The pandemic has revealed both the enduring wisdom and utopian delusions of Thomas Hobbes

The perpetual cycle of lockdowns has shown the reality of the Hobbesian state, where authority is backed by coercion, and the problem with his belief in one all-powerful sovereign.  

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In his 1651 masterpiece, Leviathan, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes insisted that civil war is always the worst thing that can happen in politics. To avoid this catastrophe, everyone needs to accept the necessity of a sovereign with unlimited power. To worry about the nature of the sovereign is, in any commonwealth, he continued, irrational and self-indulgent. For Hobbes, human beings are singularly dangerous creatures, and it is our capacity to hold different religious or political beliefs sanctimoniously that makes our collective life so hazardous. If we existed without beliefs and a language of offence when others don’t share them, we might be naturally sociable creatures like bees and ants, getting by without a sovereign. With them, however, we must be constrained by laws.

In his posthumously published book Behemoth (1681), Hobbes made nearly everybody’s beliefs responsible for the civil war that consumed England, Scotland and Ireland in the middle of the 17th century. The Presbyterians, who made the Bible the source of all doctrinal authority, incurred a great deal of his wrath: “how can we have peace,” he wrote, “while this is our religion?” But Catholics who thought England should be governed by the pope, independents who advocated religious liberty, Anglicans who controlled the universities, and anyone possessed of ideas about the ancient rights and liberties of the English were all, in Hobbes’s eyes, guilty too. Each group thought their beliefs should supplant the king’s laws, and there for Hobbes lay the source of violent disorder.

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Unsurprisingly, Hobbes is often presented in politically difficult times as a prophetic realist. For Hobbes, politics always occurs in the emergency moment, the one where over the precipice lies chaos. The pandemic has been no exception. Hobbes’s justification for authoritative decision-making looks self-evident: given the consequences of letting everyone make their own decisions about the risks of death and the loss of livelihood, education and liberty, someone has to have the right to decide which is prioritised and ask for our compliance. Lockdowns have demonstrated the reality that we live in Hobbesian states where that authority to decide is backed by coercion. 

Hobbes also appears vindicated in making competing beliefs the decisive cause of political instability. That it would be perilous for individuals to decide what to do is not only a matter of asymmetric health risks and divergent interests. Individuals have different beliefs about life in relation to mortality as well as what is sacred and what should constitute exceptions to the rules. As the pandemic has progressed, politics in Europe and the US has become more contested around cultural and religious beliefs, not less. 

But the past year’s conflicts also expose how utopian and delusional Hobbes’s solution is to the problem of zealous beliefs.  Hobbes made his case for an all-powerful sovereign by supposing that we could be stripped of all our existing beliefs. Hobbes reduced humankind to a mental “state of nature”. Any belief acquired through experience or reading books, or passed on through the generations, must be set aside.

Instead, we should use our reason to discern what Hobbes believed was true political knowledge, what he called “a science of justice and equity”. Recognising nonetheless the practical difficulty of getting human beings to renounce their beliefs, Hobbes then wanted the sovereign to propagate religious beliefs conducive to preserving the Commonwealth and prohibit the expression of those that threaten it. The Christian beliefs he wished to be preached included a theology Hobbes himself devised in Leviathan in which there is no hell. 

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We don’t even need to recall the horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism to see why Hobbes’s solution to his own problem fails. If the reward of winning democratic power becomes the authority to censor and preach, politics will prove destructive in precisely the way Hobbes wanted to avoid. Private powers, like Big Tech, acting in the same manner to court favour with the sovereign to protect their commercial interests will be no better than elected governments, a point that the realist Hobbes might have been quick to recognise. 

Hobbes directly experienced the menace that prevails when sovereigns prescribe some beliefs and prohibit expression of others. In 1666-67, parliament debated a bill that would have made denying the central theological doctrines of Anglicanism punishable by imprisonment and exile. One of the books mentioned in the bill that prompted atheism and blasphemy was Leviathan. Understandably, the bill sent Hobbes into spasms of fear. But ironically, this fear arose from the sovereign doing the very thing Hobbes had said in Leviathan it should do.

In Behemoth, Hobbes stated the problem of belief in his time simply: “for the Scriptures are hard, and the interpretations different of different men”. To think, nonetheless, that a sovereign can settle unanswerable metaphysical questions, whether in their religious or secular form, by an appeal to necessity requires a huge amount of coercion that will invariably be resisted by those against whom it is directed.

The anti-utopian language of democratic politics in postwar western Europe, exemplified by the writings of Isaiah Berlin, treated the pluralism of beliefs as a constraint on how governments could act for good reasons, even if in practice states were often hypocritical in the dissent they didn’t tolerate – consider, for example, the West German ban on the Communist Party in 1956. In the world as it is, where citizens are divided by their beliefs, governance requires realists, not the hubristic Hobbes, who mistook his beliefs for the science of politics. 

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Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 24 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks

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