14. The Sovereign State: Hobbes’ Leviathan
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14. The Sovereign State: Hobbes’ Leviathan

October 14, 2019


Professor Steven Smith:
Okay, good morning. I’m going to show another movie
today but not until a little bit later in the class.
We’ll get it. We’ll get there.
Don’t worry! It doesn’t fit until the last
part of the class. But today, I want to talk about
sovereignty. There are two great concepts
that come out of Hobbes that you have to remember.
One is the state of nature and the other is sovereignty.
I spoke a bit about the first one yesterday or Monday rather.
Today, I want to talk about Hobbes’ theory of the sovereign
state, the creation of the sovereign.
Hobbes refers to the sovereign as a mortal god,
as his answer to the problems of the state of nature,
the state, the condition of life being solitary,
poor, nasty, brutish and short.
And it is only the creation of the sovereign for Hobbes,
endowed or possessed with absolute power,
that is sufficient to put an end to the condition of
perpetual uncertainty, anxiety and unrest that is the
case of the natural condition. Let me talk for a while about
some of the formal features of Hobbes’ sovereign power,
of the Hobbesian state. In the first place,
what I want to impress upon you is that the sovereign is for
Hobbes less a person than it is or he is an office.
The sovereign is described by Hobbes as an artificial person
by which he means the sovereign is the creation of the contract
or the covenant that brought this office into being.
The sovereign does not exist by nature but rather,
Hobbes tells us again, the sovereignty is the product
of art or science. It is the product,
the creation of the people or of what we might call,
in Jeffersonian language, it is the product of the
consent of the governed. The sovereign and,
again, this is crucial, is for Hobbes,
the representative of the people.
He is the sovereign representative.
It is the people who endow the sovereign with the authority to
represent them on their behalf. And, in that respect,
Hobbes’ sovereign has many of the features or characteristics
that we come to associate with what we call modern executive
power or executive authority. When Louis XIV of France
famously said L’état c’est moi.
“I am the state,” he was expressing a peculiarly
pre-modern in that way conception of the state;
that is to say, he regarded the state as in
some ways his personal property. “I am the state.
The state am I.” But this is very different from
Hobbes’ sovereign. The state for Hobbes is not the
possession of the sovereign. Rather, the sovereign does not
own the state. He is appointed or authorized
to secure for the people the, in many ways,
limited ends of peace and security.
He has much the same function and to some degree much of the
same personality as what we would call a modern day CEO,
that is to say there is a kind of anonymity and impersonality
about the sovereign. I mean, unless you’re in the
Yale entrepreneurial society who can name the CEOs of many
companies? And the answer is you probably
can’t. They are for the most part
relatively anonymous individuals unless, you know,
they get into trouble like Ken Lay or someone like that or do
something amazing like Bill Gates.
For the most part, they are rather impersonal and
anonymous and that is in many ways the characteristic of
Hobbes’ sovereign. Hobbes’ theory of the
sovereign, interestingly, contains within itself elements
of both secular absolutism and, in some ways,
modern liberalism and it is the tension between these two that I
want to bring out in my discussion here.
The power of the sovereign, Hobbes continually insists,
must be unlimited. Yet, at the same time,
he tells us that the sovereign is the creation of the people
whom he represents or it represents.
Although Hobbes is widely taken to be a defender of monarchical
absolutism, you will note, in your readings,
that he displays a kind of studied neutrality over actually
what form the sovereign should take.
He only insists that sovereign power remain absolute and
undivided whether it belongs to a single person,
a few, or the many. And among the powers that the
sovereign, he insists, must control are,
for example, laws concerning property,
the right of declaring war and peace, what we would call
foreign policy, rules of justice concerning
life and death, which is to say criminal law,
and, of course, the right to
determine what books and ideas are permissible,
that is to say the right of censorship.
In a sense, the core of Hobbes’ theory of sovereignty can be
boiled down to the statement that the sovereign and only the
sovereign is the source of law. The law is what the sovereign
says it is. Does that sound in any way
familiar from what we have read this term? Anyone?
