Thursday, April 5, 2018

Thomas Hobbes at 430

Today is the birthday of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), one of the founding giants of early modern political philosophy, probably best known for his 1651 masterpiece Leviathan with its evocation of a "state of nature" and the need for a social contract to establish political sovereignty as a remedy. His philosophy arose out of an age of intense social and political turmoil, when the traditional social structures and political institutions had been undermined in England,  first in the Tudor era by the Reformation and then in the subsequent Stuart era by full-scale civil war and regicide. 

Living in such a world, Hobbes "put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death" (Leviathan, chapter 11). And, while no one may have actually lived in a pure "state of nature," Hobbes' experience of a society in crisis enabled him to imagine such a theoretical construct well enough as "a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own inventions hall furnish them withall. In such a condition, there is no ,,, Society ... And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" (chapter 13). 

In one sense, Hobbes has merely offered a secular account of the history of fallen humanity. His solution, however, is neither a Christian conception of grace nor a classical teleology's  recognition of a natural orientation of human beings to social and political community. Rather, Hobbes in effect accepted the early modern world's radical dissolution of those two alternative interpretations and enshrined early modernity's destructive individualist turn at the very heart of the social and political order meant to heal the threat posed by that very same individualism. This was symbolically illustrated already int he famous frontispiece of Leviathan's 1651 edition (photo). Hobbes's proposed solution to the problem of our state of nature as a state of anti-social disorder was the creation (by covenant) of effective political power. In the frontispiece, the sovereign is portrayed as a powerful king holding scepter and sword, providing peace, order, and justice to the land. The contractual character of this sovereign is illustrated by the fact that the sovereign's body is composed of the citizens whose creation he is. However, as Sheldon Wolin famously observed: "The citizens are not swallowed up in an anonymous mass, nor sacramentally merged into a mystical body. Each remains a discrete individual and each retains his identity in an absolute way (Politics and Vision, 1960).

And that has represented the abiding dilemma of modern societies and institutions - struggling to maintain the minimum amount of community necessary for human flourishing while simultaneously undercutting that end by means of individualistic premises and individualistic orientation. The experience of post-modernity has taken that tension to its logical conclusion and thus transformed the dilemma into a crisis.

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