‘Elements’ of Hobbes

Editorial, 26th June 2017

Aleppo has always been an unusual city because it is one of the few places on Earth that have been inhabited continuously since 6th millennium BC. Aleppo’s wealth of ancient buildings and its remarkable blend of people—Sunni Arabs, Christians, Greeks and Jews, has made it an exceptional place in the Middle East. It’s only in this age that this legacy is on the verge of coming undone. Pictures of Aleppo that flood media today are tinged ashen with stone-grey of a city wasting away, far from it’s once warm tones, celebrated handicrafts, and its lineage. These pictures serve just as a frame of reference, showing us a sliver of the stark contrast between pre-war Syria and more recent times.

Few conflicts in this century have been as bleakly apocalyptic or as globally destabilizing as the one in Syria. Arab Spring, a term which is used to mark the spring of year 2011, when Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, was formed and Syria began to slide into a civil war. Since then, the conflict in Syria has taken a huge toll on human life and caused vast devastation in the cities.

The situation in Syria, once again raises one of the most debatable issues in political theory- to what extent should we patiently obey rulers, and to what extent should we start revolutions and oppose governments, in search of a better world? This question has had a profound impact on the modern political science, and has been pondered upon by philosophers since the 17th century.

Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher who was, according to his own estimation, the most important philosopher of his time, if not of history. He believed that it is always better to have security rather than liberty in a country. His ideas were deeply influenced by the English Civil War, when the very nature of government and sources of power was debated and even experimented upon. He witnessed the political developments in London during the Civil War, and soon in 1651, he boldly published his most famous work, Leviathan. It was one of the most persuasive and articulate statements as to why one should obey government authority, even of a very imperfect kind, in order to avoid the risk of chaos and bloodshed.

According to Hobbes, the only way to escape a civil war and to maintain peace in a state is to institute an impartial and absolute sovereign power that is the final authority on all political issues. Hobbes realised the existing theories about absolute monarchy, that kings have a divine right to rule was not sufficient to convince the more thoughtful and rational audience. Therefore, while critically disagreeing with it, he presented the same argument ingeniously.

“But this pretence of covenant with God is so evident a lie, even in the pretenders’ own consciences, that it is not only an act of an unjust, but also of a vile and unmanly disposition.”

He argued that humans, if left to their own ruling without a central authority to keep them in awe, would result in fighting and chaos, whenever someone is unhappy with their surroundings. Thus, that there may come a ruler with an inclination to do wicked deeds, but this inconvenience is a fault of people, and not the ruler as:

“for if men could rule themselves, every man by his own command, that’s to say, could they live according to the Lawes of Nature, there would be no need at all of a City, nor of a common coercive power.”

However, the most remarkable thing about Leviathan was not the idea of absolute monarchy, but Hobbes used principles of geometry to explain an all too human field of study- Politics. Instead of a coherent flow of text, the lines are broken up into different types of text: definitions, axioms, and demonstrations. Definitions are provided and a series of conclusions are drawn from it. Also, there is a deep logical consistency to its prudential outcomes. And if Hobbes’ conclusions are as sound as Euclid’s proofs in geometry, then the estimation of his own philosophical importance may not be exaggerated.

Hobbes began his geometrical investigations with a number of foundational definitions, including those of sense, objects, images and motion; he used these definitions to compose an abstract world of geometric figures and then to draw a number of conclusions about them.

“Every man hath so much experience as to have seen the sun and other visible objects by reflection in the water and in glasses, and this alone is sufficient for this conclusion: that colour and image may be there where the thing seen is not.”

From a series of such conclusions, he builds his definition of man, cognitive skills, opinions, good and evil, commonwealth and the social contract.

So, to use Hobbes’s example, one can resolve the idea of a human being into the following: rational, animated, and body. On the other hand, one can compose the idea of a man by reconstructing these concepts. And in this process of resolving and composing a thing, one is able to discover some of the most intriguing aspects and quirks of human behavior.

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