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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