Thursday, December 4, 2014

Peace Requires Awe

Surveying the papers, at least half the time, brings to my mind one of Hobbes’ famous sayings, i.e. that the absence of what he calls “civil society,” an absence that he therefore labels “the state of nature,”  “is nothing else but a mere state of war of all against all; and in that war all men have equal right unto all things.” This is from the Preface of De Cive.

Now that “state of nature” is one of those rather slippery notions. I’m not quite sure that such a state actually ever existed when humanity was actually what it is now. If it means the state of being an ordinary ape-like animal, surely the state was not one of war; orangutans are not always arming for combat. In his Leviathan, however, Hobbes offers a much more interesting qualifying conditions: it is the absence of “a common power to keep them [men] all in awe.” Herewith the entire quote, with material usually omitted this time included. I found this worth perusing today, particularly the first sentence and then that long listing in the last paragraph:

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes does not further define the “common power” that holds us in awe. But, clearly, it need not necessarily mean a political power as such. It certainly could be that. But better than some dictatorship or royal rule that keeps everybody trembling, it might also refer to a period (note Hobbes’ disquisition bout time, usually omitted from this quote) in which a meaningful belief system keeps people unified and in awe.

Now as for the content of newspapers—that often trigger my own reaction—that content is neatly depicted in the final sentence of the quote—in which we almost feel like we’re reading a paper ranging over every aspect of modern society. Hobbes, who saw the light in the sixteenth and died in the seventeenth century, pictured “the state of nature” as in the past. Little did he know that he was witnessing its rebirth. Since his time the State of Nature has genuinely matured all over.

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