Friday, March 17, 2023

The Ongoing Conflict Between Security and Individual Liberty: Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

I bought this book at a garage sale
for 10 cents over 40 years ago
as a way to bone up on the 
classics of Western thought.
In his book The Church at the End of the 20th Century, Dr. Francis Schaeffer made an observation that stuck with me. He wrote that people will gladly give up freedoms in order to be "safe." 

The statement has proven to be remarkably prescient. Individual liberties are being eroded and even freedom of speech is being shackled. Will freedom of thought be next?

In 1651 the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote an influential book dealing with this topic. His comprehensive theory of social and political organization was titled Leviathan and has been considered one of the most important works of political philosophy in the English language.

Hobbes argued that the natural state of humanity is a state of war, where individuals are in constant competition with each other for resources and power. This state of nature is characterized by a "war of all against all," where life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

To escape this state of nature, Hobbes argued that individuals must come together to form a social contract, surrendering some of their natural rights in exchange for protection and security provided by the state. In other words, we are encouraged to accept this trade off: give up your freedom to do whatever you want want in exchange for the security provided by the state.

Nowadays we use Wikipedia and Google to 
fill in some of the gaps in our learning.
In Hobbes' view, the state should have absolute power to maintain order and prevent conflict. This absolute power is necessary to ensure that individuals do not revert to their natural state of war. Hobbes calls this absolute power the "sovereign." That is, we should have one supreme ruler and the people should have no right to rebel against it.

The sovereign's responsibilities include the power to make and enforce laws, judge disputes, and make war and peace. Hobbes also argued that the sovereign's power should be based on the consent of the governed. That is, the people should be able to choose their sovereign.

Hobbes also discusses the relationship between the sovereign and the individual. When it comes to individual responsibility, he argued that the individual has a duty to obey the sovereign, even if the sovereign's commands are contrary to the individual's interests. The individual should only disobey the sovereign if it is a matter of self-preservation.

In Leviathan, security and stability have priority over individual liberty. The state should have absolute power to maintain order and prevent conflict, and that individuals should surrender some of their natural rights in exchange for this security.

It seems that the history of our country has been a conflict between these two forces: individual liberty vs. the (absolute) power of the state. Writers like John Steinbeck and people like Chief Justice Earl Warren focused on protecting the interests of the underrepresented and the basic freedoms our nation was purportedly founded on.

Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World each address this in different ways. The great risk is that by embracing security as a supreme value, we give up our humanity.

Your thoughts?

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