Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Hobbes would view Trump as unfit

Calvin and Hobbes are well known names, although mostly because of the celebrated comic strip figures who bear them, and not because of the historical personages whose names they bear. In history, Calvin and Hobbes are two of the most dour and forbidding thinkers of early modern European history. John Calvin (1509–64) was a major theologian and church leader of the Protestant Reformation; Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was the founder of modern political philosophy, and of modern political realism, if not radicalism.
I confess a fondness for both of them, not because I agree with them, but because they did not shrink from the harsh challenge of being in the world, and in this respect their writings are models of bold enquiry and resolution that are so much needed today as we face three world crises: a pandemic, an acute environmental catastrophe, and extreme political dysfunction. Their writings remain timely and relevant, and deserve profound respect. I will have more to say about Calvin in a future essay; Hobbes will be my main concern now.
In 1651, Hobbes published a book entitled “Leviathan.” It has since become a classic of modern political philosophy, the first major philosophical work in the English language. Even more, it is a classic of English literature: “Leviathan” belongs in the same class with Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, the 1611 “authorized version” of the Bible, and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” For proof of this, take up the book and read.

“Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within; why may we not say, that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? … Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN, called a COMMON- WEALTH, or STATE (in Latin CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater strength and stature than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended…”
I note, before moving on, that the English language lacks a gender neutral word for the human species. By “man,” Hobbes meant the species not the male animal. He regarded male and female as equal. How could hethinkotherwise,whowasborn during the reign of Elizabeth the Great at the time of its miraculous deliverance when storms destroyed the Spanish Armada?
But more than the loveliness of Hobbes words, are the thoughts conveyed by them, and even more, is the relevance of his thoughts. “Leviathan” is a compendium of political morality of timeless relevance. For example, in the closing paragraph of the introduction, Hobbes wrote this: “He that is to govern a whole nation, must read in himself not this or that particular man; but mankind.” In these lines Hobbes has given us a sufficient reason why Donald Trump is unfit to be President of the United States. I will explain.

During the 17th century, the verb “read” meant to search or discover. So, Hobbes prescribed that anyone aspiring to govern a nation must be by disposition self-reflective, must seek identity with the people, become their representative, knowing their cares and wants, so that he may govern more justly, from which it follows that narcissists are unfit to rule, for their self-consciousness is crowded with their own selfish desires and resentments. And because Donald Trump is a classic narcissist, he is unfit to rule. Indeed, it should be evident that he is unfit even to rule himself.
The imperative “must read in himself” is a reference to an ancient tradition that began in the 5th century BCE. When Socrates consulted the oracle at Delphi to learn how to become wise, he received this advice: “Know thyself.” Accordingly, he bridled his curiosity, put aside all general questions about the nature of things, attended to himself, and undertook a prolonged self- examination to discover what sort of creature he was: was he a cruel monster or a kinder, gentler spirit, good or evil? Be it noted, he searched for what it is to be in the world, what it is to be human, and the moral responsibilities that go with it.
Hobbes also undertook this search, and what he found was not something altogether good or evil, but a mixture of both; a hybrid, part monster, part gentle spirit; part cruel and unforgiving; part caring and forgiving, self- interested and altruistic, resentful yet caring. He concluded that this internal conflict in human nature necessitates civil government; to unite “the better angels of our nature” to restrain the devils within us; it required giving up native freedom and acceptance of the rule of law, and the formation of a commonwealth with authority and power justly to maintain peace and safety. Donald Trump does not know what it is to be human; he has no capacity for self examination, no sense of solidarity with humanity, no sense of justice, therefore he is unfit to govern. Case closed.

Hobbes himself was not above controversy. During his life he was vilified as a materialist, an immoralist, and an atheist. The first is true; he believed that only bodies exist; and because they operate mechanically, he denied the freedom of the will, which seemed inconsistent with the free choice upon which moral action depends; and because God is supposed to be an infinite spirit, he confessed he had no idea what God is like. God, to his mind, was totally incomprehensible.

Nevertheless he believed there must be an ultimate cause of existence, otherwise there would be nothing. About these ultimate questions no one has thought more deeply than Hobbes or expressed his thoughts more clearly, honestly, and elegantly. And he has given us reason to vote No on Donald Trump. That makes him worth reading, and as you read him, apply the Socratic maxim “Know thyself”; if you read it with an open mind and without prejudice you may find yourself in many places, and you’ll know that there at least, what you read is true.

Postscript: Oxford University Press and Penguin both publish affordable paperback editions of “Leviathan.” Consult your local bookshop.

 

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