Sound familiar? Thrasymachus?
Do you remember that name, Book I of the Republic?
Justice is what the stronger say it is.
Hobbes tells us that the law is what the sovereign commands.
This is sometimes known as the doctrine of legal positivism,
which is to say that law is the command of the sovereign,
a sort of command theory of law. And, again, that seems to point
back to Thrasymachus’ point of view in the first book of the
Republic. There is for Hobbes,
as for Thrasymachus, no higher court of appeal than
the will or the word of the sovereign,
no transcendent law, no divine law,
no source of authority outside sovereign command.
And sovereign is appointed for Hobbes to be much like an umpire
in a baseball or a football game, to set the rules of the
game. But the Hobbesian sovereign,
unlike umpires, are not just the enforcers of
the rules or the interpreters of the rules,
the sovereign is also the creator, the shaper and maker of
the rules. And Hobbes draws from this the
startling conclusion, in many ways the infamous
conclusion that the sovereign can never act unjustly.
The sovereign can never act unjustly, why?
Because the sovereign is the source of law and the sovereign
is the source of the rules of justice.
Therefore, Hobbes concludes, he can never act unjustly.
And he supports this example by a deeply perverse and amusing,
I have to say, reading from a biblical story,
do you remember this? He refers to the story of David
and Uriah. Everybody will remember that
story from Sunday school or from Hebrew school or whatever.
Does anyone remember that David was the king at that time?
He was the king of Israel and he coveted Uriah’s wife
Bathsheba. He wanted to sleep with
Bathsheba, so what did he do? He had Uriah killed so he could
sleep with her. And Hobbes reasons from this
story that while David’s action may have sinned against God,
he did no injustice to Uriah, imagine that.
I think Uriah might have had a different point of view about
this. He did no injustice to Uriah
because, as the lawful sovereign, he could do any,
not just anything he liked but whatever he did was set by the
rules of the law. And when Hobbes tells that
story, which he mentions a couple of times in the book,
one can only imagine he must have had a kind of wry grin on
his face when he wrote that out. In fact, next semester I’m
teaching an entire course devoted to Hobbes’ critique of
religion in which this will, among other things,
figure prominently. But Hobbes’ teaching about law
is, in some ways, less Draconian than it might
first appear. He makes clear that law is what
the sovereign says it is. There can be no such thing as
an unjust law, he infers, again,
because the sovereign is the source of all justice.
But he does distinguish, he tells us,
between a just law and a good law.
All laws are by definition just, he tells us,
but it doesn’t follow that all laws are by definition good.
“A good law,” he says in chapter 30, “is that which is
needful for the good of the people.”
A good law is needful for the good of the people.
But then one asks, what are the criteria by which
we determine the good of the people?
How is this determined? And Hobbes makes clear that the
sovereign is not invested with the authority to exercise a kind
of absolute control over everything that people do.
The purpose of law, Hobbes tell us,
is not so much to control but to facilitate.
Consider just the following passage from chapter 30,
section 21. Hobbes writes:
“For the use of laws, which are but rules
authorized,” he says, “is not to bind the people from
all voluntary actions. It is not to bind them from
voluntary actions but to direct and keep them in such motion as
not to hurt themselves by their own impetuous desires,
rashness or indiscretion as hedges are set not to stop
travelers but to keep them on their way.”
This is the force or purpose of law to set rules,
to keep people, as he puts it,
on their way, a law that is intended simply
to constrain and control for its own sake,
Hobbes says, cannot be a good law.
The purpose of a good law is to facilitate human agency in some
ways. And I think,
again, that too is central to Hobbes’ theory of the sovereign.
Its purpose is to facilitate, not simply to control and
inhibit. But the power to control or the
power of law for Hobbes also very much applies and here is
one of his most controversial doctrines.
