Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hobbesian power: our restless desire

People tend not to like Thomas Hobbes' writings, his ideas, very much. When Hobbes was alive and publishing books and essays, people then didn't like him; he was more or less chased out of England for a time, was accused of heresy and promoting atheism, and was criticized by one philosopher after another. Even after he died--in 1679--his ideas were attacked, again and again and again. René Descartes, who was a contemporary of Hobbes and with whom Hobbes corresponded--characterized Hobbes' philosophy as "wicked."

In a real sense, Hobbes' ideas represent the starting point of modern political thought, largely because of how he articulated the social contract theory and the idea of sovereignty. Hobbes delved into many other subjects as well, like optics (where he made significant contributions), physics, geometry, and history. And in some instances, he made some glaring errors (his proof of squaring the circle being the most obvious). Indeed, even within his political and social philosophies, there are most definitely things we can say he got wrong. But many critics wrongly--or dishonestly--focus on these errors as a means of dismissing the totality of Hobbesian thought.

Still, Hobbes has not gone away; the bulk of his political philosophy simply cannot be dismissed out of hand. Thus political thinker after political thinker is forced to grapple with the ideas Hobbes laid down, either directly or indirectly. Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Marx, Hegel, Arendt, Rawls, and most other significant political theorists went down this road. Some made it a point to disagree with Hobbes, others agreed with him, and some sought to tweak or rephrase Hobbesian theory so it might receive a better reception (Locke, for instance).

Hobbes--and his chief work, Leviathan--is an integral part of any course on political theory, to this day. Thus, most everyone with some amount of college education has been exposed to his ideas to some degree. And frankly, that's a serious problem. Leviathan--along with Hobbes' other books--is not something one skims through to understand. It requires much more than that. Hobbes has many quotable passages, but taking such quotes out of context can be perilous. Indeed, taking portions of Leviathan as stand-alone pieces is just as dangerous (intellectually speaking).

Even seasoned academics can fall prey to such errors, as I fully demonstrated in my criticism of George Weigel's essay that equated Barack Obama's vision of society with that of Hobbes. As I noted then, Weigel--like many others--over-simplifies Hobbes' notion of the sovereign in service to an agenda:
The simplification of Hobbes into a proponent of an all-powerful sovereign whose actions can never be legitimately opposed by the citizenry for any reason whatsoever has become all to common in academia, but it fails to capture a number of finer parts and wrongly suggests Hobbes wanted such a situtation, come hell or high water.
This basic assumption--that Hobbes was some sort of fan of authoritarian or even tyrannical rule--has filtered down into everyday discourse about Hobbes. Those who announce this to be the case do so on the basis of a handful of quotes pulled from Leviathan, again missing much of the context, which is that of a complete and interdependent philosophy, not only of government, but of man and society.

When it comes to quotes from Hobbes, one of my own personal favorites is the following:
So that in the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.

That quote, by itself, doesn't make man sound particularly good or noble. In fact, it can be read as suggesting man is--to borrow from Descartes--wicked by nature. But the real issue should be whether or not it is true, not how it makes mankind look. Let's look at the quote in greater context (Leviathan, chapter 11):
So that in the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power; but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.
What is the first rule of academia? Publish or perish. Stop publishing and one perishes, academically speaking. And with respect to the above, that rule appears to be--for it is--a wholly Hobbesian one. We--all of us--pursue power on a daily basis. For what does it mean to have power, according to Hobbes? Simple (Leviathan, Chapter 10):
The ‘Power of a man,’ to take it universally, is his present means, to obtain some future apparent good; and is either ‘original’ or ‘instrumental.’
Thus to have power is to be able to obtain or achieve something, either by one's own self, or by outside means (Leviathan, Chapter 10):
‘Natural [original] power’ is the eminence of the faculties of body or mind, as extraordinary strength, form, prudence, arts, eloquence, liberality, nobility. ‘Instrumental’ are those powers which, acquired by these or by fortune are means and instruments to acquire more, as riches, reputation, friends, and the secret working of God, which men call good luck. For the nature of power is in this point like to fame, increasing as it proceeds; or like the motion of heavy bodies, which the further they go make still the more haste.
Forgetting the needless division into "original" and "instrumental," what Hobbes is describing is a fundamental view of power, of capability. We--all of us--want the capability to do what we want to do, to have what we want to have. And we pursue such capabilities--or the capabilities to achieve such capabilities--constantly, always. This is man's fundamental nature: his fundamental self-interest or selfishness. Accepting this truth does not mean, however, that the individual will do anything to get what he or she wants. Far from it. Because not only do specific desires change from person to person, so too do limits. And none of this precludes generosity or charity; indeed both categories represent the pursuit of power in a strictly Hobbesian sense, as well.

Hobbes goes on in chapter 10 to list all manner of things that represent power, as a means of establishing this foundational proposition. And make no mistake, it is foundational; like the nature of man outside of civil society, this proposition is fundamental to all that follows, to the social contract theory, to the idea of sovereignty. For this was Hobbes' goal: to begin with the most basic of things and proceed upward, to describe the nature of society, of men in society, of government, and of men under government.

And his most capable critics and admirers understood all of this, most recognized--in my opinion--that Hobbes had the right of it at the most basic level. Man was and still is exactly how Hobbes describes him.

Look again at the last sentence of the above quote:
For the nature of power is in this point like to fame, increasing as it proceeds; or like the motion of heavy bodies, which the further they go make still the more haste.
This perfectly captures the path of history and the nature of the modern world, with regard to the rise of capitalism and, not un-paradoxically, the rise of liberalism (in the classical sense).

Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, said the following with regard to Hobbes' philosophy:
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. Hobbes, indeed, is the only great philosopher to whom the bourgeoisie can rightly and exclusively lay claim, even if his principles were not recognized by the bourgeois class for a long time. Hobbes’s Leviathan exposed the only political theory according to which the state is based not on some kind of constituting law – whether divine law, the law of nature, or the law of social contract – which determines the rights and wrongs of the individual’s interest with respect to public affairs, but on the individual interests themselves, so that “the private interest is the same with the publique.” 
There is hardly a single bourgeois moral standard which has not been anticipated by the unequaled magnificence of Hobbes’s logic. He gives an almost complete picture, not of Man but of the bourgeois man, an analysis which in three hundred years has neither been outdated nor excelled.
Arendt slips away somewhat from the Hobbesian idea of power. Reverting to the original concept--which I have just explained--allows a more proper conclusion: it is man in general, not just "the bourgeois man." Still, her conclusion is completely workable, if we recognize that "bourgeois man" was there all along and merely needed the correct conditions--the opportunity--to emerge. Because it is the modern political state that created those conditions, the state that can provide both peace and security, both justice and economic freedom.

And again, the modern state is ultimately based on social contract theory, whether taken directly from Hobbes or from those who followed him, like Locke and Rousseau. Hobbes' formulation--which is the basis for the others, whether the authors cared to admit it or not--of this concept and his other key conclusions about the state proceed from those fundamental assumptions about man that are seemingly so distasteful, yet still so true.

Cheers, all.

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