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Hobbes, Philosopher of Peace (and Liberalism?)

Kenneth Minogue, writing in the New Criterion, offers some admirably crystalline thoughts on the philosopher from Malmesbury:

Hobbes drew the conclusion that there were two quite distinct issues arising in the politics of his time, and that his contemporaries generally failed to distinguish them. The central problem was how to deal with the wars and conflict that had arisen out of disagreement about substantive practices of politics and religion. A secondary concern was how social and religious life in each state ought to be structured. Most later political philosophy has been concerned with just such issues of truth, liberty, justice, rights, and so on, but Hobbes took the view that this was putting the cart before the horse. The fatal mistake was to muddle these two issues, so that questions of the substantive structure of the state were advanced as demands that must qualify the decisions of the sovereign power whose business was to determine the prior issue of civil peace. Hobbes had no doubt that peace must come before any desirabilities of substantive justice. And the only solution to securing peace was the creation of a sovereign power.

The need was for a final word on disputed questions, and without an agreed set of judgments that only a sovereign power could generate, no viable state could be sustained. And indeed, European experience had already recognized such a necessity by generating a set of sovereign rulers as a counterpoint to the rising individualism of modern Europeans.

Note those last two lines in particular: the state was a response to individualism, and it also carried individualism forward by attempting to clear substantive disagreements about religion and values (i.e., justice) out of political life and leave them to private life. Hobbes was not, of course, a believer in modern secular government: he wanted government to have full power over religion, whose doctrines should be minimal. And in fact the modern state is arguably not Hobbesian at all since sovereignty has long been more fragmented and disputed than Leviathan prescribes. But it’s easy enough to see how some of the outlines of Hobbes’s philosophy have coincided with actual tendencies in political history.

Just how parsimonious is Hobbes’s vision of virtue and justice? In practice, perhaps less so than as an ideal: even minimal rules may wind up conjuring certain kinds of substantive practices, especially if the individual and the state—excluding such intermediaries between the two as the Church and the family—are the foundations of the political order. (Those intermediary institutions are understood only as ephemeral agreements among individuals and between individuals and the state.)

For a look at the historical as well as philosophical dimensions of this question, consider the works of the French political thinker Pierre Manent. His recent City Journal essays “City, Empire, Church, Nation” and “Birth of the Nation” are places to start, though for a proper introduction one should turn to An Intellectual History of Liberalism.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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