Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hoo-yah for Hobbes

Hobbes' Leviathan functions as a great antidote to excessive postmod. bickering, conceptualization and to belle-lettrism of all sorts. His ideas of the sovereign were a bit draconian--but I think capable of progressive readings. And he's no friend of theocrats or aristocrats: more like a republican who felt a strong monarchy was the most effective strategy for maintaining order. His ideas on contracts, covenants, the state of nature, sovereignity, etc. are still worth reading closely and worth reading in the King's English--he's not that difficult a writer and indeed rather eloquent. Of course his materialism was very influential--not only to Locke and the sensationalists, but to Marx and utilitarians. His critique of Descartes and the res cogitans also very worthwhile. Hobbes anticipates Darwin, or at least understood territoriality and the problems of altruism, or lack thereof. He's at least as powerful a thinker as Hegel and Marx were; indeed I would venture to say rather more powerful. Descartes may have been his superior, at least mathematically; but in political terms there are few thinkers equal to his force.

An interesting and enigmatic character was Master Hobbes: he was a student of Bacon (that itself a bit scandalous) and acquainted with leading figures of the day such as Gallileo, Ben Jonson and of course the royalists. He probably knew "Shakespeare" (tho' Hobbes would have been rather young) and had most likely had some hushhush stuff on King Jimmy, Chas I, Cromwell, and the rest. Hobbes, expert latinist, may have had some hand in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays as well. (I suspect Milton and the young Locke had a few run-ins with the elder royalist Hobbes as well). Hobbes was probably a scoundrel early on, as was his mentor Bacon (whose system Hobbes later rejected), but Leviathan shows quite a melancholy and even tragic aspect as well.



One of Hobbes' "laws of nature"--that is, after men decide to leave the state of nature, form covenants and live peacefully--is that of the equality of distribution. In the first 10-15 chapters of Leviathan there's quite a bit of material which sounds rather socialist and egalitarian, though Hobbes admits his various covenants are more like "givens": he assumes that, for one, people are bound to carry out contracts/covenants they consent to (and that the King/Law exists to enforce that). Obviously most rational people would agree to that, and to most of Leviathan; that idea of rational contracting is similar to what Rawls continues as well: what sort of society will rational people decide on, if they themselves have to live in the society they choose? They would probably agree that covenants should be respected; and that seems like a fairly Scriptural course of action as well. There is no need of recourse to theology or idealism. Perhaps that's not Kant's imperative, but then I believe Kant's imperative ultimately turns on similar concerns (the actual effects of any maxims that people may decide on).

Hobbes admittedly is not a great continentalist philosopher or scientist like Galileo or even Descartes, and not exactly hospitable to platonic or cartesian metaphysics, but a pragmatic, politically oriented thinker. And what is the Marxist state if not sort of a Hobbesian sovereign? The difference being that Marx never bothers arguing for covenants and economic entitlement, as far as I can tell; he instead is taking on Adam Smith (who also has a Hobbesian side). And of course with Stalin and Mao one gets to see what sorts of covenants the statist despots enforce: prison camps, or liquidation. Of course I don't think Marx was so bellicose as to suggest the "liquidation of reactionaries," or, eh, was he.


Which is to say, Hobbes anticipates much Marxist thinking, but one, he is aware of the cooperation/non-cooperation issue--the prisoner's dilemma--some people are not willingly going to participate in civil society, if it's not in their best interest to do so; so coercion is a factor (Marx realizes this in a different form maybe). Hobbesianism also is thankfully free of the grand Hegelian abstractions which Marxism is chock full of (ie the bizarre conceptualizations of the commodity/value, and the dialectic itself). Hobbesian economics is not yet to the level of Smith's supply and demand model perhaps, but Hobbes "given" of equality-- men should more or less aim for equality of distribution of goods and resources-- is nearly as close to socialist ideals as Marxism is.

Ever heard of Lysander Spooner? His tragic realization was that the Hobbesian/Lockean/ Jeffersonian contract was never really enacted, except for a lucky few; that since the great majority of citizens never participated in the social contracting (or Constitution) in reality, America was for the most part a state of anarchy and perpetual warfare with various constabularies as Hobbes had suggested: Blackbeardland, regardless of a few wealthy robber barons or mercantilists. Not to say marxism is preferable to that anarcho-capitalism, but I think in some sense Spooner's insights (sort of a reversed Hobbesianism if you will) still hold: for many of us, this is Blackbeardland. (Vegass, baybe)

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