Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

November 9, 2010 at 13:35 (Book Reviews, Philosophy, Politics, Theology) (, , , , )


The political philosophy of Hobbes is dated, that is for certain. The discerning reader will object to many of his proto-humanist dogmas concerning theology, and the Catholic reader will almost certainly feel unjustly censured and demonised. Nevertheless, his book does contain a great deal of sound theology, and while some of his more elaborate passages seem to be inexpertly crafted and unnecessarily verbose, his summarised thesis is both rational and valuable, and although not an easy process, can be transposed into today’s political world. As a work whose principal (and perhaps only) concern is the prevention of anarchy and the denouncement of unlawful rebellion against a legitimate sovereign, it is patently reactionary; but of the sort of reaction that shines out as correct and timeless amidst the excess and upheaval of the French, American and Soviet revolutions.

Rather than seeing his book as an anachronistic diatribe against the Catholic Church and Cromwell (in their historic and contemporary roles respectively), the concentration on the Papacy in Leviathan might just as easily serve as a warning against those who attempt to exercise undue authority in dealing with a legitimate ruler; likewise, his contextual pain over the English Civil War led him to write convincingly of the dangers of supporting an entity with whom no civil contract exists, as opposed to the extant monarchy (and its default civil contract). Hobbes’ description of the Kingdom of Heaven as a material and earthly realm under the direct kingship of Christ after the last days is a surprisingly scriptural and anti-gnostic reading of the Bible, particularly written as it was in the immediate context of the prevailing winds of platonic dualism.

Hobbes comes apart when he reaches the pith of the issue: that is, what to do with a system that is corrupt and vile. He offers all manner of caveats (mostly out of recourse to biblical narratives) – and points out that foreign sovereigns are seldom valid authorities (particularly ironic in light of European monarchy’s invariably mixed pedigree!). He points out that a monarchy that has defaulted on its ability to defend its people is no longer valid; that there are rights inalienable to every man, all linked inextricably to his right to preserve his life at all costs, even by rebellion against the natural authority.

Despite his myriad scenarios wherein rebellion might be permitted (or even necessary) – and despite the plain fact that every revolution in history has provided its own excuses and reasons for rising against the status quo – it is difficult to find outright contradictions in the pages of Leviathan. That is the truly impressive thing about it; Hobbes manages to defend a reactionary and utterly indefensible position, and he does it well, coming out with a comprehensive philosophy and definite moral codes. His success is made all the plainer when considering in hindsight the results of absolutely any violent revolution in subsequent history. Even when considering those cases that managed to preserve some semblance of statehood, or avoided civil war on a massive scale, it becomes clear that a peaceful transition and reformation was in every case both necessary and possible. Therein lies Hobbes’ legacy, and while his essay on the subject is often unclear, frequently rambling and at least as concerned with theology as with political science, still it preserves material both insightful, valuable, and several hundred years ahead of its time.


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