Academic journal article Independent Review

Wreaking Hobbes on Mankind

Academic journal article Independent Review

Wreaking Hobbes on Mankind

Article excerpt

For a long time I've wondered why so many intelligent, worthy people remain darkly skeptical of arguments for more freedom and less government. They shake their heads and smile that world-weary you're-so-naive smile, not focusing on the details of the argument. Some are conservatives who have fought doggedly for much of their lives to hold the line against government. They do not appear anxious to escape from the room because they can't respond, but evidently giving an adequate answer would take far too long -- they know something deeper than political philosophy. "Well," they say with resignation, "I believed that sort of utopian thing when I was younger, but I've seen a lot more of the world since then." Sometimes they project a wistfulness or sadness that significantly less government is unworkable. One leaves such discussions feeling that if one can't reach these people, convincing the wider world of the merits of a freer society will be difficult indeed.

"What Is Living and What Is Dead in Classical Liberalism?" by Charles K. Rowley (1996) helps fill in a piece of the puzzle. It reveals a key factor that may have contributed to the retreat from classical liberalism by two prominent and influential academics, John Gray and Robert Nozick. It is often difficult to trace the intellectual roots of a thinker's ideas -- roots by nature lie under the surface. But Rowley suggests that, at least for Gray, one factor is a highly negative view of man, specifically, the view of human nature of British philosopher Thomas Hobbes. When debating about government, it may be necessary to go beneath political philosophy to delve into more fundamental areas of general philosophy and psychology. Rowley indicates that Gray shares the conclusion of Hobbesian psychology: free men are self-destructive creatures destined for a "war of all against all." Gray then accepts Hobbes's political conclusion that freedom must be sacrificed to maintain peace and order. He then argues that a broad spectrum of societies -- from Asian authoritarianisms to some welfare states and liberal democracies -- might be compatible with the maintenance of peace and order.

But if Gray does hold a consistently Hobbesian view of man, his conclusion is too ecumenical and flexible. He must not accept any nonauthoritarian societies. After all, Hobbes viewed men as incapable of composing a responsible society in which people respect the rights of others. For the most part, he maintained, either greed or laziness ("covetousness" and "sloth") motivates men. Moreover, they naturally follow their feelings, their lust for riches and power, regardless of the means required to achieve their objectives; and this passionate irrationality leads to war. If this view of man as either universally or primarily an unreasoning brute is accepted, how can one logically advocate anything but authoritarianism? After all, freedom must lead ultimately to anarchy and chaos.

Hobbesian Psychology

What deeper view of human psychology supports such conclusions? For Hobbes, "the passions" motivate people. Why? Because objects produce in men "appetites and aversions" associated with pleasure and pain; and man is a volitionless machine. So the last desire before an action determines it. "In deliberation, the last appetite or aversion immediately adhering to the action or to the omission thereof, is that we call the Will" (Hobbes [1651] 1994, chap. 6, par. 53). Reason is the slave of the immediate desires. Reason is impotent (Strauss 1963, 3). It cannot independently cause action. In fact, reason, or "deliberation," is actually defined in terms of the passions (Hinnant 1977, 57).

What attitudes follow? Men are fundamentally antisocial and the enemies of one another. When a man acts among others, he tends to assert himself and to seek power. Men desire that the whole world fear and obey them (Strauss 1963, 18). "But the tongue of man is a trumpet of war and sedition" (Hobbes [1642] 1983, chap. …

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