Part III: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

In the natural law theory of St. Thomas Aquinas derived from Aristotle that dominated the scholasticism of the medieval period, humans were no longer required by God to live in accordance with the judicial precepts of the Torah. (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 104.3) Christianity could thrive in a monarchy, a democracy, a dictatorship, but perhaps not in a totalitarian state that forbade humans from rendering to God what is God’s. The Kingdom of Jesus was not essentially of this world; the secular was subsumed under the sacred.

I have discussed natural law, for example, in Hugo Grotius. In Aristotle and Aquinas, natural law dictates that humans have different essences that determine their different characters. But their most universal essence is appetite or desire. Satan induces Eve and Adam to bite the apple, to satisfy their sexual desires. They are thrust out of the Garden of Eden by God as a result.

What we are driven to do by nature and what natural law dictates are two very different things. Natural law is the governance of the entire universe by “Divine Reason,” by that which is eternal rather than temporal. However, human material existence, human appetites and human desire disrupt the natural order of reason. That is because humans have free choice. In the animal world, natural law is the law of appetite. However, in the human world, humans may choose to be driven by their appetites or to be governed by a higher eternal law of reason. Their failure to make the correct choice gets them expelled from the Garden of Eden.

In my writings, I have presented a very different version of the Garden of Eden story. In my understanding of the Torah, man is characterized by two propensities. According to one, he is made in God’s image and creates the world through the use of the word. He names things. He is, therefore, an expression of rationality, or, as I often refer to him in a colloquial sense, he is a nerd. But he is an embodied nerd. But one who thinks he is God and immaterial, does not have a body and is not driven by appetite. Adam disowns any responsibility for his own body. He does not recognize his own self as embodied but conceives of Eve as the extension of his own body. She is embodiment par excellence. She may be equal to man in reality, both created out of the dust of the earth, but in experience she is othered and portrayed as embodiment while he preserves for himself mindfulness.

Thus, the erect serpent, Adam’s embodied self, driven by appetites, uses words to seduce Eve and convince her that it is all right to follow her appetites. Eve does. Both eat the apple of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that is, have sex and thereby come to recognize they are embodied. That means that they no longer by definition live in the fantasy land of the Garden of Eden where man is under the erroneous belief that he is disembodied. In the Christian Thomistic version, man falls when he eats the fruit of the garden. In my inverted version, man is thrust from the fantasy of his divided self of an immaterial mind and a body driven by desire where the two never meet, into reality.

The moral dilemma takes place because man does not take responsibility for what takes place. It is Satan that did it. It is the erect serpent that did it. It is my hard-on that seduced Eve. The moral failure was not accepting responsibility for who we are and what we do. The course of civilization is a record of learning to accept that responsibility and constructing a political order in which humans will be held accountable for their actions. The rule of law is the order that is created to overcome the schizophrenia of man.

Both Hobbes and Locke replace the Garden of Eden with the state of nature.  Both Hobbes and Locke want to free the tale of a State of Nature from any sacred force whatsoever, even one where the sacred force of reason, acting in indifference to the material and embodied world, is the source of “fault.” In Hobbes’s state of nature, man is driven, not between desire and appetite as the source of error, not by reason detached from the material world, but by two competing and totally material passions, fear and hope. The terrible part of the state of nature is the “continual fear and danger of violent death.” We do not want to die. We do not want to be killed.

Positively, we pursue self-preservation. We pursue life. The pursuit of self-preservation is a right. We also pursue hope. How? By acquiring power over oneself but mostly over the other who is a constant threat. Man not only has self-directed rights but other, externally directed right vis-à-vis other men. That is the good they pursue. On the one hand, no natural law exists to prevent humans from killing another to secure their own person and property. The state of nature turns into a war of all against all, a state of perpetual conflict. We do not begin with a conflict internal to our make-up as humans, a war of reason versus embodiment, whether, in one case (Thomism), embodiment and appetite are viewed as the source of the problem, or, as in the other case, where the megalomania of reason in imitation of the divine is seen as the source of the problem.

