With the loss of traditional religion as the guiding force of the Western world, following the collapse of the Medieval around 1350, politics quickly became not just a substitute, but a religion in and of itself, a proto-ideology serving as a glue for the emerging nation-states of Europe. Certainties that the Medievals had taken for granted—such as the “divine duty of kings,” the extreme limitation of the political sphere of life, the dignity of the human person, and the sovereignty of God alone—came into question again. For all intents and purposes, the post-Medieval world reverted to the ancient world of the God-kings, with the model of Xerxes and Alexander replacing that of Alfred and Harold. In what historians call the early modern and modern periods, political thinkers became ascendant—the new priest-kings, evangelicals of power, and architects of the collectivist society—beginning all anew with states of nature and re-formations of community into larger and larger wholes. As the nation-state grew, the human person diminished, drastically.
Perhaps no modern thinker best represented these changes than did Thomas Hobbes. In his seminal work, Leviathan, Hobbes called for the creation of a “mortal god”—the Leviathan—to counter and augment the will of the “immortal god.” In his view of society, man was utterly and completely depraved, incapable of anything but self-interest and cannibalism. “Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man,” he wrote. “For war consists not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known; and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war as it is in the nature of weather.” As such, when men are left to their own devices, Hobbes laments, there can exist no industry, no agriculture, “no navigation; nor use of the commodities that may be imported by the sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The immortal god, Hobbes admits, has bestowed upon each of the natural right and liberty of self-preservation. Rather, however, than seeing this right as extending to all of mankind, we selfishly hoard the natural right for ourselves and use it as a pretext for violence upon and against our neighbor.
It should be noted—as a way of giving context to Hobbe’s rather dour views—Hobbes witnessed, wrote during, and survived the English Civil War as well as the English commonwealth under Cromwell. He also wrote within the two centuries after Europeans had discovered the Americas and her native tribes. Thus, violence as well as “a state of nature” could be readily observed by any thinking European.
The only solution to such a horrific world, Hobbes claims, is for each and every person to give up his natural right to self-preservation to the community as a whole. This community, then, must become a “mortal god,” a Leviathan, that subsumes all persons into it, making them “subjects” not citizens, and making the collective—either through one man or one body—the sovereign. “This is the generation of the great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defense. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the commonwealth, he has the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that by terror thereof he is enabled to perform the wills of them all to peace and home, and mutual again against their enemies abroad.” Most importantly, Hobbes claimed, in Leviathan “consists the essence of the commonwealth; which, to define it, is one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defense.” In this scheme, Hobbes explained, the sovereign serves as the soul of the body, animating it, moving it, as well as keeping it from motion in self-restraint. As the soul, the sovereign is not subject to any of the laws of the society, for he is, by his office, both above the law and one with the law.
Indeed, Hobbes took this even further, noting that in a state of nature, there can be neither good nor evil, for neither exist objectively or separately from the needs of the whole. “But otherwise it is manifest that the measure of good and evil actions is the civil law; and the judge the legislator, who is always representative of the commonwealth.” If a man chooses a morality, a goodness, an ethic, separate from the whole, he weakens and distracts. “By a good law I mean not a just law, for no law can be unjust. The law is made by the sovereign power, and all that is done by such power is warranted and owned by every one of the people.” The only proper definition of “good,” Hobbes argued, is “useful.” If it works for the whole, it is good. If it works against the people, it is ill. The laws must “direct and keep them [the people] in such a motion as not to hurt themselves by their own impetuous desires, rashness, or indiscretion.” Should the individuals assert their own separate wills, for whatever reasons, they will dissolve into the worst of all societal ills, civil war.
Tragically, Hobbes’s Leviathan has inspired countless tyrants, and his collectivist nightmare society—named, not inappropriately, for the sea demon of the Old Testament—is not just the stuff of George Orwell and C.S. Lewis’s dystopias, but the basis of real-life hellholes, such as those found in twentieth-century Germany, Russia, and Cambodia.
Ideas, do indeed, have consequences.
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The featured image is “Destruction of Leviathan” (1865) by Gustave Doré (1832-1883), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.