Friday, August 12, 2016

Leviathan (Part 2) - Hobbes

(I wrote about the first part here.)

Hobbes wrote 'Leviathan' in the mid 1600's.  It's important to understand that England was in the midst of a long period of argument over how its government should operate.  The normal government in Europe at the time was that of a monarchy, but the English Civil War upset that.  Now there were questions about whether there should be a king and, if so, what kind of powers would that king have.  Hobbes tried to reason some of this out.  He defined a huge number of things, basically in an Aristotelian attempt to get his arms around the conceptual problems.  This means that his writing is somewhat dry for us moderns.  Much of what he talked about more than 300 years ago, is old hat for us now.  It's important, though, to recognize just what he was trying to do in an historical sense.
The second part of 'Leviathan' deals with attempts to define what a commonwealth is, what different types and what kind of powers it has.  He defines each and sets some idea of where the limits are.  Again, this makes sense to us now, but at the time it was fairly radical.
For instance, Hobbes talks about how each individual gives up some of their liberty in order to be part of the commonwealth.  The commonwealth, as a whole, must have some level of power and it can't stop to assure each individual as it exercises that power.  The easiest illustration of this is with police forces.  Individuals can't seek justice by punishing wrong-doers.  They give that power over to an objective police force.
There is much to disagree with him in specifics, but that really isn't the point of reading something like this.  The importance is in the exercise.  We take our current set up for granted, without thinking of the underlying philosophy involved.  Hobbes didn't, and he inspired others (like the Founding Fathers of the US) to work through the hard stuff.
Worth reading for style, if not for detail.

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