It must certainly apply to matters of opinion to what we
would call today First Amendment issues. This is something that Hobbes
insists upon. “For the actions of men,” he
says, “proceed from their opinions.
Actions proceed from opinions. And in the well governing of
opinions consisteth the well governing of men’s actions.”
So, if we are going to govern or regulate human behavior,
we have to begin by regulating opinion.
And it follows from this, Hobbes believes,
that the sovereign has the right to decide what opinions,
what books, what ideas are conducive to peace and which
ones aim simply to stir up war and discontent? And these comments of Hobbes’
about the sovereign’s power to control opinions are directed at
two principal institutions, the Church and,
guess what the other one is, the university.
Both of these for Hobbes he considers to be locus,
the focus of or centers of seditious opinion that require
to remain under sovereign control.
By the churches, Hobbes is speaking of the
reformed church but, in particular,
he is concerned with those radical puritan sects of the
type that later came and founded America,
these radical sects that elevate matters of conscience
and private belief over and above the law,
that is to say arrogating to themselves, to the rights of
conscience and the private belief,
the powers to judge the sovereign.
It was these dissenting Protestants, it was these
dissenting sects, that formed the rank and file
of Cromwell’s armies during the Civil War in England.
They formed the rank and file of the republican armies in
England against the rule of the king.
And, Hobbes tell us he would banish all doctrines that
profess to make the individual or the sect,
more importantly in some ways the sect, the judge of the
sovereign. It is only in the state of
nature, he tells us, that individuals have the right
to determine just and unjust, right and wrong for themselves.
Once we enter society, once we engage or conclude the
social compact, we transfer our power to do
this to the sovereign to determine these matters for us.
And just as important as the radical churches and the
reformed sects is for Hobbes the university and its curriculum.
In particular, Hobbes faults the universities
for teaching what, for teaching the radical
doctrines of Aristotleanism in the seventeenth century.
Aristotle in this period was the source of modern republican
ideas, ideas about self government,
ideas about in some ways what we might call direct democracy
or participatory democracy, people who believe that the
only legitimate form of government is one where
Aristotle says citizens take turns ruling and being ruled in
turn. It was, above all,
the influence of the classics, Aristotle and Cicero in
particular, that Hobbes regards as an
important cause for the recent civil war and the regicide of
Charles I. Consider the following passage
that he writes: “As to rebellion against
monarchy, one of the most frequent causes
is the reading of the books of policy and history of the
ancient Greeks and Romans. Reading of those books leads
people to rebel against monarchy, for which young men
like yourselves,” he says, or young women too,
“for which young men and all others that are unprovided by
the antidote of solid reason,” who are susceptible that is to
reading these stories and reading these books,
“receive a strong and delightful impression of the
great exploits of war.” “From reading of such books,”
Hobbes continues, “men have undertaken to kill
their kings because the Greek and Latin writers in their books
and discourses of policy make it lawful and laudable for any man
to do so provided before he do it he call him a tyrant.”
That’s what you learn, Hobbes believes,
from the reading of Aristotle and the Greeks and Romans,
regicide, that the only legitimate form of government is
a republic and that it is a lawful and even it’s your duty
to kill your king. Of course, before doing so,
he says, “you must call him first a tyrant.”
It’s a wonderful passage. And this is so interesting,
I think, not only because of its humor and Hobbes’ in many
ways characteristic exaggerations,
but because it shows how much emphasis Hobbes puts on the
reform of opinion, the reform of ideas,
in many ways like Machiavelli and like Plato too before him,
Hobbes regards himself as an educator of princes,
an educator and a transformer, a reformer of ideas.
There is a kind of internal irony here I think because
Hobbes sometimes writes as if, as we’ve seen,
as if human beings are nothing more than complex machines that
mechanically obey the laws of attraction and repulsion.
But he also obviously writes that we are beings with will and
purpose who are uniquely guided by opinions,
ideas, and doctrines and it is in many ways the first business
of the sovereign to act as a moral reformer of ideas.
