God as Leviathan

I’ve often wondered whether the concept of a supernatural, omnipotent and omniscient Creator figure like God, which has completely no grounding in empirical reasoning or logic, is the metaphysical equivalent of the political concept of “Leviathan”. In other words, is the “Covenant” of the Bible tantamount to the social contract theory in political philosophy?

In 1651, British philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan, one of the most influential texts in political philosophy as one of the earliest examples of the social contract theory. Today, it still forms part of the canon of texts significant to political theory, both for domestic policy and international relations.

“Leviathan” is the ancient mythical monster found in the Bible; Hobbes used it as a metaphor to describe the sovereign state and its power over its citizens and the force it commands.

The book, Leviathan, was an exposition of the origins of civil government, in which Hobbes argued that the state, or an absolute sovereign, is a necessary evil by eliminating the “war of all against all” that would exist in our state of nature.

Without an overarching authority, humans would be left to their own devices to judge how they should behave, which would almost certainly cause us to resort to vigilantism and disorder, making civilised life impossible, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

Hobbes invites us to consider what life would be like in a state of nature, that is, a condition without government. Perhaps we would imagine that people might fare best in such a state, where each decides for herself how to act, and is judge, jury and executioner in her own case whenever disputes arise—and that at any rate, this state is the appropriate baseline against which to judge the justifiability of political arrangements. Hobbes terms this situation “the condition of mere nature”, a state of perfectly private judgment, in which there is no agency with recognized authority to arbitrate disputes and effective power to enforce its decisions.

Hobbes’s near descendant, John Locke, insisted in his Second Treatise of Government that the state of nature was indeed to be preferred to subjection to the arbitrary power of an absolute sovereign. But Hobbes famously argued that such a “dissolute condition of masterlesse men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands from rapine, and revenge” would make impossible all of the basic security upon which comfortable, sociable, civilized life depends. There would be “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; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” If this is the state of nature, people have strong reasons to avoid it, which can be done only by submitting to some mutually recognized public authority, for “so long a man is in the condition of mere nature, (which is a condition of war,) as private appetite is the measure of good and evill.”

Hobbes reasoned that humans value their existence first and foremost, and construct ideals of “right” and “wrong” based on their self-interests caused by this will to survive. Without an overarching authority, humans would have no other rights than the basic natural right to protect themselves from predators and threats.

Although many readers have criticized Hobbes’s state of nature as unduly pessimistic, he constructs it from a number of individually plausible empirical and normative assumptions. He assumes that people are sufficiently similar in their mental and physical attributes that no one is invulnerable nor can expect to be able to dominate the others. Hobbes assumes that people generally “shun death”, and that the desire to preserve their own lives is very strong in most people. While people have local affections, their benevolence is limited, and they have a tendency to partiality. Concerned that others should agree with their own high opinions of themselves, people are sensitive to slights. They make evaluative judgments, but often use seemingly impersonal terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to stand for their own personal preferences. They are curious about the causes of events, and anxious about their futures; according to Hobbes, these characteristics incline people to adopt religious beliefs, although the content of those beliefs will differ depending upon the sort of religious education one has happened to receive.

With respect to normative assumptions, Hobbes ascribes to each person in the state of nature a liberty right to preserve herself, which he terms “the right of nature”. This is the right to do whatever one sincerely judges needful for one’s preservation; yet because it is at least possible that virtually anything might be judged necessary for one’s preservation, this theoretically limited right of nature becomes in practice an unlimited right to potentially anything, or, as Hobbes puts it, a right “to all things”. Hobbes further assumes as a principle of practical rationality, that people should adopt what they see to be the necessary means to their most important ends.

