Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, April 29, 2011

HOBBES: Of Commonwealth (Introduction)

In the past few weeks our Great Books discussion group has read about the social effects of money (Shakespeare’s Timon), how primitive society affects the modern mind (Conrad), the importance of studying (Ortega) and how civilizations begin (Aristotle). Now we come to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The threads of the previous four readings come together in his short piece Of Commonwealth. Hobbes wants us to consider the basic human organizational structure we use in order to govern ourselves. Aristotle calls this structure a State. Hobbes calls it a Commonwealth. It doesn’t matter whether we call it a State or a Commonwealth, living in a civilized social order requires a certain set of skills. Shakespeare showed us how money can blind us to the true meaning of friendship. Conrad showed us that living in modern society makes us unfit to return and live in a primitive state of nature. Ortega showed us the importance of handing down our knowledge from one generation to the next. It was Ortega who said that if a whole generation should cease to study, nine-tenths of the human race would die a violent death. Hobbes agrees. And Aristotle made his famous statement that the state comes into existence originating in the bare needs of life and continues in existence for the sake of the good life. Thomas Hobbes partly agrees with all these writers and partly disagrees. Hobbes stakes out his own particular views on the social order by concentrating his attention on the most basic need of all: the need to survive. Without establishing our continued survival first, all this talk about principles and values is just a bunch of wasted words. When your back is to the wall in a struggle for life and death things like money and education become luxuries we can’t afford. But why do we have to become involved in some life-or-death struggle in the first place? Aristotle gave us the short answer: Man, when perfected, is the best of animals. But when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all. Hobbes agrees. You may be a good guy but some people out there are really bad guys. Hobbes goes into a little more detail in this essay. He notes that bees and ants live sociably with one another… some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do that same. Yes, many men (and women too) have asked why can’t people get along like other social creatures in the state of nature? Hobbes is one of the most direct writers in the Great Books. Here are his six reasons:
1. Men are continually in competition for honor and dignity, which these creatures are not.
2. Amongst these creatures the common good differeth not from the private.
3. These creatures having not (as man does) the use of reason, do not see, nor think they see, any fault in the administration of their common business.
4. They want that art of words by which some men can represent to others that which is good in the likeness of evil and evil in the likeness of good.
5. Irrational creatures cannot distinguish between INJURY (intentionally hurtful speech or words) and DAMAGE (actual loss of property or bodily harm).
6. The agreement of these creatures is natural; that of men is by covenant, which is artificial.
We could comment on every one of these reasons in more detail. Each statement is rich in philosophical speculation. But there’s no need to speculate. Hobbes states the most obvious points in the briefest number of words. You may disagree with him. Many people do. But you won’t misunderstand what Hobbes is saying. And he seems to split humanity right down the middle when he asks the reader to decide: which is more important, freedom or safety? Some will always choose freedom. Give me freedom or give me death! The Melians in Thucydides chose freedom and it got them killed. Hobbes says: choose safety.


Post a Comment

<< Home