The Monster of Malmsbury and Me

by Mike O’Brien

Thomas Hobbes

One of the greatest joys of my graduate studies was reading primary sources in full, rather than a mishmash of summaries and excerpts. I could have done this prior to graduate school, but I didn’t, because I was lazy.

(I am still lazy.)

Having to read and re-read the works of authors, in the presentation in which they chose to be received, created a more personal relationship with them. “Personal” meaning, in its literal root sense, pertaining to that which speaks for itself. Rather than dragging the thinker, by means of citations, onto a panel of experts marshalled together for some inquiry, reading all the words, in the order intended, allows the thinker to express themselves as they willed. One has the sense of reading someone rather than just something, and one can posit a mind that understood things in its own way. Getting to know a mind thus, a reader can even guess how a writer might have understood things that are not explicitly mentioned in their work.

One of the misfortunes that befalls great thinkers is that they are cited vastly more often than they are read, and when read are not understood on their own terms because of the frame in which they are presented. When the thinker is someone whom I have read in depth, this can be offensive in the same way that hearing untruths about a friend is offensive. The mistaken claims need not be slanderous or abusive; the mere fact that they have gotten your dear friend wrong is objectionable in itself. But if one has famous friends, one can’t expect every person who speaks of them to know them beyond a public persona. And so one has to distinguish between, for example, discussions about Mark Twain and discussions about Samuel Clemens. (I am not friends with Samuel Clemens, but I like to think we’d get along).

If you’ve closely studied a philosopher of some canonical stature, you are doomed to hearing their name spill out of mouths and pens and keyboards, without their own ideas making so much as a cameo appearance. This is fine. “Popular culture”, if such a thing can be meaningfully delineated, is a pantomime show of sorts, and it cannot faithfully reproduce all that to which it refers. “He’s no Einstein” is an utterance that clearly conveys its intended meaning, requiring no familiarity with Einstein’s work. The speaker does not owe it to Einstein to append a discussion of relativity to his name-drop, because in fact the speaker is not talking about Einstein, but rather “Einstein”, the genius who figured out stuff about space and light and atoms, and who stuck his tongue out that one time. That persona is a character, created and controlled by the culture in which it circulates, and does not interact with the work of Einstein proper.

My Einsteins are Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche. That would prompt many people to assume that I am miserable company, and of dubious good will. This is because of the renown of “Thomas Hobbes” and “Friedrich Nietzsche”, two parodies loosely based on their source material. Nietzsche wrote in such an ironic and performatively contradictory manner that he is almost impossible to summarize accurately. But he’s got some zingers that sound great in the mouth of “Friedrich Nietzsche”. “Thomas Hobbes” likewise owes his grandiose reputation to some excellent writing on the part of Thomas Hobbes, but the garbled transmission of Hobbes’ ideas is not attributable to any lack of clarity in his texts. Leviathan, Hobbes’ masterpiece, is a large and imposing book, written in not-quite-modern English. But it is not opaque.

Sometimes writers will, despite working in a forum devoted to the discussion of thinkers and their work, make reference to the pantomime analog of a thinker for the sake of simplicity or a bit of colour. This is a grey zone. The audience, despite being deliberately esoteric in some respects, are nevertheless educated in popular representations and can understand such references in the intended broad sense. But there is a danger that such talk may be misinterpreted as what informed people say about Einstein, rather than what informed people say about “Einstein”.

“Hobbes” is fetishist of order, an apologist for absolute power who believes any stable political order is justified if it keeps the state of nature at bay. Hobbes, not so much. It is not too much of a stretch to say that rejecting Hobbes’ politics is like rejecting Newton’s physics. It has in many ways been surpassed, but in its proper context it has not been much falsified. One important dis-analogy is that Newton’s physics have no moral character, whereas Hobbes’ politics is explicitly moral, though its motivations are often diametrically opposed to those found in the politics of “Hobbes”.

