Yes, I’m referencing Nancy Sinatra, what can I say? Despite my abhorrence for pop music, one has to admit, in its ubiquity, it permeates into our lives like the putrid stench of something rotten and frequently forgotten. But that’s just a matter of preference. Perhaps, just like the durian fruit, it might have a sweet taste despite its smell. Enough about that, I have a story to tell. It starts with an English gentleman by the name of Thomas Hobbes and his most famous work, ‘Leviathan’.
Hobbes wrote ‘Leviathan’ in an incredibly violent period of our history. Rivers of gleaming blood meandered into the bowels of the earth, lives lost…nay, lives wasted over wars that really seemed to have no end in sight. As a wise man once proclaimed: “only the dead have seen the end of war” and maybe so, but imagine the more sensible and sensitive of people, the poet and the philosopher, how scarred their psyche was from witnessing such terror, so much so that they have to imagine a biblical beast stepping in to stop everything.
Around Hobbes’ time – the 1600s – there were wars in a great part of Europe. France had a war, Germany had a war, the Spanish had a war and the English had a war. Specifically regarding the Spanish and English situation,the Spanish armada threatened to invade England, and within England itself, there was a civil war and religious turmoil as the Puritans (pre-Cromwell tyranny) hated the Anglicans for being too Catholic, and, on the flipside, the Anglican suppressed the Quakers, the Puritans and the Catholics. Europe split apart after the reformation and violence ensued. Seeing how we’re dealing with a biblical beast, we need to dissect the text exegetically, so let’s get to it.
We begin with morality and its meaning: “But whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable. For these words of good, evil and contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: there being nothing simply and absolutely so: nor any common rule of good and evil. . . ”(97). Problems with relativism aside, with the tyranny of the monarch in play, what they call good shall be good and what they call evil shall be evil. There is no higher good, just good in the eyes of those above us hierarchically. No highest ends, just things we pursue and these things change from, not only from person to person but the person themselves having a conflict of interest within a certain period no matter its length. So what if the kings or queens highest good, for now, is to go to war? Yet in defeat they realise the error of their ways, should they go to the families of the fallen and apologise? In the Hobbesian context, the more likely scenario is not the monarch going to his subjects’ doors and apologising to them one by one but rather the populace shall visit him instead and apologise for the inefficiency of their sons in battle. “So sorry Milord, he zigged when he should have zagged.”
He continues: “Of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself.” (p122) and “Of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good.”(p129). Gangsterism, thievery, lynching, murder, even rape could all be considered good in that context. Collectivism aside, such a philosophy is antisocial and downright dangerous on an individual scale and beyond. if justice merely depends on how much power you have so you could get your revenge on your wrongdoers, it is not justice at all. As the Machiavellian saying goes ‘it is better to be feared than loved’ and the same principle seems to apply here, the ‘sovereign’, with the return of the god-king, the worship-worthy pharaoh, the modern age Xerxes, the everyman and his worth diminishes into nothing. The roman slave whispers in the ears of the victorious general ‘remember you are mortal’ and we should remind the sovereign and whisper at every occasion ‘remember that you are human’ and the statement would serve two-fold On one hand, they may start thinking about what the implications of being “human” are, ensuing an assured existential crisis, yet on the other hand they just might remember that they are no better than their subjects.but I’m being too optimistic, they may well think nothing of it.
It’s all about control; “To have received from one, to whom we think ourselves equal, greater benefits than there is hope to requite, disposeth to counterfeit love, but really secret hatred, and puts a man into the estate of a desperate debtor that, in declining the sight of his creditor, tacitly wishes him there where he might never see him more. For benefits oblige; and obligation is thraldom; and unrequitable obligation, perpetual thraldom; which is to one’s equal, hateful.” (Hobbes, P62). In other words, the sense of indebtedness that arises from someone of your own stature once you have received a gift will not turn into appreciation but rather enmity in knowing you could never repay them. He goes on to say: “But to have received benefits from one whom we acknowledge for superior inclines to love; because the obligation is no new depression: and cheerful acceptation (which men call gratitude) is such an honour done to the obliger as is taken generally for retribution.” (Hobbes, P62). The receivers of the gift, if lower in status, emerges now in them a sense of indebtedness (Knowing that Hobbes is one of the pioneers of the social contract theory, he naturally believes in it). I might have mentioned something about the hand that feeds in the previous article, and I’ll mention it here once more; knowing that you can never repay the giver will naturally create a sense of indebtedness. In a political sense, you will be inclined to kiss said hand, there are no two ways about it. No matter how thankless you are, you will be reminded to give gratitude in one way or another for the open palm that bears food might just as well close and form a fist.Outside of power play, to Hobbes there is nothing.
We are not engaged in a perpetual tug of war, for there’s more to life than the Nietzschean ‘will to power’, and there is an innate need for the sense of community, enjoyment of life and a sense of belonging.More often than not, it demands of one submission and the swallowing of their own pride rather than constant clashing with other members, but even then, even in the tribal setting, it boils down to a mere power play to Hobbes. He says this about the native Americans: “For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner” (Hobbes, P78).
The question is then; does civilization solve this “brutish” manner? I don’t suppose it does, except if advancement only means in terms of having technologically superior artillery. He himself goes on to say this: “in all times kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies upon their neighbours, which is a posture of war” (Hobbes, P79). How is constant war better than “savagery”? How is it not “brutish”? When the civilized shed the blood of another with a bullet, does not the crimson liquid flow just as it would if a man was struck with a blunt spear or a stone?
I would like to add to my suspicion, if this ‘Leviathan’ has come to suppress certain parties from their active animosity: “If a covenant be made wherein neither of the parties perform presently, but trust one another, in the condition of mere nature (which is a condition of war of every man against every man) upon any reasonable suspicion, it is void: but if there be a common power set over them both, with right and force sufficient to compel performance” (Hobbes, P84), who watches over the common party? What if a greater power comes for it? And, even if it remains the greater power, who moderates it? Does it commit no wrong actions? And if it does, who is to point their fingers and blame it?
In conclusion, let us end at the beginning: “So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” (Hobbes, P68). If he saw that all man desires is power, why would we not revolt against monarchical power (which he was for) if it is in our nature to revolt? How is that true if it is not sustainable? What right, other than excessive force, does one person have to control not only resources but the lives of many, not unlike cattle? But it does not matter, because to Hobbes there is no happiness, no summum bonum. Life is in a constant state of turmoil and the “good” always changes. For example: “Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues” (Hobbes, P79) thus, villainy reigns supreme as a virtue in most of mankind’s history. It is undeniable that war has taken many a chapter in the annals of history, but it has not always been the case and, if the virtues in times of peace were upheld, peace would never cease. Greed begets greed, blood begets blood, war begets war but a loving act or an act of mercy and forgiveness could be equally contagious.
When God shows Job the Leviathan, it could be understood as him dealing with greater evils in the cosmos and on earth, forces we do not understand, but the evil of Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ is understood all too well by anyone who lived in tyranny. It may be that ‘the emperor has no clothes’, but they never said anything about his boots, and as long as they’re on, they will keep on stomping. or it happens that some boots are not made for walking but marching, and, in the words of Orwell ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.’
One way we could solve this is to get the boots, and cut them into pieces and spread them to the populace, watch them throw their useless tidbits of rubber, leather and lace in disappointment and see as they walk together, hand in hand, barefooted.
Witnessing African tribes, Mongolian tribes, Nepalese tribes or any other people from the less developed places on earth and there you’ll see a sense of cooperation unseen in any “civilized” part of the world. This is not an ode to primitivism, it is simply a sound observation. Life is not war, but war is certainly a part of life.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan