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Victor Nuovo: Thomas Hobbes, our contemporary

Editor’s note: This is the 14th essay by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought, focusing on the great political thinkers.
The long life of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) encompassed England’s greatest crisis and perhaps its darkest hours. That he survived them and even flourished is proof of his ingenuity and adaptability; that he also wrote about them is our very good fortune, for in them we encounter the voice of experience unmoved by self pity or sentimental fantasies, a courageous voice.
It is one we very much need to hear today. 
England’s great crisis lasted 20 years, from 1640 until 1660, during which time the nation suffered a cruel civil war, regicide, a military coup and much misery. Hobbes was a close observer of these events, and wrote a book about them, which he entitled “Behemoth.”
Behemoth is a great beast described in the book of Job (40: 15–24). He is a monstrous creature, like a massive elephant, capable with his great trunk of drinking up an entire river. He is a symbol of the power of wild Nature or of God, which for Hobbes were the same thing. It is Hobbes way of representing the terrible power let loose in the land, the power of God in the hands of men, a power that, once released, they could not control and which would bring about their ruin.
Hobbes was born in 1588, which was the year of the Great Armada, the large naval fleet that Philip II of Spain, consumed by religious zeal and imperial ambitions, had assembled in preparation for the invasion of England. In an autobiography, he writes that at the time of his birth, rumors of imminent invasion were abroad in the land, and under such stress “my Mother dear did bring forth Twins at once, both Me and Fear.’
Fear became Hobbes’ constant companion; one could employ another analogy and say that Hobbes was wedded to it. Hobbes’ fear was not pathological. He was too much a realist to give way to subjective moods. The object of his fear was power, especially as wielded by ambitious monarchs, prompted by their scheming ministers; or by revolutionaries, or religious fanatics, or both together occupying one brain; and by unscrupulous financiers and the very rich, and by all who in so many various ways attempt to exercise dominion over others, some with the sword, others by offering bribes, or by the words that flow from mouths of ambitious orators who promise to the masses prosperity in this life and bliss in the life to come.
It was Hobbes, among all the early modern political thinkers who first caught sight of this monstrous power, and wisely advised that we must fear it and under the prod of this fear, to learn to make peace through the instrument of civil government, for only then can we hope to be safe in this world.
The English civil war began as a conflict between the King and Parliament, which might have been resolved had it not become entangled in another deeper and more bitter conflict concerning religion. Although England had been declared Protestant by Henry VIII, it was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that its transition from a Catholic to a Protestant nation was completed and that the Church of England became an established institution of government and religion. That religious zeal was pacified—for a time.
However, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement was not well received by many of her more radical Protestant subjects, some of whom regarded it as a shameful compromise that put politics above religion. It retained the office of bishop, and it made a member of the laity, and in this case, a woman, the Queen, head of the church.
Protestant pulpits became platforms of protest, and their occupants were more often than not preachers of sedition. First it was English Presbyterians, who demanded the abolition of the office of bishop and the rule of the church by counsels of clergy. Their adherents gained supremacy in Parliament, which began proceedings against the King, Charles I, for failure to acknowledge their authority. They demanded that civil government conform to their system of ecclesiastical government. Moreover, they declared themselves commanders in chief of the militia, forbidding the King to raise an army without their approval.
The conflict grew more acute. More radical religious voices were heard. Independents, who recognized no religious authority but the Bible and the free interpretation of it and who considered any monarch an abomination, claimed liberty in all matters religious and demanded toleration for themselves, although not for other religious sorts and none for any who practiced no religion.
Cautious Presbyterians feared that these Independents had gone too far, and some of them began to wonder whether they should not shift their support to the King. In the end, the more radical faction won out. They accused the King of making war on his people and declared an end to the monarchy. The King was made a prisoner and in 1649 was beheaded.
England was declared a commonwealth. The Independents found their champion in Oliver Cromwell, a skilled military tactician, a relentless self-promoter, and probably something of a fanatic.
A third feature of the English revolution was the ongoing colonial and industrial expansion, which led to the creation of great estates, the amassing of great fortunes, of wealth, of slavery, exploitation of the working classes, and political corruption.
And there was a fourth feature: the failure of universities, institutions of higher learning, to honor truth; as though truth were something that one invents rather than discovers. It seems in that age, as perhaps in ours, political leaders, university professors, and the public media had lost the capacity to deal in truth and preferred to dwell in darkness.
Hobbes is our contemporary because all the forces that were unleashed during his time are abroad today, although wearing different masks. Presbyterians and Independents (ancestors of Congregationalists) have become benign but blind. But the powers of discord and political madness are at large, their effects are present in ethnic hatred, in the narcissistic culture of the super rich, in demagoguery, in the absence of reason, in chronic alienation, and more. There is much to fear.

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