Hobbes and the Libertarian – 1

It seems a contradiction, to uphold the doctrine of absolute, unlimited, undivided sovereignty and yet to be a Libertarian demanding the minimisation of the state.

The Liberty of a Subject, lyeth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the Soveraign hath praetermitted; such as is the Liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own aboad, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; & the like.

Hobbes also characterises the social contract which creates the state as if each man were to say in complete abnegation of his natural freedom:

“I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner.”

This done, the Multitude so united in one Person, is called a COMMON-WEALTH, in latine CIVITAS. This is the Generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speake more reverently) of that Mortall God, to which wee owe under the Immortall God, our peace and defence. For by this Authoritie, given him by every particular man in the Common-Wealth, he hath the use of so much Power and Strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is inabled to forme the wills of them all, to Peace at home, and mutuall ayd against their enemies abroad.

As there is no limit on the authority given to the ‘Leviathan’, and as sovereignty is indivisible, all theories that limit the state must be false ideas. Indeed, Hobbes points to the danger in any state limiting itself by promise only to have to break that promise when new circumstances emerge.

Nevertheless, freedom is prized by every thinking man and woman, and collectively we hold that we created the state in order to preserve our freedom, not to cancel it.

Followers of Hobbes are more likely to be libertarians. This is not an internal contradiction: there is no contradiction between a love of individual freedom and acceptance of the total abnegation of freedom in the state. The alleged contradiction is an error of definition, and:

The first cause of Absurd conclusions I ascribe to the want of Method; in that they begin not their Ratiocination from Definitions; that is, from settled significations of their words

To acknowledge the power of the state over everything is not the say that this power should be used. That is the distinction.

The social contract as explained by Hobbes is a statement of what the state is and what authority it has, not how it should use that authority. The state may act morally or immorally, and it may trespass into areas we do not want it to, but these are questions of ethics, preference and culture: the fundamental is that the state, “the mortall god”, can do whatever it likes, even if morally and culturally it should refrain.

If we read Hobbes and we read John Stuart Mill, the works are written on very different subjects: one explores the nature of mankind and of the commonwealth, which is in modern terms ‘the state’; while the other explores how the state should restrain itself for the benefit of its subjects.

A third voice which might to be heard, of the generation before Thomas Hobbes, is that of John Calvin, who built a state in Geneva hoping to exclude the imperfections of man and his “mortall god” by substituting instead the will of the Immortal God, a republic resting upon strict morality. However he found that it was still built of men, and of that crooked timber no straight thing can be made.

All these are lessons to us if we are to build government that allows a free nation: build governing systems that grant freedom and so benefit those governed, but build them on truths, cold, uncomfortable truths though they may be, not pleasant-sounding fancies.

Where there is no Common-wealth, which is to say in the state of nature, there is perfect freedom for every individual, in theory. However this is a state of war of one with all, and so there is no freedom in reality. When men create between them a commonwealth by the social contract there is no freedom at all in theory, but a greater freedom in practice. Therefore a true libertarian state must be a Hobbesian one.

That is something to be looked at again in another article.

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Even so quickly may one catch the plague?

It is telling, the words Olivia uses in Twelfth Night in soliloquy after meeting the young gentleman who is not as he seems:

“Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit,
Do give thee five-fold blazon: not too fast:
soft, soft!
Unless the master were the man. How now!
Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be.”

Haas there ever been in literature a better description of the internal turmoil of a woman falling reluctantly in love?

The plague is not an epidemic across a population but a malady very specific to the lady herself, deep within, and it well describes the fever and disorientation and helplessness in the face of it as if this were indeed a deadly disease. It is not wanted and may be resented, and the imbalance of the humours is like a sickness indeed, and the subject begs for it to be gone, but the fever deepens. However while a disease revolts, the fever of unexpected love intrigues and is grasped for again even

It seems too modern in the hidden suggested themes for Shakespeare to have woven those ideas into his text, but we read him with modern eyes and understandings, and it is a genius in Shakespeare that a play written at one definite time can speak to each generation in the understandings of that generation, where no such meanings were originally there as written.

