Friday, February 14, 2014
Hobbes & the Modern Anxiety
If there is anything that is unambiguously modern in modern political philosophy specifically or modern thought in general, it is a reject of ancient thought. What was it that the moderns rejected? All ancient thought was in the widest sense theological. Including in the term ancient both the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (along with the pre-Socratics and the post-Socratic philosophers) as well as both pagan and Biblical theism, all the ancients recognized some authority that was higher than man. Even the Epicureans, who thought that the gods took no interest in human affairs and so did not bother to legislate for human beings, thought that wisdom amounted to accepting the place of man in the natural order. Plato and Aristotle regarded nature as an authority.
Machiavelli’s thought is founded on a rejection of higher authority. Neither God nor nature provides guidance or salvation. We are on our own and must make out way by our own will and resources. Hobbes political thought, despite his necessary concessions to Christian theology, is grounded in that same foundation. This is most apparent in The Leviathan, his magnum opus.
Perhaps the most striking feature of that work is the introduction of early modern science at the beginning. Hobbes gives us a thoroughly mechanical account of the human being, body and soul as so many machines, and an account of the commonwealth. Here is the opening paragraph:
NATURE (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the Artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of Nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength; salus populi (the people's safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death. Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politic were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.
Two things occur to me here. One is that Hobbes regards the regime as an altogether artificial creation, as much as any automata. Think of a player piano. This sets him apart from the Socratics who took the political community as a natural growth resulting from man’s nature as a political animal. More on that later.
The other is that Hobbes work mirrors Socrates’ strategy in the Republic. It is frequently forgotten that the political theory developed in that work is secondary to its moral psychology. Socrates builds a regime in speech in order to model the human soul, so that he can defend justice against the challenge posed by his spirited interlocutors. Plato’s soul is tripartite: intelligence rules (or ought to rule) the passions and the passions rule (or ought to rule) the appetites. The three parts of his regime: philosopher kings, guardians, and producers, correspond to the parts of the soul.
In the passage above we can see that Hobbes adopts the same strategy. The human being is a natural machine consisting of a number of mechanical parts. The regime is an artificial machine consisting of roughly the same set of parts. The difference is that Plato’s soul is based on the classical understand of nature. Natural wholes are primary in that account. The parts of things are derivative from the wholes of which they are parts. For Hobbes, apparently, the parts are primary and the wholes are derivative from the mechanisms that coalesce into them.
This raises a profound problem for Hobbes and for the moderns generally that did not bother the Socratics. This is noted by Leo Strauss in the introduction to Hobbes’ Political Philosophy.
Hobbes tried to base his political philosophy on modern natural science. The temptation to take this way could hardly be resisted. As traditional moral and political philosophy was, to some extent, based on traditional metaphysics, it seemed necessary, when traditional metaphysics were replaced by modern natural science, to base the new moral and political philosophy on the new science.
Attempts of this kind could never succeed: traditional metaphysics were, to use the language of Hobbes’ successors, ‘anthropomorphistic’ and, therefore, a proper basis for a philosophy of things human; modern natural science, on the other hand, which tried to interpret nature by renouncing all ‘anthropomorphisms’, all conceptions of purpose and perfection, could, therefore, to say the least, contribute nothing to the understanding of things human, to the foundation of morals and politics.
Yes. Human beings are creatures with purpose. We care, each of us, about ourselves and others. We can live better or worse lives and what is better or worse suggests the possibility of perfection. We are wholes which can flourish or decay and die. If modern science indeed requires the rejection of all anthropomorphisms, then indeed it can have nothing to say about the moral and political things. It drives a wedge between the human being and all other things, leaving the former as strangers estranged from the world they live in.
I think that this is the root of the anxieties expressed by critics of scientism. The fear is that when the light of science is brought to bear on love, literature, art, etc., that it will extinguish the human being in those things. I think that this fear is mistaken because the early modern view of modern science, the one in which Hobbes was situated, is wrong. Some things can be explained in purely mechanistic terms. Biology cannot. Purpose is not uniquely human. A spider, crawling across the kitchen floor, is up to something. A vine crawling up a stone wall is, in a metaphysical sense, trying to get somewhere.
If to have purpose is anthropomorphic, then living organisms are metaphysically, robustly anthropomorphic. When science turns its attention to organisms, it is not the latter that are reduced; it is the former that is enlarged. The same is true when scientific methods are applied to the foundations and origins of human morality and political life, to love, literature, and art.
Hobbes believed that human beings were by nature solitary animals. Hobbes was wrong. Classical philosophy did not drive a wedge between human nature and nature in general, as Hobbes was forced to do. Classical philosophy was closer to the truth, as the modern biosocial sciences are discovering.