I don’t bother fussing about appearances of “Hobbes” in the popular press, because they conform to a familiar two-note repertoire, and I know it’s absurd to expect every columnist and commentator to become 17th century political theory nerds. I do get rather excited at rare sightings of Hobbes proper in the press, because Hobbes is a fantastically useful thinker and entertaining thinker, and his right-about-most-things-ness could be leveraged for the public good (which is precisely why he wrote). One particularly good recent example of reading and presenting Hobbes well in a modern context is David Lay Williams’ “What would Hobbes say about the pandemic?”. (Williams’ accomplishment is even more impressive considering that his academic work deals largely with Rousseau, a petulantly Romantic thinker to whom I privately refer as “stupid Hobbes”. Perhaps Williams reads him through some kind of protective screen.) This piece explains nicely that Hobbes’ main focus was on caring for subjects’ welfare in peacetime, by a sovereign morally bound to do so. I won’t try to summarize it further, just enjoy it yourself.

Arash Abizadeh is a hometown favourite who regularly publishes very good work on Hobbes, because he reads a lot of Hobbes carefully and thinks carefully about what he reads. As one should. (This point is generalize-able to thinkers who are not Hobbes.)

In contrast to Williams’ excellent use of Hobbes, I offer the example of Regina Rini’s recent piece entitled “The language of the unheard”, and subtitled “What happens when Hobbesian logic takes over discourse about protest – and why we should resist it”. You can guess which part I have problems with. I’m reluctant to criticize the piece too harshly, as I don’t think Hobbes’ work is one of Rini’s main areas of expertise. (See this interview in Richard Marshall’s excellent End Times series for a discussion of the the ideas to which she is principally devoted.) But good God, there are some howlers here, and when a philosopher writes of philosophers philosophically, a certain standard of accuracy and fairness ought to be maintained.

Referencing Tom Cotton’s infamous op-ed in the New York Times (merely one of many flare-ups in that long- and still-burning dumpster fire of editorial judgment), Rini argues that Cotton’s call for violent repression of Black Lives Matter protests echoes the ideas found in Leviathan, citing a passage in which Hobbes is clearly addressing armed resistance. She follows with “Most of us have rightly come to see Hobbes’ views as narrow and simplistic”. Surely she is referring to “Hobbes” and not to Hobbes. Because most of us haven’t read Hobbes, and as such haven’t come to see his views in any way whatsoever. Furthermore, if “us” is meant to designate a wider group of people than habitual readers of literary essays, I’d wager most of us haven’t even heard of “Hobbes”. This “most of us” of statement is little more respectable than Trump’s throw-away claims of “everyone says it, you hear it all the time”. Again, I don’t like being this harsh, but I know Hobbes and I bristle at his name being knocked about so unnecessarily by people who should know better.

The “Hobbesian logic” of the piece’s subtitle is the idea that violence against the state places its perpetrators outside of political society and into a state of war with the sovereign. Which is fair enough in context, although the analogy is strained as most protesters are not resisting the authority of the state so much as denouncing the conduct of state agents (i.e. abusively violent police). The analogy is further strained by the fact that police in many violent incidents act contrary to their mandated training and procedures, and in such respects are not acting as agents of the state but rather as private factions against the commonwealth.

Indeed, Hobbes argued that the duty of obedience to the state depends on a duty of protection from the state, and the two arise and fall together. Following the logic found in Leviathan, subjects who are regularly neglected, abused and even murdered by the state are not bound to obey the state’s authority, and the reprisals they suffer for their disobedience are a matter of course, not a matter of justice.

This focus on violent repression is itself a great error in understanding Hobbes, who did not think that force of arms was the only tool for keeping civil peace. In fact, it wasn’t even the first choice. If you look at the illustration at the front of Leviathan, you see the sovereign, personified as a king, composed of the bodies of subjects, wielding two objects. One is a sword. The other is a bishop’s staff. The sword represents the force of arms, which is employed when things get off track and the state of nature stalks the front yard. The staff represents the force of doctrine, religious/moral as well as secular/scientific.

