Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hobbes v. Locke in America

I was rereading Christopher Hill's often-intriguing book Puritanism and Revolution and came to his chapter on Hobbes. It seems relevant to the discussion here of Locke and of religion in the American Founding.

Hobbes and Locke were contemporaries in adulthood, though Hobbes' writings predate Locke's. Locke certainly was influenced by Hobbes' work. Both men address the question of how to reconcile natural rights, government authority, and religion.

For Hobbes, there was no such thing as natural rights. The idea of a "state of nature" is, as Hill puts it, "a logical abstraction rather than a piece of historical description." For Hobbes, humans without government were humans in chaos; the "natural state" was one of want, war, and ignorance.

Therefore, when nonconformists in Hobbes' day said that a government that did not respect natural law or natural rights could be legitimately overthrown, or at least not obeyed, he responded that this was nonsense. It is society, organized into government, it is government itself that creates all rights and laws, and so there is no way to use some imaginary pre-civilized era as a control over or yardstick for the legitimacy of a human government.

When it is the state itself that creates all rights, then the only way to decide what is just is to have the state decide. This seems like a harsh "might makes right" philosophy, but if you follow it through, it leads to both separation of church and state and religious tolerance. Because politics/government are purely and completely human-made, then religious belief or doctrine has no place in it. We created it, we run it, we make its rules, and we are the final authority over it. Because God is not at all human-made, politics has no place in religion. Humans cannot have authority over God, and therefore humans cannot say which religion is the true religion, and have no authority to persecute anyone for their religious beliefs.

In a democracy, then, the people make their own government and give it the right to decide what is just, and pursue religion privately with no government interference.

Locke, of course, did not agree with Hobbes that there was no natural law, and no natural rights. And it was Locke who appealed to the American Founders, for his philosophy grants our government a sort of spiritual authority, wrapping our human laws and decisions in the mantle of obeying a kind of cosmic justice. This is what makes it easy for people to rename natural law as God's law, specifially Christianity. We say, our laws are rational products of the Enlightenment, but they are also tapping into God's law, the world God made for humans before we started making governments. We're living how God meant us to live.

I think the Founders generally took the view that in creating our democracy they were fulfilling not only their human potential, but restoring cosmic justice.

But they remained a little Hobbesian, too. I think the Founders understood government to be a human creation which is best understood in human terms. And they knew that the authority to decide what was democratic, what provided liberty and justice for all, came from themselves and the citizens of the United States. If it did not, what would be the point? How would the U.S. government be new if it claimed godly justification, just as every government in history had done beforehand?

No, the Founders did not threaten dissenters with God's fury. They took a Hobbesian view that the government they and the people were creating would live or die on human merits, and in doing so raised the bar for what human law, what government, should accomplish.

8 comments:

Pinky said...

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I like your approach to the Founding here. I've been thinking about that for a day or so now.
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Maybe I mentioned that I am taking a cursory survey of American History as given in two different sets of lectures. One on DVD's that I attend to while working out at the gym and the other on CDs that I listen to as I run errands around town. The first is on the intellectual history of America and the second is on transcendentalism. In the first, we're right near the end of the Wilson presidency and in the second, we've just finished with Margaret Fuller and are getting into the younger Channing.
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I fail to see how we can take a stand on any side of these questions regarding the Founding of America without building a comprehensive grasp on how things have evolved. Plus, there is the problem that we are at a place in time when we cannot vacant our minds of present conditions; so, how can we truly get into the heads of any of the Founders?.
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"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it"

-- Omar Khayyam

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Jonathan Rowe said...

Good post and I agree with its thrust. Americans were Lockeans. Yet, whatever their (and Locke's) disagreement with Hobbes, his influenced persisted in subtle but profound ways. I think we can say the same of Rousseau as well.

Our Founding Truth said...

Lori writes:

It is society, organized into government, it is government itself that creates all rights and laws, and so there is no way to use some imaginary pre-civilized era as a control over or yardstick for the legitimacy of a human government.

When it is the state itself that creates all rights,>

Trying to reconcile Hobbes with Locke is a difficult and laborious task. Quotes supporting both men can be used to suit any particular agenda, however, I believe their own words is needed to support any conclusion. On Locke, claiming he was a unitarian is a tall stretch, inasmuch he never wrote a word against the trinity, so why claim he was against the trinity? Hobbes' Leviathan is the important work for insight into his theories, believed man's reason always inferior to scripture; with the revealed law in the scriptures supreme:

"These dictates of reason men used to call by the name of laws, but improperly: for they are but conclusions or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves; whereas law, properly, is the word of him that by right hath command over others. But yet if we consider the same theorems as delivered in the word of God that by right commandeth all things, then are they properly called laws."
Leviathan. Chapter XV: Of Other Laws of Nature

OFT

Tom Van Dyke said...

The problem comes when "society" is "organized"---subsumed---into government, as if government replaces "society."

The letter of the law replaces the "Spirit of the Laws," and we all become legalists.

But law is a poor prism through which to view the human experience, because the law is an ass.

Pinky said...

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Tom points out, "The letter of the law replaces the 'Spirit of the Laws,' and we all become legalists.".
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So, once again, we're in the same old bind. When Abolitionists were extrapolating Scripture to support their case Southrons were responding with the "letter of Scripture" to make their's.
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Somehow, it seems, in spite of our desire to return to the days of yesteryear, we continue to move forward in an ever progressive manner. Maybe by jerks; but, we do move forward.
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We cannot return to the past.
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bpabbott said...

Tom: >> The letter of the law replaces the "Spirit of the Laws," and we all become legalists. But law is a poor prism through which to view the human experience, because the law is an ass.<<

Tom, you've made an excellent point!

A parallel may also be applied to religion, I think.

The letter of scripture replaces the "Spirit of the scripture," and we all become literalists. But literal interpretation is a poor prism through which to view religion, because literal interpretaion is spiritually blind.

Perhaps it might be more appropriate to replace "scripture" with "doctrine"?
In any event, regarding religion I think literalism is as damaging to the spirit of religion (it's inherent value) as it is to reason.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Ben, the theological thrust of the Protestant Reformation was a revolt against Church tradition and patristic reason accreting into "doctrine" at the expense of "scripture." The criticism of Catholicism is that it sold out the Bible to ancient Greek reason and "wisdom."

Once he breaks the dam in the 1500s, Martin Luther has trouble with the Anabaptists, who feel he's not literal enough. It's really quite a messy [and bloody] story, one of many that explain why the Old World colonists left for the New World.

Funny thing is, in comparison to the Anabaptists [our modern-day Mennonites], Martin Luther is still quite recognizably Catholic, and especially when compared to most of the 30,000 varieties of Christianity in the 21st century.

Dave2 said...

"Locke, of course, did not agree with Hobbes that there was no natural law, and no natural rights."

Sorry, but Hobbes most certainly did believe in natural rights and natural law. He was just a weirdo about it.

Our only natural right is a liberty right of self-preservation, which in the state of nature amounts to a natural right to everything on earth (since you never know what might be useful for self-preservation in the state of nature). See Leviathan XIV.

There are nineteen natural laws, each of which is a rule telling you how to cooperate with others so as to stay alive. The first law of nature is to seek peace where attainable but use the arts of war otherwise. The second law is to be willing to lay down your natural right to everything so long as others are willing to do so as well. Other laws warn against pride, abusive language, taking more than your share, etc. See Leviathan XV.