Hobbes realizes this is a difficult and uphill task that
he has set for himself. And, in a rare moment of sort
of personal self-reflection or self-reference,
he notes somewhat drolly that the novelty of his ideas will
make it difficult for them to find an audience.
“I am at the point of believing, he says,
“that my labor will be as useless as the commonwealth of
Plato,” he says in a moment of sort of
uncharacteristic despair, “will be as useless as the
commonwealth of Plato.” “For Plato” he says “also is of
the opinion that it is impossible for the disorders of
the state ever to be taken away until sovereigns be
philosophers.” And while, in many ways,
initially despairing of the possibility of finding a sort of
friendly reception or audience for his work,
Hobbes then goes on in a more optimistic note to observe that
his book is considerably simpler and easier to read than Plato’s.
Again, you might have a discussion about that over which
is the easier one. But, Hobbes believes it is
simpler and easier and therefore more likely to catch the ear of
a sympathetic prince. “I recover some hope,” he says.
“I recover some hope that one time or other this writing of
mine may fall into the hands of a sovereign who will consider it
for himself, for it is short and I think
clear.” Well, we might question that.
He says it’s a short book and “I think clear” he writes.
Well, it’s complex and long. But nevertheless,
perhaps hoping that his advertising it in this way will
gain the ear of a sovereign and that “without the help” he
continues, “of any interested or envious
interpreter and by the exercise of entire sovereignty in
protecting the public teaching of it convert this truth of
speculation into the utility of practice,”
the very end of chapter 31, “will convert this truth of
speculation into the utility of practice.”
So, Hobbes clearly believes or thinks that this will be a
useful book for a sovereign to read and hoping it will gain the
ear of a sympathetic sovereign or potential sovereign. Hobbes may, I think,
overestimate or maybe I really should say underestimate the
difficulty of the book but he returns to this again at the
very end of Leviathan. “The universities” he says
there, where he talks again a little bit about the audience
for the book, “the universities,” he says,
” are the fountains of civil and moral doctrine.
The universities are the fountains of civil and moral
doctrine and have the obligation to teach the correct doctrine of
rights and duties.” And this means for Hobbes,
first of all, adopting his book as the
authoritative teaching on moral and political doctrine in the
universities. This should be the required
textbook of political science of political teaching in the
universities to replace the older textbook,
i.e. Aristotle’s Politics.
“Therefore,” he says, “I think it may be profitably
printed and more profitably taught in the universities,” he
confidently asserts. “The ideal audience for the
book,” he says “should be the preachers, the gentry,
the lawyers, men of affairs,
who drawing such water as they find from the book can use it,”
he says, “to sprinkle the same both from the pulpit and from
their conversation upon the people.”
This is how he sees it, that it should be taught from
the pulpit. It should be taught from the
universities and from this conversation will be sprinkled
upon the people. Hobbes’ hope,
like that of all the great political philosophers,
was to be a kind of legislator for mankind.
This again is a book with epic, epic ambition. Let me mention,
I’ve emphasized in many ways the absolutist and authoritarian
side of Hobbes’ teaching. Let me talk about something
that might sound oxymoronic. Let me call it for the moment
Hobbesian liberalism. Hobbes enjoys describing the
sovereign in the most absolute and extreme terms.
Sovereign is to have supreme command over life and death,
war and peace, what is to be taught and heard.
And yet, in many ways, this Hobbesian sovereign aims
to allow for ample room for individual liberty.
And he even sets some limits on the legitimate use of sovereign
power. For all of his tough talk,
Hobbes takes justice and the rule of law very seriously,
far more seriously than, for example,
does Machiavelli. At one time in the book or at
one point he maintains that a person cannot be made to accuse
themselves without the assurance of pardon.
You can’t be forced to accuse yourself, what we could call the
Fifth Amendment. You cannot be forced to accuse
yourself. Similarly, he says,
a wife or a parent cannot be coerced to accuse a loved one.
