Hazem Saghieh

How Do We Avoid Civil War? Thomas Hobbes’ Answer

While many intellectual traditions have tended to assess politics based on how well-suited they are for war, the English tradition was unique in tying good politics to the provision of peace. In fact, this tradition itself was founded in the first place by the civil war between Catholics and Puritans, putting forward two heads and two answers, though they were concerned with the same question: How do we avoid it?

One of these two answers was offered by Thomas Hobbes. This conflict, with its precursors and offshoots, went on for nearly a decade and killed 200,000 people, including King Charles I, who was executed in 1649. In addition, it concluded around the same time as the European Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which was also a religious civil war.

Hobbes, who hated violence and considered civil war the worst form of war, put all his mental energy into ensuring that such actions were not repeated. To this end, he published his book “Leviathan” in 1651, with the name of this mythical sea monster with many tentacles standing for the powerful ruler.

“Leviathan” also coincided with intellectual battles waged in Europe in the 17th century, a period rich in ideas despite its wars, as a result of old systems collapsing and new ones emerging. As for the theory of “the divine right of kings,” it was among the issues questioned by the thinkers of the era.

Hobbes was closely associated with the rise of natural sciences on the continent. He knew Galileo and Descartes personally, and although he would eventually go against the latter, Hobbes was influenced by both men. He also worked as Francis Bacon’s secretary for years. And so his political theory, which was said to present a “mechanical conception of nature,” was linked to this scientific transformation. He also argued against Scholasticism, a trend whose foundation dates back to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century that raised the banners of both Aristotle and Christianity.

While Hobbes was not convinced by the theory of a “divine right,” he was also apprehensive about what had begun to be known as the “social contract” between the ruler and the ruled, as he feared it could precipitate revolutions and chaos. Thus, he tried in “Leviathan” to couple the “social contract” with the principle of obedience to authority, taking his readers back to a time he called “the state of nature” that precedes rule and rulers. Life at this time was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” When they are left to their whims, people descend to conflict, the source of which is broad distrust of one another: can we not see that anyone who goes on a journey takes a gun, that he who sleeps shuts the door, and that he who possesses valuables hides them?

Indeed, man is man’s wolf, either out of competition born of greed, diffidence that makes one obsessed with ensuring security, or aspirations for glory and attaining the upper hand. All lead to a “war of all against all.”

This fear of the other and of the state of nature’s chaos is what pushed our early ancestors to form governments. It was an act that resembles the “social contract” in that it is voluntary. However, it also imposed on the people a strong political authority, which is their only way out of the state of nature. Thus, they had to concede all of their rights to the king but one, with only threats to their right to life warranting discontent. Any other offense, such as imprisonment or the imposition of taxes, must be tolerated in order to avert “a perpetual war of every man against his neighbor.”

The king might not be infallible, as “disturbances are inherent to human affairs.” Nonetheless, in this case, the people are not innocent because if men could control themselves, there would be no need for overarching coercive force.

So Hobbes presented the formula of “protection in return for obedience,” turning fear of the state of nature into a contract with a powerful king who alone can lead the subjects out of it. That is, the most important thing in a person’s life is not losing their life. Nothing is worth dying for, and thus, nothing is worth killing for. As for total happiness, in contrast to Scholastics’ claims, it is not on the cards, as life is a constant pursuit of more that ends only with death.

Contradicting Aristotle’s view that man is an inherently political animal who is naturally predisposed to form communities, where he can flourish and fully realize his humanity, Hobbes did not believe that nature was so generous as to drive us to form political communities. Implicitly, Hobbes argued against the Biblical idea that sin is what deprived human beings of originally living in ideal conditions, that is, in Heaven. The “Leviathan” author gives us the opposite impression: He suggests that we are miserable and brutal in the state of nature, with or without sin.

As for the characterizations his lexicon makes of civil war, they suffice to leave us with gloomy horizons: When it is not resumed through open violence, it is rendered a reserve of latent violence and intense vigilance constantly and restlessly lying beneath the surface of our quiet lives. Whenever it is believed to have become a thing of the past, civil strife finds its way into the heart of the present, killing off any prospects for civilization, industry, trade, urbanization, knowledge, art, and literature.

Hobbes has been harshly criticized. Some have called him an advocate of tyranny with contempt of human dignity, be it for his pessimistic view of human nature or his repudiation of the idea that people yearn for freedom. Hannah Arendt identified him as an early representative of imperialist and totalitarian consciousness. However, those who have defended him saw him as having taken us a step closer to secularizing politics and making the protection of individuals’ lives, not their souls, the primary objective of the government and ruler.

Some have argued that freedoms were also a goal of his, but that he thought that only strong governments could guarantee individual freedom. In this sense, Hobbes was, according to some, “a secret grandfather of modern liberalism, albeit a very hateful one.” He has also been described as one of the first thinkers to consider justice and the law to be products of human effort rather than natural principles, and he has been praised for granting us a bulwark that contains the naivety of modernists and the optimism of liberals.

There is probably an element of truth to each of these opinions. However, there remains something repulsive and unappealing about his eloquently formulated theory, especially since it tells its readers to submit, emphasizing some of the ugliest qualities of human beings and claiming that this ugliness will remain forever. In any case, despite its allure in countries embroiled in civil war, his theory leaves us with a question whose relevance can be attributed to an abundance of precedents: What guarantees that the Leviathan will not become a source of war itself?