Part II: Thomas Hobbes and Jews

Why did Hobbes call his most famous book The Leviathan? If he was going to name his work after a monstrous imagined biblical creature, why not Behemoth after the monstrous creature of the wilderness on land rather than Leviathan, a primeval smelly beast of the water who breathes fire and makes the water boil? Both are unconquerable by man. In the apocryphal literature, in the Book of Enoch, Leviathan is female and Behemoth is male. (Some interpreters argue that the Behemoth was civil society while Leviathan was the metaphor for the sovereign state.) God purportedly separated them to ensure they would not reproduce and devour humans. Further, according to Job (xli. 18), his (the Leviathan’s) eyes are like the eyelids of the morning below which a light shines.

8 By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. 19 Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. 20 Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. 21 His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth. 

The following explanations are offered with respect to Leviathan:

  • The Leviathan is implacable, hard-hearted, and almost all-powerful;
  • The Leviathan runs the roost through terror;
  • The sovereign is an all-powerful ruler whose word is law;
  • The sovereign is unique and singular;
  • Nevertheless, God has ultimate dominion over both creatures, so they live or die according to the will of God.

If the last point is valid, how does my claim stand that Hobbes tries to create a foundation for the polis that is independent of the sacred? My answer is that the Leviathan is an imagined creature, rather than a product of either reason or sensibility. It is because the Leviathan is imaginary that we can understand that the belief in an all-powerful ruler is a myth created so humans will believe and live in terror of the ruler (read the Job reference), otherwise they would not submit themselves before the ruler. However, such a ruler conforms to Hobbes’s fundamental principle that, “the original and summ of Knowledge stands thus: there is nothing that truly exists in the world but single and individuall Bodyes producing single and individuall acts or effects.” Action is “a strictly causal process leading from sense-perception to the setting in motion of the body’s ‘animal spirits’.”

Further, Leviathan is a creature of the water and water is a symbol of shape shifting. The Leviathan has quite a variety of presentations. Further, the Leviathan is a bodily projection ruled by its desires that are constantly in motion. At the same time, because the monster lives in the deep, she rules by reputation rather than observed behaviour. The real danger of such a polis is the ability to reproduce itself rather than be subject to the social contract.

Further, it brings to our attention that Thomas Hobbes’s account of the biblical story is a political one. That narrative, though, is not about the making of the nation. Rather it is about Moses manipulating his own people to make God their sovereign. Like Francis Bacon, Hobbes began with the modern premise that religion was instrumental. However, Bacon had used religion to present a new vision of the Jew, Joabin, as the epitome of modernity. But Hobbes focused on the story itself and even cited Spinoza as his inspiration. The whole issue was a power grab. The Levite priests were enabled to retain their power which eventually led to the Jewish civil war.

Spinoza had a slightly different take on the same tale, but with a similar conclusion. Though more wary of maligning priestly authority than Hobbes, for Spinoza the decline of the first Hebrew commonwealth was signaled rather than caused by the ascendency of the priestly order. Under Moses, civil law and religious law “were one and the same thing.” (TTP 17, 213) Then Jews lived in peace. However, when the Levites were given the exclusive right to interpret divine law, “each of them began seeking glory for his own name in religion and everything else…As a result religion degenerated into fatal superstition” (TTP 18, 231).

How different than Bacon’s view where a revised secular version of the sacred, and, more particularly, of Christianity, was used to usher Jews into the modern world as assimilated individuals. Franz Rosenzweig (The Star of Redemption), a leading Jewish theologian of the last century, transmogrified Christianity into a religion for the modern using art and music, using churches as theatres and performance venues while denying that any performance, or anything for that matter, could redeem man before God. Instead, religion was about public celebrations, about American Thanksgiving. If anything served a redemptive purpose, national celebrations did. Thanksgiving pointed to a future of hope, and, in the end, peace among the nations. This was the melody pioneered by Hobbes.

Hobbes’s world was one of fear and hope. We live in a state of perpetual reflection, anticipation and fear. We have to be on the defensive. We have to survive. That is our basic obligation. Some survivors of the Holocaust echo this sentiment in taking survival as the major theme of history rather than redemption under divine auspices. To survive, it is necessary to contract military leadership irrevocably out to a strong leader, either by means of a social contract or an even more powerful covenant or constitution. This is how some Americans interpret their constitution today. They have submitted themselves to a –

covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH; in Latin, CIVITAS. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence. … one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all as he shall think expedient for their peace and common defence. (Leviathan, ch. XVII)

That is the cause and the final end for which a commonwealth is formed. Men who love both liberty and power over another can only have both by giving themselves boundaries, giving themselves restraints. Why? In order for them to be collectively preserved. In order for them to have a more contented life. In order for them to avoid the greatest scourge of all, civil war. They need a Power to keep them in awe given the natural passions of men. That is the only way they can be forced to follow the laws of nature – the laws that demand justice and equality, modesty and compassion.