The uncharitable reading of this is that the sovereign has free reign (that’s a pun, not a spelling mistake) to enforce religious orthodoxies over its subjects, because sovereigns are power-mad meanies who hate dissent. But Hobbes himself was a very worldly man of dubious religious faith and great scientific curiosity. The control of public belief is a tool for keeping a commonwealth on the rails during “normal” peaceful time. Truthful and virtuous public discourse, with prohibitions against voicing certain views aloud, is Hobbes’ preferred means of maintaining dutiful obedience and just peace. Don’t be too quick to condemn controls on vicious public speech. Lies such as “COVID is a leftist propaganda operation” or “Blacks are naturally violent” or “Corporate tax cuts pay for themselves” have wreaked a staggering toll of death and misery in some places, and death and misery are quite prejudicial to the exercise of one’s liberties.

By “some places”, of course, I mean the United States of America. And this brings me to the final, and fatal, dis-analogy between Hobbes’ ideas in Leviathan and the current events to which Rini has tried to apply them. When Hobbes writes about a well-governed and peaceful commonwealth, he does not have in mind anything remotely like the USA circa 2020. The greatest political architects in history could not design a country less receptive to Hobbesian logic. And this is not simply a matter of the country being wracked by corruption and vice. Even if the American project were well administered, it is designed from the outset in rejection of some of Hobbes’ most important principles. Helpfully, Hobbes laid out a (relatively) succinct list of the things that tend to cause commonwealths to weaken and fail, comprising the 29th chapter of Leviathan.

The first listed cause of infirmity in a commonwealth is for the sovereign to claim less power than is required to safeguard the peace and health of the commonwealth. A division of powers, not only between the executive, legislature and judiciary, but also between the federal and state governments, creates confusion about authority in times of crisis, as well as excuses for weak and cowardly leaders to shirk responsibility. The intended co-equal balancing of power is soon up-ended by ambitious scoundrels playing one branch against another, and outside forces are quick to see that a commonwealth is only partly governed.

The second cause is the belief that citizens are free to judge for themselves what is good and evil, not merely in the sense of private moral opinion but also in deciding what actions are to be permitted or forbidden in public. Witness the farce of “Free Citizens” who claim sovereign authority in choosing which laws apply to them in public, and its murderous flip-side, state-tolerated vigilantism that threatens violence against those who have broken no public law.

Third, and in the same vein, is rejecting laws that offend one’s private conscience. Even I am uneasy about this one, though to be charitable to Hobbes one can think of examples like state-appointed judges refusing to remove religious symbols from state courts, or refusing to perform some legally recognized marriages, and thinking themselves justified by reasons of private conscience.

Fourth, also related, is the belief that religious faith and sanctity (or, if you prefer, correct-as-possible thinking about the divine) is a matter of mystical revelation and miracles rather than “education, discipline, correction and other natural ways”. Witness the endless fracturing of American Evangelicalism into ever more fantastical and idiosyncratic forms, free from any burden of reason or scriptural support. (Say what you will about the Catholic church, but it doesn’t exempt itself from logic in observable matters). Beyond religion as such, this point can be read as criticizing citizens’ retreat to an impenetrably private realm of justification for matters of universal importance. And there’s rather a lot of that.

The fifth cause is the belief that the sovereign is subject to civil laws. Given the current situation, I’m not going to try defending that one.

The sixth is the belief that private persons have an absolute right to their property. Obama’s maligned but fair comment that “you didn’t build that” (in reference to the public infrastructure upon which private enterprise depends) is apt here. Enforceable property rights only exist within a state-sanctioned system of law, and the state might need your stuff more than you do, for morally defensible reasons (though, following Hobbes, the only reason it needs is that it is the state and it wants your stuff).

