August 23, 2009

The Biblical Origin of Hobbes's State of Nature Theory

(Cross-posted to Houynhnm Land Guest Blog.)

Thomas Hobbes is famous for his pessimistic state of nature theory. According to Hobbes, the 'state of nature' (i.e. anarchy) is a "warre of every man against every man" (Leviathan, p. 63 of the 1651 'Head' edition). The concepts of justice or injustice are, according to Hobbes, not applicable in this state of war. This is because injustice is defined as "the not Performance of Covenant" (p. 71). However, "If a Covenant be made, wherein neither of the parties performe presently, but trust one another; in the condition of meer nature ... upon any reasonable suspicion, it is Voyd" (p. 68). As it turns out, there is always reasonable suspicion, because the state of nature is in the non-optimal equilibrium of the Stag Hunt, so that it is in each party's best interest to break his word. Why does this void the agreement? "[T]hat [someone] should be modest, and tractable, and performe all he promises, in such time, and place, where no man els should do so, should but make himselfe a prey to others, and procure his own certain ruine, contrary to the ground of all Lawes of Nature which tend to Natures preservation" (p. 79). The unusual phrase "make himselfe a prey" is also alluded to on pp. 41 and 65. The reference would seem to be to Isaiah 59:15. Here is how that text and the surrounding verses are translated in the original Authorized (King James) Version of 1611, which Hobbes would likely have used:

[Y]our hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquitie, your lippes have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perversenesse. None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for trueth: they trust in vanity and speak lies, they conceive mischiefe and bring forth iniquitie ... Their feete runne to evill, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, wasting & destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they know not and there is no judgement in their goings: they have made them crooked pathes; whosoever goeth therein, shall not know peace.

Therefore is judgement farre from us, neither doth justice overtake us: we waite for light, but behold obscuritie, for brightnesse, but we walke in darknesse ... [J]udgment is turned away backward and justice standeth a farre off: for truth is fallen in the streete, and equitie cannot enter. Yeatruth faileth, and he that departeth from evill maketh himselfe a prey: and the LORD saw it, and it displeased him, that there was no judgement (Isaiah 59:3-4, 7-9, 14-15, emphasis added).

The rest of the verses of chapter 59 describe God's response to this state of affairs on earth.

It seems to me that Hobbes must have seen this passage as a description of a state of nature. The text is clear that God is displeased with this total state of affairs, and this plays into Hobbes's argument that the state of nature is to be avoided at all cost. However, I wonder if Hobbes perhaps saw verse 15 as saying that the LORD was displeased with a person departing from evil and thereby making himself a prey. Hobbes is prone to odd Biblical interpretation, and this would help to support his view that performance of covenant is not required in this cases when the performer would make himself a prey. Whatever the case, it seems clear that this text was on Hobbes's mind.

Posted by Kenny at August 23, 2009 2:06 PM
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