My university major was political science, so of course I had to read Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes. In this book, written in 1651, Hobbes attempted to formulate a theory of a nation-state, and he did so wracked, as he admits, by fear. In 1640, in fear of his life, he had fled his home in Great Britain to Paris and then Holland during the English Civil War.
His book angered many people for its ideas about how states are formed by social contracts and about how states can only rule if they hold sufficient power by consent of the governed — among other radical ideas for his time and ours. Leviathan is still admired as one of the most well-reasoned philosophic inquiries into politics.
You can hear a discussion about it at A Partially Examined Life: a philosophy broadcast and blog: http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2009/06/07/episode-3-hobbess-leviathan-the-social-contract/
Chapter 13 (read it here) has earned the most fame, and I think it has some bearing on the situation in the United States and the use of firearms:
Hobbes begins the chapter by pointing out that all people are equal because they can all kill each other — and while he envisioned that someone physically weak might need to do it “by secret machination or by confederacy of others,” now firearms make each of us indisputably able anyone to kill at will.
He then says that since, inevitably, we will all sooner or later want something that someone else has or disagree with each other, we will be distrustful of each other because none of us can be safe from anyone else unless there is a powerful institution larger than ourselves, a common power which we all fear that can enforce peace. Without it, we cannot trust each other.
Without it, we will inevitably fight: to take each others’ possessions, to defend our possessions, or over differing opinions, such as religion or politics. So, without that common power forcing us to behave peacefully, we are in a constant state of war with one another. In a total war of all against all, we can have no industry since we cannot be sure we can reap its profits, no business because we cannot trust each other, no arts, no society, but only “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
And yet, he said, people want peace so they can have comfortable lives and the industry and business to create comfort. From this desire, people can be drawn into agreement to create a social contract for a peaceful civil society.
So much for Hobbes. And where is the US in this theory of government? Behind right-to-carry and “stand your ground” laws and increased arms sales, I see the perception that there is, here and now, a war of all against all — perhaps low-level, but very real. There is a perceived need to have a gun to be safe, even in a restaurant or movie theater, and certainly at home against intruders. The government is not perceived to be sufficiently powerful or competent to keep us safe, which Hobbes would consider a failed government.
Fear, and danger of violent death as a constant. No trust. And lives made smaller and poorer. Fights among citizens keep growing more vicious not just over possessions, but over opinions.
And yet, the vast majority of gunholders want peace and see no other way to secure it than by increasing their ability to kill at will, but I think this is a social contract in favor of greater war, not in favor of peace.
If Hobbes is right, this war does not need to continue. To stop it would take a willingness to create a social contract that involves everyone agreeing to give up some freedom to own and use lethal power at will — perhaps limiting the firepower of guns, perhaps requiring specific safety training for all gun owners, perhaps limiting the types of permissible munition, perhaps requiring insurance for gun owners the same way that cars must be insured. There are many other ideas that might begin to ratchet down the level of warfare.
These can be a hard concessions to make, which is one reason why Leviathan is a long book: what to give up, when, how, and the “unalienable rights” (in Hobbes’ words; the Founding Fathers had read him carefully) that cannot be agreed away.
Are we Americans willing to begin that long, hard process of negotiation to move away from a state of war and toward peace?
— Sue Burke