How else but through such a social contract or covenant can we get a world without destructive violence? Our natural passions are pride and revenge. The golden rule is an ideal that will remain stillborn until men agree to have as their all-powerful ruler, an enlightened ruler who can overcome the tensions between self-interest and an ideal which takes the other into account. For only then can a utopian ideal, an ideal rooted in natural law, overcome our insecurities. It has to be done by sufficient numbers to dissuade enemies. That is the determination of the size of a nation. – not a sense of community, not a limited territorial range, not even a common shared language. Just a common fear.

The surrender of authority must be wholehearted. If an individual insists on qualifying that authority in terms of his appetites or time, the system will not work. For men are competitive. Some have much better rhetorical skills than others. They use reason to see fault in the other. They forget that there is a joy in community superior to their personal joy. Most importantly, men have a propensity to let their defences down for the pleasures of the moment. As a result, the only solution is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, to submit their will to his will, to relegate their judgement to his judgement. That is how a commonwealth is created. That is how the Israelites created their commonwealth by surrendering their wills to Moses under the illusion that he acted on God’s authority. That is how sovereign power resided in a single man.

If Grotius took the creation of the Israelite nation as the model for the creation of the nation state, Hobbes was more concerned with how the commonwealth was created rather than why via a nationalist disposition. The “how” he saw was the surrender of individual power to Moses and his cluster of Levite priests. What is required is assigning power to a mortal god. This was the covenant God made with Abraham, God made with Isaac and God made with Jacob, a covenant to ensure the security and growth in power of a sovereign state, an earthly kingdom of God.

From above came grace, a very immanent rather than transcendent grace. From below came works, sacrifice and dedication. And for all around came the commitment of the multitude. This was explicitly the secularization of the Puritan world view. If the Christian covenant was identical to the Jewish one, then the Kingdom of Christ had to be a worldly kingdom on the model of Hobbes’s interpretation of the Israelites.

As in Bacon, there was no place in this modern world for the Jew with other communal attachments. Jews were to be treated equally and welcomed to assimilate as long as they served a secular commonwealth of all its citizens. Given this message and the divisive politics of Israel today, it should be no surprise that the first complete translation of the Leviathan into Hebrew in 2009 quickly became one of the top selling books. Up until then, Israelis had read a Hobbes divorced from their own story. It also helped that Anatol Rapoport, the inventor of game theory, was Jewish, as is the case with many practitioners today. For Hobbes, the Leviathan was “fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed.” Religion, at least his view of it, was the foundation of the modern state.

Hobbes divorced the state from divine sanction by making divine sanction the property of we the people. The covenant is between and among the citizens who form a state and are admitted to membership in a state. Spinoza and Hobbes held key principles in common when dealing with religion:

  • Civil order requires boundaries around ecclesiastical power
  • Religious leaders are dangerous when they put themselves forward as even governing matters that are beyond reason
  • The secular sovereign must be the sole legislator unencumbered by religious intervention.

However, like Bacon and Spinoza, religion when used instrumentally can perform a positive role in ensuring cohesion, using ceremonial law and practices to foster not only that end, but, for Hobbes, obedience and compliance with the law as well. The sacred literature promoted the golden rule as a balance to men’s pursuit of self-interest and power. Further, religion could appeal to the masses in a way that deductive (or inductive) reason could not. In all covenants, there is always a free rider problem wherein, since enough people are sacrificing for the commonweal, one personally does not have to do so. Religion serves a role of limiting defections from compliance. For religion demands sacrifice from everyone.

Civil war is always the fear – Sadducees against Pharisees, monarchists against republicans, religious non-conformists against the religious establishment. When one group disparages the other, when tribalism reigns and different groups live in alternative silos, there is an absolute need for a universal civil religion to bolster civic solidarity.

But what happens when the enemy is not the other, either from without or from within, but when the enemy is us? What happens when those threatened are the future generation and not the main contending parties? Those future generations are not part of the social contract but will be the main victims of its failures. Yet they have no real say to ensure action overcomes complacency in an effective way. For the fear is asymmetrical – those with the least fear and the most power are willing to sacrifice the least   and those with the least power and the greatest fear are willing to sacrifice the most, but will themselves be the sacrifice because they lack the power to have society change course over the issue of climate change? How then can a civic religion foster solidarity so that passions and fears can be channeled into social benefits?

With the help of Alex Zisman


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