Perez Zagorin: Thomas Hobbes & The Father Of Statist Life

No other author possesses the firm elegant grasp of the violent ideas that rocked the time of Thomas Hobbes (author of Leviathan), a political tome giving foundation to Fascist and Totalitarian ideology within the 20th century; than Perez Zagorin.

Perez Zagorin (1920-2009) was the Joseph C. Wilson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Rochester and a fellow of the Shannon Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia. He was the author of many articles and a number of books, including “How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West” and “Francis Bacon” (both Princeton).  He had a distinguished career at the University of Rochester after leaving the United States during the Macarthy era for the peace that is Canada.  Throughout his tenure he sought to quarry the desire that men, cultures or civilizations have in abandoning their freedom and liberty for authoritarian regimes.  No other writer in the west has the authority that Zagorin possesses on Thomas Hobbes and Levithan.

Both Aristotle and Hobbes witnessed irrevocable civilizational decline.  Hobbes vehemently disagreed with the Aristotelian notion that the polity is naturally social.  Hobbes rejected all natural hierarchies in a similar fashion to modernities relativist embrace of realpolitik.  Instead, Hobbes portrayed men as equal rivals in a state of Darwinian nature characterized as ‘war of all against all.’  In such a vein, Hobbes’ only informed rival is Machiavelli.

In Zagorin, we finally glimpse how James Madison and Monroe quarried the life and writings of Hobbes.  Thomas sought to build politics from the ground up.  Self-interested individuals, craving protection for their lives, contracted to create sovereign states.  The price was unfettered power and unqualified obedience.  Such sovereignty found no home in the American Revolutions theoretical embrace of natural philosophy as liberty.  Hobbes would secure for his ideals a permanent home throughout Europe, Central and South America and Russia save perhaps where Marx or Engels ran aground.  Still, this only reinforces the anthropology that became American Exceptionalism!  Madison, Monroe, Hamilton, Jefferson and Washington all lived inside the Leviathan only to construct an enduring regime to defeat tyranny.  In such company Hobbes was constrained and promoted!

We glimpse our Exceptional Fathers when we witness in the Leviathan a Hobbesian understanding of sovereignty where rights could neither demand the return of their surrender nor expect a share in the exercise of power.  In acknowledging equality, rights, and individual interest, all must be sacrificed to the altar of political order.  Hobbes firmly believed that men lived in either anarchic hell or equal misery unified by a single absolute will.  Such a forced stasis is witnessed throughout the writings of Thucydides and Herodotus.  The challenge was formulating a third way.

Enter the American Revolution!

Their are plenty of authors who are critical of Leviathan, such as John Locke and James Madison.  No one could anticipate the horrors that mechanized life would avail such political tyranny in Fascism or Totalitarianism.  Hobbes has his detractors in George Orwell, Huxley or Solzhenitsyn.

Reading about Hobbes’ snide regard for irreligion, he tendency to portray humans as appetitive beasts has currency today with Ann Marlowe in Afghanistan.  But his staunch suspiciousness of democracy as endless faction, his anticlericalism and ferocious contempt for democratic deliberation, all question his capacity to appreciate the ‘turn’ that would come after him in the Glorious Revolution and its endearing political consequences for a limited Crown and strengthened Parliament.  Without the political triumphs that govern most of the British Isles after Hobbes, its very difficult to find him beneficiary or contemporary without embracing a Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Stalin, Chavez, Castro and legions of other absolutist who vainly house themselves within a regime built and honored by Hobbes.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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