It’s better to live on your knees than to die on your feet: Thomas Hobbes on the dangers of political idealism

This is a discussion piece on seventeenth-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ criticism of domestic political idealism, using contemporary Australian politics as a point of reference. As a discussion piece it lacks academic rigour. So, what the hell. Let’s get it started with a factually incorrect abstract.


In the December 1982 edition of Rolling Stone, Thomas Hobbes published a scathing review of Midnight Oil’s ‘10-to-1’ album. Midnight Oil, Hobbes claimed, were corrupting Australian youth with such politically incendiary tracks as ‘Short Memory’ and ‘US Forces’. But it was the lyrics to ‘The Power and the Passion’ with which Hobbes took particular issue, writing:

We hear that “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”. How foolish! What vainglory! Who penned such rot? Was it Hirst, Moginie or Garrett? Have The Oils taken leave of their senses? Anybody who has lived through the English Civil War and who can ratiocinate knows that the opposite is true. Standing up for political ideals can only lead to political subversion, civil unrest and, ultimately, civil war. And with civil war comes a return to the State of Nature — a state in which all persons, upright, kowtowed and procumbent, face the constant threat of death; a state in which, as I have argued elsewhere (see my Leviathan (Bohn, 1651)), life for all is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. All things considered, therefore, it’s better to live on one’s knees than to die on one’s feet.

In this entry I’ll give a few working examples of political idealism and political realism before moving onto Hobbes’ criticism of the former and his argument that domestic peace and commodious living require us to forfeit our political ideals lest they undermine the sovereign’s authority.

Political idealism

At its simplest, political idealism is the belief that it is appropriate to pursue moral ideals through politics.

Examples of political idealists include environmentalists who believe that we should protect the environment for its own sake (though not those who believe that we should protect the environment because we depend on it for our existence). Likewise, human rights advocates who believe that no political policy should breach the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be considered political idealists (though one could also argue that they’re actually legal positivists).

In international relations, political idealists believe that domestic politicians should use foreign policy to pursue the higher human aspirations such as global peace.[1] Such lofty aims may require us to set aside national interest. Similar to the pursuit of global peace, it could be considered politically idealist for the US to scrap its nuclear weapons programme in order to set an example for other states. Humanitarian intervention — interference in the domestic politics of other states to protect human rights — is also commonly understood to be politically idealist.

In general, political idealists believe that ideals should never be compromised. Principles or ideals are the reason why idealists participate in, or enter, politics in the first place. That reason for participation vanishes when the ideals are compromised. An example of such political idealism in contemporary Australian politics may serve us well here.

Recently there was an increase in the number of people drowning at sea while attempting to seek asylum in Australia by boat. Independent MP Rob Oakeshott introduced a bill to the lower house of parliament that would allow offshore asylum application processing, thereby removing the ‘pull factor’ or enticement for asylum seekers to make the perilous boat journey to Australia in order to lodge an asylum claim. Why would you bother making the sea voyage to Australia only to be forwarded on to another country for processing? You’d just lodge your asylum claim there. Or at least that was the thinking.

Senator Christine Milne

Greens Senator Christine Milne

Although the bill passed the lower house, The Greens voted against it in the Senate because one of the proposed offshore processing locations was Malaysia, and Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. So here we have an example of a political party defending a political ideal — human rights — rather than opting for a practical political solution to the problem asylum seeker drownings.

But remember, The Greens could also be adopting a legal positivist argument. They could be arguing that Australia is legally bound to protect the human rights of anyone who falls under its duty of care — something that it can’t do if it sends asylum seekers for processing to a country that has not signed the UN convention. A Greens media release issued the day after Oakshott floated the idea for the bill with parliamentarians stated that The Greens ‘…will not support Mr Oakeshott’s bill and urge other MPs to reject it on the grounds of human rights and the huge expense to tax payers of offshore processing’. On the face of it, the mention of human rights may indicate an idealist position. But, in response to a later amendment to migration legislation, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young made the party’s position on offshore processing clear when she argued that:

The government may very well like to physically transfer people offshore—out of sight, out of mind—but there is no ability under international law to transfer our obligations to people… if we are to transfer people to a third country, whether it be for processing or not, there needs to be basic access to services, adequate accommodation, legal assistance and a guarantee of protection, yet none of that is in this bill. It has been absolutely stripped out in total contradiction to the convention.