As we know, the young gentleman is actually a girl, Viola. She has disguised herself out of necessity. Modern sentiment would infer that Olivia is prey to Sapphic impulses subconsciously, but not really: the weirdnesses of the heart are not so logical nor so simply categorised. The modern mind might also think of gender-fluidity and that seems compelling. There is something to that, but not the way we might think: throughout the play, Viola is very much a young woman, putting on male guise and airs with it, but never more than as a cloak. On the other hand, she is consciously trying to be her twin brother Sebastian. She lost Sebastian in the shipwreck and this way she can try to have him back with her. She makes herself look like her brother and imitates his aits as she remembers them, and it is this reflection of Sebastian, imitated by Viola, with which Olivia falls in love.

Shakespeare did this sort of thing a lot; women disguised as men and occasionally vice versa as on his stage all would be played by boys, so it was more of an in-joke. He may have seen fluidity in the behaviour of each sex (which is common enough in the theatre) and so knew there is much to play for in the imitation and subversion of them; expected roles and behaviour are oversimplified in the expectations of society, and so many a man or woman in matching up to the expectations may be playacting. As he would write elsewhere, all the world’s a stage and the men and women simply players.

What of Olivia though, the victim of deception? Who is she?

Olivia is a wealthy spinster, with an estate and servants, and she is often portrayed as past the first flush of youth. The play suggests otherwise though: she has been orphaned and mourns also the death of her brother, who was her guardian. She hides from society and from men in particular because she knows herself to be vulnerable and a target for adventurers. She has a natural, unconscious bond with Viola, who is also mourning a brother. Though she does not know this connection, the psychological connection is there.

Olivia and Viola are mirrors of each other in different circumstances, as their almost anagrammatical names suggest.

She is pursued: Orsino loves her, but is shunned. In the cold light of practicality they would seem the perfect match: he is wealthy, with a title and privilege, the most eligible bachelor upon the coast of Illyria, while she meets him as an equal, and she needs a strong protector. Olivia will not entertain his suit though, claiming that she must mourn her brother for seven years. Perhaps it is as well; Orsino has loved her face and his words suggest his love would fade when her face does. She is pursued too by a fortune-hunter, the awful Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who has no encouragement, and accidentally by her own servant, but that is another sub-plot.

There is no hiding though from the secret workings of the heart, and this similitude of the lost Sebastian grips her all against her will.

It is deeply uncomfortable though: she is deceived, deeply. It is Shakespeare’s original ‘catfish’ deception. (He understood social media terms 400 years ago: Viola says being washed ashore that she is “unfriended”.) It is not Viola’s fault: she never wanted to be loved, but she has created the fictional persona which reels Olivia in. The whole play revolves around making a virtue of the deception. It does not sit easily, and were it not for the happy ending, Olivia would be one of Shakespeare’s most tragically abused characters.

The point though is that the abuse is within Olivia herself, not a fault of the phantom Sebastian; hers is a tale of illogical, all-consuming love.

Orsino will be all right. He too has been captured by something he did not understand or even perceive: his servant, Cesario, is a girl and that invisible girl captures him, though he is not aware of it as it happens:

That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times:
Come, but one verse.

Twelfth night by tradition is the end of Christmas and of all the revelry that provides a pause in the harsh reality of the rest of the year. Eventually then the masks and pretending must end and on twelfth night the real world reasserts itself. Acts have permanent consequences.

In the final collision of worlds, Sebastian is found to be alive and proves himself by nature better at being a man than the surface similitude conjured by his sister, and he is swiftly betrothed to Olivia, when she is still in confusion about it. Strangely, when she discovers the truth she does not explode in anger but seems delighted with it. She can do well: Sebastian is portrayed as the very soul of constant manhood.

In all the plays in which Shakespeare included cross-dressing characters, Twelfth Night has the most complicated mix-up, and (whether he knew it or not) the most philosophical exploration of what it is to be a woman or a man, the difference between appearance and substance, and the relations between men and women which engender friendship and love.

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Divided by a common politics

It is a pity to miss Americans in these places, but they do not fit in as others do.  A televised political discussion in Britain, Australia, Canada, Ireland or New Zealand is the same in format, and commentators and politicians from any of the other of those lands can fit in seamlessly, and they do.  On the BBC’s Question Time last week, Malcolm Turnbull, a former Prime Minister of Australia could join in on equal terms, just as last year had Jordan Peterson and Stephen Pinker from Canada, and Irish politicians appear in discussions all the time. Commentators, philosophers and politicians can pop up all across the Old Commonwealth without our batting an eyelid. It quite normal. We speak the same language politically.  Tony Abbott (who ousted Turnbull) put it that “we are yes juridically separate entities but we are not really foreign to each other”.

