The State: Our New God

Is man a social being by nature? Aristotle vs. Thomas Hobbes

Is man a social and political animal? Hobbes’ Man is in a natural state of War. Aristotle’s Man realizes that he cannot procure all his own needs for himself, nor with just his family, and that  it is natural to man, by his very nature, to live in community.

The Aristotelian view:

“The goal appears to be the same for a community of human beings as for an individual, and the best political system must conform to the same standard that the best man conforms to…it is fitting for the city to be brave, temperate, and resistant.” Politics, Bk. VII)

“…personality tends by nature to communion…the person requires membership in a society in virtue of both its dignity and its needs…The social unit is the person.” (Maritain, Person and the Common Good, pg. 47)

The Hobbesian View:

“…by covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a Commonwealth; in Latin, Civitas. This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defense. (Leviathan, Ch. 17)

And he that carryeth this person is called sovereign, and said to have sovereign power; and every one besides, his subject.” (Leviathan, Ch. 17)

The point of contention:

Sovereignty means two things.  First, a right to supreme independence and supreme power which is a natural and inalienable right. Second, a right to an independence and a power which in their proper sphere are supreme absolutely and transcendently, not comparatively or as a topmost part of the whole.” (Maritain, Man and the State, Ch. 2)

Man and Society:

To understand man’s place in society we must understand both man and society. First our understanding of man will tell us whether or not man is in society as an outsider or someone who belongs. In other words is man’s place in society natural or artificial? We cannot separate our anthropology from our political philosophy. Those that do will have nothing but incoherent system.

We find that both Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes understand this relationship between man and society. For Aristotle he has already told us his theory of man, especially in de Anima and in the Nichomachean Ethics, before going on to this politics. Likewise, in Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, the first part consisting of 16 chapters gives us his theory of man. Only then does he go on to Part II, Of Commonwealth.

Both Hobbes and Aristotle seek to understand what it is that man is and what he does.  For Aristotle, man has a specific difference of being a rational animal, and therefore, he seeks to know the highest things.  “All men by nature desire to know,” he tells us, and to achieve his end, man must be virtuous.

For Hobbes, man seeks to live, and everything else is based on living and not dying.

Law and Right Reason:

Among internal principles, virtue is primary in directing man to the good of human happiness.  The law is the primary source externally.

The common good is the purpose of all law, but the common good is distinct from the collective good. The distinctive common good to which human law is ordered is the civil, or political, good of peace and order. It would seem that Thomas Hobbes understands this at a superficial reading, but I believe that in truth, he does not.  His theories are a starting point on the road to utilitarianism, which certainly begins a mass confusion of the common good and the collective good. I say, then, that Hobbes’ political philosophy contains the beginnings of this distortion, for the oak is contained in the acorn.

So what is law?  Law is a certain ordination of reason for the common good, promulgated by one who has care of the community.  We have briefly discussed the issue of common good, or at least we have made mention of it as being deserved of reflection.  We might at this time discuss law as “a certain ordination of reason.”

The subject of natural law must be brought up at this point. Although we cannot pretend that Aristotle spoke of natural law in the way that later thinkers such Aquinas would, he was certainly laying down no opposition to it.  In Hobbes, however, we see a very different view.

Let us take a modern example of its distortion and see if it can shed some light on the issue at hand. Every individual, we are told, enjoys a fundamental right to define “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, 1992). In order to uphold abortion as legal, the court had to go so far as to define subjectivity as the objective truth (at least as far as society is concerned). This type of legal positivism can only take place when man becomes God, eliminating the real God and His objective reality from be the source from whence we get right and wrong.

Hobbes states in his Leviathan that

To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues…It is consequent also to the same condition that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it.

And a little later

For where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything and consequently, no action can be unjust…

Therefore before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant, and to make good that propriety which by mutual contract men acquire in recompense of the universal right they abandon: and such power there is none before the erection of a Commonwealth.

We should reflect on how much this line of thinking has become the basis of our contemporary society.  A thing is just or unjust because the State makes it so.  According to Hobbes, there was no such thing as actual justice or injustice until a commonwealth is set up.  Right and wrong are completely due to the law of the State, and before it there is no objective right or wrong. Thus, today you will hear that “action A is moral, clearly, because it is legal.”

Shouldn’t it rather be legal only if it is good morally?  We have it backwards, it seems.But this is precisely where we end up when we live in a society based off of Machiavellian power ethics and Hobbes’ sovereign state instead of the virtue ethics of happiness as understood by Aristotle in a worldly sense and extended to eternity by the Christian faith, stated so clearly by St. Thomas Aquinas.

For us, however, it is no longer God, but we who define our “own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.”

So again, if law is truly a certain ordination of reason for the common good, promulgated by one who has care of the community, then we have several distortions that have crept in already.  The ordination of reason seems to have been altered, for the one who has care of the community has been replaced.  If God is He who primarily has care of the community (all that He created), then reason likewise must extend back to His law first, and our participation in understanding that law is the natural law.

This is not to say that, for Aristotle, God was a creator who had care of His community, for this was certainly not Aristotle’s view.  However, Aristotle’s view leaves open this possibility as concerns objective truth, rather than a looking to the state for a legal positivism.  For Aristotle, the state and political philosophy were the highest human art and good, but this is qualified by the fact that Aristotle, without revealed truth, could not see how man could attain what he seemed to be made for, which Christians would rightly name the beatific vision.

