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Hobbes’ Leviathan: Bridging Controversy Gaps

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Although The Leviathan could in a sense be seen as an interim bridge between Hobbes’ Elements of Law and De Cive (On Society) while featuring traces of both, still it appears that the opus has been influenced in major ways by the Reformation background as well as some prior exposure to mainstream and classical philosophies reconciling the two traditions in ways that may not always allow for utmost continuity.

The latter might pertain to Bacon’s pre-positivism or its implications for a pragmatic or instrumental perception of civil-war trade-offs confronting the onlooker amid more regular modes enabling choice between a variety of democracies, tyrannies, and polities. More specifically, exposure to civil war may carry potential downside cost, e.g. the risk of forgoing the very ‘right to life’ as a matter of game continuation value or terms of trade, which is too prohibitive for minor liberties and marginal gains to outweigh or overrule the unique part of an ultimate hedge such as the sovereign can play.

In turn, it may appear to the lay public that Hobbes’ has chosen to play it into the English sovereign’s hand either on the strength of his own loyalty as a citizen or out of reverence for the Reformist legacy treating the monarch’s ecclesiastic powers as a kind of singular reduction of hierarchy denial at large with interim layers or spiritual go-betweens positing minor net gains along the lines of public security issues. Dimensions of pragmatic phenomenology as opposed to metaphysical ontology will be treated and possibly reconciled throughout further analysis. In the meantime, the aforementioned background has been considered so as to aid the otherwise ‘naïve’ or text-only based exegesis, wherever direct reference might not alone suffice for filling in some major gaps of controversy as perceived.


State of Nature versus State

The proposed rationale essentially poses a dichotomy any individual supposedly faces, namely one featuring a pure strategy in between the two extremes, a barbaric or savage ‘state of nature’ versus orderly and sovereign ruled state as the ultimate conception of what socially contracted arrangements could amount to. In the former scenario, the inherently passionate, if not vicious human nature will usher in a major power clash amidst any mediating vehicles missing or underdeveloped with an eye on inadequate productive capacities that in the en-masse individual performance can hardly ever outmatch organized effort. No boon as accruing to civilization or society would be feasible in areas as diverse as large-scale manufacturing technology, private perquisites, or infrastructural facilities, to name a few. In a somewhat anachronistic retrospect, these would be denied to the individual player insofar as free and anarchic market as such cannot secure public goods or lasting projects involving lump-sum or bulky outlays over an uncertain private payoff horizon as expected at the rate they are provided for by a centralized government.

In fact, this might pose an early stumbling block as it is unclear in what ways the proposed rationale would favor one governance model over the other or one societal arrangement over the alternatives. For instance, large-scale and long-term projects would face an equal chance of accruing under a centrally-planned communist style economy or tyranny versus a constitutional or absolute monarchy. In fact, Hobbes appears to have strongly preferred the latter as one form pointing to largely the same inference or core of outcomes from a number of standpoints. In a sense, that amounts to complexity savings rather than opportunity cost minimization per se, in which event the explanatory framework seems to be biased toward instrumentalism or parsimonious reduction more than it does to pragmatism of the utilitarian type if only because there is little assurance in hindsight that market democracies such as the US or Singapore have fallen short of hurdles as set by monarchies like the UK or Saudi Arabia.

More specifically, deliberation cost is most spared to the observer or philosophy researcher than it is to the player as involved in the non-game, non-laboratory setting. While being part and parcel of the actual decision-making design, individuals or citizens might never be in a position to reverse initial or inherited setup or indeed rewrite the social contract, which irreversibility furthermore amounts to high transaction cost when it comes to controlling the quality of institutional performance. In other words, not only does the implied lock-in suggest failure on the part of the incumbent arrangement to secure game-altering trade-offs, but also the existing version may not afford exercising of any mixed strategies in the first place. Put simply, absolutism may indeed be absolute or automorphous on many levels in that it denies any revision or bargaining per se, which points to further optimization being less than feasible by design or definition.

Now, bounded rationality or inherent inability to make an optimum big-picture choice may or may not be an innate facet of the ‘evil’ human nature being postulated, yet in no manner does that assert any particular monarch’s or monarchy’s immanent prerogative of making superior choices. In effective terms, infallibility as criticized when referring to papacy has to be addressed in this proxy case for consistency’s and equity’s sake as well.

For that matter, it remains to be seen whether it is correct to juxtapose for any practical purposes the two polar extremes in their anecdotal or idealistic materialization, e.g. dire wild nature and resultant dog-eat-dog savagery versus a perfect state of polity as conjectured by Plato. The latter may never be attainable by self-reference until after man’s evil nature has been augmented, which is hardly ever conceivable unless a respectively optimum state design already exists accommodating that end. At that rate, the optimum state would have some asymptotically convergent rather than inherently pragmatic features that would still posit human nature as imperfect, yet subject to gradual evolutionary improvement as an end unto its own. On the second thought, an alternate state like that would need to have boasted some embedded traits of perfection or optimalty, which would be supposed to have been pre-instilled by someone or at some stage. In any event, the increasingly libertarian as well as liberating state would need to evolve and unfold in a manner positing its parameters as endogenously implied rather than exogenously imposed by some kind of absolute power whether benevolent or otherwise.

