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"For the laws of nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we woud be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like.

"Another doctrine repugnant to civil society, is that whatsoever a man does against his conscience, is sin; and it dependeth on the presumption of making himself judge of good and evil. For a man's conscience and his judgement are the same thing, and as the judgement, so also the conscience may be erroneous."


-Thomas Hobbes

Wondering where Bush, and those who have formulated his compatibilist views, formed his notions of executive sovereignty and autonomy, I thought of Thomas Hobbes, whose birthday just passed (April 5,1588).  We live in a world where all human beings are supposed to have rights, that is, moral claims that protect their basic interests. But what or who determines what those rights are? And who will enforce them? In other words, who will exercise the most important political powers, when the basic assumption is that we all share the same entitlements?  Hobbes proposed the formation of a commonwealth (a network of associated contracts, which provides for the highest form of social organization), or a society that is subject to the justice and prudence of an absolute political authority.

In Hobbes's view, the formation of the commonwealth creates a new, artificial person (the Leviathan) to whom all responsibility for social order and public welfare is entrusted. (Leviathan II 17).  Of course, someone must make decisions on behalf of this new whole, and that person will be the sovereign. Since the decisions of the sovereign are entirely arbitrary, it hardly matters where they come from, so long as they are understood and obeyed universally. (Separation of powers is distinctly rejected in Leviathan.)

The NSA scandal, the Patriot Act, The prelude to and commitment to the Iraq War (and its concomitant hegemonic geopolitical designs), his disdain for the Constitution: all reveal Bush's notion of limitless plenary powers.  Unfortunately, he is about to plunge us into another Hobbesian nightmare: Bellum omnium contra omnes; "the war of all against all".

The most durable components of the Hobbesian philosophy have been his appraisal of the role that power and fear play in human relations. ("All mankind [is in] a perpetual and restless desire for power... that [stops] only in death." Consequently, giving power to the individual would create a dangerous situation that would start a "war of every man against every man" and make life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." )  (It should be noted that Hobbes lived through the period of the "English Civil Wars,  Ironic in this context of juxtaposition, and very deterministic of Hobbes's views.)  Bush seems to operate very comfortably on this level of power and fear.  Although also an empiricist, the English philosopher John Locke, challenged Thomas Hobbes on the nature of primitive society; for Locke it (society) was more rational, tolerant, and cooperative.  His most important political work, Two Treatises of Government, appeared in 1690, wherein he argues that the function of the state is to protect the natural rights of its citizens, primarily to protect the right to property. Locke had one point of agreement with Hobbes: the origin of the social contract, an implicit agreement between everyone in a society to respect a legal authority designed to oversee a democratic coalition so as to enable the individual the inalienable right of the pursuit of happiness.  

Listening to the current debate on Iran, I am struck by the strident Hobbesians who are willing to attack Iran now, and without mercy.  They appear here in the comment threads; reasonable sounding individuals who are caught up in fear, and who promote a sense of authority over the existence of others, ignoring the human toll of death and deprivation that would result; an obeisant bunch of American chauvinists, who may not agree with Bush on anything else (some soul searching would probably reveal otherwise), but simply operate on the innate fear etched indelibly into the tabula rasa of their early lives.

It is difficult to discuss any aspect of the Bush presidency and his Administration without falling into a world of shifting paradigms, like the daedal and malevolently shape-shifting architecture in Mark Z. Danielewski's, House of Leaves.  We (you know who you are) need to focus on the individual issues - the NSA scandal, the Plame affair, the belligerent approach to Iran - (not to mention addressing the larger issues still under-examined regarding 9/11. the Patriot Act, etc.) - and not fall down the Hobbesian rabbit hole of history that Bush is digging.

"Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours."
-John Locke

Originally posted to ommzms on Fri Apr 14, 2006 at 08:05 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Most interesting ideas here. (0+ / 0-)

    It's kind of hard for me to grasp part of it to comment on and as your last quote says so well, it does take real thinking as opposed to just lobbing one over the fence.

    I'd never heard of the House of Leaves but looking it up see it was labeled an "existential horror." I think that is very apropos of our current situation. And it's a feeling I've been having lately that the paradigms are shifting. It all comes together, doesn't it, on the Iran platform.

    We've traveled back in time to the place where we have a sovereign, not a president in a republic. Bush tells us he must rule as supreme authority and not even our highest elected officials in Congress who have security clearances are allowed to have all the information or any authority over his decision to spy on Americans in America.

    Your comments about the role of fear in this style of governance capture that so well. Without doubt that has been the plan since 9/11. One tv show maybe the Daily Show just showed Bush speech clips--several ina row--where he is saying, "I can't help it if I'm the war president," and "I'm the war president," but "I didn't want to be the war president." Like it is a groove in which he is stuck for all time. To my knowledge this has never been done so systematically in the US by a president before.

    Yes, people have expressed a lot of fear this past week about what Bush might do in Iran, myself included. But I had not read posts here of people who wanted the US to bomb Iran.

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