Leviathan

 

“What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals..” (Hamlet Act. II Scene 2)

Angels“, “Gods“, “the beauty of the world“: is this what men actually are? If it were so, the societies we have built in time should have been able to express such perfection or at least some of them and we know it has not been so. If we were thus “noble in reason“, “infinite in faculty” the “piece of work” of creation, for what reason would we lock our doors at night? Thomas Hobbes believed that any idea of modern society should start from a realistic, rather than idealistic, analysis of the nature of man.

His vision of mankind, in fact, takes the form of a sort of anthropological pessimism where human beings are all dominated by passions, greed, vainglory and distrust. These are the conditions that throw humankind into a permanent state of war, which is for Hobbes the natural state of human life, the situation that exists whenever those natural passions are unrestrained. A war where every individual faces every other individual as an enemy; the “war of every man against every man.” The consequent total absence of collaboration cannot but make us miserable and renders life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hence, rather than angels, it seems we act more like wolves: aggressive, violent, mean, selfish.

In such a world where everybody struggles to preserve his life and goods and where violence at the hands of others is the greatest fear, the only possibility to live in peace together for each individual is to give up his natural right to acquire and preserve everything in whatever manner he chooses. It must a collective endeavor, of course, since it only makes sense for an individual to give up his right to attack others if everyone else agrees to do the same and he calls this collective renunciation: the “social contract.”Of course, how can it be trusted that everybody keeps his words? Hence; a system needs to be instituted, a “visible power to keep them in awe,” to remind them of the purpose of the social contract and to force them, for fear of punishment, to keep their promises. The power necessary to transform the desire for a social contract into a commonwealth is the sovereign, the Leviathan, or the “king of the proud.”

“For by Art is created that great Leviathan called a Common-wealth, or State, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended” (Leviathan. Introduction)

Therefore; the Leviathan is but an artificial man, made in the image of its imperfect creator. The Sovereignty is its artificial Soul and gives life and motion to the whole body. The Joints are  the Magistrates and other Officers of Judicature and Execution ; Reward and Punishment which are fastened to the seat of the sovereignty are the Nerves, The Wealth and Riches are the Strength of all the particular members ; the Counsellors are the Memory; Equity and Lawes are an artificial Reason and Will; Concord, Health. By the way, as any other man, the Leviathan is vulnerable and it experiences Sickness if there is a Sedition and a Civil War brings it to Death. We can feel Hobbes fears in these last words, in fact, the Leviathan was published in 1651, few years after the Civil War which had ended with the trial and execution of Charles I.

By the way, the Leviathan must not necessarily be a king. Hobbes makes clear that the sovereign power can be composed of one person, several, or many—in other words, the Leviathan can equally well describe a monarchy, an aristocracy, a democracy or even that republic made by Cromwell which rose from the ashes of the Civil War. The only requirement that Hobbes sets for sovereignty is that the entity has absolute power to defend the social contract and decide what is necessary for its defense.

Just few questions: is Hobbes only a pessimist or did he get it right? Does only a Leviathan, whatever political form it takes, make us safely stay together and restrain our animal, aggressive nature? What would happen without such control? Well, just check  any social network and as its presence has not been clearly outlined yet, you will see millions of hungry wolves running wildly, free and happy to have found a place to unleash  their repressed nature at last.

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The social wolf

lupo 1It’s nine o’clock of a foggy morning and just like every single day a crowd of desperate souls flows over London Bridge to reach their workplace. They keep on walking “up the hill and down King William Street ”  with their head bowed and their “eyes fixed before their feet as if they had neither past nor future. This famous section belongs to Eliot’s Waste Land, but today would Eliot really conceive the same scene to stress the meaninglessness and hopelessness of modern society? Would it still work? I guess he would need to think about something else and you know why? All these lost souls would hold a fancy smartphones in their hands as remedy to their loneliness and stare at the colorful screens in rapture rather than fix their toes.

lupo3Modern man is “social” and happy to be so, there is no more loneliness, since the web can provide you with a good bunch of friends, a community you can chat with, ready to help you mitigate your sorrows or dissolve your doubts. It is in this new modern dimension that  man seems to express better his natural tendency to associate with others. But is it really so?  Many philosophers have always been controversial about the “social” nature of man. Aristotle, for example, was one of those who was convinced that men associate with one another instinctively, it is in their DNA and they do it for two reasons: to satisfy the reproductive instinct which leads men and women to unite and  the self-preservation instinct, which causes master and slave to come together for their mutual benefit. For Aristotle the state is a natural society and the proof that nature intended man to lead a social life is his faculty of speech, which no other animal possesses. And nature does nothing in vain, does it?

lupo 4Aristotle seemed to have some good points about it, but Hobbes along with Rousseau and Locke refuted Aristotle’s thesis one by one, dismantling his optimistic view. Hobbes in particular held that societies were not a product of a primeval instinct, but rather an explosive mixture of mutual fear and need, which, if it weren’t disciplined by a strong authority, the State, it would lead to an uncontrollable series of abuses and violence. Man is  “homo, homini, lupus“, that is a dangerous animal, a wolf, who actually displays the following characteristics, which seems to be in antithesis with the idea of “homo socialis“:
1) he is competitive, that’s why he is dominated by feelings such envy, hatred which lead eventually to war;
2) man develops private interest and he is happy, when he compares himself to others in order to excel/prevail;
3) man, being endowed with reason, is inclined to criticize the behaviours and actions of others and in particular of those who rule, as he is convinced that they if he were in their shoes, he would do much better. Such a conduct leads to divisions and civil wars;
4) this final point is the one I love the most and made me ponder a lot. Aristotle’s observation upon man’s faculty of speech seemed incontrovertible, but Hobbes disintegrates it, pointing out that man is the only one in nature to use his communicative  faculty to lie.
Hence, the contract which is at the basis of any human society is not natural but artificial.

Therefore, I cannot help but wonder: is the web the place where men can perform their honest social instinct or that fertile land where they can become more esily wolves?

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