There’s a distinction to be made between sheer political idealism and legal positivism — between defending a political ideal simply because it is an ideal and defending a political ideal when it is backed up by law. On the question of offshore processing in countries that cannot be guaranteed to protect human rights, The Greens are clearly making a legal positivist argument. But as will become clear, for Hobbes idealism backed by the force of law becomes sheer political idealism when it threatens the conditions in which politics and law can exist.

To sum up the central idea of political idealism and to echo the title of this entry, political idealists believe that it’s better to ‘die on your feet’, standing up for your beliefs, than it is to ‘live on your knees’, compromising your ideals.

This brings me to political realism.

Political realism

Political realism is the opposite of political idealism. Political realists, to quote a sophist in training, believe that politics is less ‘the contest of normative views on justice’ — ideals — and ‘more a battle for power’.

Competition does lie at the heart of political realism. Across the spectrum of political realists this can take the form, at one end, of a belief that participation in politics requires compromise, and, at the other end, a belief that politics is nothing more than a competition for power. Let’s call the former ‘soft’ realism and the latter ‘hard’ realism. For hard realists, politics is a competition to settle the question of who governs. But, for soft realists, politics can also be a realm in which to lodge normative or moral claims if one is willing to give some ground.

Political realists, at least in a democracy, are the first to recognise that gaining and retaining political power often requires negotiation. And compromise is at the heart of negotiation. Granting concessions to the opposition and even to people within one’s own political party can help the political realist to win the battle for power. But what does the realist do once he or she has won power? Pursue preferred policies, albeit in a modified or tempered form. So, political realists can pursue ideals, but they do so through negotiation.

Again, as example may help. Think of Peter Garrett’s foray into federal politics. Garrett is the archetype ‘soft’ realist. As lead singer of Midnight Oil he could afford to be a political idealist who stood up for his ideals without compromise. When considering a political career, however, Garrett probably realised that political idealists rarely get into power in a democratic society. So he tempered his ideals and joined the Labor Party.

The Hon Peter Garrett AM, MP

The Hon Peter Garrett AM, MP.
Leaves ideals but not dance moves at the House of Reps door.

As a condition of running for parliament as a Labor Party candidate, Garrett, like all Labor candidates, promised to toe the party line. However, as a candidate for the Labor party he also had a realistic chance of getting into power and affecting policy change. By compromising, Garrett created the conditions in which he could participate in government and potentially shift policy towards his ideals.

You may read hints of Garrett’s soft political realism in his maiden parliamentary speech:

I have reached that point in my life where I want to take the next step into formal politics to work as a parliamentarian and in the future I hope to work as a member of government. I also hope that the measure of how seriously I take this engagement is that I have come here with no higher objective than to make a contribution, to do my bit. The core strands of my involvement in public life are a belief in the need to strive wherever possible for equality of treatment and opportunity, to ensure all people have the means to a decent livelihood, to work for the cause of peace however remote its prospects sometimes seem, to respect the rights and interests of others and to work to preserve the living fabric of nature. I see the Labor Party as the natural place for me to continue this engagement.

While Garrett later identifies what he views as the big political issues of the future, the speech also undeniably reflects a political moderation.

For good sport, let’s look at another example. Labor PM Gough Whitlam was also somewhat of a political realist. When rebuked by the party in 1967 for suggesting that Labor should not take its political defeats as evidence of its moral superiority, Whitlam quipped: ‘Only the impotent are pure’. A sweeter statement of political realism was never heard.

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

The Hon Tony Abbott MP.
You said whatever it takes.

But let’s add some balance; let’s turn to the example of Tony Abbott. During the days following the 2010 federal election, the ALP and the Liberal Party were negotiating for the support of the Independents. It was reported that Abbott offered Andrew Wilkie a $1b ‘blank cheque’ for a new hospital in Hobart. Abbott was obviously willing to go to some lengths to form government. Though I’m not casting judgement, this is an example from the other end of the political realism spectrum — ‘hard’ political realism.

