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Lunch with Mr Hobbes: what a 17th century monarchist has to say to modern democrats

By Michael McManus.


Who from history would you like to invite to lunch? A question we’ve all pondered
in an idle moment, and for me it’s Thomas Hobbes author of Leviathan, 1651. Having just joined Labour as a 70th birthday treat for myself the appointment has become urgent. Hobbes was a rottweiler, but I’m finding the party more like a goldfish. Why are we not proposing to nationalise some of our egregious companies – at least one bank and one power firm – to show what can be done without prima donna management and astronomical salaries? What is to be done about the vile pay inequalities. Where does it say we are going to break the spines of the people who have plundered and wrecked our economy?

Nasty, brutish and short was how Hobbes described life without the rule of law and it’s possible that lunch might share some of those aspects too. For a start it will be at 11am: we’ll be having fish, probably whiting, but absolutely no wine as on the rare occasions when he drank he made sure he took in enough ‘to have the benefit of vomiting by which neither his wit was disturbed nor his stomach oppressed’. So reported the garrulous and meandering John Aubrey who also holds out the unpleasing prospect of Mr Hobbes’ ‘greatest trouble’, which was ‘to keep off the flies from pitching on the baldness’ of his head.

Hobbes was accused of being an atheistical cynic with a falsely pessimistic view of humanity as irredeemably selfish, distrustful and violent. Then as now, we all like to think we’re not like that – Don’t we help others? Are we not basically altruistic? Do we not trust one another?

Hobbes had a ready response:

‘Let him therefore consider with himselfe … when going to sleep he locks his dores; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there bee lawes and publicke officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall bee done to him; what opinion he has of his fellow citizens when he locks his dores; and of his children and servants when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind, by his actions, as I do by my words?’

Once, having been seen by a divine to give money to a beggar, he was teased about his reasons – did this not undermine his cynical view of human passions? was it not evidence of his unselfish obedience to Christ’s command? ‘No’, said he, ‘for I was in pain to consider the miserable condition of the old man; and now my alms, giving him some relief, doth also ease me’. Would he be interested to learn that the managers of many of our charities pay themselves six figure salaries, and justify themselves using exactly the same excuses used by bankers? Would he want to ask our modern pacifists about their policy in respect of door locks, car locks, PIN numbers and passwords? And would he be surprised at the responses he got? I think not.

His philosophy is as eye-opening in our times as it was controversial in his, though we no longer believe as he did that applying it to political problems will settle them for good. Hobbes starts from two basic simple ideas: that we are all basically equal, and that our supreme motivation is our self-preservation and right to life.

He argues first that we are all pretty much equal in most respects – from physical strength to basic common sense, or wisdom in the ways of the world. Of course, some have more knowledge or intelligence than others, just as some have more physical skill and courage, but, taken all together, the differences are not so great that anyone can claim any right or benefit that another cannot claim too, and with equal justice. Don’t we all feel without hesitation that we have the right to remark on the suitability, stupidity or nastiness of our rulers? Do we not blithely pass comment on the professionalism and expertise of almost every specialist we hear of – whether high court judges, town-planners, artists or surgeons? Are we not all sure we are as commonsensical and street-smart as anyone else?

Hobbes recognises that this notion will be repugnant to those who believe themselves socially or intellectually superior. Such people were as prevalent in the 17th century as they are now. Then there were aristocrats aplenty, land-owners and well-padded clergy. Nowadays, among others with a similar sense of entitlement, we have the finance industry, rude, greedy, delusional – and if asked to confront the harm they have caused, indignant, wounded, deaf to reason and impervious to evidence. What they have in common with their hapless victims (and this is Hobbes’ important point) is confidence in their own judgement, and this fact, Hobbes says, proves we are all more or less cognitively equal: “for there is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of anything than that every man is contented with his share”.

No one in politics speaks of equality now. Let’s shout it. Let’s promise a start on fair shares using taxation to roll back the vast inequalities that have come upon us. It is government’s duty to rectify inequalities and disadvantages that are natural – whether caused by sickness, ill-parenting, or flooding. And let’s not listen any more to the usual excuses about needing to attract international talent. We attract plenty without offering anything very much. Britain is one of the best places to live: if we can get builders, teachers and nurses from overseas why not bankers? A banker’s job is to lend money at interest and pay interest on deposits and to manage future insurance contracts to steady the price of vital raw materials: about as challenging as running an ice cream van.

Having established his strikingly modern notion of equality Hobbes then asserts that we all have an equal fundamental right to life – to the supreme law of self-preservation – the foundation upon which all other rights are built. For this we need peace and Hobbes offers this precept: ‘That every man, ought to endeavour peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of warre’. The aim of war is to achieve a situation where we are all prepared to be content with as much liberty against others as we will allow others against ourselves: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

It is Hobbes’ thoughts on war that have proved so prophetic. Here he is describing what we think of as a twentieth century phenomenon – cold war:

‘For warre consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of warre; as it is in the nature of weather. For the nature of foule weather lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together; so the nature of warre consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.’