This will almost certainly lead to a state of war of all against all:

Taken together, these plausible descriptive and normative assumptions yield a state of nature potentially fraught with divisive struggle. The right of each to all things invites serious conflict, especially if there is competition for resources, as there will surely be over at least scarce goods such as the most desirable lands, spouses, etc. People will quite naturally fear that others may (citing the right of nature) invade them, and may rationally plan to strike first as an anticipatory defense. Moreover, that minority of prideful or “vain-glorious” persons who take pleasure in exercising power over others will naturally elicit preemptive defensive responses from others. Conflict will be further fueled by disagreement in religious views, in moral judgments, and over matters as mundane as what goods one actually needs, and what respect one properly merits. Hobbes imagines a state of nature in which each person is free to decide for herself what she needs, what she’s owed, what’s respectful, right, pious, prudent, and also free to decide all of these questions for the behavior of everyone else as well, and to act on her judgments as she thinks best, enforcing her views where she can. In this situation where there is no common authority to resolve these many and serious disputes, we can easily imagine with Hobbes that the state of nature would become a “state of war”, even worse, a war of “all against all”.

In order to avoid this state of nature, Hobbes propositioned humans have chosen to concede some of their personal autonomy by granting power to a sovereign institution, a necessary beast or “Leviathan”, with the right to rule over them, in return for basic security and a way to settle disputes and punish immoral behaviour:

Humans will recognize as imperatives the injunction to seek peace, and to do those things necessary to secure it, when they can do so safely. Hobbes calls these practical imperatives “Lawes of Nature”, the sum of which is not to treat others in ways we would not have them treat us. These “precepts”, “conclusions” or “theorems” of reason are “eternal and immutable”, always commanding our assent even when they may not safely be acted upon. They forbid many familiar vices such as iniquity, cruelty, and ingratitude. Although commentators do not agree on whether these laws should be regarded as mere precepts of prudence, or rather as divine commands, or moral imperatives of some other sort, all agree that Hobbes understands them to direct people to submit to political authority. They tell us to seek peace with willing others by laying down part of our “right to all things”, by mutually covenanting to submit to the authority of a sovereign, and further direct us to keep that covenant establishing sovereignty.

When people mutually covenant each to the others to obey a common authority, they have established what Hobbes calls “sovereignty by institution”. When, threatened by a conqueror, they covenant for protection by promising obedience, they have established “sovereignty by acquisition”. These are equally legitimate ways of establishing sovereignty, according to Hobbes, and their underlying motivation is the same—namely fear—whether of one’s fellows or of a conqueror. The social covenant involves both the renunciation or transfer of right and the authorization of the sovereign power. Political legitimacy depends not on how a government came to power, but only on whether it can effectively protect those who have consented to obey it; political obligation ends when protection ceases.

So what Hobbes was basically saying is humans have signed a contract with each other to entrust their lives in an absolute power, a centralised political authority which can consolidate a legal system for moral oversight, an armed force for collective security, and which can generate infrastructure and organisation in societies to improve the conditions and chances for prosperity for its citizens.

To me, this sounds very much like the Covenant that humans (namely adherents of the major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) made with God. Although there are different conceptualisations of this covenant, the basic gist of these talk about an agreement that God would protect those who abode by the commandments that he set out for them

Could God just be the Leviathan of the spiritual/metaphysical plain, the absolute intangible authority replacing our existential anarchy?

It is entirely possible that people in ancient times put their faith in God as a means to receive some existential security in their lives, as everywhere around them they saw the conflict and moral ambiguities caused by humanity’s state of nature. There are numerous biblical stories of God smiting those who behaved frivolously or immorally, and more still of God smiting those who went against him or his will. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was all part of an elaborate mythology constructed by people to overcome our state of nature and share a common set of values, moral institutions, objectives and ways of life, let alone beliefs and identities. Coincidentally, some people even relate “anarchy” with “godlessness”.

This idea – and indeed it is only just an idea – may upset some people who wholeheartedly believe in God’s existence. But it is food for thought; it is an idea which can explain the complexities of faith in an empirical method. And I’d recommend that you go back to the quotes about Hobbes’ Leviathan and replace all words referring to a “Government” or a “State” or an “absolute power” or “sovereign institution” with “God”.

But at this point, I’d like to stir the pot and quote Marx, when he famously said religion is the opium of the masses. Notice how close it sounds to the concept of Leviathan:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

~~ Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

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