There are a few books that I knew I should read, but postponed doing so because they looked daunting. The Bell Curve was one of those, so was The History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson. But, even more so than those, Leviathan was one that I had heard so many good things about but kept avoiding.
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Fortunately, I finally took the time to sit down and read it. I’ll admit, the English in it is a bit difficult to read and the ideas in it require significant thought to understand.
In my view, that made it all the better. Things that are easy are rarely of value, whereas things that are difficult usually are. Reading Leviathan is something everyone should do.
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Why? Because it’s the best defense of Big Government and a strong, incorruptible ruler ever written. Do I agree with it? No, I think small government is best for the West. But is it worth reading because citizens should study politics? Absolutely.
Summary of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
Leviathan makes sense in the context of its time. England was still reeling from its civil war, Christianity was fractured and declining across Europe, and England needing a leader. After seeing that, and dealing with the consequences of the English Civil War himself, Hobbes decided that a defense of a strong leader was in order.
So, he wrote Leviathan. In it, he makes a compelling case for why centralized power that can enforce the laws that hold together civil society is necessary.
Or, in other word, Hobbes’s view is that humanity’s natural condition is perpetual war, which makes life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” His theory of absolutism was built to counter that natural condition.
As evidence, Leviathan spans a wide range of topics.
First, Hobbes discusses human nature. He goes over, in fascinating detail, why people do what they do. Most of his causes for that nature are Biblical, which helps give the book its religious slant.
Then, in Part II, Hobbes describes what makes up a commonwealth, which is the word he uses for “state” or “nation.” I found Part II to be the most interesting and relevant to the modern-day. Additionally, Part II of Leviathan exemplifies how intelligent and well-read Hobbes was. In it, he pulls from a wide array of contemporary and Classical sources.
Part III is where Hobbes starts to pull together the various threads that he started throughout the book. Entitled “Of a Christian Commonwealth.” it’s about how to form a Christian state. To develop his argument for why such a state is beneficial and how said state should be run, Hobbes uses the Part I discussion of human nature, the Part II analysis of what a secular state is, and his personal views on morality and the enforcement of it. While I disagreed with some of his conclusions, I found the arguments to be fascinating.
Finally, in Part IV, Hobbes describes the opposite of the Christian commonwealth from Part III. This section is entitled “Of the Kingdom of Darkness” and is predictably about how heresy and non-Christian philosophy are deleterious for states. However, at the end of Part IV, Hobbes backtracks some and describes how some aspects of the “darkness” are beneficial. His argument in that section reminded me of the political sections of 48 Laws of Power.
Analysis of Leviathan
Leviathan was a very, very interesting book. It wasn’t particularly fun to read like Atlas Shrugged or Righteous Indignation, but it was certainly informative. After reading it, I have a much better perspective of why absolutism came to be and what the general arguments are the back up such governments.
Additionally, I think Leviathan is a terrific book to read in conjunction with The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers. If Leviathan is the best defense of Big Government written, then I think those two works of American political thought are the best defense of small government. Whereas Hobbes saw the positive side of absolutism and the social contract, the Founding Fathers saw the negative, tyrannical side of that form of government.
James Madison, in particular, saw how centralized authority could lead to tyranny, which is what made America’s Constitution (which he wrote) so ground-breaking. At the time, the small-government system created by it was about the exact opposite of the absolutist monarchy in England that Hobbes did so much to justify in Leviathan. Unfortunately, that same tyranny is still present in Great Britain, it is just a democracy that tyrannizes its citizens rather than a monarch.
In any case, Leviathan is a well-written and well-researched book that every student of political philosophy should read. It is diverse and wide-ranging, with Hobbes covering everything from human nature to materialism.
I don’t think any other work could develop an argument about why Big Government is the correct form of government in a believable way. Even I, who almost certainly disagree with Hobbes on the proper role of government, found myself at times agreeing with him on why a public morality needs to be enforced.
Despite my opposition to such policies in practice, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps if we had the government Hobbes envisioned, then we wouldn’t have to deal with the problem of mass-shootings or those problems in The Bell Curve that relate to morality. So, in practice, I think Hobbes is wrong, but in theory, he does make good points.
If you’re reading this blog, then you’re probably interested in politics. That’s great and it means you need to read Leviathan. I’m disappointed in myself for putting it off for so long, I really should have read it earlier.
Doing so would certainly have improved my ability to listen to and deeply think about other perspectives on how the government should be run. Additionally, reading a book such as Leviathan shows that not all proponents of Big Government are dolts.
But Hobbes certainly wasn’t. In fact, his argument was far better reasoned and well-supported than many of the arguments made in favor of small-government.
However, that does not make his arguments any more true. While they might be well reasoned and supported, they are still wrong. During this Chinese Flu pandemic, we Americans have experienced the heavy hand of Big Government and authoritarianism for the first time. We have seen what it is like to be ruled by petty tyrants that want to control every aspect of your daily life in order to create “safety.”
And, on the whole, that experience has been horrible. Businesses have been forced to close. Many Americans have been locked down at home for months. In many states, if you want to go outside, then you need to wear a mask, something our Founding Fathers would never do. All of that is done to create the sense of safety and stability that is advocated for by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan. But, none of it is in line with the American spirit. We are supposed to value liberty, not safety. That is a point that all of our Founding Fathers made quite clear.
The response to the Chinese Flu has been tyrannical. But, it is good in one respect. That is, it shows us just what life would be like under the type of government that Thomas Hobbes wanted. It might not be short, but, under the thumb of government tyrants, it would still be nasty and brutish. We need to read books like this one so that we understand the arguments for Big Government. But we still need to reject those arguments; the Chinese Flu shows why.
So, you need to read Leviathan. You won’t regret taking the time to do so.
By: Gen Z Conservative
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