Thursday, January 6, 2011

Monarchist Profile: Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes is at least a well known name in the world today, though invariably he is known as the villain of political theory, often contrasted against the glowing tributes to men who supported the forces of Parliament in the English Civil War and later figures of the “Enlightenment”. However, even much of their work was built on the foundation first put down by Hobbes even if they took a line of thought completely opposite of what he argued. Today Thomas Hobbes is remembered as an ardent defender of absolute monarchy (in the context of his time; the royal power of King Charles I of Britain) or less specifically as an apologist for absolutism in general no matter what form of government in might take. He was born in Wiltshire in 1588, Hobbes later saying that his premature birth was brought on by his mother’s fear of the Spanish Armada. His father was a vicar but did not have much to do with young Thomas. He went to school but was not of an especially scholarly character though he did finally graduate and became tutor to the future Earl of Devonshire.

He worked in Paris for a time and wrote on an extensive array of studies beyond politics from history and geometry to theology. However, it was his political writings that were to make him well known to history. In probably his most famous work, Leviathan, he made the argument for a social contract though of a sort very different from those “Enlightenment” writers who would later make the social contract most famous. He also, before these other writers, spoke about man in the “state of nature”. Whereas later individuals would write of man in the state of nature as an ideal, peaceful, noble primitive, Hobbes took a very different view. Man, in a state of nature, according to Hobbes would be driven by self-interested motives, lack all moral restraint and the result would be “the war of all against all”. Rather than those who believed that mankind in his natural state was benevolent and innocent, requiring outside tyrannies to corrupt him, Hobbes believed corruption to be the natural state of man and famously stated that without government by an absolute power the life of man would be, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Because of his support for absolute royal power, when Parliament gained the upper hand he felt it prudent to go to Paris again and after the English Civil War broke out he was joined there by many other royalist refugees as the fortunes of war shifted. Their plight drove him to continue his political writings, all supporting the absolute royal power of King Charles I and pointing to the war itself of proof of what would befall civilization without legitimate and absolute government. In 1647 he was employed to tutor the future King Charles II until the young prince moved to the Netherlands. He also touched on the subject of religion, taking a very English Protestant approach, having disdain for those religious enemies of the King as well as for Catholicism for though Catholics supported the King they would have all submit to the Roman Pontiff. Aside from arguing why absolute government was, not only necessary, but ultimately the only option other than absolute anarchy (to his thinking) but Hobbes also wrote about the differences between types of government and why monarchy was superior.

This is something worth remembering as often today Hobbes is held up as a simply a champion of absolutism in general, regardless of what sort of government system one has. It is also true that Hobbes was not always completely consistent in his views, but he did when comparing democracy, aristocracy and monarchy any or all of them could be absolute but that monarchy was certainly the superior system. Again, he used the ongoing civil war to illustrate why this was true and also because of this he was applauded by many royalists and upheld as the greatest villain imaginable by the parliamentarians. However, he soon wore out his welcome with royalists as well when he became more secularist in his arguments, broadening his religious criticism beyond the Presbyterians and Catholics he considered worst. Devout Anglican royalists turned on him and he was forced to flee his exile in France back to England, ironically being forced to make peace with the rebel government that had destroyed the monarchy.

The arguments Hobbes set down led to quite a literary war as various parliamentary sympathizers wrote extensively to dispute Hobbes vision of mankind and government. His life, from that point, was not very happy. The new regime may have tolerated him but he certainly had few friends in the Commonwealth. When King Charles II was restored to the throne Hobbes was granted a pension and protected by the King from a law passed against atheism, though he was never able to write on the subject again. The King, his old pupil, sympathized with his former tutor and saw to it that no harm came to him but his reputation had already suffered a great deal by that point. Enemies of the Crown viewed him as evil incarnate, many royalists viewed him as a distasteful embarrassment to their cause and even for many inclined to agree with him, Hobbes was mad, bad and dangerous to know. Respectable, religious people, royalists or not, simply did not tolerate Hobbes. He continued to write though he was frustrated by being unable to respond to the attacks of his critics and he died on December 4, 1679 with his last words reportedly being, “A great leap in the dark” before expiring.

1 comment:

  1. I think people would remember Hobbes mostly for his extremely pessimistic view of human nature, even with order to control it. Well, it's nice to know of another great man of thought being a monarchist. They are often not as emphasized or that aspect of their thinking is left unexplored. Revolutionary bias in the education system, it seems.

    I was wondering, Mad Monarchist, if you had seen the film "A Man For All Seasons" starring Paul Scofield, made in 1966. It's adapted from a play, won six academy awards, and portrays Sir Thomas More, who was died defending his stance of opposition to King Henry VIII's re-marriage and rebellion against the Church.
    Now, the film isn't monarchist as such (unless you count allegiance to the Pontiff's divine right), but I picked up on Sir Thomas More's monarchism. Even though he opposed the King's actions, he remained loyal and His Majesty's servant. He tried to remain both loyal to the Church and to King Henry, and only openly dissented after he was sentenced, knowing nothing could save him. A great, noble man, and a monarchist to the heart.
    I was thinking it would make a good "Monarchist Movie", or if not, I still recommend watching it, it is excellent.

    Actually, I see in your profile (after checking), that it is listed as a favorite movie. I feel a little silly now, but will nevertheless recommend it to anyone reading as well.


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