Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

HOBBES: Origin of Government (Nature)

When the Hebrews left Egypt (in the book of Exodus) they followed Moses out into the desert.  Where were they going?  No one knew, not even Moses.  How long would it take to get there?  No one knew that either, not even Moses.  Why would someone follow a leader like that?  Hobbes would not.  That may be why the Lord chose Moses to lead the Hebrews and not a man like Hobbes.  For Thomas Hobbes the world is a dark and scary place.  Without the protection of government, even an oppressive government like Egypt, our lives would turn out badly, very badly.  Because (according to Hobbes) without the strong hand of a strong government to keep law and order, our world would be a world at war with itself; every man against every other man.  We would live more like beasts than men.  In a shortened version Hobbes’ “state of nature” would look something like this: in a world where every man is enemy to every man… there is no place for industry, no culture, no navigation, no building, 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.  Most of the things we enjoy and take for granted in civilized life simply would not be possible in a state of nature.  We would constantly be on the lookout for danger and ceaselessly searching for food and other necessities.  Our lives would be, in Hobbes’ famous phrase: nasty, brutish and short.  Outside of civilized society we’re doomed to live miserable lives.  Why does Hobbes think this way?  Many people today would disagree with him; many people disagreed with him in the past.  Rousseau, for example, held a more limited view of society: The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family: …children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved.  When a boy is mature enough to survive on his own, it’s time for him to leave home and leave behind the rules of his mother and father’s household.  Rousseau thinks freedom means breaking away from any chains that hold us in bondage; just like the Hebrews did when they left Egypt.  That’s why Rousseau makes a statement like this one: Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.  This could not be further from what Hobbes thinks.  For Hobbes we’re not free if we’re living in a state of nature, we’re in constant danger.  So the rules of society should not be regarded as “chains” in the way Rousseau thinks of them.  On the contrary, rules and laws help keep us safe and we can only experience true freedom when we’re living in safety.  And Rousseau isn’t the only one Hobbes has strong disagreements with.  He also thought Aristotle’s ideas about natural masters and slaves were just flat wrong.  Hobbes had this to say on that subject: I know that Aristotle in the first book of his Politics, for a foundation of his doctrine, makes men by nature, some more worthy to command, meaning the wiser sort, such as he thought himself to be for his philosophy; others to serve, meaning those that had strong bodies, but were not philosophers as he; as if master and servant were not introduced by consent of men, but by difference of wit: which is not only against reason; but also against experience. For there are very few so foolish that had not rather govern themselves, than be governed by others…  Hobbes agrees with Moses and America’s founding fathers that a truly wise people would rather govern themselves, than be governed by others…  That’s why Moses tried so hard to persuade the Hebrews not to be governed by Pharaoh; and The Federalist Papers tried to persuade Americans not to be governed by the King of England.  This attitude displays a confidence that wise people can, in fact, govern themselves wisely.  But Hobbes also points out that such is the nature of men, that howsever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves.  Everyone thinks they’re wise.  It’s that kind of dangerous delusion that makes the world such a dark and scary place for Hobbes.    


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