Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and Definitions, XV: The Road to Nihilism — Hobbes

In the previous posting in this series we had a quote from Heinrich Rommen explaining how, in the belief that civil liberties and democratic institutions were founded upon the Protestant principle of religious individualism, the Romanticists who opposed divine right monarchy and State absolutism tended to do so on the grounds that State absolutism and divine right were presumably Catholic.

We can see the error here immediately. Whether Catholics or Protestants are correct on the issue of religious individualism is, frankly, a red herring in the discussion. That is a matter of faith, not reason. The important issue is whether divine right monarchy and State absolutism, or civil liberties and democratic institutions are consistent with human nature — and that is a matter of reason, not faith.

Algernon Sidney made this clear in his Discourses Concerning Government, in which he was refuting the claims made by Sir Robert Filmer in Patriarcha. Basing his argument on the work of St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (a "Doctor" of the Catholic Church whose refutations of divine right theory were so comprehensive that King James and his advisors thought "Bellarmine" was a pseudonym for an entire committee of scholars), Sidney carefully explained that he disagreed with St. Robert on his theology — but that he had nothing but praise for the Cardinal's political philosophy.

John Locke, whose patron was the violently anti-Catholic Lord Shaftsbury, did not give an accurate picture of Bellarmine's work in his Two Treatises on Government. Whether that was out of honest ignorance, his own anti-Catholicism, or a way of currying favor with his patron, the man behind the notorious Titus Oates "Conspiracy," is impossible to say.

Both Locke and Sidney concentrated on refuting Filmer's ideas about divine right, expressed in Filmer's Patriarcha, an overblown and poorly argued defense of James I/VI Stuart's claim to rule by divine right. Consequently, Locke and Sidney's arguments are best employed today in support of democracy, not in refutation of a political theory that no one but a few fanatics takes seriously today — at least as Filmer expressed it.

This is unfortunate, because the most serious and dangerous advocate for divine right and State absolutism was not the ineffectual Filmer. Rather, the champion of the absolutist State was the brilliant and able Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes's Leviathan is a practical manual for totalitarianism. Virtually every government on earth follows its principles today, primarily through having been embedded in the principles of Keynesian economics. As Heinrich Rommen analyzed Hobbes's political philosophy,

"Hobbes was the first, since the beginning of the Christian era, who made sovereignty legally and morally absolute, without intrinsic limits, engulfing man in his entire existence. Against this sovereignty, accordingly, there is appeal neither to God and to the law of nature nor to the people. The only appeal is to internal war, and Hobbes does not tire of pointing out that the sovereign must therefore be so powerful that an appeal of the subjects to arms will have no chance to succeed. In Hobbes' concept of sovereignty there is lost the essence of relative sovereignty, the idea that it involves, in the case of abuse, a legal or moral appeal to the law of nature, to the dignity of the human person (expressed positively in the bill of rights), to God and the divine law against tyranny. He ignores all these vigorous distinctions, for he abolishes natural law, he lets it disappear in the will of the sovereign. He does not acknowledge inalienable rights of the person; such rights are alienated by conferring them on the sovereign in the pact of subjection. He does not acknowledge the spiritual body, the Church, as a perfect society; he makes it a department of the state. He forgets about the rights of the intermediary organizations between the individual person and the state: the family, the vocational and professional groups, which he compares to worms in the body of a living man. Hobbes' ideal state became interiorly the prototype of absolutism, the centralized police state, regarding the Church as a gendarme useful for policing the minds; exteriorly it expressed itself in power politics in foreign affairs." (Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought, op. cit., 267.)

Certain elements of Hobbes's thought that derive directly from the abolition of natural law are of particular note: the abolition of the natural rights of liberty and property — with life, stripped of its chief supports, becoming somewhat equivocal. Hobbes developed this logically as he applied his thought to contract, corporations (organizations that mediate between the State and the individual), and his theory of State absolutism.

Contract — freedom of association/liberty — is obvious. As far as Hobbes was concerned, to expect people to respect each others' rights is hopeless. Man is nothing but an animal until led by a divine right monarch into a civilized condition, with life outside society remaining (as Hobbes famously put it), "nasty, brutish and short." Agreements among men — covenants or contracts — are therefore meaningless unless there is an effective government to compel obedience as no one can be expected to keep an agreement voluntarily. As Hobbes declared, "Covenants without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all." (Leviathan, I.17.)

In this we see the basis for Hobbes's theory of "the corporation" that is the basis for Fascism, and against which Pope Pius XI argued in Divini Redemptoris (§ 54), the control by the State of all intermediate bodies. In an astounding misunderstanding that only makes sense when we realize that many people have unconsciously internalized Hobbesian principles, Pius XI's refutation of Hobbes's abolition of all intermediary bodies in the State has been interpreted as supporting it in the form of the Fascist ("Corporate") State! As George Sabine explained Hobbes's conclusions,

"Any distinction between society and the state is a mere confusion, and the same is true of a distinction between the state and its government. Except there be a tangible government — individuals with the power to enforce their will — there is neither state nor society but a literally 'headless' multitude. Few writers have held this opinion as consistently as Hobbes. It follows also that any distinction between law and morals is a confusion. For society has only one voice with which it can speak and one will which it can enforce, that of the sovereign who makes it a society. Very properly does Hobbes call his sovereign a 'mortal God' and unite in his hands both the sword and the crozier." (Sabine, A History of Political Theory, op. cit., 469-470.)

This leaves absolutism, which we will cover in the next posting in this series.

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