Of Leviathan and lockdowns
Thomas Hobbes is emerging as the philosopher of the pandemic, but was he really advocating a superstate?
The coronavirus has propelled Thomas Hobbes, one of philosophy’s leading bogeymen, back into the spotlight.
It’s unsurprising that two conservative publications in the U.S., the National Review and the American Conservative, have already cast the epidemic as the resurgence of Leviathan, Hobbes’s 17th century vision of a mighty state whose restrictions we accept in a grand bargain to save our lives.
There are certainly grounds to support this view of Hobbes as the hard-line “Monster of Malmesbury.” England’s first heavyweight philosopher did indeed argue that we should submit (in terror!) to the power of Leviathan, the “mortal God” of state power that protects us. You can safely say that this is a man who would argue you have zero right to flout life-saving lockdowns to down a few tankards of ale with your mates.
But that’s far from the complete picture. Hobbes was a thinker forged in an age of apocalyptic (and often religious) bloodletting, and much of his ultimate vision for a state was peculiarly liberal, hands-offish and tolerant. The modern concept of an intrusive octopus of “big government” would have been unimaginable to him, and wasn’t what he was advocating.
In his masterpiece “Leviathan” (1651), he explains why violence is such a risk by establishing a bleak view of humans, who will always be destructively at odds over their interests.
His priority was peace. Fear of violence is the keystone of his political thinking. His mother went into labor in 1588 on hearing news that the Spanish Armada was readying to attack England, and the notoriously funny and affable Hobbes later quipped: “Fear and I were born twins together.”
Crucially, he knew terror throughout his life, during which the fratricidal English Civil War (and even more cataclysmic Thirty Years’ War) loomed large. Panicking that he was for the chop as a royalist, he fled to France in 1640, and had a too-close-for-comfort brush with charges of heresy later in his life. Hobbes built his theory of statecraft precisely because his world was terrifyingly lethal.
State of terror
In his masterpiece “Leviathan” (1651), he explains why violence is such a risk by establishing a bleak view of humans, who will always be destructively at odds over their interests. Left to its own devices, mankind will engage in a war “of every man against every man” and life will be “nasty, brutish and short.” Or, to put it another way: Leave people to make up their own minds about coronavirus and they will set fire to 5G masts and drink camel urine.
Faced with this bitter reality, Hobbes argues there is a rational deal to be struck. In order to save our skins, we willingly submit to a greater force. The Leviathan of state is imagined by Hobbes as a sort of giant artificial man into which we symbiotically integrate for protection. Hobbes preferred monarchy as the best means to run this automaton, but could also conceive of Leviathan as a parliamentary democracy.
In this context, Hobbes does look like the philosopher of the moment. The bottom line is survival. It’s fine for the lockdown to cause you frustration, severe income loss and even health problems. If the state needs to collect data on you, so be it. To Hobbes, what matters is that you have passed power to an authority to save your life, and it says you must stay at home.
This kind of bargain would also seem to be of increasing significance as states have to make agonizing calculations over how to respond to climate change. In Hobbes’ view, self-centered individuals will never agree on how to restrict their own consumerism. Instead, our rulers will have to ban our cars, ration our rump steaks and limit our easyJet flights to Barcelona. Since we won’t compromise ourselves, the state will have to save our lives from famines, killer floods and resource wars. (These are the tough decisions where Hobbes thinks democracy lets you down.)
Hobbes’ worldly, mechanistic philosophy is a revolution against airy idealist theories among earlier philosophers about defining universal, objective rights and wrongs (or about divine revelation telling us the moral thing to do). As no one will ever agree on such an approach, Hobbes laid down preservation of life as his more black-and-white guideline for running society. Within that framework, though, Hobbes leaves alarmingly scant opportunity to resist your mainly unchecked ruler. Fighting back only makes sense if your leader is about to murder you, starve you or is, say, considering injecting disinfectant into you.
In a sign that these arguments on the preservation of life as the supreme law are still relevant in the days of coronavirus, Wolfgang Schäuble, president of Germany’s Bundestag, gave a fascinating interview to Tagesspiegel last week on these big trade-offs. As a wheelchair-bound 77-year-old, he conceded he was in a high-risk category, but still slammed the “absoluteness” of the preservation-of-life argument. If there were any overarching principle in Germany’s constitution, it isn’t protection of life above all else but protection of “human dignity,” he argued.
Man of his times
There are, though, many difficulties with arguing that we have entered some especially Hobbesian age in 2020. The obvious objection is that we were nestling equally snugly in the embrace of Leviathan in 2019. It’s misleading to see Leviathan as simply a recipe for North Korea. Moderate Western democracies whose police can shoot you and that have film boards approving cinema releases can be Leviathans. We have just been reminded of the starker Hobbesian trade-offs with state power during the lockdowns.
The even more important caveat about how to interpret Hobbes is historical. He hailed from a remote world of witchcraft and intra-Protestant feuding, and would not have seen himself as writing a dictators’ charter or a blueprint for a nanny state. Quite the reverse.
He was a man of his times, albeit an extremely radical and enlightened one. His goal was to protect us from the divisive influence of fanatical religion and clergymen that plunged Europe into a maelstrom of conflict, from Bohemia to Ireland. Sovereigns had lost control of a bewildering array of fissiparous religious sects. Leviathan was the peace-bringer.
In positioning his Leviathan above the clergy — in the iconic, wicker-mannish frontispiece of his work, Leviathan symbolically wields both the sword and the crozier — Hobbes was trying to create the opposite of Big Brother. He wanted us to be left alone to our own beliefs. As he put it: “There ought to be no power over the consciences of men, but of the Word itself.”
And that is how we should also read the passage of Leviathan that offers the sovereign scary-sounding censorship powers, with a sway over “opinions and doctrines” that threaten peace. Hobbes wants the state to act as a guard dog that stops snarling religious factions tearing the nation apart.
Yes, the state protects you, but that interference in your life in the 1650s cut nowhere near as deeply as it does today. It was a pretty laissez-faire world, where Hobbes largely reckoned people should treat others as they would wish to be treated themselves.
He argued levies were needed to maintain the army and magistrates, but would have had no conception of the vast state spending devoted to preserving life in 2020, requiring everything from chlorinated water to kidney dialysis units. Indeed, his musings on economics are minimal, glancing at topics like trade and standardized measures. He is more interested in arguing that his progressive and egalitarian state can have transparent laws, support the disabled and gather fair consumption taxes.
Both his contemporaries and 21st century readers are often skeptical that Hobbes has the right formula for such a workable society. Some of his critics insist on the need for overarching moral or divine laws. Others argue people need more room to rebel against a ruler who may be awful but is not necessarily on the point of killing them.
Hobbes’s vision looks especially vulnerable because we inevitably look at him through the lens of inefficient mega bureaucracies and 20th century totalitarianism.
The man himself, however, had a more laser-like focus: To stop the 17th century’s wars and keep firebrand clergy in check. Beneath his adamantine prose, he was a surprisingly genial philosopher clawing for a way to stop the massacres.