Sunday, September 02, 2007

Thomas Hobbes, prophet?

I was looking over the writings of Thomas Hobbes, and I came across this eerily startling passage from 1628

In those days it was impossible for any man to give good and profitable counsel for the commonwealth, and not incur the displeasure of the people.

For their opinion was such of their own power, and the facility of achieving whatsoever action they undertook, that such men only swayed the assemblies, and were esteemed wise and good commonwealths men, as did put them upon the most dangerous and desperate enterprises.

Whereas he that gave them temperate and discreet advice, was thought a coward, or not to understand, or else to malign their power. And no marvel: for much prosperity (to which they had now for many years been accustomed) maketh men in love with themselves; and it is hard for any man to love that counsel which maketh him love himself the less.

And it holdeth much more in a multitude, than in one man. For a man that reasoneth with himself, will not be ashamed to admit of timorous suggestions in his business, that he may the stronglier provide; but in public deliberations before a multitude, fear (which for the most part adviseth well, though it execute not so) seldom or never sheweth itself or is admitted.

By this means it came to pass amongst the Americans, who thought they were able to do anything, that wicked men and flatterers drave them headlong into those actions that were to ruin them; and the good men either durst not oppose, or if they did, undid themselves.
Could it be that Hobbes was gifted with a vision of America circa 2001 - today? Well, no actually. The above excerpt is actually Hobbes summarizing the account in Thucydides of the decay of Athenian democracy. I just substituted "Americans" for "Athenians" in the original text.

But the parallels are striking, as noticed by Simon Blackburn in Plato's Republic: A Biography.

Surely it is impossible to read this without reflecting on the parallels in our own time, whether in Washington or London, when the war drums beat and the governments falsify the information, conspire with the proprietors of the press, bully the judiciary, employ known criminals, lie about the results, destroy civil liberties, and of course are deaf to any source of counsel that ‘maketh them love themselves the less.'
If you're wondering what this has to do with Republic, it is that Blackburn had made the point in his essay that the character Thrasymachus in the text can be seen as the literary representative of the ethic of the infamous Athenian envoys from the Melian dialogue in The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Melians. To the fairness of quietly instructing each other as you propose there is nothing to object; but your military preparations are too far advanced to agree with what you say, as we see you are come to be judges in your own cause, and that all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and in the contrary case, slavery.
Athenians. If you have met to reason about presentiments of the future, or for anything else than to consult for the safety of your state upon the facts that you see before you, we will give over; otherwise we will go on.
Melians. It is natural and excusable for men in our position to turn more ways than one both in thought and utterance. However, the question in this conference is, as you say, the safety of our country; and the discussion, if you please, can proceed in the way which you propose.
Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences - either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us - and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
Blackburn also feels that the Athenian envoys and Thrasymachus are the intellectual ancestors of today's neoconservatives.

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