American commentators do not fit the same way. They are welcomed and treated respectfully and can provide insight, but the alien political culture shows through at once.  We have the same human language but a different political language. We have the same understanding that we must have freedom and participatory democracy, but think of both in different ays. We ought to know each other better.

Joe Biden may be a good bridge – he liberally borrows from British politicians: on his first run for President he famously plagiarised a speech from Neil Kinnock, and accepting the Presidency yesterday he copied one of Margaret Thatcher’s; a knowing tribute. His campaign used a slogan from Boris Johnson; ‘Build Back Better’. It is less credible to think of an American politician copying from, say, Adenauer or De Gaulle, even if he has a certain idea of America. There is still then the spirit of the Anglosphere’s common frames of reference there.

We in the Commonwealth think we know American politics and thought because they are blasted at us constantly, but we hear them as part of showbusiness, not with an appreciation of the dynamics. A Parliamentary system is more fluid than a presidential one. American politicians appeal to the Constitution as an anchor or central point about which to revolve, which is not available in the British context. The vast geography and federal system of America is a point of differing starting points too, as is the ever-present legacy of the brutal plantations of past age.

All this needs further examination.

I wonder often how much our local political preconceptions mislead any aspiring commentator when looking at the politics of another land, and can only conclude that it is far more than we could ever imagine. At least the Anglosphere starts from the same culture. Foreign lands will remain a misunderstanding, and we for them.

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A melancholy centenary for Wales

A hundred years ago, the Church was plundered of its wealth and sent out to die. The Church in Wales has had a quiet celebration of a hundred years, but it should be mourning its despoliation. A limb was torn from the Church of England and stripped of its assets by Parliament, by Lloyd George, a non-conformist.

The celebrations were booked for June; all cancelled because of the lockdown. Perhaps it is as well to spend the time looking at what actually happened.

The Act disestablishing and disendowing the Church in Wales was passed in 1914 against a great deal of resistance: the Lords refused approval and this was the only time the Parliament Act was ever invoked to override the Lords until 1949. The great F E Smith spoke against the Bill in the Commons with such vehemence that he was mercifully satirised for his claim that it was:

 “a bill which has shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe”

It was not about establishing a specific Welsh voice of the church: it was to strip the Anglican church of its privileges and assets in Wales and to let it die.

The Church of England was not wholly innocent: the valleys had been thoroughly evangelised in the past hundred years while the established church had its back turned, by Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and such enthusiastic, evangelical minsters such that the Church of England was a minority body, yet one which was still collecting tithes from farmers who did not worship with it, still running the schools and allegedly reacting to challenges by shutting non-conformists even from burying their dead in village graveyards. The distancing of the church form the people was made worse by the appointment of bishops of a ‘high-church’ persuasion when all around were more earthy evangelicals.

It took two years to pass the Welsh Church Act 1914, then it was suspended at the outbreak of war, and revived in 1920. It struck the Welsh dioceses, handing much of their property to the local councils and to the University of Wales. (Maybe the Church in Wales was meant to fade away but it has outlasted the University of Wales, which was dissolved in scandal a few years ago.) The Act is bland and bureaucratic in its wording, but effective. Smith and later Lord Robert Cecil examined the philosophy behind dis-endowment and found it wanting, but there was no stopping David Lloyd George; there never was.

As of 1920, in Wales, the bishops were no long bishops, ecclesiastical law and no longer law nor its courts courts, and the property of the church, beyond the churches themselves and vicarages and recent donations handed to Commissioners for disposal.

The distinction between what is England what is Wales is not a sharp line but a cultural slurring in the hills. There are parishes which spread across the line clerks drew on the map, and these were given a choice, to continue in the Church of England or leap into the newly stripped Church in Wales – all but one opted for the former, which is why the Cross of St George flies over the tower of St Andrew’s in Presteign, Radnorshire.

