Monday, August 23, 2010

Hobbes and His Times

Perhaps we can understand how Hobbes arrived at his philosophical views, if we remember the events through which he lived. His life and times were tumultuous: arguments between king and parliament; civil wars in England; wars in Europe; Islamic attacks on Europe from the outside. His view of human nature: people are selfish and violent. Hobbes lived through years of physical violence and political power struggles. From this, he may have concluded that humans are essentially barbaric.

Hobbes sided with Charles I against Parliament; translated Homer’s books into English; spoke with Descartes and Galileo about science; spent a few years in Paris; and was friend and teacher of Charles II. His books were misunderstood to be anti-royal or anti-Anglican. He had, in any case, a long and eventful life. He was energetic and productive.

One of his summarizing texts states that human nature has three laws: we seek peace to preserve our lives; we mutually give up rights to preserve peace; we must keep the contracts we make. These lay the foundation for this political and social systems of absolutism: having made a "social contract" in order to secure peace and preserve our lives, we are morally bound to obey royal authority, having traded away our rights.

Rousseau Revisited

He might not have been so radical had he not lived under absolutist monarch; he suffered from painful childhood. Extensively but unevenly educated, he was certainly intelligent, but unable to have healthy long-lasting marriage, instead had many bastards by many women; he was rather argumentative, always getting into fights, even with his friends and supporters. He believed that the natural and savage state of humanity is good, giving birth to the Romantic notion of the "noble savage"; technology and society lead to idleness for the upper class, inequality, and powerful government domination. He wrote that civilization has a corrupting influence; family is better than government. He flirts with an almost-communist view of property. Although he glorifies the natural state of humans, he also points out that they are without morality; Rousseau wrote that we need a good structure for a new type of society. He reasoned that people freely join society for the common good; this produces good men. After Rousseau’s death, his book will partially motivate the French Revolution. Born to a protestant family, he later becomes Roman Catholic, and eventually invents his own religion. Believing that people are naturally good, and that society corrupts them, he could not remain with any form of Christianity. Although he saw the power of social structures as harmful, which would imply something like libertarianism or anarchism, he paradoxically felt the need for a very powerful government to "force people to be free," because he foresaw that not everyone would willingly sign up for his projected destruction of current societal structures. He thought that people live best in small agricultural communities. The individual wills of people are joined together in a structure, creating a "general will": laws express general will, and any form of government is fine, if people consent. Rousseau thought that society causes oppression and inequality, and creates false codes of morality, because it is not representing the general will. Oddly, Rousseau felt that advancement in art and science is bad, because knowledge strengthens government against the individual, resulting in corruption and jealousy. Rousseau leads to Romanticism – passion over reason. Is Rousseau a Romantic? Does he side with passion or reason?