgements of no effect are greater crimes than injuries done to one or a few persons; as to receive money to give false judgement of testimony is a greater crime that otherwise to deceive a man of the like or greater sum; because not only he has wrong, that falls by such judgements, but all judgements are rendered useless, and occasion ministered to force and private revenges.”

My argument, and one in which Hobbes seems to concur, is that perjury, in a just state, strikes at the very heart of justice.

Hobbes is no friend of private property. In 29 he asserts that “A fifth doctrine that tendeth to the dissolution of a Commonwealth is that every private man has an absolute propriety in his goods, such as excludeth the right of the sovereign.” In the Hobbesian view property rights are subordinate to the right of the sovereign. In concrete terms, a wretched case like Kelo v. City of New London, was rightly decided because the right of the political entity, Kelo’s community, outweighed her right to her property. This is what I take to be the Hobbesian view. Many, including myself, think Kelo was wrongly decided. In any case, the net effect of the Kelo decision was to dispossess Kelo of her property in exchange for tax revenue that never materialized. That Kelo merely seized property that belonged to one private owner in order to transfer it to another private owner without adequate compensation, something which usually goes by the name of theft, would, because it was the act of a sovereign political entity, be just.

One thing that Hobbes gets right is that laws are too long:

“For when I consider how short were the Laws of ancient times; and how they grew by degrees still longer; methinks I see a contention between the Penners, and Pleaders of the Law; the former seeking to circumscribe the latter; and the latter to evade their circumscriptions; and that the Pleaders have got the Victory. It belongeth therefore to the Office of a Legislator, (such as is in all Commonwealths the Supreme Representative, be it one Man, or an Assembly,) to make the reason Perspicuous, why the Law was made; and the Body of the Law itself, as short, but in as proper, and significant terms, as may be” (30). No unreadable healthcare or tax code bills for Hobbes.

In 31 Hobbes begins to expound on God, which will lead into his discussion of the Christian commonwealth in part 3. He does contend here that God exists, so Hobbes denies the charge of atheism that has been leveled against him.

Parts 3 and 4 deal with the Christian commonwealth, and with the Kingdom of Darkness. Much of this is aimed at the Catholic Church. Hobbes particularly dislikes the doctrine of transubstantiation. He contends that nothing happens during the consecration. The bread looks like bread, tastes like bread, passes through the digestive tract like bread, and the wine looks like wine, smells and tastes like wine. Were Hobbes alive today he would no doubt assert that there is no change in the atomic structure of the bread and wine and that on the sub-atomic level there is no change in the quarks or the strings that make up the bread and wine. Now I was taught in Catholic school that taste, smell, feel, and so on, and no doubt the quarks and strings are what are called accidents, and that the change happens to the substance or essence of the thing, which is invisible, and not part of the realm of physics. But Hobbes denies this exists. There are no essences, only things without a metaphysical component.

He does the same thing with his scriptural citations. He gives some doctrine that has been believed my most Christians for hundreds of years, and then proceeds to show why it is wrong. For instance, most people, up until recently, believed in hell, and that there was everlasting torment in hell. Hobbes doesn’t believe in hell, so he goes through some Bible quotations to show that hell doesn’t exist, and that instead of damnation there is simply termination, ‘the second death” or non-existence after the general judgement.

One thing in his favor is that he does not believe that the Pope is the anti-Christ.

Hobbes does anticipate the “Higher Criticism,” the study of the Bible in the same manner as a classical text, so that sources, contradictions, and so on are examined. One result of this analysis is the breakdown of the Pentateuch into a four different traditions, Elohist, Yahwist, Priestly, and Deuteronomic. The easy mnemonic is JEPD. (J for Jehovah, the Germanic interpolation of vowels into YHWH. Y is apparently pronounced as J, and W is sounded as V. Hence JeHoVaH. Is it any wonder the Germans went crazy twice in the previous century?) Pius XII, in Divino Afflante Spiritu gives an endorsement to this kind of study. For more information see this Wikipedia article.

Let me emphasize that Hobbes anticipates this theory, he doesn’t give it the fully developed form that it will achieve in the 19th century.

Hobbes primary contention throughout the last two books of Leviathan is that the Church is subordinate to the civil power. There cannot be two competing powers, on the grounds that you cannot serve two masters. He also defines heresy as believing what your monarch does not believe, though he asserts that all that is necessary for salvation is to believe that Jesus is the Christ. This formulation seems a little too easy to my mind. It cheapens salvation so that someone can say “Yeah, I believe that Jesus is the Christ. Now so what? I’ve got widows and orphans to foreclose on.”

The Hobbesian view of man and religion is bleak and unrelenting, and not very attractive.

Next up is Spinosa: Theological-Political Treatise.