Looking at a hundred years, we see the Church in Wales shrinking (even before the churches were barred by the lockdown) so as barely to function in places. However its place is not filled now with the old enthusiasm of the Methodists and Baptists: they have shrunk away even faster. It is a curse of the Anglican churches that they cannot rise suddenly with effusions of the Spirit and preach sermons of fire to draw the people in as surely Christian churches should, but consequently they do not dry up as a puddle in the dawn the way less rooted churches do.

Today the Church of England has a radical power, to make and unmake any Act of Parliament affecting it, by a Measure of Synod passing three Houses of Synod and two of Parliament. If the Church in Wales looks at it decline, maybe the centenary should have been a time not to celebrate separation but to look for reunion.

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Surviving the Stone Age: reviewed

I shamelessly enjoyed Surviving the Stone Age, which finished last weekend on Channel 4 It is the latest example of ‘experimental archaeology’ and far better than the others tried over the years, because they used subjects who actually knew what they were doing.

The Hobbesian attraction of the conceit is clear – this was re-enacting life in the earliest stages of society, not in a state of nature but shorn of all the accretions and presuppositions of developed society, to put the subjects within touching distance of that state of nature.

Yes, it was a bit of fluff to a large extent, as they all are – the ‘tribe’ know they were out in the wild for just a month with hot baths and full larders to follow and they knew that if something serious went wrong there was a camera crew and extraction team, but to their great credit this did not interfere too much.

It was a mammoth’s head and shoulders above previous efforts along the theme. Over the years, the good folk in tellyland have tried several times programmes along the lines “What if we take ordinary people out of their homes, put them in a Bronze Age / Iron Age village and see how they get on?” It was just reality-TV in roundhouses. One of those a few years ago was horrifying: the subjects plonked in the village knew nothing outside the comforts of running water and packaged food and the first time they tried to cook over an open fire, several of them were sent home with food poisoning, while others left after arguments falling just short of a fist-fight. It was just a freak show.

This time though we had something very different. There were no real ingenues: all those taking part were men and women who had taught themselves Stone Age skills and so knew what they were seeing and feeling and what to do. They had two Americans who had each lived alone wild in the primaeval forests and were exactly in their element; glorious. There was a former Royal Marine who had gone wild himself. As their voice-of-the-audience was a charming young couple whom you might imagine coming round to tea, but who were skilled hobby stone-agers. This made for realism and that made it watchable. When they wanted to eat, they had to find roots, berries, fish and flesh. Once they had it, they used every ounce they could, for meat or material.

The constant of life is food. We need to eat every day, and in the wild that means hunting and foraging every day for most of the day, and the only break in the pursuit is after a big kill that may last a few days if properly preserved.

The programme was filmed in one of the few empty lands left in Europe, in the Rhodope Mountains, an arm of the Balkans wreathed in mist and myth. There are no bureaucrats here and no petty regulations like that ruined the ’roundhouse telly’ of past years: they wanted meat so they stalked and shot a deer, or speared fish, without filling any forms in.

The challenge is for us to recognise that even for those hardened to the prehistoric life, that life is hard and precarious, and how could we have survived? Yet man did survive and thrive in the Stone Age. In the hundreds of thousands of years of humanity, all was the Stone Age except the last few millennia. In pockets of the world, as in deepest Amazonia and in the central lands of New Guinea and among the Andaman Islands, the folk live in the Stone Age still. The Stone Age not weird or a passing phase: it is modernity which is weird, and brief so far.

They could not in a month show anything but a glance of Stone Age life. New love, childbirth, injury, death were not going to appear. Neither did they compete bloodily for resources – they did not come across a tribe sent out by Canal+ and fight them with spears for the resources of the land.

War is the Hobbesian reality in cultures from the earliest days to our own. If there can be a state of nature, then it is a state of “Warre Of Every One Against Every One“, but the needs of survival require the formation of clan groups and tribes, which are the first forms of society. They in turn are at war with all others with whom they have no social contract. Within the clan group is all the comfort and support that is available, and anything we have in modernity is just a reflection of that ancient society.

We can shake that out of ourselves in the comfort of our advanced civilisation, or at least what seems advanced to us in this brief generation, with our abundant resources made abundant by the complex organisation of worldwide society, but it is only that society which supplies us and keeps us from what was the reality of mankind for almost all of our existence. We are still those people, the same in frame and mind as ten thousand years ago and more, sitting on a thin crust of civilisation. Surviving The Stone Age was attempting a glimpse at what we are.


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