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.

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.

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Are political obligations always moral? A Hobbesian rumination

Uncle Sam

Richard K Dagger opens his very good Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on political obligation with the following claim:

To have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws of one’s country or state. On that point there is almost complete agreement among political philosophers.

There are two problems with this opening gambit.

Firstly, and of least importance, agreement in any amount—be it no agreement, little agreement, almost complete agreement or complete agreement—does not itself establish the truth of a proposition. One’s suspicion should always be roused by attempts to use claims of ‘near complete’ or ‘general agreement’ to establish a point.

Secondly, and more importantly, a political obligation is not always a moral duty. For a political obligation to always be a moral duty, one of two conditions must be met. The terms ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ must be synonymous, thus rendering the proposition tautological or true by definition. If this condition is met then to have an obligation means the same thing as to have a duty. If this condition is not met, then for Dagger’s principal claim to hold all ‘political obligations’ have to fall within the set of what we consider to be ‘moral obligations’. To have a political obligation would then be to have a moral obligation because there would be no political obligations which were not also moral obligations. Let’s deal with these two conditions in turn.

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Political obligation: of subjects and men

Leviathan

Simon Bogojevic-Narath's (2006) 'Leviathan'

The distinction between man and subject, and the positions that follow from it, make it possible to understand as consistent Hobbes’ claims (1) that no man is bound by the civil covenant to kill himself, or any other man and (2) that a sovereign may not unjustly kill an innocent subject.

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The Theological Origins of Modernity

Gillespie (2008)

Gillespie (2008)

Immediately upon seeing the title of this recent work by Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, you may think, ‘Here’s another conservative attempting to show that the modern era did not radically break with religion like we moderns commonly assume – another regressive intellectual wishing to denounce secularism as not-so-secular’. ‘Perfect’, I say. On first appearances, arguments like Gillespie’s are prone to two weaknesses.

Firstly, if someone argues that modernity has theological origins they cannot also argue that the corruption of the West, the permissive nature of modern society and so on and so forth are the product of modern secularism (a complaint common among regressives). Why? Because secularism does not exist by this thesis. Secularism is just theology in public-sphere clothing. This is the minor weakness.

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If absolute monarchy then peace?

Incomplete as of Last update on September 05, 2009

Thomas Hobbes is often considered to be a man less concerned with the question of the good state and more concerned to devise a state theory with the sole aim of avoiding civil war. Similarly, it is often thought that he engages a combination of nominalism and ruthless logic to attain this end, concluding that civil peace – i.e. ~civil war – can best be achieved under an absolute monarchy. This representation of Hobbes’ ideas is correct, but only if one understands that ‘best be achieved’ denotes a probable, and not a certain, conclusion.

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Norberto Bobbio, Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law Tradition

Bobbio 1993

Bobbio 1993

‘The central theme of Hobbes’s political thought is the unity of the state’ (p. xi). With this, Bobbio begins his defence of Hobbes and, following that, his defence of unity. We live in an international state of nature. Despite the auspices of the United Nations the system still functions on a ‘balance of terror’ (p. xii), so the central question for those seeking perpetual peace, on Bobbio’s account, is the one that has troubled Natural Law theorists for centuries: How do we get from the state of nature to a civil society?

In chapter 1 Bobbio schematises the two main traditions within political philosophy that deal with this problem – Natural Law theory (Hobbes, Locke) and what Bobbio terms the Aristotelian tradition (Aristotle, Bodin, Althusius, Marsilus of Padua, Sir Robert Filmer). The former typically present two stages of the state formation process – the state of nature and civil society – and use a social contract or similar device to justify the move into civil society. The Aristotelian tradition, contrariwise, presents the family as the model for state formation. This tradition holds that the family is the natural social group in the state of nature – proof that humans have the ability to cooperate as an organisation, however small. Families then form villages, and villages in turn form civil societies. The main idea separating the two traditions is that for the Aristotelian tradition the state is natural while for Natural Law theorists the state itself is a synthetic product of human reason. The ‘reactionary’ charge against Natural Law theory, as Bobbio stresses, is that the state is only synthetic or unnatural when viewed as a product of an imaginary contract between imaginary free and equal individuals (pp. 20-21).

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Quentin Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty

Skinner 2008

Skinner 2008

Quentin Skinner’s work as an historian focuses on the history of political philosophy. His particular interest is in understanding how historical ideas represent the real-world issues that concerned past political philosophers. Skinner turns to the classic texts of political philosophy to provide insight into the political situation and political ideas their authors wished to address. For Skinner, however, these texts contain more than just the thoughts of past philosophers. These classic texts are also ‘deeds’ in the sense that they are polemical interventions in the debates of the time (2002). For us to interact with these texts is to do more than engage in historical surveys of ideas. Such interactions expose the present to unfamiliar ideas that have the potential to influence the way we understand the world. Whenever one confronts a classic text, Skinner argues (2002), the basic question will always be ‘What are the appropriate procedures to adopt in the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the work?’

Hobbes and Republican Liberty (2008) is Skinner’s most recent interpretation of Hobbes’ political philosophy. As an interpretive work, Hobbes and Republican Liberty validates Skinner’s methodological claim that texts must be understood as deeds. Skinner’s understanding of Hobbes’ works as polemical interventions in the ideological context of their time provides fresh insights into the development of Hobbes’ thought. These insights are the evidence for his central hypothesis that Hobbes’ works present distinct conceptions of liberty, but that when considered in chronological order these conceptions reveal an underlying development of Hobbes’ thought. By applying his interpretive approach to Hobbes’ work, Skinner also hopes to repudiate the claim that Hobbes’ oeuvre presents a single conception of liberty.

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