And, in a similar point, he maintains that punishment
can never be used as an instrument of revenge but only
for what he calls the correction or what we would call the
rehabilitation of the offender. Add to the above Hobbes’
repeated insistence that law serve as an instrument for
achieving social equality. In a chapter called,
“Of the Office of the Sovereign Representative,” Hobbes argues
that justice be equally administered to all classes of
people, rich, as well as poor,
equal application of justice. He maintains further the titles
of nobility are of value only for the benefits they confer on
those of lesser rank or they’re not useful at all.
Equal justice, he tells us,
requires equal taxation policy and he seems to be proposing a
kind of consumption tax so that the rich,
who consume more will have to pay their fair share.
And he argues that indigent citizens, who are unable to
provide for themselves, should not be forced to rely
simply upon the private charity of individuals but should be
maintained at public expense. He seems, in this way,
to anticipate what we might think of as the modern welfare
state that public assistance be provided,
and the poor, not simply depend on the
private goodwill of the others. But most importantly,
I think, is to go back to the importance given to the
individual in Hobbes’ philosophy.
Hobbes derives the very power of the sovereign from the
natural right of each individual to do as they like in the state
of nature. And it follows,
I think, that the purpose of the sovereign is really to
safeguard the natural right of each individual but to regulate
this right so that it becomes consistent with the right of
others and not simply again a kind of open war against all.
What is significant about this, I think, is the priority that
Hobbes gives to rights over duties.
This, in many ways arguably, makes him the founding father
or maybe we should say godfather of modern liberalism,
the importance given to rights over duties, of the individual
over in many ways the collective or common good.
And I think this is expressed in Hobbes’ novel and in many
ways altogether unprecedented teaching about liberty in
chapter 21, a very famous and important
chapter. And here he distinguishes the
liberty of, what he calls the liberty of the ancients,
or what he doesn’t exactly call but I’ll call the liberty of the
ancients and the liberty of the moderns.
The ancients, he believes,
operated with a defective understanding of human freedom.
For the ancients, liberty meant living in a
self-governing republic, living in a republic in which
everyone again took some share in the ruling offices.
Liberty, in other words, for the ancients was not just a
property of the individual. It was an attribute of the
regime of which one was a member.
“The Athenians and the Romans,” he says, “were free,
that is they were free commonwealths,
not that any particular man had the liberty to resist his own
representative but that his representative had the liberty
to resist or invade other people.”
In other words, liberty for the ancients was a
collective good, the liberty,
as he says, to resist or invade other people.
It was a property of the commonwealth not of the
individuals who inhabited it. But that sense of collective
liberty, the freedom to resist or invade is,
in fact, even opposed to the modern idea of liberty that
Hobbes proposes. And by liberty Hobbes means
something that sounds very familiar to us.
Liberty means the absence of constraints or impediments to
action. We are free to the extent that
we can act in an unimpeded manner.
And, it follows from him that political liberty means the
freedom to act where the law is silent, as he says.
Think of that, that where the law is silent,
we have the freedom to do or not to do as we choose,
very important to the way we think of liberty today in a
modern and you might say liberal democracy.
Hobbes’ sovereign is more likely to allow citizens a zone
of private liberty where they are free to act as they choose
than in the classical republic where there is a kind of coerced
participation in collective affairs or in political
deliberation. And Hobbes here takes a dig at
the defenders of the view, in his own day,
that only the citizens of a republic can be free.
“There is written,” he says, “on the turrets of the city of
Lucca…” and let me just ask before I continue this passage,
anybody here in Pearson College? So, you will know the Dean Mr.
Amerigo, yeah, your dean?
Your dean is from the city of Lucca.
Ask him if this is true when you see him.
“There is written on the turrets of the city of Lucca in
great characters, meaning great letters,
that this day the word libertas,
libertas is written on the walls of the turrets of the
city of Lucca.” Let’s find out if that’s still
true. “Yet, no man,” Hobbes
continues, “can thence infer that a particular man has more
liberty or immunity from the service of the commonwealth
there than in Constantinople, the city of the Caliphs,
the Caliphate. Living in a republic alone
doesn’t guarantee you more freedom.
