At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas Hobbes

Relevant diavlog here.

In the discussion, Pinker borrows from Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,”  to put forth the argument that one reason for what Pinker claims is an overall decline in violence (at least recently, since 1945) is the development of the modern State.  It has the lion’s share of power, and puts its own citizens at ease from a natural state of potential violence and rational calculation they find themselves in regarding other individuals, groups, and rivals, including other States (see also: game theory) a la Hobbes.  Nature is rough.  Citizens become protected from this state of nature in which escalating violence, revenge and brinksmanship are always present and thus defer these activies to the 3rd party of the State….internally and externally…to get on with their lives in relative security.  On the large scale, States, Pinker points out, still fight each other, and he furthers two more arguments:

1. The State is a somewhat outmoded covention, having served its purpose during the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment to produce the flowering plants of individual rights, human rights, and other products of modern Western society (that are being exported with and without force around the globe, to varying degrees of success).  The kind of loyalty States require for their existence and to which its citizens give their lives is not necessary to the same degree on this view.  This is highly debatable. Pinker also mentions Norbert Elias, a German sociologist, and the data Pinker cites suggest both a lower frequency of wars and lower frequency of violence per war since the end of the WWII.  Pinker also attempts to isolate Locke, Spinoza, and Kant from other reactions to these thinkers which he claims produced the kind of fascist, marxist/communist, and Nazi movements that have wracked Europe since.

2.  Pinker then mentions an “international Leviathan”  which would be a potential consequence of this view. Much like Hobbes found himself in the throes of a more feudal, warring, Reformation England (the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches), it’s possible to imagine not just a large barganing table with plush chairs for world government, but one in which that world government(s) takes the lion’s share of force from its members and requires submission (as Hobbes agued is necessary for the Leviathan).

Food for thought. Here’s a quote from John Locke:

‘This is to think that men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by pole-cats, or foxes, but are content, nay think it safety, to be devoured by lions.’

Addition:  A reader sends in a link to an Intro to Political Philsophy course at Yale, discussing the Leviathan, and the scope of Hobbes project to essentially create a “civil science” in response to conditions and Enlightenment developments around him.  As the video points out, perhaps one of Hobbes’ central questions is: “How is legitimate authority possible?”

Hobbes throws out the biblical vision of Eden and of man’s fallen but once perfect relationship with nature, as well as the Aristotelian model of man’s pursuit of his best nature in the polis (and man’s arts & sciences) also with it roots in nature, which was a common view of the time.  Hobbes replaces these, after Machiavelli, with the modern conception of the State.  On this view, man must turn away from nature to some degree, as he has done with the then New science.  He must put questions to nature and reason his way along.  He must impose some order upon nature and discover her laws. Perhaps he can create an enclave where man must make his own order carved out of nature and build for himself civilized society, a society that finds itself in a state of brute nature, fear, violence and mistrust among it members.  The Leviathan is partly that answer for Hobbes, the creation of a sovereign, and a sovereign which has the consent of the people (for this sovereign is also an abstraction, an “office” to be filled by successive men), and is a sovereign that requires the people’s submission.

So, what will prevent the endless strife that consumed both England and Italy of the time for Hobbes and Machiavelli?  How do you maintain respectable authority upon this new vision?

Is this the beginning of Leo Strauss’ 1st crisis of modernity?

Any thoughts and comments are welcome.

Addition:  As a friend points out, Hobbes’ thinking contributes heavily in developing the commonwealth, an Anglo-American model which has proved remarkably stable.  Perhaps Strauss reason/revelation distinction and his project just really didn’t understand parts of American life and intellectual history.

Another Addition:  Perhaps we should identify a liberal American tradition that does not contain the seeds of its own nihilism and destruction a la Europe via fascism and value-free relativism and hedonism.  Perhaps there are empirical traditions already in place that escape such a diagnosis.

Also On This SiteSimon Blackburn Reviews Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature” Via the University Of Cambridge Philosophy Department

A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”Via Youtube: (1 of 3) Kant, Chomsky and the Problem of Knowledge

Does Leo Strauss offer a way back toward truth through revelation, and not merely reason..?:From Wikipedia’s Page On Leo Strauss: A Few Quotes……Harry Jaffa At The Claremont Institute: ‘Leo Strauss, the Bible, and Political Philosophy’Via An Emailer: Some Criticism Of Leo Strauss?

Has Fukuyama turned away from Hegel and toward Darwin? Adam Kirsch Reviews Francis Fukuyama’s New Book At The City Journal: ‘The Dawn Of Politics’From The Atlantic: Samuel Huntington’s Death And Life’s WorkFrom The American Interest Online: Francis Fukuyama On Samuel HuntingtonFrom Foreign Affairs Via The A & L Daily: ‘Conflict Or Cooperation: Three Visions Revisited’

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2 Comments

I’m still working on these questions also. I think we do need respectable authority to administer a civil society and ensure freedoms which protect us from the state of nature. In reality, I think it is an ongoing project that requires a majority of participants in society to be enlightened, and, thus, to have enlightened leaders. Knowledge is power.

David, thanks for commenting.

I like think we’re doing ok in the U.S., as far as having reasonable people thinking for themselves, though it’s a continued project.

I don’t know about the majority of people ever being enlightened, but I do know that many, many people must work to tend their own gardens and earn their livings and their knowledge. Most of our freedoms depend upon that much.

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