Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, October 31, 2015

HOBBES: Of Commonwealth (Of Bees and Men)

Our last reading was about politics.  Aristotle said the origin of government is a natural instinct common among men.  In this week’s reading Thomas Hobbes takes up the same theme but disagrees with Aristotle on key points.  Hobbes says “bees and ants live sociably with one another, which are therefore by Aristotle numbered amongst political creatures… some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do the same.”  This is a good question.  Other “political creatures” (bees for example) live in harmony with one another.  Why can’t people do the same?  Especially if Aristotle is right and government is a natural instinct common to all political creatures?  Hobbes lists several objections but basically rejects the whole idea that human government is in fact a natural instinct.  Hobbes believes human government is an artificial institution and begins when “men agree amongst themselves to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others.  This may be called a political commonwealth, or commonwealth by institution.”  Bees may live peaceably with their fellow bees by following their natural instincts but “men are continually in competition for honor and dignity which these creatures are not.”  We saw this clearly in The Iliad (GB3) when Achilles wanted personal glory and honor more than he wanted a Greek victory over the Trojans.  His pride was inflamed when Agamemnon took away his war prize.  In Achilles’ mind his war prize was his personal possession, his own private property, and Agamemnon was stealing it from him.  And to add insult to injury, Agamemnon wasn’t doing it for the benefit of the common good of the Greeks.  He was doing it because of their personal feud.  Hobbes makes the observation that “amongst bees the common good differeth not from the private.”  Karl Marx (GB1) and Adam Smith (GB2) both had strong opinions about the effects of private property on human society.  Is private property the source of conflict (as Marx says) or is it the source of communal prosperity (as Smith says)?  And it’s worth pondering how much the common good is affected by what political leaders do in their private lives.  Do private activities affect the public good?  Americans don’t agree on these points and neither do philosophers.  Why?  Hobbes says bees “having not (as man) the use of reason, do not see, nor think they see, any fault in the administration of their common business.”  Bees never worry about how they can improve the hive.  They just do what bees do.  They go about their business of patiently making honey and more bees.  They never steal, break into open rebellion or propose changes in administrative policy.  But men do all these things.  Why?

This takes us back to the original disagreement between Aristotle and Hobbes: “the agreement of bees is natural (Aristotle’s view); that of men is by covenant only, which is artificial” (Hobbes’ view).  So a seemingly abstract philosophical question (what is the origin of the state?) winds up being crucial in actually deciding practical questions.  What does it matter if the state is natural or artificial?  If the state is artificial (as Hobbes believes) then we might agree with Rousseau in The Social Contract (GB1) when he says: “children remain bound to the father only as long as they need him for self-preservation.  As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond dissolves.”  Under this theory families stay together only so long as it serves their own best interests.  Once children can fend for themselves the family continues only as a voluntary and artificial institution.  Thus, the political community under Rousseau’s theory is more like a contract.  Edmund Burke takes Aristotle’s side and disagrees with Hobbes and Rousseau.  In The Revolution in France (GB5) Burke says “Society is indeed a contract… but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement...”  He believes social bonds run deeper than any legal contract.  For Burke and Aristotle society is a natural organic whole and not the artificial institution described by Rousseau and Hobbes.  But this much they all agree on: men don’t live like bees.


Blogger SMJ said...

It shouldn't be necessary to point this out, but bees are not political creatures. Regardless of what metaphor Aristotle once used to describe a city, living in a polis is not analogous to living in a hive. Politics is not a natural phenomenon anymore than baking bread is. Politics is deliberative activity that requires reason, imagination and speech. The whole point of political speech is to decide how the affairs of state will be conducted. Bees don't deliberate and they don't "decide" to do anything. They are programmed by nature (DNA) to do what they do.

Hobbes is right to reject the idea that human government is a natural instinct. It is no more natural than Moses and the Ten Commandments. Governments, as such, are a human invention employed to make the conditions of life more favorable to man than living in the wilderness of nature. The justification for government is that it makes the prospect for survival more likely. So the primary motivation for government is safety. Then, right after safety, follows an almost unanimous desire for improving the conditions of one's life, such as having enough food to eat. I think it is safe to say that food and safety remain pretty high on everyone's list of things we want from government. Not that we expect government to feed us, but that we prefer a system of laws which discourage theft and murder so that we might live out our lives in the pursuit of happiness without the constant need to fight for our mere survival.

11/03/2015 12:36 PM  

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