He says, freedom in that interesting passage,
freedom here requires, as he puts it,
immunity, “immunity from service.”
A regime is to be judged for Hobbes on how much private
liberty, how much immunity it grants each of its citizens,
an idea of individual liberty in many ways unknown and
unprecedented in the modern world.
And, in this respect, one can say that Hobbes has
some connection to the creation of what we think of as the
modern liberal state with its conception of private freedom as
immunity from forced participation or forced
participation in politics, very different from the
ancients. So what does this all mean? Let me talk about what Hobbes
has to say for us today, we who have in many ways become
Hobbes’ children. Hobbes gives us the definitive
language of the modern state. Yet, he remains in many ways as
contested for us as he was in his own time.
For many today, Hobbes’ conception of the
Leviathan state is synonymous with anti-liberal
absolutism. And yet for others,
he opened the door to John Locke and the liberal theory of
government. He taught the priority of
rights over duties and he argued that the sovereign should serve
the lowly interest or the lowly ends of providing peace and
security, leaving it to individuals to
determine for themselves how best to live their lives.
Nonetheless, the liberty that subjects enjoy
in Hobbes’ plan falls in that area that he says the sovereign
omits to regulate. Hobbes does not praise
vigilance in defense of liberty and he denounces all efforts to
resist the government. At best, one could say Hobbes
is a kind of part-time liberal at best. But Hobbes is best when he is
providing us with, in many ways,
the moral and psychological language in which we think about
government and the state. The state is a product of a
psychological struggle between the contending passions of pride
and fear. Fear, you will remember is
associated with the desire for security, order,
rationality, and peace.
Pride is connected with the love of glory,
honor, recognition and ambition.
All the goods of civilization, Hobbes tells us,
stem from our ability to control pride.
The very title of the book comes from this wonderful
biblical passage from Job where Leviathan is described as king
of the children of pride. And the 19 laws of nature that
Hobbes develops in his book really are there simply to
enumerate or instruct us about the virtues of sociability and
civility, especially directed against the
sin of pride or hubris. So, the modern state,
as we know it and still have it, in many ways grew out of the
Hobbesian desire for security and the fear of death that can
only be achieved at the expense of the desire for honor and
glory. The Hobbesian state was
intended to secure the conditions of life,
even a highly civilized and cultivated life but one
calculated in terms of self-interest and risk
avoidance. Hobbes wants us to be fearful
and to avoid dangerous courses of action that are inflamed by
beliefs in honor, ambition, and the like.
The Hobbesian fearful man is not likely to become someone who
risks life for liberty, for honor, or for a cause.
He’s more likely to be someone who plays by the rules,
avoids dangers, and bets on the sure thing.
The Hobbesian citizen is not likely to be a risk taker,
like a George Washington or an Andrew Carnegie.
He is more likely to think like an actuary or a CPA or an
insurance agent, always calculating the odds and
finding ways to cover the damages.
Later political theorists, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and
Nietzsche would even develop a word for Hobbesian man.
They would call him somewhat contemptuously the bourgeois.
But nevertheless, Hobbes was remarkably
successful in converting us to his point of view.
The type of individual he tried to create, careful,
self-interested, risk averse,
this has become the dominant ethos of our
civilization, has it not?
We even have entire disciplines like economics and psychology
and I dare even say modern political science that
reinforced this view of human nature.
We have all become, whether we choose to admit it
or not, Hobbesians. And yet at the same time,
and here is the paradox I think, even a Hobbesian society
cannot entirely exist without some individuals who are willing
to risk life and limb either for the sake of honor,
for self-respect or even just from the sheer joy that comes
from risk itself. Remember my example on Monday
of Ralph Esposito. Why do people become firemen,
policemen, soldiers, freedom fighters,
all activities that cannot be explained in terms of
self-interest alone? Will not even a Hobbesian
society again require fire departments?
