Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Triple the Fun, Part I

It's just about finals and paper time in "St. John's"-landia, which means it's time to start organizing my thoughts to write my oral final proposal and my preceptorial paper proposal. I haven't felt quite as challenged by the material in 'Politics and Society' this semester as I was with the 'Math and Natural Science' segment last semester, however, I also find that my interest was greater in the more challenging segment (thus lending credence to a long-time hypothesis that I perform better when challenged). So there are three assignments that I have to work on, which I guess I will post about in a yet-to-be-determined order. Maybe that will help get my mind going.

1) Short Paper on Hobbes' Leviathan for Tutorial

We throw around the words "political science" pretty easily these days, but it carries with it a suggestion of something more than what we usually mean by it. Leviathan is Hobbes' attempt to construct a reasoned understanding of the relationship between the nature of man and government. Reason is an essential principle for Hobbes, which is evident in the first few chapters of the treatise that discuss science rather than politics. It is by application of reason that we choose to leave the state of nature in which life is "nasty, brutish, and short" and form the commonwealth.

Our modern "liberal" minds rebel against Hobbesian government because it seems that it would fall into tyranny quite readily. For Hobbes the sovereign authority must be absolute and unquestioned. When we leave the state of nature to join together in a commonwealth we do so because we fear for our lives. Our natural state is one of war with every other person, struggling with equal strength over resources to which we all have an equal right. In this case, it seems that we are better off in ANY commonwealth than we are in the state of nature. The purpose of the commonwealth is, therefore, to protect the security of the subjects. Maintaining the commonwealth by any means seems therefore to be the essential function of the sovereign. It is through and by the authority of the subjects that the sovereign acts. The Leviathan in question is the body made up of all of the men who place their power in the hands of the sovereign.

For Hobbes, this authority is unquestionable, because the sovereign acts with the will of the subjects once he has their authority. He is empowered with the legislative, which allows him to construct law as he sees fit for the good of the commonwealth. He is the originator of all law, property, and action in the commonwealth as an agent of the subjects, and as such is unquestionable. There is no recourse against his actions or his laws, because anything he does carries the authority of the people. Thus he must act in such a way that protects his interests, as leader, and that protects the interests of the commonwealth so that the Leviathan remains strong and free of the diseases of seditious doctrines that undermine his absolute authority. The prevention of this, for Hobbes, involves educating the people on the laws of the commonwealth and, most importantly, reminding them that the original authority of those laws comes from them via the actor of the sovereign. This would show them that the absolute power of the sovereign authority is their will and is necessary to protect them from a return to the dangers of the state of nature.

Our strong reaction to this doctrine is probably something like an immediate cry of, "Tyranny!" However, as we saw in The Prince and continue to see in Leviathan, and Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government, the ideas are not recommending a specific form of government or governor. The only qualification, it seems, that the sovereign in Hobbes' Leviathan need posess is that he be competent to understand the best interests of himself and the commonwealth and recognize the need for absolute sovereignty. He allows that the government might take one of any number of forms. The goal of Hobbes' political science seems less like a kind of guide to running a commonwealth (how to build a government) and more like a commentary on the nature of governing (what governments should be like).

Hobbes is attempting to present us with an appeal to some essential quality of governance that supercedes the question of the particulars of government. Further investigation into what this essential character is seems like it might prove fruitful and interesting.

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