The Shaking of the Foundations
(Toward the Reformation of the Social Contract in the 21st Century)
A University Lecture
The University of Denver
September 30, 2010
By Buie Seawell
The foundations of the earth do shake. Earth breaks to pieces, earth is split in pieces, earth shakes to pieces, earth reels like a drunken man, earth rocks like a hammock; under the weight of its transgression earth falls down to rise no more!
First, a poem made famous on NPR on the day of the 9/11 tragedy:
Against the backdrop of a universe 13.7 billion years old that is now estimated to be 93 billion light-years in diameter, the historic upheavals experienced by a species called homo sapiens on a tiny planet near the edge of a medium-sized galaxy may seem of little consequence. Of course, if you happen to be a member of that species, with a personal investment in the lives of thirteen grandchildren and their futures, you may not share that cynical perspective. Astronomical perspectives retreat at light speed into the cosmic background when I look into the eyes of my beautiful grandchildren.
Nonetheless, we humans have entered a time between the times. A time that aptly fits my definition of epoch: “a period of history where the conventional wisdom of the recent past serves little purpose in understanding the immediate future.” In this lecture I hope to draw on some quite unconventional wisdom in at least suggesting a framework for the great task of our species in this 21st Century. A century (or perhaps better, an epoch) which had a quite precise beginning: 8:46 AM on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
The task is that of survival. And the issue is the nature of the human species itself. And when survival is on the line, no small thoughts are permitted. The foundations of the earth are shaking, and the thoughtfulness needed is precisely that, foundational in nature. I want to address the most basic, fundamental, foundational aspect of human association – The Social Contract – and the framework for its reformation in the epochal years ahead.
My perspective is that of Thomas Hobbes (1588 to 1679). In the classes which follow this University Lecture, I look forward to exploring the thoughts of four radical thinkers in this unique arena – Hobbes, John Locke (1632 – 1704), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1717 – 1778) and John Rawls (1921 – 2002). Each of these “public philosophers” addressed in both similar and distinctive fashion the groundwork for social contract formation, and I believe each has something quite distinctive to say to us voyagers on Spaceship Earth on how to survive human kind’s most perilous passage toward its future. Suffice it to say, the institutions of the 20th Century’s international Social Contract – all shaped in the aftermath of The Great Depression and The Second World War – the so-called Breton Woods agencies, plus the United Nations, are today at best not up to the challenges ahead or at worst, moribund and waiting burial.
But tonight I want to focus on Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. During 2009 (thanks to the generosity of this University) I was able, on sabbatical at Oxford (where he matriculated in 1603), to live with the old boy for a while and come to realize just how definitive his life and work are for the human project I propose tonight – reframing the Social Contract of Mankind for the 21st Century.
Before we turn to Mr. Hobbes, I want to quote one of the 20th Century’s finest poets, W. H. Auden:
Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone, Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss,
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible;
We who must die demand a miracle.
Alone, alone, about a dreadful woo
– W. H. Auden, ”For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (1941-1942)
Thomas Hobbes would have appreciated Auden’s poem. Not simply because of its dark mood, though Hobbes could be dark indeed as he looked at the human prospect from the tortured perspective of 17th Century England, but because of the poem’s deep understanding of the crisis genetically imbedded in the evolution of the species: “The Pilgrim’s Way has lead to the Abyss . . .”
In so many ways, Thomas Hobbes is a man for our season. I want to put three aspects of Hobbes’s persona and public philosophy in salient context:
Hobbes is first and foremost a foundational thinker; that is, he is radical in the best sense: he goes to the center point of things, the crux, the definitive issue. Hobbes did not live on the periphery of the life of his time. He was in the eye of the hurricane; he understood from within the tempestuous nature of politics at its worst. Given the challenges of our own time, nothing less is required of us – us the species but particularly us the University, the academic community. And, I want to dwell on that a short while. Second, Hobbes’s anthropology is astoundingly appropriate to our own time. And, I want to talk about that. Third, Hobbes understands clearer than almost anyone the necessity of structural accountability for the survival of the civil order. He called his beast, Leviathan. And with some apprehension in this time of Tea Parties and Libertarian aversion to constraints of any fashion, I’ll talk of that.
First then, Hobbes the man – the man for our season, the prototype of the public scholar
A German Lutheran theologian had predicted 1588, the year of Hobbes’s birth, to be the year in which the world would end. Hobbes’s mother (we do not know her name) told him that she went into childbirth early fearing the prediction would come true any moment. The Spanish Armada lay off the coast of England; and in that simple woman’s mind, it was the agency of the Apocalypse itself. Said Hobbes later, “My mother gave birth to twins that year – myself and Fear.” How his mother’s vulnerable and anxious state actually affected the young Hobbes is, of course, pure speculation. But the correspondence between her fear and the grounding of his public philosophy in fear itself is at least not idle speculation. Very simply, the quaking earth with the emergence of a new epoch rocked Thomas Hobbes’s cradle.
