Does This Make Me a Hypocrite?

Reading Leviathan, I came to a strange realization: I like Thomas Hobbes.

He’s not a favorite of mine by any stretch and his lawyerly writing style occasionally gives me a bit of a headache, but I don’t feel an antipathy towards the man. This wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that I despised Plato for making a similar proposal.

Hobbes, like Plato, is enamored of mathematics and even structures his arguments like a Euclidian treatise. As an adjunct to this, he prizes logic as a human value (again, as with Plato). He’s also arguing for a moral absolutist dictatorship; when Plato did this, I got so viscerally infuriated that I wanted to take a bat to a guy who’d been dead for over two millenia. When Hobbes does it, I’m not agreeing, but I’m seeing his perspective with a much greater level of patience.

I thought on this, and there are two reasons why I’m softer on Hobbes. The first is the tone of the manuscript. The Republic is a condescending, posturing narrative that mascarades as a dialogue in order to lend its speakers enough credibility to tell their readers that the majority of them are idiots who can’t think for themselves. Hobbes, on the other hand, assumes his readers are well-versed in mathematics, familiar with rhetoric and quite studious about the Good Book. I enjoy the good faith, and I’d rather puzzle over an over-comprehensive proof than feel like I’m being talked at by the droning prick from the Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall.

The second reason is that Hobbes, despite his sympathies towards a violent and unchecked monarchy, provides some humanist passages in Books XIV and XXI. As Professor Hendricks pointed out last lecture, he provides citizens with the right to essentially protect their own lives, and to forsake their obedience when the state cannot provide protection (i.e. the purpose for which other liberties are sacrificed). Hobbes allows for the presence of disagreement with his own philosophy, which does infinitely more for his credibility than the boundless smugness of Socrates and his fellows’ sycophantic cavilling.

To put this in perspective, Plato is proposing an idealized state for enlightened people, and ends up coming off like an arrogant dictator-wannabe. Hobbes openly proposes an armed monarchy (at a time when the pitfalls of that system were pretty well on full display) for a population of psychopathic brutes, and comes off like a sympathetic, if deeply cynical, humanist. That is a powerful contrast, and I admit it may be informed by my own bias. Given the similarities between the texts’ proposals, however, it’s just too glaring to overlook.

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