As you can see from these examples, political realism is about gaining and maintaining power. But there’s more to it than that. As the Garrett example shows, political realism is also about recognising what is politically achievable. And this latter sense is, I would argue, closer to the political realism defended by Hobbes. Sure, in some conditions Hobbes argues that it’s necessary to do whatever it takes to form government. But the circumstances in which Hobbes found himself during the late 1630s early 1640s called for political compromise, not a hardline pursuit of political power. What sets Hobbes apart from the aforementioned soft political realists, however, is his application of soft realism to the philosophical foundation of politics rather than its everyday hustle and bustle. Hobbes’ defence of political realism is a defence of the very conditions of politics — the conditions that make politics possible. Unsurprising, given that he was a political philosopher and not a politician.

Hobbes on the dangers of political idealism

Three arguments dominated political debate in mid-seventeenth century England. Monarchists and Charles Stuart (son of James VI & I) defended the supremacy of the Crown. Republican parliamentarians defended the supremacy of ‘the people’. Lawyers, spurred on by the works of Edward Coke, defended the supremacy of law. In terms relevant to the discussion at hand, the mentioned monarchists, republicans and lawyers were all political idealists. They all defended the supremacy of their preferred political institution, even in the face of looming political strife.

This is where Hobbes, the political realist, comes in. From the late 1630s onward Hobbes channelled all of his efforts into political philosophy, attempting to establish a political philosophy that defended domestic political peace. It is clear from Hobbes’ works that he believed that the claims in defence of the supremacy of the law (see his Dialogue) and the supremacy of ‘the people’ (see Leviathan) led to increased tensions between parliament and the king. However, he also believed that the king, Charles I, was not blameless. In response to the challenges to his power, Charles I and his defenders simply insisted upon the political supremacy of the Crown — on the monarch’s right to rule, free of parliamentary and legal checks and balances.

Hobbes the brut

Hobbes featuring in a deodorant advertising campaign

For Hobbes, the political positions of the king, the lawyers and the republicans were utterly foolish. Even in the face of impending political strife, no party was willing to compromise their political ideals. These various politically idealist groups all misidentified the true aim or end of politics, argued Hobbes. Politics, he claimed, is not about establishing the supremacy of this or that political body. The aim of politics is the maintenance of peace. And if anything is supreme, it is the political unity of the people. Not the supremacy of ‘the people’ as such, as republicans argued, but the unity of the commonwealth — the unity of the people, and of the people and their king. Anyone who argued for the supremacy of particular political institutions at the expense of this political unity threatened to destroy the commonwealth with their political idealism.

So how did Hobbes defend political unity? By denying ideals their political force. For example, Hobbes employed a definition of the political subject that robs human rights of any political claim. For Hobbes, one is a subject living within a commonwealth, or one is a natural man living in the State of Nature. To put his position in more modern terms, Hobbes argued that political unity and, therefore, domestic political peace, is most likely to be achieved when citizens cannot bring idealistic claims against the state. Hobbes the political realist thought that in order to ensure the continued existence of the state we need to make peace itself the primary political aim. And insofar as bringing one’s ideals into politics threatens this peace, those ideals are downright dangerous.

In sum: for Hobbes, political idealists are wrong when they claim that it’s better to die on one’s feet defending political ideals than to live on one’s knees, political ideals compromised in the service of some practical political end. It is much better to make political peace our primary aim and work from there: to live on our knees rather than die on our feet, political ideals intact but with political society in ruins. The opportunity to possess political ideals is only possible within political society, and political society requires, foremost, domestic peace. Idealism must be stomped out insofar as it threatens that peace.

So, to open up the discussion, is political idealism defensible? Is it better to die on your feet than to live on your knees, or is it better to live on your knees than to die on your feet?


[1] Smith, MJ 1993, ‘Idealism’, in J Krieger (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World, Oxford University Press, p. 408.


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