Seventh is the division of sovereign power, which Hobbes believes leads to the sovereign’s dissolution. Witness the struggles between the House, the Senate, and the West Wing. This is related to the first point, about investing inadequate power in the sovereign. America may be less vulnerable to this charge since the expansion of executive powers following 9/11. Still not good.

The eighth cause of infirmity in a commonwealth is the imitation of foreign nations’ forms of government. Nowadays, few would accuse the USA of learning too much from other countries. But the founders may have gone a bit far in cribbing notes from revolutionary French thinkers, if their goal was to establish a stable and enduring republic. (There is a saying, “The French copy no-one, and no-one copies the French.” Perhaps it should be put more prescriptively.)

(Hein, ce n’est qu’une blague, on se calme là)

Ninth is the imitation of (ancient) Greeks and Romans, for much the same reasons that you would not want to design a country after binge-watching Game of Thrones. It’s all tumult and head-chopping, and sets a poor example for excitable people. Hobbes believes that people may take too much inspiration from ancient proponents of democracy, thinking their kings to be tyrants of the old style. This is a deep well, but I don’t think classicism run amok is one of America’s main faults, so I’ll move on.

A rather scriptural discussion succeeds the ninth point, and it slides into a criticism of mixed government (the scriptural bit being a comparison of the Holy Trinity, which can be split into three without division, for reasons beyond human understanding, and the sovereign, which cannot be split into three without suffering complications analogous to those of conjoined triplets). Let’s just say that the tenth cause is mixed government, and that Hobbes really, really doesn’t like divided sovereignty.

The eleventh cause is want of money, caused in part by the belief in an absolute right to private property. This one is a slam dunk; the withholding of necessary funds from government is more American than baseball and a dogged devotion to Imperial units.

The twelfth cause is accumulation of too much public money in the hands of one or several people, by means of monopolies or public enterprises. Yeah.

The thirteenth cause is… hold on, I’m going to cite this one verbatim.

“Also, the Popularity of a potent Subject, (unlesse the Commonwealth have very good caution of his fidelity), is a dangerous Disease; because the people (which should receive their motion from the Authority of the Soveraign,) by the flattery, and by the reputation of an ambitious man, are drawn away from their obedience to the Lawes, to follow a man, of whose vertues, and designes they have no knowledge.”

Hot damn. Hobbes doesn’t mention anything about electing a compulsive liar named in 3500 lawsuits, though, so perhaps this criticism is off the mark.

The fourteenth cause is the excessive greatness of towns and a multitude of corporations. Check.

The second-last cause is disputation of the sovereign power, by pretenders to political prudence, animated by false doctrines. K Street would see an abrupt rise in vacancies if my man Hobbes were in charge, I tell you what.

Finally, the last cause of infirmity in a commonwealth (we did it folks! We’re almost home!) is an appetite for dominion, burdening the commonwealth with wounds of war and costs of maintaining conquests. This one is tricky, because America (conceived of as the settler project of America, continued through to its present form) has suffered relatively little loss as it massacred its way westward and southward over the continent, and then again through Spain’s former holdings overseas. But America is not a commonwealth of the sort that Hobbes seeks to counsel, nor was the kind of geographically remote power it wields conceivable in Hobbes’ time. On the other hand, the costs of America’s post-9/11 wars have yet to be fully counted.

All that to say that applying historical thinkers to contemporary issues requires a lot more work than mere citation, but it can reward that work richly.

In all candour, I must confess that I’ve been wanting to write about this part of Leviathan for a while, and my compulsion to reply to Rini’s article simply provided an opportune occasion to do so. But there is a lesson to be learned by running both projects together. Bad caricatures of thinkers are not bad merely because they put false ideas in people’s heads; they are also bad because they obscure the parts of those thinkers’ works that may become useful and relevant after their caricatures have been fixed in the pantomime show. Those who know what value lies in primary texts should protest against the premature burial of these still-living ideas.

Stay your hands, gravediggers. This man is Thomas Hobbes. I know him well, and he is not dead.