Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan: "Mere Nature." (12/11/98)

Choosing a philosopher like Hobbes as an exemplar for the purpose of defining European consciousness is an act that cannot pass without some statement of justification to deflect charges that I have intentionally settled on a straw-man too easily torn down for a lack of sophistication in his innate ability fairly to reflect the true state of that consciousness. Surely, one can argue, a person of more recent times can be found who is better able to represent the thought of European civilization than this relic of 17th Century scientism. That might be true, and perfectly valid as well, as far as it goes, but one consideration I have taken in the choice arises from the fact that Hobbes wrote at a time in the history of science, after Kepler and Galileo but before Newton, when scientific disciplines were known but not widely appreciated in the general population (as Hobbes himself often points out), and, at a time furthermore, when knowledge of the New World, and its native people, was well-enough established to be more than a collection of fantastic myths bearing little or no resemblance to a factual reality. Hobbes is no expert in native American culture, of course, but his opinions fairly reflect what average Europeans knew and said about the cultures of the Americas at the midpoint of the century.

There is a definitive moment in Leviathan when Hobbes uses the term "mere nature" to define what he apparently considers the state of his contemporary society to be. The term refers to "a condition of war of every man against every man." Hobbes goes on to characterize the state of civil society under such a condition as being one wherein

"there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

He qualifies this perception by noting that he has not always believed that the world was so ordered:

"It may peradventure be thought there was never such a time nor condition of war as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner."

While it might be unfair to argue that Hobbes's knowledge of contemporary views of native American culture unduly influenced his perception of the state of human society in general, and therefore somehow clouded his ability to see and differentiate the true state of his own culture from that of the Americas, the juxtaposition of one statement to the other does tend to suggest he saw one (reports of native culture) as a cause of the other (that Europe was in a constant state of war). If not that, it seems reasonable to argue that Hobbes at least feared that native American practice, with its lack of discernible government, would somehow come to corrupt European culture and turn it into another, identical version of itself. Fear of the Other, of the strange and exotic, as Frederic Jameson has pointed out, often seems to have and exert a magical, if not transforming, power against cultural values considered normative by otherwise reasonable people.

To say that Hobbes mis-characterizes the state of native American civilization at the midpoint of the seventeenth century, that he does not know or understand the nature of that culture, is to state what is only obvious. What might be a more productive line of inquiry in this context might be to search out a source or analogue for Hobbes's position. One falls readily to mind, of course, in Montaigne's essay on the cannibals of the New World which was written from the report of a man who had spent some years in America before telling Montaigne what he had seen there. Montaigne describes his informant as a man who "was a plain ignorant fellow, and therefore the more likely to tell truth." Hobbes, of course, would have cautioned Montaigne to be more careful of his sources of information, since, if a person is incapable of constructing logical arguments, it is foolish to trust in the veracity of anything he/she tells you.

One passage in particular may have influenced Hobbes. Montaigne, in describing what his informant told him about American culture, says that

"I should tell Plato, that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of."

An important thing to keep in mind is that Hobbes's use of a similar description, which may or may not have been derived directly from Montaigne's essay, was meant to characterize, not native American culture as such, but only the conditions that would exist, or did exist, in European culture if it became, or after it did become, a place in a constant state of war, that is, after it evolved, or degenerated, into a state of "mere nature." Montaigne may also have been responsible for showing Hobbes the way to the notion that a civilization in a state of "mere nature" was one overdetermined by constant warfare. Montaigne describes native culture as one that depends on war as a way of life ("[t]hey have continual war with the nations that live further within the mainland, beyond their mountains") and concludes with a curious assessment of what it might signify to European civilization that the people of the New World have been uncovered: "In plain truth, these men are very savage in comparison of us; of necessity, they must either be absolutely so or else we are savages; for there is a vast difference between their manners and ours." One can argue that Hobbes took Montaigne's statement to heart and decided that Europeans were savages by differential comparison to the natives of the New World. Such an assessment was consistent with certain aspects of Montaigne's rhetorical strategy, since he takes several opportunities to compare the "savagery" of the natives in America to similar forms of European practice. In short, Hobbes's conception of human reality in a state of "mere nature" may have been derived from Montaigne's descriptions of native American culture.

Part Two: Hobbes on the Commonwealth.

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