The problem need not be defined in relationship to the divine at all. The problem is external, the fear we have of one another. However, in the fundamental law of nature, individuals are in search of peace with another obtained only by coming together to forge a social contract, whereby men consent to being ruled in a commonwealth governed by one supreme authority. Fear performs a dual function, driving us away from one another and driving us towards one another to create a civil commonwealth. Forged by fear, enforced by fear, but driven by hope for a peaceful order, the social contract becomes the foundation for the civilized order for it challenges and punishes anyone who threatens that order. Fear of that punishment induces good behaviour.  The good is what we desire and evil is what we wish to avoid. Law and society are created by a ruling sovereign to manage this dialectic tension, hence the need initially for an autocratic and absolutist form of government, one, however, in which the goal will be to create a governed realm ruled by hope rather than fear, one in which rights will be respected rather than stomped upon.

In the state of nature, there are no obligations. There is no accountability. “Every man by nature hath right to all things, that is to say, to do whatsoever he listeth to whom he listeth, to possess, use, and enjoy all things he will and can.” How does this external right vis-a-vis others get transformed into a right held by all in which each respects the other and the vision of hope and peace replace this perpetual war? Through order and good government initially put in place by an autocrat, but one with his eye on that ultimate good. However, the right that exists in the state of nature is one without responsibilities, without obligations to another and without accountability. This is the rule of law imposed by the autocrat that he must create. In contrast, in the state of nature, the only standard to judge the right or wrong of an action is whether it contributes to self-preservation. There is no respect for the rights of others.

John Locke, like Thomas Hobbes, proposed a state of nature also freed entirely from any reference to the sacred, from any reference to the divine. What drives humans in the state of nature, however, is not insecurity and fear of another and desire for power over that other. For there is enough and sufficient for all. There is more than enough food ready for the taking. Men know this. There is no need for competition or fear of the other. There is no reason for insecurity. Seizing the food of another would risk retaliatory action and thus be both unnecessary and dangerous, risky to the task of self-preservation.

This is true in both Hobbes and Locke. However, in Hobbes, the development of this consciousness of enlightened self-interest must await the creation of the state. In the state of nature, men err. They get into conflicts. They have no overall picture of abundance. In Locke, they have no reason to err because there is a recognition that there is enough and sufficient for all. They recognize that natural law.

However, for Locke, humans have an innate desire to accumulate goods ad infinitum, to extend their material existence in the world through possessions. They are inherently possessive individualists. But they have no means of achieving those innate desires. For there is no method of accumulation. Collecting grapes beyond what you need to eat is a waste of time. In a pure state of nature, sufficiency suffices. That is, until the innate propensity to acquire material goods has a breakthrough. Money is created, that is, an abstract representation of goods that does not deteriorate. Money, not sex, becomes the source of evil.

When money is created, a war of all against all ensues. It is not the natural pure state, but the state of nature only after money is invented that results in war and insecurity. That is when we need a social contract. That is when we need a compact to determine peace and create a state to ensure that peace. But it will be a different state than the one with the all-powerful leader that Hobbes proposed. For its function will be different. It has not been created primarily to control and defend against enemies – unless they are enemies that threaten your property or your ability and right to accumulate property. Wars will be primarily over property, over money and not security.

Further, a very different state is needed, one that will guarantee the right of each and everyone to seek to acquire wealth. The vast majority do not exercise that right since the vast majority willingly sell their labour for a living wage in the quest for security. That is incidental for Locke. At centre stage is the responsibility of the state to protect accumulators of capital – so long as those accumulators do not threaten the rights of others to do the same.

