Back to Basics

Editorial note: This brief essay is an answer to some of my wonderful friends who have inquired how a nice liberal boy like me could be involved with a conservative, grumpy old fart like Thomas Hobbes.  The crux of the essay will appear in Chapter 2 of the finished book. 

Foundationalism and Thomas Hobbes

At Bottom, What Is It All About?

Thomas Hobbes is often called a “foundationalist philosopher.”  His life’s work in a time of chaotic social and political turmoil (17th Century Britain) was to establish the ground work (theoretical foundations) for what he called the Social Contract-the conditions of security or peace within which human life might flourish.  In our own period of history it is again critical, given the collapse of the entire institutional framework of international law and governance framed in the last century, to revive foundational thinking and analysis. A simple, though I hope not simplistic, way to understand different philosophical, theological or ethical foundations is by looking at each through the perspective of one of the three most basic questions language can pose: What, How and Why.

The foundation of Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy is the answer to the what. What, Hobbes asks, is the most basic reality shared by all human beings?  What is a commonality of being that is in no way subjective, no way a construct of our imagining or speculation or rhetoric or beliefs? He answers that it is life.  This common element is sensed – made palpable to us – in fear, in the knowledge that our life is fragile and can easily be lost.  We are equal, Hobbes believed, because we can equally easily kill the other and the other, us.  Sadly we humans have been demonstrating that fact repeatedly in a tragic history of murder, war and genocide stretching back to the very origins of our species.  The beautifully sad novel and movie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in its very title captures Hobbes’s foundational assumption.  We may differ on issues of religion, concepts of fundamental political rights, distinctions made based on race, age, gender, nationality, economic status, etc. but one reality trumps all others as most basic – we are all alive and we all will die, and we all fear – or should fear– that inevitability.

The foundations of other public philosophies – e.g. David Hume, Adam Smith or Karl Marx – are grounded in the answer to the second interrogative, how.  How is material life best maintained? How is human welfare positively affected?  This is the instrumental question. In a world of limited resources and escalating population, scarcity is a reality; no one should be caviler about the material provisions of sustenance.  Both Capitalists and Communists would agree that property and how it is distributed are foundational to human survival.  Of course, after this brief agreement the two grand economic theories part company but each maintains that in resolving issues of ownership and distribution of material goods, we are dealing with quite fundamental realities.

For many of us it is not adequate just to be alive, or for that matter to be materially satisfied. We are more concerned with the last question, why.  Why live? Why work? Why acquire wealth?  Why contend politically to structure governments and economies one way or another?  What’s the point of it all?  And to many philosophers and almost all theologians those whys are the most fundamental of all questions.  Immanuel Kant believed at bottom it was freedom that defined the nature of human being best; freedom that grounded the ethical connection of persons to each other and made life meaningful.  Hear the echoes of the American patriot Patrick Henry (are you listening Thomas Hobbes?): “Give me liberty or give me death!” 

Classically, the Greeks took on the whys of foundational reality two thousand years before western culture’s Enlightenment.  For Socrates, the ever questioning foundationalist (“The unexamined life is not worth living.”), the answer was Truth (or perhaps Truth and Beauty).  For Aristotle, the why was answered with the single Greek word “eudemonia,” i.e. fulfillment or happiness; happiness was the end that was a means to nothing else.  Eastern religions and philosophies deserve far more than this passing reference. Buddhism, for instance, in an intricately developed practice and belief called nirvana answers the why, not with words, but with the achievement of a state of being free from human necessity and desire. Islam, the faith of nearly 2 billion people on this planet, answers the why with a belief in a heavenly state of bliss achieved beyond this life in a perfect and ecstatic awareness of God.  

In the U. S. Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson captures a bit of all of these notions with the foundational phrasing, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable (foundational) Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For the firm of Marx, Smith and Hume it must be noted that while “property” does not appear in the grand trinity of “unalienable rights” that made it into the Declaration, this specific issue was debated, the word put in and taken out, only to reemerge in the Bill of Rights (i.e., in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the so called “taking clause”),  “No person shall . . .be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

I would not want to suggest that these foundational questions and answers exhaust the subject.  The romantic soul answers the “why” with love or affection.  The spiritual soul might answer the question of why with “faith”, e.g. Martin Luther, “We are saved by grace through faith alone.”  Or again, a person of faith might answer the “why” with a notion of salvation or heaven. For some, the human family itself is the foundation of value and the context for ethical reference. 

Coming back to Hobbes, as noted, the old boy’s foundational work was to establish the grounds or conditions for creating what he called a Social Contract, basically the political conditions of security (peace) within which human life might flourish.  If one considers the extraordinary barriers to achieving such social agreements that the economic, political, religious and emotional differences described above present, one might at least get an inkling of what the philosopher of Malmesbury was trying to get at in grounding his theory of Social Contract in a self evident, universal, foundational reality: life.

Human beings do not agree on the fairest means of distributing goods and wealth, but we do agree that without access to basic resources we perish.  We humans do not agree on issues of religion, faith, salvation and the after life, indeed we often kill each other over these differences, rather dramatically making Hobbes’s point!  Sadly, we do not agree on human political equality or personal freedom, or the essential dimensions of human dignity. Nonetheless we all hang by a common thread of mortality, and in a biosphere increasingly loosing its capacity to support life we are all equal in vulnerability. While there are probably as many different definitions of happiness as there are persons on our planet, without life, the articulation of the meaning of happiness is the most empty of all speculations.

To his credit, Hobbes believed that once we understood our common vulnerability as living beings, we would make peace on earth our first priority.  For me, that is as foundational as it gets.

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