Hobbes might say we are at war now and not just with terrorists, who, when not involved in ‘actuall fighting’ have a ‘known disposition thereto’. He might be interested in the UK Foreign Office website where at any one time three or four dozen countries are active in war or something so close to it as to make travel dangerous. And then there are the meetings of the UN where conflicts regularly prevent action to relieve abuses. He had no faith in democratic methods or conferences as a means of keeping the peace. Unlike modern states which look back respectfully to Cleisthenes’ Athenian democracy (508-322BC) – or claim to do – Hobbes pointed out that it was an age of continual warfare, demagoguery and failure, for ‘No bond is more easily broken than a man’s word ‘.

He would not be surprised to learn that despite international treaties the UN has only once successfully carried out its duty when it freed Kuwait in 1991.

He might note that the causes of war that he listed, both civil and international, remain the same: competition for scarce goods or trade; diffidence, that is the defensive fear that if we do not strike first we will be attacked; and glory, the satisfying of pride in conflict. Hobbes is contemptuous of glory as a motive and expands on it thus:

Trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons, or by reflexion in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

In modern parlance he is describing ideologies and nationalism, and the racist and religious hatreds that are their offspring. Hobbes’ solution to the quest for peace remains as controversial as it is unattainable and volumes have been devoted to its interpretation and construal. Put simply, he proposed that, since we can’t be trusted, we must all permanently surrender our rights to a sovereign power to keep us in order: ‘a visible power to keep men in awe, and tye them by feare of punishment to the performance of their covenants and observation of laws’. He had in mind a benevolent but powerful monarch, not a person or group which might be unseated by popular protest.

I cannot guess what he would have to say about our modern quasi democratic means of keeping the peace, however imperfectly and certainly not universally. You could argue, though not with total confidence, that in recent times, unlike the Atheneans, some western peoples, when given the option, vote to avoid wars. Some, notably in 1914 and 1939, did not, forcing others, who wished to preserve their own peace, ‘to use all the helps and advantages of warre’. And what about internal peace? Hobbes pointed out the need for firm rule but is that now enough? It is certainly necessary, but is it sufficient? Hobbes’ supreme law of self-preservation and the right to life looks different now from in his time. We need police as much as he did, but for the right to life we also need (and more importantly we expect and demand) healthcare that was not imaginable in the seventeeth century. The World Health Organisation’s ranking of healthcare that famously has France at the top (Britain is number 18) is illuminating when you get more than halfway down: some examples: Egypt, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, North Korea. Perhaps I might persuade Hobbes that we should be sending, not the RAF, but an NHS taskforce to bring peace to these turbulent countries.

Here is Hobbes on what happens when even basic order is absent: a horrifying ‘State of Nature’ as he termed it:

‘In such a condition there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodius building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.’

Hobbes might be surprised, and certainly sorrowful, to find that 350 years after he wrote it, that paragraph still describes the condition under which so many people of the earth still live.

Well, that’s lunch over. It’s always a mistake on these occasions to invite more than one person from history as they naturally won’t want to listen to you. But now, I do want to introduce another person who I hope Hobbes will agree constitutes an empirical test of his basic tenet – that we prize our own survival above all else in all circumstances. The German psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz, survived, and afterwards wrote a low-key account of day-to-day life in that hellhole. His time there began relatively well. Learning that he was a psychiatrist, an SS chief asked him for advice ‘for his friend’ who suffered panic attacks in open spaces. Frankl offered some tips and was rewarded by a marginally less onerous work regime. (We are unable to enjoy the grim humour of contemplating an SS officer handicapped in his search for lebensraum by agoraphobia.)

Frankle describes in a matter of fact way how many prisoners used whatever means they could to get someone else taken the gas chambers in their place, and he cautions against seeing survivors like him as simple heroes. He gives a Hobbesian, and also perhaps a natural-selection, explanation of why he lived and others died. There was a self-preservation process at work amongst the prisoners with only those able to survive who had lost all scruples in the fight for existence:

They were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles, whatever one may choose to call them, we know: the best of us did not return.

The best of us did not return. However, Frankl was given the chance to escape Germany in 1939 when he was offered a visa for America. He declined because he could not take his parents with him: self-preservation? By a horrible irony they, his wife and all his family save one sister perished. What have you to say to that Mr Hobbes?

It’s time to say goodbye. Fittingly, for a philosopher of war, he was born on 5 April 1588, his mother allegedly frightened into labour by the prospect of invasion by the Spanish Armada. Waggishly, he wanted his gravestone to be marked: Here is the true philosopher’s stone – but it was not to be. We don’t need a gravestone to remind us of Hobbes. His works have never been out of print and, to paraphrase what is said of another seventeenth century genius, if you want to know what his works were about, look around you.



Michael McManus is recently retired from a teaching career which ranged from teenage tearaways excluded from schools, through post-grad, teacher-training, to organising PTSD courses for those trying to do something positive among the endless conflicts in the Middle East. As a change from academic publishing, I’m just completing a collection of short stories with philosophical lessons attached which I’m going to self-publish in three volumes this spring. The first two titles will be: St Thomas Aquinas Joins Islamic State; and, The Friedrich Nietzsche Weight-loss Plan.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 12th, 2016.