Hobbes’s mother would soon pass away, and his father, a drunk Anglican priest, fled Malmesbury to avoid arrest for failing to appear in a matter involving his assault of a fellow priest and was never heard of again. Fortunately, a rich uncle and a brilliant teacher rescued the orphaned Hobbes. And his teacher Robert Latimer must surely have done a fine job with the boy; Hobbes arrived at Oxford, age 15, writing Latin and Greek and knowing mathematics. The year of his entry into Magdalen Hall at Oxford was the year of Elizabeth I’s death and the end of the Tudor reign and the beginning of the turbulent years of the Stuarts. A new era of Anglo-American history was dawning.
Hobbes did not take well to Oxford, nor Oxford to T. Hobbes. He would recount in later years that he spent most of his time while at Oxford looking at old maps, day-dreaming, no doubt about the wide world far beyond the scholastic sanctuary of Oxford, and trapping jackdaws! The Academy and Hobbes were never to be close friends. And with good reason. The academic community of Great Britain in the 17th Century was dominated by the church, was wedded to out-dated Aristotelian science and in no way wanted to get embroiled in the political upheavals of England’s most chaotic century. Someone whose every publication challenged Church, State and Academy was dangerous. And the academy criticized him no end. One charge was that he voiced opinions with insufficient scholarship, that he didn’t read enough books! Since Hobbes was a voracious reader, this could have only meant he didn’t read the “right” books!
Thomas Hobbes never let rejection by the Academy get in the way of his work as a public scholar. Both in science and in politics, his extraordinary career would challenge Crown, Church and Academy. If the old political cliché is correct, i.e. a person’s character can be judged best not by his friends, but rather by his enemies, Hobbes’s resume of contemporaneous opponents is quite impressive: Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650, in an exchange of letters that became increasingly dismissive on both sides, Descartes dismissing Hobbes’s excessive materialism and Hobbes, Descartes’ dualism.); Spinoza (1632 – 1677, who agreed with much of Hobbes’s radical political thought, but significantly disagreed on the role of rationality in human nature, and was also far more democratic in his politics than Hobbes.); Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691, a gentleman scientist whom many consider the father of modern chemistry and of “Boyle’s Law,” argued with Hobbes about the reality of vacuums.); Professor John Wallis (Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, with whom Hobbes had a most acrimonious set of exchanges both about Hobbes’s flawed attempts to “square the circle” as well as who was or was not more loyal than whom during the English Civil War.); John Bramhall (1594 – 1662, an Anglican theologian and archbishop with whom Hobbes debated free will and determinism in public as well as in letters and scholarly essays for over a decade.), and almost any prominent churchman of the time, a number of whom after the Restoration sought by act of Parliament (1666) to have Hobbes tried for heresy and put to death. A sad aside to this amazing life of public disputation, is that The Royal Society (“The Independent Scientific Academy of the United Kingdom”) never invited Hobbes, a far more accomplished thinker and scientist than 99% of the Society’s membership, to become a member. So much for the Academy’s commitment to fairness and objectivity!
But my point is this: in times of great social upheaval folks like Thomas Hobbes are sorely needed. Consider the sorry state of our own politics today and the quality of our public discourse. Rightly we lament the passing of the political leader who combined both substantial, learned wisdom with the art of politics. A Louis Brandeis, for instance, who was the Karl Rove to President Woodrow Wilson. Does that single sentence make my point? Wouldn’t you die to have an election like 1912 where the choices were Wilson (supported intellectually by Brandeis) and Teddy Roosevelt (seconded by Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life) and Howard Taft. The country had brilliance and clarity in that year of defining choice. Today we have spin-doctors and media consultants and direct marketing gurus and the repeated ad nauseam of staying on message. Why would one want to stay on a message that has no integrity or substance is beyond me. But I digress.
I was a fortunate person in my public life. I worked principally for two men who would have made Pericles proud: Colorado Governor Richard Lamm and U.S. Senator Gary Hart. They were public officials and politicians, who were also public scholars. They chose to raise the level of the public debate and honor the democratic process given us by Jefferson, Madison, Adams, et al. And talk about endangered species? Where are such voices “as bad as conscience” today? My point is simple, in the failure of our politics, the focus of public discourse will of necessity shift for substance and insight to the Academy. And the role of public scholar awaits those brave enough to address real issues with foundational research, radical thoughtfulness and inspired teaching so that our classrooms become again the crucibles of reformation and enlightenment.
