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Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part IX

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Why would Hobbes & company opt for a truncated, cartoon-like depiction of the human subject? It’s not exactly as though the political theorists of yore were unaware of there being alternative renditions.

There was, for example, the classical, Aristotelian conception of man as essentially a social- and eventually political animal (since only through politics could a subject hope to actualize their true human potential). And there was, likewise, a more contemporary conception whereby most were members of Christendom, subject to the usual human frailties but bound nonetheless by the teachings of the Church and the word of God. Both, after a fashion, offered a far more realistic portrayal of a human as a red-bloodied animal, an odd admixture of emotion, superstition and reason, than the one we find in Hobbes. Why would Hobbes discard the earlier versions in favor of the new one?

We may well understand Hobbes’s reluctance to go along with the more recent of the pictures: it was riddled with archaisms, for one thing, vestiges of the old order, both ecclesiastical and worldly: the right of birth, social rank, privilege. Quite rightly, Hobbes must have viewed each of these as artificial for having been imposed from without – social constraints which only hindered the full blossoming of a brand-new society he saw unfolding. But why dismiss Aristotle? Surely, Aristotle’s writings on logic and politics must have been known by then to Hobbes’s contemporaries, if not through the works of St. Thomas Aquinas then through other scholars. 

One can only surmise that Hobbes was too much a man of his own times, too deeply absorbed in the volatile events of his day, to have read Aristotle other than through lens of the medieval eye. The rather neutral treatment of Aristotle concerning morality and Greek ethics, Hobbes couldn’t help but see as having been imbued with, if not derived from, the Christian dogma still so prevalent in his time, dogma he was intent on combating. Morality was too close to religion for him, too intricately connected, to be able to carve out a separate and distinct realm for it, separate enough from religion to remain unstained. Consequently, both were superimpositions from without, unnatural and artificial.

Besides, Hobbes was working out his own version of morality, a morality that wasn’t based on any ideational, classical conception of being but his own peculiar brand of egalitarianism, egalitarianism which derived solely from his notion of equality – the inequality of insecurity in that all were equally insecure vis-à-vis the impersonal forces of the market!

Hobbes was the first behaviorist in a manner of speaking, a thoroughly modern man. His ultimate objective, the raison d’être of his theory, was survival; and his ethic, a behaviorist ethic.

Lest you imagine these are outdated notions and that they’ve all died out with Hobbes, you’ve got another think coming. C. B. Macpherson, one of Hobbes’s most outspoken critics, reverberates the very same theme at the end of his magnum opus; and I quote:

… technical change in the methods of war … ha[ve] created a new equality of insecurity among individuals, not merely within one nation but everywhere. The destruction of every individual is now a more real and present possibility than Hobbes could have imagined.

From this, the possibility of a new rational political obligation arises. We cannot hope to get a valid theory of obligation of the individual to a single national state alone. But if we postulate no more than the degree of rational understanding which it has always been necessary to postulate for any moral theory of political obligation, an acceptable theory of obligation of the individual to a wider political authority should now be possible. Given that degree of rationality, the self-interested individual, whatever his possessions, and whatever his attachment to a possessive market society, can see that the relations of the market society must yield to the overriding requirement … which now acquire[s] a new significance, [namely,] ‘humane society, cohabitation or being … above all earthly things must be maintained.’

This was written in 1962. Macpherson retired to greener pastures in 1987, long before 9/11, the War on Terror, drone attacks, and nation-states overreaching. I’m certain his words would have been more poignant today, far more poignant.

One can’t, however, but wonder about the pessimistic tone of it all. No question that humanity has long been under assault, whether due to our disregard of our environment or mere inattention, the weapons of mass destruction, what else have you. And surely, the survival of the species has got to figure among some of the most prominent of human concerns. If we can’t see to our own survival, what chance do we stand in hell?

Even so, I can’t help but wonder whether we’re not overacting and, in so doing, responding to the politics of fear. Equality based in insecurity? C’mmon! Whatever happened to us humans, the makers of worlds?

We still live under the specter of Hobbes!

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