|Leviathan frontispiece by Abraham Bosse|
Is political science science? The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes would seem to present us with a test case par excellence. Claiming that his most influential work, Leviathan, was through and through scientific, Hobbes wrote, ‘Science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another.’ His work, he judged, was founded upon ‘geometrical and physical first principles of matter and motion’, combined with logical deductions of the human sciences, psychological and political.Through his scientific researches, Hobbes came to hold a pessimistic view of human nature, which he called the ‘state of nature’, the ‘Natural Condition of Mankind’: a ruinous state of conflict. Paradoxically, he considered that such conflict arose from equality and rationality. Possessing limited resources, a rational man would try to take as much as possible for himself. At the same time, others would need to do the same, as a defensive measure. The likeliest outcome was ‘war of every man against every man’, where law and justice have no place. Such a life, he famously wrote, would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.
Hobbes proposed, therefore, a contract between the people and the Sovereign, as a means of creating peace by imposing a single, sovereign rule. It is the fear of punishment, he wrote, that preserves peace and unity, and ties people to the ‘performance of their Covenants’. Following his logic, individuals are likely to reach the conclusion that a social contract is the best alternative to their natural condition, so surrendering their liberties and rights.
On the surface of it, Hobbes' logic seems compelling, his deductions persuasive, his arguments admirable. Nonetheless, for a number of reasons, it is questionable that his analysis of human nature was truly scientific.
His 'state of nature' was not well founded in history. In Philosophical Rudiments, he wrote (much as he did more generally) that the existence of the American tribes was ‘fierce, short-lived, poor, nasty, and deprived of all that pleasure and beauty of life’. Yet rather than supporting his arguments, this appears to prove him wrong. Historians have generally claimed that the Indians were simple, peaceful, innocent, and uncorrupted by the evils of civilization. Hobbes, it seems, may have absorbed the Puritan tendency of separating the ‘natural’ as regressive, and the non-natural as progressive.
Furthermore, Hobbesian political philosophy becomes complicated when it comes to the fact that his work was both descriptive and prescriptive. The descriptive side is present in his analysis of the state of nature, while his idea of the Sovereign and the Social Contract as a universal solution is evidently prescriptive. Today we are keenly aware of the difficulty of passing from descriptive to prescriptive language. Not only that, but Hobbes' prescriptive language seems to be excessively strong – even emotional.
More than anything, Leviathan reveals that fear was a core element in Hobbes' political study and life. This may be most explicit in his verse autobiography: 'For through the scattered towns a rumor ran / that our people's last day was coming in a fleet / and so much fear my mother conceived at that time / that she gave birth to twins: myself and Fear.' Happy is he, he wrote, quoting Virgil, 'who treads beneath his feet all fear of Fate'. Could it be, then, that Hobbes' political philosophy was born of his own personal history? That it was his own experience of fear which shaped his so-called 'science'? In fact, that his mother's fear of a fleet outweighed all subsequent thought?
If this should be true, what implications may this have for our understanding of political philosophy today? May our political philosophies be shaped by our emotional and historical heritage? May this be a survival mechanism – a memory of the past which cannot be erased through any 'scientific' theory? Were Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Marx, Rawls and so many others with them – mere symptoms of their times – in fact, symptoms of the times which preceded them?