We, those in academia, need without apology, to define anew the role of the radical for the 21st Century. And the point of departure is not a new treatise on the wonders of academic tenure. Holding on to jobs when the world has loosed its grip on reality just will not do. No small thoughts allowed. There should be a sign at the entrance to the University: Danger. You are entering a University. No small thoughts allowed! Hobbes was, if nothing else, the gadfly of a higher education system mired in conventional Aristotelian thinking . . . held hostage by the church . . . and offering next to nothing for the social, cultural and political transition England was fast becoming violently engaged in.
We write helpful, limited-in-scope, peripheral pieces of peer reviewed research, and thus attain tenure, forgetting that the foundational purpose of tenure was to free the scholar to challenge the political and social order itself . . . not simply to provide some paltry form of job security. Three times the various Parliaments of 17th Century England moved to have Hobbes put to death. The Universities detested him, as did the Church. The Royal Society would not accept him as a member although as his first biographer and friend (John Aubrey) said he was the most qualified person in the land for that honor. Now that’s the kind of resume a public scholar ought to have!
Second, it is all about anthropology. Hobbes is often criticized for his negative view of the nature of humankind. And Hobbes is grandly misunderstood. In the light of 9/11 and in the context of international terrorism, Thomas Hobbes’s anthropology should be listened to most carefully . . . allbeit that it is uninformed by the psychology, neurology and anthropology of our own time . . . because his view of human nature is critically relevant for the 21st Century.
Hobbes’s groundbreaking work in Social Contract theory was to the end of establishing a single and universal principle that put all human beings on the same level, in the same position relative to each other. Simply, Hobbes was a radical egalitarian. Beyond social status, or race, or nationality, or culture, or gender (i.e. beyond any conventional category), Hobbes posited that the leveling force of our common humanity was fear. And for a time burdened by fear, dubbed by Auden as “The Age of Anxiety,” perhaps Hobbes is not far off the mark.
At first blush, this is a truly unpleasant perspective. But people who live in gated communities and build walls along their borders should not cast aspersions on T. Hobbes!
In my view, not only flight, but also distrust, suspicion, precaution and provision against fear are all characteristic of men who are afraid. On going to bed men lock their doors; when going on a journey, they arm themselves because they are afraid of robbers. Countries guard their frontiers with fortresses, their cities with walls . . .
– De Cive, Chapter 1, T. Hobbes
Hobbes’s simple point is this . . . human beings have quite naturally insecurities, apprehensions and fears . . . and these are common to us all. Worst, politicians, of the Machiavellian ilk, know this quite well and use fear as a primary part of their arsenal of coercion and manipulation. Get people afraid and you can sell them almost any political stupidity. Such politicians are in approach little different than out-and-out terrorists. Their violence is just as devastating to the body politic as the terrorist who flew the planes into the Twin Towers those nine years ago. Against this reality of public terrorism, Thomas Hobbes did his finest work.
In a state of nature – i.e. in a situation where there were no protected rights, no laws, no law enforcement – fear acts upon us to create complete social chaos. Thus his most famous quote:
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.
–Leviathan, Chapter XIII
And here is the secret to understanding the often misunderstood Hobbes: the purpose of order is civility, the role of the Leviathan is to preserve the peace (The Leviathan Is a Peace Beast), that is, to create the conditions of human flourishing. A world of seven billion human beings hanging on to survival by a thread, victim to terrorism in unimaginable dimensions, vulnerable to economic chaos caused by rampant and unconscionable gaming of the world economic systems, and upon our overcrowded planet ravaged by pandemics and natural disasters, will not be saved by timidity, good wishes and kind thoughts. The authority complex of us 21st Century libertarian adolescents may well be the death of us.
A small aside. The Supreme Court of the United States in its opinion in The FEC vs. Citizens United unleashed the State of Nature on American political process. With money the sine qua non of political success, the political process is now a war of all against all. Look at the political ads of even “the good guys”. . . fire is fought with fire and the woods are dry and the fuel is plentiful. The Free Rider is now the Horseman of a Political Apocalypse.
Thomas Hobbes never heard of The Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Tragedy of the Commons or the problem of The Free Rider . . . all topics of our graduate business classrooms. But he would have understood exactly what these 21st Century conundrums are all about. For it was precisely the tension between human self-interest and our social welfare that was the focus of Hobbes’s scholarship.
His State of Nature, his War of All against All, his understanding that even those selfless and well-intentioned souls cannot maintain a posture of altruism in an environment of unrestrained greed is so on the mark of our own predicament. Again Auden’s refrain, “The Pilgrim Way has lead to the abyss . . .” We are captives of a singular dilemma, prisoners of our own fearful, defensive selfishness.
