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In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act. ~ George Orwell
A great leap into the dark. ~ Hobbes (last words)
Dr. Benjamin Wiker has written a very prescient and timely book titled: “10 Books that Screwed up the World: And 5 Others that Didn’t Help” (Regnery, 2008).
Frontispiece of “Leviathan,” by Abraham Bosse, with input from Hobbes
Besides reviewing books by Machiavelli, Descartes, Rousseau, Marx, Engels, Darwin, Hitler, Mead, Kinsey and other writers, Dr. Wiker, in chapter 3, delineates an interesting analysis of a book by a legendary philosopher. Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” the author says, “led to the belief that we have a right to whatever we want however morally degraded, vile or trivial it may be … and that it is government’s right to protect such rights.”
The singular premise of “Leviathan” is this: There is, by nature, no good and evil, right or wrong, just and unjust. Three-hundred fifty years after he wrote “Leviathan,” political historians now understand that Hobbes’ revolutionary ideas on Man and State led directly to the so-called “Rights Movement” of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
In “Leviathan,” Enlightenment political philosopher and atheist Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) sets out his doctrine of the foundation of societies and governments of men. “Leviathan” (1651), written just after the Thrity Years War (1618-48) and during the English Civil War, argues for the necessity of a strong central government as a balance against man’s predilections toward anarchy and civil war.
Starting with a mechanistic understanding of human nature and their passions, Hobbes theorizes what life would be like without government, a condition of humanity later philosophers called a “state of nature.” In that state, each person would have a right, an entitlement to everything in the world.
However, Hobbes realizes that this state of nature, this Sisyphus-like life of despair, inevitably devolves into anarchy – a “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes), an existential existence where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
To avoid this state of perpetual war, men in the state of nature agree to a social contract, whereby society as a collective entity under a sovereign authority voluntarily cedes to this sovereign (the State or the monarchy, as Hobbes prefered) certain natural rights for the sake of protection.
Therefore, for the price of peace, the people must sacrifice some liberties. However, over time, Hobbes expects the people to overturn the State when it becomes too corrupt, tyrannical or fails to protect its citizens. Then man would return to a state of nature until a new social contract is created.
Further, Hobbes denied any right of rebellion by the people toward the social contract, which would be later expanded by John Locke (1632-1704) and conserved by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). Hobbes also rejected the doctrine of separation of powers that Montesquieu (1689-1755) and America’s constitutional framers found so essential to good government and civil order.
In “Leviathan,” Hobbes sets forth his doctrine of the natural condition of mankind. Contained in his theory is that while some men may be stronger or more intelligent than others, none is so strong and smart as to be beyond a fear of violent death. When faced with death, man in his natural state will use every possible means to defend himself.
Self-defense against violent death is Hobbes’ highest human necessity. Therefore, rights are borne of necessity and are not “inalienable rights” from God as Montesquieu, Blackstone, Locke and later Jefferson contended under the paradigm of natural law. In this state of nature, according to Hobbes, each of us has a right (license or entitlement) to everything in the world. Thus, due to the scarcity of things in the world, there is a constant and rights-based conflict – “war of all against all.”
After War World II, the Supreme Court’s liberal view of a “living Constitution” and “evolving standards of decency” led to radical judicial activist opinions in the areas of racial segregation, civil rights, separation of church and state and the so-called “right to privacy” – in cases like Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966) – leading to an entire cottage industry of new rights like the Court’s abortion finding in Roe v. Wade (1973) and 30 years later to the constitutional right to homosexual sodomy in Lawrence v. Texas (2003).
You can thank Thomas Hobbes for elevating our racialist, humanist, childish, sexual and vulgar desires to the legitimate level of constitutional rights.
According to a recent Supreme Court opinion in California, homosexual marriage has once again been raised to the standard of a constitutional “right” by this overtly activist court over the explicit will of the people. It will be interesting where this and numerous other hot button issues takes society as courts grapple with “rights” vs. “privileges,” “property rights” vs. “liberty interests, etc. Has this “due process explosion” of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, as federal judge Henry Friendly opined, fundamentally altered the ability of government to manage schools, bureaucracy, agencies, culture, society … ourselves? I think it has.
One writer for UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies defined the moral vs. rights paradigm in this manner:
The traditional and still dominant view in the United States is that marriage is a legally recognized union of one man and one women. This view is deeply embedded in moral and religious beliefs. An alternative view, with roots in the civil rights movement and the political activism of the 1960s, takes the position that marriage is a body of rights which should be extended, as a matter of fairness and equality, to couples who do not fit the one man/one woman definition. Many in the gay liberation movement have made the right to marry a key plank in their campaign for equal rights under the law.
This is the catastrophic legacy of Hobbes’ Natural Man – Good simply means getting whatever you want, and evil is anything that might stand in your way of getting it. Hobbes, on his own death bed, spoke his depressing epitaph of his entire oeuvre as, “A great leap into the dark.” This tragic view, born of utter despair and fatalism, should give all modern governments pause, including America. Why?
Hobbes’ sovereign would have total control over all civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers – a diabolical model written in blood over the corspes of untold hundreds of millions by every subsequent despot and totalitarian regime up to modern times.
If Hobbes judged himself and his ideas as “a great leap into the dark,” wherefore is humanity 357 years after the publication of “Leviathan,” whose legacy is: Do unto others, so they won’t do onto you; Pleasure = good, pain = evil; Morality is a private matter of personal taste; Every man has a right to everything, even another’s body; Rights = Human desires (however sordid)?
I contend that unless we change course, America and the world will soon be headlong into the abyss.
Note: Some of the background information in this column is indebted to a fine article on Thomas Hobbes by an anonymous writer on Wikipedia.com.
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