When rights are on a temporal level, the common good takes precedence over the individual good, since the part, as part, exists for the whole (this is one of Maritain’s points in Person and the Common Good). For Aristotle, then, this whole took precedence, and his political philosophy had to be defined by it, for he knew of no eternal life of each individual. It is common knowledge that his understanding of individual immortality has been a point of extreme controversy throughout the ages.

The underlying point is simply this; for Aristotle, right and wrong are not what they are because humans make it so, but rather, right and wrong are there to be sought out and conformed to by human persons.  This stands in obvious contrast to such Hobbesian statements as “where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything and consequently, no action can be unjust.”

We must now demonstrate how all of this is related to our initial inquiry: is man a political animal as Aristotle says, or rather is he the Hobbesian animal that is only joined in community by a practical necessity?

Civil law directly concerns the external acts of human beings, presupposing the interior principles and acts. (“The goal appears to be the same for a community of human beings as for an individual, and the best political system must conform to the same standard that the best man conforms to…it is fitting for the city to be brave, temperate, and resistant.” Politics, Bk. VII)

As with Hobbes, Aristotle’s political thought is tied to his thought on what a human person is. Indeed, the goal for what a good community is is related, not just to the survival of the persons in it, but towards their virtue.  This we certainly do not see in Hobbes. For Hobbes, humans want to live.  For Aristotle, they want to live well, be virtuous, and be happy.  In fact, they will not be happy unless they are virtuous.

No doubt Aristotle disagreed with many of his teacher Plato’s points in The Republic, but it is clear that they both taught that virtue, specifically justice, is a good in and for itself. Socrates detractors in the beginning of The Republic argue that justice is such things as the strongest getting their way or someone helping a friend, but Socrates argues that justice is a good above these distortions.  In fact, the republic can be said to be both about society and about the individual.  Justice within society and justice within the man are seen as close parallels.  This, then, is the obvious and classical teaching. The view of Hobbes, and of many since him, obviously stands in strong contrast to this.

In William Wallace, O.P.’s Elements of Philosophy, under the subject of ethics, he reminds us that “A primary precept of the natural law is: a being must act in accordance with its nature; a reasonable being must act reasonably. Included in this is that one must properly as human pursue truth, exercise freedom, and cultivate virtue.” This is precisely a putting forth of the classical and Aristotelian teaching on man and politics.  It cannot be said that Hobbes would agree with the second statement.

For Hobbes, it is certainly not man’s nature to pursue truth, to exercise freedom, or to cultivate virtue. Instead, man’s nature is merely to be at war, to seek his own preservation.  It is rather societies sole job to prevent human nature.  A source of power protects one evil man from another evil man, so that both have a reason to treat each other well and not feel as threatened by everyone else. Again we quote Leviathan:

Therefore before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant, and to make good that propriety which by mutual contract men acquire in recompense of the universal right they abandon: and such power there is none before the erection of a Commonwealth.

Justice and Rights:

William Wallaces Elements of Philosophy is a useful tool to compare classical thought to Hobbes (or any other thinker).  In closing and as a review and summary, we will examine a few contrasts in Hobbes to Wallace’s book, and we may rightly say that Wallace can be generally said to state the Aristotelian and Thomist (these are not always the same) principles.

The role of justice is to facilitate the unbiased search for objective right and so to determine the will to acknowledge and fulfill that right.

Hobbes simply says that, before the commonwealth makes right and wrong , there is no such thing.  Before this, “ the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power.”

Positive law is generally required to assure justice in society, but positive (human) law can certainly entail injustice.

For Hobbes, it is human law that determines what is just or not in the first place.  Before human law, remember, there is nothing that is unjust.  If after human law, there is injustice, it is clear that this human law cannot entail, for Hobbes, injustice, for it is that which defines justice.

Men have a right to do what it is right for them to do.

The biggest difference in today’s society and that of old is in the understanding of “rights.”  Rights always had a tie to obligation primarily. This meant that rights were first those of others, not of ourselves, because it was about justice. Justice is the steady and lasting willingness to give to others what they are entitled to (their right: jus [or ius] suum).

But in a society that has grown up under Hobbesian survivalist thinking, rights are what are owed me.  Rights tend to become what I am entitled to before I have everyone get out of my way so I can get on with my own purposes.  It is only this swing in that that can lead us away from a defense of the right to life and towards a “right” to abortion on demand.  And indeed, it is certainly only this distortion in thinking that can lead many to see a right to life and a right to abortion as compatible views.

I said a moment ago that the “biggest difference in today’s society and that of old is in the understanding of rights.”  Joseph Pieper, in his The Four Cardinal Virtues, under the discussion of Justice, shows us where our “rights” as humans do come from and indeed must come from: our Creator. Our rights are a gift, and not a necessity of our being. In truth, then, the biggest difference is in our understanding of the human person, in both origin and in goal.

Aristotle’s god was not creator who loved the world, but Aristotle was no atheist, and knew that there was objective truth that we must conform to.  Hobbes, though he quoted Scripture often and even spent half the ink in Leviathan talking of the Christian society, was most likely an atheist (something unpopular then, rather than the expected stance of intellectuals today), and it shows in his view of man and of the state.

In reality, I would say no one is a true atheist.  They either believe in God, or they believe that man is God.  Somebody makes the rules, and many are not humble enough to admit it may be someone besides themselves. I guess that’s why we are told that we enjoy a fundamental right to define  our “own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” and all the while the state, our god, takes more and more control over us and asserts itself as the real definer of what we are, and what we will do.

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