And where will people come from that, if they all follow the
psychology of fear and self-interest that Hobbes wants
to instill in us? Hobbes regards these passions,
what Plato called by the word thumos.
Hobbes regarded these passions in many ways as barbaric,
as uncivilized and warlike and to some degree he was right.
But even the Hobbesian state, Hobbes admits himself,
the Hobbesian state lives in the midst of a Hobbesian world;
that is to say, the world of international
relations is for Hobbes simply the state of nature at large.
The Hobbesian state will always exist in a world of hostile
other states, unregulated by some kind of
higher law. States stand to one another on
the world stage as individuals do in the condition of nature;
that is to say, potential enemies with no
higher authority by which to adjudicate their conflicts.
And in such a world, even a sovereign state will be
endangered either from other states or from groups and
individuals devoted to terror and destruction.
Think of September 11,2001. This is a problem that a
profound political scientist by the name of Pierre Hassner,
a French student of international politics,
has described as the dialectic of the bourgeois and the
barbarian, a struggle that is to say
between the modern Hobbesian state with its largely pacified
and satisfied citizen bodies and those pre-modern states or maybe
in some ways even post-modern states that are prepared to use
the instruments of violence, terror and suicide bombings to
achieve their goals. A Hobbesian state,
paradoxically, still requires from its
citizens, men and women prepared to fight to risk everything in
the defense of their way of life.
But the Hobbesian point, the paradox being that the
Hobbesian bourgeois cannot entirely dispense with the
barbarian, even in its own midst.
Can Hobbes explain this paradox? He seems to avoid it.
This problem has been brought out I think brilliantly in a
recent book by a man named James Bowman, a book called Honor:
a History. He wrote a history of honor. And here he points out that
while affairs of honor, as they are quaintly called,
have largely disappeared from advanced societies but honor
still remains a consuming passion in many parts of the
world today including for him most importantly the Middle
East. Honor, in most societies,
is thought to be not merely a personal quality,
something like medieval chivalry but is above all group
honor, the honor that surrounds the
family, the extended clan, or the religious sect.
An assault on one is an assault on all.
This helps us to explain, for instance,
why in so many cultures the concept of saving face is so
important, even if to most modern
Americans it seems relatively trivial.
And one reason Bowman believes this is that we have such a
difficult time in understanding other peoples and other cultures
is that the very idea of defending one’s honor has
largely been devalued in the modern west.
We tend to look at human behavior as a matter of
providing rational incentives for human action while most
people, in fact, are driven by a need
for esteem and a desire to avoid humiliation.
I remember, for example, during the Vietnam War when
Richard Nixon spoke about achieving peace with honor,
and this was largely mocked as a kind of ludicrous idea.
Honor to so many of us sounds quaint, like an honor code or
the Boy Scouts’ code or something like that or something
primitive, some kind of primitive ethic
which we therefore don’t really understand.
We don’t often see that it was in large parts Hobbes’ efforts
to discredit this kind of warrior virtue,
this kind of virtue of honor that is so much a part of
cultures that is also responsible for our current
blindness. And that brings me to my final
point about our Hobbesian civilization that conceals from
us a very uncomfortable truth. Peace, the peace,
security, and safety, what we might call our
bourgeois freedoms that we enjoy,
rest on the fact, on the uncomfortable fact,
that there are still people who are willing to risk their lives
for the sake of higher goals like honor or duty.
Is that irrational for them to do so?
Hobbes would believe it is. I think he would say yes.
It doesn’t make sense from a purely Hobbesian point of view
that encourages us to think like rational actors interested
mainly in safety and beating the odds.
Hobbes, in many ways, finds himself in the position
of the young military lawyer played in the following movie
clip I’m going to show you. Professor Steven Smith:
Okay, is the point made? The point is made.
Then I will not even provide any further commentary.
I only apologize that for some reason I couldn’t get the
picture.

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