Concentration, Separation & Delegation of Power

Among other things, Hobbes proposes that the bulk of conflict as stemming from power craves could be suppressed or sterilized by there being an absolute ruler called on to be the first and last umpire. Moreover, the absolute monarch, whether pragmatically cynical a la Machiavelli’s Prince or benevolent in every way, would ideally concentrate all powers rather than seeing these delegated in a non-discretionary manner. In fact, that poses a host of difficulties or loose points that have to be addressed as standalones before they can be reintegrated in pointing to a common origin or overlapping domain of issues.

To begin with, the particular benevolent nature can hardly be separable from cognitive, spiritual, and moral faculties, which would have about as meager a chance of ever being inbred by prior evil design as there would get to be for any other individual, unless being strong enough as a persona and not restrained materially to pursue own ways and raise a culture enough to accommodate a bona-fide optimizing propensity. In other words, the supposedly benevolent or otherwise favorable and non-distortionary design would have to be hereditary, which again refers one to the aforementioned layers of meta-design having similar or self-reinforcing features throughout its layers or stages.

Even in a setup like this, there is no assurance or hedge against either explicitly corrupt institutional designs or individual rent-seeking ways as exhibited by the sovereign at times not acting in the society’s best interests albeit amidst indulging in the mob’s animal spirits or whims. In fact, the latter might trivially refer to an evil human nature being accentuated rather than curbed by an orderly setup. Alternatively, it does not appear to be self-evident as to what empirical base for comparative inference Hobbes has referred to. For one thing, suffice it to invoke either Emperor Constantine of Byzantium or King Solomon of the early Israel to look at hypothetic candidacies or benchmarks. However, even in these wiser outliers, there is an evident mixed pattern of religious opportunism such as idolatry in the latter case amidst ideological intolerance or voluntarism as allegedly characteristic of the former. Worse yet, the entire Judaic cause when set and zoomed in on in the evolutionary retrospect suggests a history of search and transition between primordial patriarchs as lower-level absolute sovereigns to eventually corrupt judges and inept kings only to convene in downturn and dispersion.


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Not the least, separation or permanent rather than discretionary and ad-hoc delegation of powers appears to be akin to multiple aspects of relative property rights whose value or contingent nature may not be secured or enforced by design in a manner that is invariant with respect to a particular institutional setup, yet is supposedly fully driven by the very presence of the absolute monarch as the ultimate settler. On the one hand, insofar as enforcement is deemed critical with an eye on property rights being well-defined irrespective of the fair level or ways, the sovereign might well prove as the ultimate mechanism or means of securing that end. On the other hand, a single person will easily fail to take care of each and every instance that warrants judgment, in light of which concentrating judicial and executive power in the same hands would be impractical, let alone suboptimal.

For that matter, enjoying sole prerogative over the ideology, religion included, would build one extra moral hazard of satisficing by backwards-induction when it comes to justifying own deeds and authored arrangements in hindsight based on a biased reading of the ideology. Again, King Solomon’s posture could be an infamous upper-bound posture showcasing just how the first commandment was violated by the otherwise near-perfect mind, with Kind David’s deviance off the seventh commandment on adultery being descriptive of broader risks of unscrupulous agency as underpinned by the ruler’s own passionate nature.

On the one hand, the wise king could definitely overrule utter absurdity or precedent-resultant excesses as accruing to regular courts, which are manned by imperfect men. On the other hand, chances are that precedence could at one point come to be perceived as downright non-binding or irrelevant from his or her own standpoint. In fact, this might occur even in the most scrupulous and well-intended settings if only because it is technically inconceivable for any particular human being to tap into the entire precedence base underpinning the cumulative common law. One trivial corner outcome would feature sheer ex-ante violation of the ‘nemo judex pro causa sua’ (no one is a judge unto his own) maxim with a bias toward ‘ergo sum lex’ (I am the law).

When it comes to technical distinction between the Roman-law notion of jus, lex, and mos (right, law, and comity or tradition respectively), it is unclear how absolutist monarchy can strike a balance between these unless legacy is reduced to its own inheritance. Whereas the dimension of right may feature a rather involved domain of relative property rights that cannot be standardized as absolute, there is the added res facet that could make an even more critical difference in a broader setup. Loosely defined as a concern in a public or societal domain, it could capture the inherently interactive setups of decision making that can neither be reduced to individual choice (pertaining to the ‘state of nature’) nor be confined to the ruler’s sole discretion irrespective of the relational complexity.

