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Hobbesian Calculus

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Harper’s Magazine has an excellent recurring feature that takes the following form: each piece begins with a painting accompanied by a quote by some historical figure. The quote is then discussed by some Harper’s writer, related perhaps to some contemporary issue, and then links are given to music contemporaneous with and perhaps of interest to the historical figure. One recent example is built around a quote from the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The quote is taken from The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (1650) and the accompanying painting is a portrait of Hobbes from 1660 by the painter John Michael Wright.

Harper’s Scott Horton provides commentary. Hobbes’ quote and Horton’s comments are worth reading closely and in full. Let me give a taste:

… the last seven years have been a period of Hobbesian triumphalism in America. Dick Cheney’s political perspectives, we are told, were strongly shaped by his college encounter with Hobbes, his favorite political philosopher. The domestic policies of the Bush Administration–from the color-coded warning charts to endless reminders about 9/11–could be explained by reference to the works of Hobbes. …

Fear of chaos and violence, [Hobbes] reasons, leads men to cede power and authority to their ruler. That belongs to the Classic Comics version of Hobbes, of course. A key but less appreciated aspect of Hobbes theory is, however, what we might call the temporal element. Man is, he offers, an inherently conservative creature in that he seeks to preserve what he has and in so doing he is driven by his experience. In this sense, he suggests, man is a captive of his past—for out of his understanding of the past, he fashions for himself a future. Man is motivated by fear in this process. His fears are informed by historical experience. But the focus of his fears is the future: the prospect that horrible events of the past will recur. Hobbes’s prescription for would-be rulers is simple: to establish and sustain your mastery over men, understand how to manipulate the fears that drive them. Wield those fears to your own advantage.

For the past seven years, America has lived a Hobbesian moment. To be more precise, it has lived under political figures who sought to secure their hold on power through the use of a Hobbesian calculus. They believed that the traumatic experience of 9/11 could be used to gain ever more power and free themselves from the burdens of democratic accountability. This passage suggests how the process works: the experience of 9/11 coupled with fear of the prospect of its recurrence are manipulated to fashion a new future. This is what Hobbes means when he speaks of men fashioning a future from their perceptions of the past.

Horton next suggests that Cheney has mis-read Hobbes and offering a corrective:

But is it really proper to say that Hobbes is focused on “fear” of the future? That’s certainly the Cheney take on Hobbes. But it might not be the best reading. What Hobbes has in mind may really be something a tad milder—not fear, but anxiety. Hobbes feels that concern about the future should drive man to be cautious, conservative and prudent—to avoid unnecessary risk-taking and to carefully calculate his interests and act to protect them. Anxiety should lead man to collective action and to minimize the recourse to state violence because of the very unpredictability of the consequences of war. He puts an emphasis on the controlled and directed force of reason. He does not mean the sort of fear that provokes panic and leads to unreasoned reflex. Hobbes does not contemplate fear that spurs rash decisions formed on the basis of preconceptions, ignoring evidence that disproved them. Can it be that America’s Hobbesian moment was based on a misreading of Hobbes? As I note in “Hobbes on the Euphrates,” the manner in which the would-be Hobbesians of the Bush era pursued the conquest and occupation of Iraq displayed an astonishing ignorance of the basic concepts of human interaction that Hobbes elucidates in the early chapters of the Leviathan. It’s clear that Thomas Hobbes was a far more insightful and thoughtful man than his self-styled disciples of the Bush era.

I read Leviathan some 38 or 39 years ago and remember little. Perhaps I would benefit from re-reading it. Just last month there was a piece by Blair Worden in the New York Review of Books on Quentin Skinner’s recent book Hobbes and Republican Liberty that also had me thinking of reading Hobbes again.

Categories: History, Law, Politics
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