Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Creating Civil Society

Thomas Hobbes’ political philosophy is a paradoxical fabric. On the one hand, his view of mankind is uncomplimentary, bordering on the defamatory; and yet he also imagines our species endowed with extraordinary power and worth, capable of imitating God by creating a life form, the civil state, and doing so with high moral purpose. In this regard, he has been compared to Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who stands at the apex of modern European moral philosophy.
I propose, in this essay, to treat Hobbes as a moralist. There is much to learn by doing so. Besides, it’s also edifying.
But what is a moralist? A moralist is someone who is confident that he or she exists in a moral universe, one in which moral values are as basic to existence as physical ones, for example, telling the truth is as necessary to life as respecting the law of gravity; generosity as necessary as breathing clean air.

What are moral values? Their number is legion, beyond counting; but here are some examples to consider: truthfulness, kindness, sympathy, fairness, friendliness, generosity, liberality, magnanimity, reliability, in sum, whatever makes an action good or beneficial to others. These are all values that Hobbes would embrace, because, as he writes in chapter 10 of “Leviathan,” in our endeavor to live by these values we increase our power to act; and it is by means of moral endeavor that civil societies are created and sustained. To be very brief: moral endeavor is power, and it is by means of such power that civil societies exist.

It is in this connection that Hobbes’ thought begins to appear paradoxical. He did not suppose that human nature is inherently good. Rather he depicted the natural condition of humanity as selfish, putting self before others, although he never went so far as imagining that we humans by nature are predisposed to having megalomaniacal fantasies; I suspect he would have considered anyone so disposed to be mad, or a monster. Yet he describes the human character in its natural state as lacking a moral will, concerned only with its own advantage and without care for the welfare of others or for the common good. What follows is Hobbes’ narrative of creating the civil state.

In the beginning, that is in the state of nature, there is oneself and others. Nature is full of hazards. Hence everyone’s primary purpose in life is self preservation; other persons are viewed as threats to that purpose; they are competitors, hence, enemies. The story of human existence is a saga of self against others, or, what Hobbes described as a war of all against all.
And this dire condition is made worse by human frailty, by the all-too-human fear of suffering and death, and deep anxiety, “so that man, which looks too far before him, in the care of future time, hath his heart all the day long, knawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity; and has no rest, nor pause in his anxiety, but in sleep.”Hobbes was not only a moralist, but an existentialist also. Neither Soren Kierkegaard, nor Jean Paul Sartre, nor Martin Heidegger could have described despair so poignantly or so vividly, this sickness unto death, being thrown into the world. In this desperate situation, which is common to us all, the need for civil society is revealed. The creation of civil society is an act of rescue: mankind rescuing himself or herself or themselves, relying only on his, her, or their rational and moral natures to succeed. Success is not a miracle, it is act of self- creation, but what is needed for it to succeed is a moral will to power.

The act of creation involves the discovery of law, or the creation of it: the two fundamental laws of nature. The first is a duplex: “Seek peace, and follow it,” but if this does not meet with an equal response, then use every means available for your own defense, and in this endeavor, imagine that you have a right to all things. The second law of nature, is morecomplex:Ifoneshouldfind that others have the same intent, to make peace, then enter into a contract or covenant with them, with all who are willing to cede their native right to all things, or a major portion of it, to a common source, a sovereign who will fairly maintain the peace among all who have covenanted together, who by his or her sovereign power, will keep us in awe.

Remember, Hobbes was born during the reign of Elizabeth the Great, who, with a little help from nature, delivered England from the forces of imperial Spain. This second law of nature is the familiar principle of the golden rule: do unto others what you would have other so to you. And when all this is accomplished, civil society, the nation, is founded. The golden rule is a rule of reciprocity; and is rightly regarded as golden, for it encompasses the whole of our moral duties to others. Imagine how you would want everyone else to treat you, and treat them accordingly: with respect, with sympathy, with friendliness, kindness, generosity, and so on. 
In a previous essay, I remarked that Hobbes believed that the sovereign is not subject to the civil law; however, he was emphatic that no one in a civil society, from a mere citizen to those holding the highest offices, is exempt from these basic laws of nature, for they are the laws of God who created the moral universe. 

Those who contest that Hobbes was a moralist claim that he didn’t mean what he said. That he was ironic in his assertions, that one must read between the lines. But Hobbes’ lines are clear, and they are mistaken. But even if they were right, there’s no denying that Hobbes the moralist makes good sense.
Postscript: The view of Hobbes as a moralist was first sketched out by the British scholar A. E. Taylor in 1938 in an article entitled “The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes”; it’s worth reading; check it out on Google.

 

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