One tentative corollary along the above-mentioned lines could be that it remains to be seen exactly how an implicit machine or interplay of mechanisms representing the Leviathan can be approximated by the absolute ruler. At any rate, overlooking the Leviathan on the part of small players would be about as unwwise or pragmatically irrational as it would be for the governor to show utter disregard for a particular or predominant human nature whether evil and imperfect or evolving and benevolent. One question that has to be addressed pertains to whether and how the two natures, subordinate versus sovereign, have to be aligned. The related dilemma features particular complementarity or adjustment and reconciliation, marking interim layers as between the sovereign and the suzerains

Role of Papacy & Clergy

Although there is no denying in The Leviathan that religion at large and clergy in particular could play a big part in rendering the societal design even more of an efficient or feasible vehicle, it is paradoxical just how readily one might be led to associate this layer with the Leviathan as well. Again, insofar as the latter posits irresolute dichotomy of the positive ‘Is’ versus normative ‘Shall,’ the actual dominant hovers anywhere between these. In other words, it has to be inferred whether the religious domain is most prone to making an integral part of the dismal mechanism rather than fostering its upside benefits.

In fact, it is with an eye on the excess agency costs that papacy could be frowned upon by Hobbes and his ilk over and above the Reformist or Anglican bias featuring the English monarch’s ecclesiastic role as fait accompli. Again, it is awkward to speculate at the outset whether this status has been induced in Hobbes’ pursuits or weakly rationalized in retrospect as a matter of backwards induction and self-reference criterion. If the latter were to prevail, the present-day observer would have to embark on it as well, thus waiving the option of judging Hobbes’ incentives from the altogether foreign or temporally distant institutional perspective. However, as long as minor experiences of childhood might matter, his father’s own quarrel with the clergy in his neighborhood may have embedded some negative flair in his perception of this stratum’s role at fostering conflict resolution and societal accord on the whole (Jacobson & Rogow, 1987). Although that would be a risky generalization together with his Protestant precepts, it can hardly be ignored when dwelling on strong sentiments on papacy.

This could be one other instance of the aforementioned chasm between the positive or factual versus idealist reference applying throughout. More specifically, Hobbes may or may not have kept in mind particular sheer excesses of papacy as supposedly stemming from the self-serving and immune claim to impeccable judgment. However, that only really sets the model example of what otherwise inherently benevolent or ideal monarchy could degenerate to when faced with the option of never hearing any second thoughts. Although constitutional monarchy is restrained or qualified in its executive and lawmaking scope as well as scale, it is hardly the kind of rule Hobbes posits as the most effective anyway.

Alternatively, his anti-clerical rationale may have been driven by the observation that the only ultimate separation of duties or powers should be aligned to precise domains along the lines of labor division or specialization. Although actual relationship to Smith’s point remains an open-ended issue of interest in its own right, clearly the Leviathan posits a sharp divide between the areas where clergy could be the most effective versus those it should never trespass on. In particular, apart from inherent doctrinal terrains, it is argued that the clerics ought not to have any overlap with policymaking or politics if only because sharp divide could further be exacerbated rather than healed and bridged on the common grounds of humility and ‘bearing the burdens of each other.’


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Civil Society versus State & Government

In fact, taxonomy of the civil society (cis) versus state and government could either render things even more complex or, on the contrary, tap the remaining conceptual slacks. On the one hand, the Leviathan sets the divide between the ruler and the state as supposedly an optimum arrangement promoting the society’s best interests. On the second thought, it is unclear how the latter could be at odds with the civil society ultimately. If the latter is posited as one realizing its own best interests beyond myopic whims or preferences that are seen as liberties, there is a clear-cut equilibrium that could be attained as the outcome of an optimum social arrangement.

On the other hand, the entire attempt at juxtaposing the civil society versus the state or government is largely about the need to see where and why profound tension could arise that is to be overcome at second-order levels whenever the more critical societal good is at stake. In other words, this marks what would later on be referred to as liberal democratic legacies building on the inherent denial of the society or public having to give up on its option to protest on the manipulative pretense of the government allegedly acting on its (society’s) behalf in the most scrupulous ways at all times.

However, it is at this stage that Hobbes’ premises nearly fall asunder as far as the lay onlooker is concerned. It is ironic just how democracy has been merged with absolutism regardless of how opinionated the Reformist advocates have sounded in attributing the origins of market democracy to the Protestant non-hierarchy. In turn, Hobbes argues throughout, perhaps with a positive rather than normative emphasis, that the entire Leviathan enterprise, insofar as it can be salvaged or tolerated, is about making the vital and ultimate tradeoff between civil rights or civic liberties versus societal boon that ultimately translates to individually shared benefits.

In other words, inasmuch as individuals stand ready, by tacit collusion, to transfer or upstream some of their sovereignty or discretion to the sovereign as a matter of buying ultimate security, they pay a price they knowingly and willingly accept. Bearing that in mind, all of the sovereign’s choices, alongside their possibly adverse repercussions, should be blamed on the society as implicitly represented in the social contract. Never mind their failure to be represented in the democratic vote, which would in any event suggest a transfer of discretion from the ignorant many to the knowledgeable few.

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