Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"

From a review of a new edition of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. The reviewer wonders why the renewed interest. Has the philosopher found his time?
.... He "scientifically" attacked Aristotle's venerable claim that men are naturally sociable. He rejected all presumed natural hierarchies, which ranked humans according to nobility, sex, race or religion. Instead, he portrayed men as equal rivals in a state of nature, which he characterized as a "war of all against all."

Hobbes's contemporaries understood politics as something descended from the ages or the heavens, but Hobbes built politics from the ground up. Self-interested individuals, craving protection for their lives, contracted to create sovereign states. Sovereigns (preferably monarchs) provided this service, but the price was unfettered power and unqualified obedience. Once sheltered under sovereignty, subjects enjoyed only the right to life. They could neither demand the return of their surrendered rights nor expect to share in the exercise of power. Hobbes thus acknowledged equality, rights and individual interest but sacrificed all of these on the altar of political order. To Hobbes, men live either in an anarchic hell of equal misery or in a society unified by a single, absolute will. There was no third way.

Much of this is well-known. The question is why Hobbes's account has enjoyed such popularity in recent decades. The likes of John Locke and James Madison long ago demonstrated the limits of Hobbes's raw statism. But many thinkers and political actors, lately, seem to prefer Hobbes's vision of society to theirs. Why should this be so?

One might point to several reasons. Hobbes's snide irreligion, once the main complaint against him, may now commend him to those who perpetually fear the supposed return of theocracy. His tendency to portray humans as appetitive beasts flatters our present eagerness to explain every aspect of human conduct in biological terms. Hobbes was also acutely suspicious of democracy. He considered it a breeder of faction. When pundits such as Thomas Friedman decry "broken government" and fawn over China's "enlightened" response to global warming, one wonders if the Hobbesian within the liberal breast is stirring. ....
Book review: Leviathan - WSJ.com