Hence a state and a set of laws and rules are needed to sufficiently regulate the acquisitive game within a fair playing field, but without intervening to damage the game itself or inhibit people from playing. Protecting wage labour seems remote from this task except and only except if the threat to wage-labour affects the ability to have a game at all or others to be able to participate. Since seeking to acquire goods at infinitum requires the right to speak, the right to publish, the right to listen and hear, civil liberties become an adjunct to the right of capital accumulation.  

Let me make the difference between Hobbes and Locke clearer by an illustration taken from an article in The New Yorker (16 December 2019) by Joshua Yaffa entitled, “Channelling Putin: The TV producer behind Russia’s new era of propaganda.” The TV producer in question is the brilliant Konstantin Ernst, now head of Russia’s Channel One, who managed the invention of Putin as a public figure and his rise from an obscure official to a seemingly perpetual all-powerful presidency. From the very first, Putin based his claim for leadership on power. “I assure you that there will be no vacuum of power, not for a minute.” Putin’s foremost goal was preventing the disintegration of the country. According to Ernst, Putin was the messiah who had arrived just in time to hold the state together when the Chechnyan rebellion threatened its integrity.

The world at the beginning was Trump’s world; something was true because the media said it was true even though everyone could recognize the claims were lies. But in a time of great cynicism rather than belief, no representation of the world could be verified as valid. Ernst got his start by undermining the crudity of the lies and the corruption those lies supported. He went on to produce nostalgic documentaries that pointed to an underlying unity and towards hope. When the TV station exposed the incompetence of the Russian government in its handling of the Kursk submarine disaster in which 118 sailors died, Putin cried “Fake news!” and expropriated the assets of Boris Berezovsky, the owner of Channel One, drove him into exile and purported “suicide.” Ernst chose to remain as chief and shifted his loyalty to Putin and chose power with ultimate subservience to the state, to the Leviathan.

Ernst followed in the footsteps of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s director of extravaganzas in which he was featured. As Ernst explained, “The Russian mentality stipulates that the leader of the country, no matter what this person is called – President or tsar, Prime Minister or General Secretary of the Communist Party – is seen to answer for everything, that there is one person who symbolizes the entire state.” This is the essence of the Hobbesian doctrine of the state and the sovereign. Ernst has the added advantage in that he is not a producer of Fox News or NTV in Russia, for what he produces has both taste and restraint and does not traffic in outright lies or conspiracy theories.

Ernst understands that news is ephemeral as a branch of entertainment whereas truly imaginary creations have a much deeper appeal. When the Ukraine blew up in Russia’s face, and Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea and started a civil war in the Donbass region of Ukraine to prevent Ukraine from moving into the Western sphere of influence, the media increasingly became a vehicle for fake news, not through a direct lie, but by flooding the airwaves with a variety of theories so that the message delivered is that any claim was suspect.

As Ernst said, it is simply a matter of opinion. “You believe the Dutch report (on the Malaysian air disaster) is true, and I believe the Dutch report is unprofessional.” As the Republicans argue, it is the process stupid as they ignore the substance. Facts are reduced to matters of faith. For Ernst, “justice, democracy, the complete truth – they don’t exist anywhere in the world.” In other words, since we do not have perpetual peace and the rule of the good, we accept the rule of power and the rule of the false. When the author of the article appeared on Russian TV, the format “made issues of fact seem muddy and unknowable, proving that everything is a question of perspective and allegiance.”  

Russia fosters the myth that America is run by “the deep state” that undermines Trump’s ability to fulfill his promise to play toesies with the Russians. They are perplexed by the claim that it is wrong to get a foreign power to undermine the credibility of a domestic rival. Fortunately, Trump reigns in a Lockean transactional rather than a power state. Further, Trump himself is a transactional persona so that when it comes to issues concerning power, he is a total klutz. The United States is currently at war with its propensities to be a Hobbesian state that sees the world solely through a power lens versus a Lockean transactional state that sees itself as engaged in manufacturing and trade. The latter, whatever its faults, requires a respect for both facts and rights.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s