Preface: Why Hobbes?

Preface:  Why Hobbes?

This book is a series of essays which seeks to apply some of the fundamental philosophical ideas and political concepts of Seventeenth Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes to what the author believes are the social, economic and political realities of the 21st Century.  The presenting question is simply, why Hobbes?

I can both answer that and perhaps save the reader a great deal of time and some expense by simply pointing out that if he or she sees the century before us as a tranquil continuation of the Pax Americiana of the late Twentieth Century – all be it there were a few geopolitical bumps in the road entering this new Century (!) – then this book and Thomas Hobbes are not for you.  For fans of George Friedman’s recent best selling book, The Next One Hundred Years, just put this modest effort of mine away, and write Mr. Friedman a celebratory epistle of appreciation.  Then sit back and enjoy the wonders of what laisse faire capitalism, technological innovation and unilateral military force has in store for our planet and species in – as Friedman comfortingly forecasts — the blissful years ahead.

If on the other hand, the reader sees as real possibilities an ecological crisis compounded by global warming, over population, starvation, fresh water depletion and pandemics throughout the undeveloped world; economic chaos of proportions never known in human experience, and cultural conflicts of terrifying proximity, then Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury and this book are for you.

Thomas Hobbes, born in 1588 near Malmesbury, England, lived in extraordinarily chaotic times.  His was a time both of international war and domestic political and social unrest.  Politics was not just hard nosed competition for office and power, it could be fatal.  Henry VIII’s daughters — Bloody Mary (Mary I, queen from 1553 to 1558), Catholic, and Elizabeth I (queen from 1558 to 1603), Protestant — unflinchingly burned, beheaded and hanged challengers, even just suspected challengers, to their authority.  King and Father, Henry, long before Hobbes time, had Lord Chancellor Thomas Moore put to death for not granting him a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Arogon (because she could not give him a male heir) so he could marry Anne Boelyn (mother of Elizabeth and sister of Henry’s former mistress) whom he subsequently beheaded, so he could marry somebody else (Jane Seymour)!

Behind much of the political mayhem in the century of Hobbes birth (aside from marital strife!), which would continue throughout the 17th Century, was the lethal combination of religious authority and political sovereignty.  Hobbes would do his major intellectual work against the background of the British Civil War (1642 to 1651) which included the regicide of Charles I (1649) and the suspension and then the restoration of the monarchy itself.  But whether monarchy or parliamentary commonwealth, the violence persisted. Hobbes published De Cive (a fine, short and carefully reasoned book on law and civil authority) in 1642 and his magnum opus, The Leviathan, in 1651.  For over ten years – mostly during the Civil War and the Cromwells’ troubled tenure — Hobbes lived in France in fear of his own life because of his political and religious views.  And even upon his return to England in late 1651 his life and freedom remained in constantly in jeopardy.

Out of this total social, political and cultural chaos one of the finest political minds our species ever produced framed and defined the fundamental aspects of human nature, natural law, civil society and political sovereignty.  If there ever was a person with perspective on how to maintain civility in the midst of chaotic change, it was and is Thomas Hobbes. And that is the what and the why of this book.  I could not find better words to conclude this Preface than by quoting (and adopting it as my own appeal) the last paragraph of Hobbes’s own Preface to his brief and brilliant De Cive (On the Citizen):

For these reasons I beg and beseech you, Readers, to be good enough to have patience if you find some things either less certain or more sharply expressed than was necessary, since they are not the words of a partisan but of one who has a passion for peace, whose justified grief at his country’s present calamity reasonably merits some indulgence.

Buie Seawell

St. Antony’s College


February, 2009

(updated February 19, 2009)