Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Blip: Bring back the Leviathan!

My last post was an overview of a few theories of human nature, I’m now going to expand on one of them to help give you a more rounded grasp of it. Namely, I will focus on the beliefs of Thomas Hobbes. At the time, theologians and very religious scientists all brought spirituality into the matter of human endeavour. This usually took the form of a summum bonum, literally translated as the ‘highest good’ or the ‘sum of all good’. It refers to the state that an individual will strive to achieve, whether it is heaven, as the reward in itself, or whether it be a kind and altruistic way of living, the important thing is that it is the carrot, tempting human action to act in ‘good’ or ‘righteous’ ways.  

This summum bonum was often said to be the defining thing that influenced human action; as though we are all on the same righteous path towards achieving a perfect state of goodness and that any evil in the world is just temporary and accidental straying from the path caused by outside influence. This handily frees ourselves of personal responsibility but also allows for the church to be open to everyone. In a way, it also provides the church with the goods that it peddles; we are straying from the path (so they say) and they can offer salvation (how helpful).

Hobbes said there is no summum bonum and that, in many ways, the truth is the exact opposite as the thing that inspires our actions and modifies our behaviour couldn’t be further from the perfect good. He uses, instead, the phrase summum malum (rather predictably meaning the ‘highest evil’ or ‘sum of all evil’), which represents the fear of being dominated, usually in the form of a violent death

Summum malum acts as the stick to summum bonum’s carrot. The idea is that we formed a society out of fear of being killed or dominated in some way and the same fear keeps the society together and influences all of our decisions. We get jobs to house and feed ourselves because without such provisions, we would suffer horribly and die. All of our gathering of resources and capital are actually just countless insurance policies to ensure we escape a terrible fate for as long a time as possible. You could further this thought onto all sorts of interesting areas of human activity. For example, jewellery. What is jewellery for? Most people will give vapid answers about how it looks good but the synaptically connected of you would be acquainted with the theory that manufactured jewellery is our version of a peacock’s plumage. This means that its primary function is to attract a mate; it works because it catches the eye and makes you concentrate on the physical attributes of the wearer but also because it suggests that the wearer is capable of providing wares and supplies of that quality. A viable mate needs a degree of prosperity to ensure the safety of its family (a theme we will return to later), thus a potential mate with expensive jewellery is giving out a message of prosperity. Now what if we look at it with the addition of the summum malum as a factor? When we take that into consideration, the point of jewellery seems more like a comfort blanket. Having the signs of prosperity hanging from every orifice serves as a giant reminder to yourself that you’re rich enough not to die. It’s the subtle equivalent to hugging a pile of gold coins muttering to yourself over and over again: “I’m not going to die, I’m not going to die!”

If we are looking at the model of humanity with this new driving force behind it, all manner of activities and thoughts suddenly become something totally different. Government, for example, is a means of ensuring our safety from each other, our prosperity (to maintain personal safety) and our happiness, which is just a measure of how safe we feel. This is rather contrasted by the more optimistic summum bonum view of things that would say government is a means of organisation that allows for furtherance of our kind. Hobbes used the rather famous (in the right circles) phrase Bellum omnium contra omnnes, meaning ‘the war of all against all’ to describe the state of nature, where violent death is most likely. Fear from the bellum omnium contra omnes drove us into the formation of government and Hobbes laid out 12 principles that a sovereignty should stick to. 12 ways in which the sovereignty (or ‘Leviathan’, named after the mythical creature and serving as the name of Hobbes’ book in which these ideas are published) functions to better the people and ipso facto these 12 principal rights are how we should judge the effectiveness and worth of a government. I won’t go into a detailed analysis or statement of the 12 in this post but I will give an overview of the conclusion and return to them in detail else when.

When it is broken down, Hobbes said that there are only three government types (not three viable types, but three types in total) and that other words used to describe governments are just one of the three types as described from a different point of view. He said that it is necessary for there to be a body (a Leviathan) of some kind that abides by and enacts the 12 rules and that body must, by its very nature, be comprised of a person or of people. The three types refer to the entity at the very top of the ruling body: If it is one person, it is a monarchy; if it is an assembly of everyone, it is a democracy and if it is an assembly of some, but not all, people, it is an aristocracy. If you consider that for a minute, any government you can think of could fairly fit into one of those broad groups because ultimately either one person, some people or every person is in charge and a government with nobody in charge is anarchy, a lack of government. Hobbes suggested, though, that even anarchy doesn’t fall outside of these definitions and is, in fact, another name for democracy. A failing democracy, or simply a democracy about which a person takes a negative view, could be said to be an anarchic society.

As a way to help you get the feel of what we’re talking about, I will furnish you with a few examples of each:

Autocracy, dictatorship, despotism, meritocracy, technocracy and most instances of military dictatorships are all examples of a monarchy because, despite how other areas of the society works, they all have one person at the summit. It is worth noting that it is irrelevant whether the one person is actually a monarch or not, the point is that the power rests in the hands of one; monarchy was just the best word at the time to describe it due to the prevalence of monarchy at the time and it would be disrespectful to Hobbes to change his terminology.

Oligarchy, plutocracy (rule by wealth), stratocracy (rule by military), timocracy (rule by honour or property) and ochlocracy (mob rule) are all types of aristocracy, where one group rules the rest.

As for the third type, democracy refers to any government wherein every person is an active and equal member. Most other types of democracy devolve power (such as a polyarchy) and end up redistributing power to the few over the many, making them aristocracies. The only true example here is, as previously mentioned, anarchy can be used to describe a dysfunctional democracy (as could ochlocracy, but once the power is in the hands of the mob, it once again stops being a democracy, it is simply a common corruption of democracy).

If these are the three types of government, and government exists to make us secure and prosperous (happy, for short) then it stands to reason that we have a founding principle and a set of variables to help us determine, logically, which type the best (or most effective and thus desirable) government belongs to.

Hobbes used this rationale and ended up with the conclusion that a monarchy would be the basis for the best possible government. Simply because in a monarchy, the well-being and security of the monarch depends heavily, if not solely, on the happiness and contentment of the people. The wealth and fate of the two are inexorably linked because if the people were to lose trust in the monarch, the people would remove them from the monarchy. This has been shown to occur in the past, namely Charles I was executed for high treason around the time that Thomas Hobbes was writing. The difference between this and  a democracy and aristocracy is that when the power rests in multiple people, that group of people can be in a constant state of flux without ever falling apart or being answerable to any consequences. A single member of an aristocratic government might be thrown out and replaced but the individual may well have secured their own prosperity and fortune and the corrupt system that allowed such practice is ultimately untouched. The prosperity, therefore, of the people is not linked directly to that of the ruling body as the body is not a single person in the employ (as it were) of the people. Monarchy secures the principle of good for the people = good for the government, which utilises the theory of humanity’s selfish nature that Hobbes himself was a proponent of to ensure our prolonged survival and prosperity.

This certainly lays out quite the shadow on the all-too-common complaint in modern times that our democratic (or, as you now know, aristocratic) governments don’t look after the people enough. The middle-left would have us believe that they are looking after everyone’s interests by trying to hold the government to account and steadily chip away at their power.

However, if you happen to agree with the light that Thomas Hobbes cast on human nature, it seems an only natural end to wish for an all-powerful Leviathan to take charge and see us out of the difficulty of the times we find ourselves in, in other words, we shouldn’t be chipping away at the power and unity of the government, we should instead be building them up and unifying them into a single, all-powerful monarch.  


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