So . . .
Third, it takes a beast. Hobbes was no friend of democratic process although he would come to accept that Parliaments as well as Kings could provide (theoretically at least) the enforcement structure for civility to flourish. But I think at heart he lived and died a monarchist. It was not by chance that his great work was named Leviathan.
Fundamentally, Hobbes believed that to be at our best, human beings need to be secure, i.e. unafraid. The role of the state is to provide precisely this: a civil order.
Hobbes believed that order was more important than freedom. This, of course, in our place and time is rank heresy. We are sons and daughters of Patrick Henry. Give us liberty or give us death! But do we really mean it? Are we serious? The ecological catastrophe that looms over this planet and this species in the next several hundred years is going to put that thesis to the most rigorous of all tests . . . it’s going to be put-up-or-shut-up time for life as we know it. Two frequent objections to this rather dour analysis, prevalent in my college and in my classrooms: (1) We humans are good at changing when the chips are down; when the crisis hits, we’ll change our ways and adapt (this is often coupled with a healthy dose of Invisible Hand theory); (2) Technology will save us (i.e. we’ll innovate our way out of Armageddon.).
One of the true radicals of our time, John N. Gray (recently retired from The London School of Economics and resident of Oxford) minces no words about his hope that we shall be saved by technological progress:
The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The Twentieth Century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the Twentieth Century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge – not even in the long run.
Harry Truman was more succinct: “I hope for some sort of peace, but I fear machines are ahead of morals by some centuries.”
The problem is not that we are unable to invent amazing new technologies; we just don’t seem to have the moral will to employ our inventions toward the end of our own survival. The issue of our time is not technological; it is principally ethical. We humans are abundant in means and pathetic in will. That said . . .
It then would seem to me that at least three things (though there are probably more) are needed if we are able to reframe the Social Contract in a manner sufficient to survive the coming crises of this century:
(1) Scholars willing to live up to their calling and challenge conventional truth;
(2) A reframed understanding of human nature, beginning with real clarity about how fragile and vulnerable our nature truly is, and the inimical character of fear when combined with our politics;
(3) A less romantic attitude about the efficacy of our political economy, i.e. Democratic Capitalism.
And so . . .
I don’t want to be blamed for calling you here to deliver myself of clear and radical affirmations and then in the breach deliver a flea – or is it a pea? I forget. I want to end with three direct statements based on a life lived in ministry, law, politics and education. My only supporting documents or references are myself and this life:
So three blunt statements:
- The political economy we believe in – Democratic Capitalism – is failing. There are fundamentally only two tasks: providing the context of civility (i.e. governance) and distribution (the allocation of the benefits and burdens of the society). Civility is not cultured by our politicians; fair distribution is not being achieved by our business people: “The Pilgrim Way has lead to the abyss, nothing that is possible can save us. We who must die demand a miracle.”
- The miracle referenced above is called EDUCATION. Lawrence Kohlberg in his pivotal research a generation ago could identify only one common element in a human beings learning to reason at higher levels of moral thought education. You want Equal Opportunity? EDUCATION. You want a civil society with greatly reduced requirements of policing and Leviathan force? EDUCATION. You want this species to survive the nightmarish prospects of terrorism, disease, ecological collapse, economic chaos: EDUCATION.
- And since we are in an educational institution . . . a single unnerving suggestion that will insure my infamy: Combine Daniels, Sturm and Korbel . . . and become the most important school of relevant graduate education in the world. But, of course, egos and the tyranny of the practical would never allow such a thing. Get over it. Nothing that is possible can save us.
Thomas Hobbes’s perspective on human life and society is likely not your own. He was an unlikely person. He understood what a force fear was in manipulating all of the human enterprise. And he fought it with all his mind and physical being. He lived through a tormented epoch of human history, where fear and the ungodly combination of religion and politics wreaked havoc on his land. And yet, as they said in the old days of a profession called journalism, “without fear or favor,” he spoke his mind and his truth. And when the old public scholar finally laid it down at last, these were his final words: “Death standing close . . . I am not afraid.”
With the human prospect hanging in the balance of this century before us, one can only pray that fearless voices will yet arise, fearless institutions yet emerge, fearless leaders come forth. My hope is yet that the Academy may yet rid itself of its timid public posture and be a part of a new Renaissance of scholarship and advocacy for a planet in a world of hurt. My love of this University has always kept my hope alive that such is still possible.
And so I conclude with Auden’s most beautiful and hopeful lines . . .
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the land of Unlikeness,
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that
has expected your return for years.
He is the Life!
Love Him in the World of the Flesh
And at your marriage all its
occasions shall dance for joy.