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Examine Thomas Hobbes’ theory that people need to be governed and the debate regarding the original nature of the human species…
The debate surrounding our original state of nature or species being has been hotly contested by scholars for centuries and remains a pivotal line of enquiry in contemporary pedagogic circles. In societies across the globe we observe entire populations governed by (religious) laws and practices designed to manage, control and otherwise police the boundaries of individualism whilst accentuating solidarity and protecting the collective norm (Stiglitz 2003). In this essay, we explore the various conceptions that have sought to trace and detail the genealogy of human beings to their primordial or so-called primitive condition, with particular emphasis on exploring Hobbes’ (2008) proposition that the disposition of human nature is chaos and thus, as humans, we are compelled to forgo our instinctual nature and find sanctuary within the realms of social collectivism and central governance. In this vein, we confront the age-old nature versus nurture conundrum; are we social and moral animals by design, altruistic in nature, or does civilisation transpire from egotistical obligation to co-operate in order to thrive.
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As ever-increasing demands are placed on social-scientific research to maintain pace with an ever-changing world, it is commonplace for scholars to forget the (historical) dictums of our primal beginnings; such investigations are often marginalised – afforded little time, finance and credence – in a world seeking solutions to contemporary problems (Benton and Craib 2010). Yet, to paraphrase Marx (1991), the ghosts of the past weigh heavy on the minds of the living; understanding our roots may become the greatest social discovery and contribution to forging our future as human beings. Thus, social science, by definition and direction, is arguably obsessed with the social constructs that humans generate, frequently dismissing (perhaps through arrogance) the undeniable fact that we remain animals, imbued with the same instinctual drives and impulses as other species. Indeed, one need only observe the effect of social neglect in the case of feral children, unfettered by societal constraints we return to barely recognisable beasts, uncivilised and unconcerned by social pretentions, decorum, normative expectations and values (Candland 1996). For Hobbes’ (2008) humankind in its original state of being is an evil scourge upon the earth; a ruthless and egotistical creature perpetuated by self-gain and absolute dominance – a survival of the fittest nightmare (Trivers 1985). Thus, paralleling the works of Plato (2014), he asserts that the individual, possessing the principle of reason, must sacrifice free-will to preserve their ontological wellbeing, acquired resources, property and way of life or what he calls a ‘commodious living’ (78). As Berger and Luckmann (1991) argue, we willingly accept social captivity as it offers a protective blanket from the otherwise harsh conditions; a remission from the barbarism and bloodshed that transpired previously. This led Hobbes’ (2008: 44) to assert that ‘people need governed’ under a social contract or mutual agreement of natural liberty; the promise to not pillage, rape or slaughter was reciprocated and later crystallised and enforced by the state or monarch. Indeed, whilst his belief in the sovereigns’ traditional (rather than divine) right to rule was unwavering, he was certain that a despotic kingdom would not ensue as reason would triumph over narcissism.
In response, Socrates (cited in Johnson 2011) hypothesised that justice was an inherent attribute where humans sought peace as a process of self-fulfilment – of regulating the soul – not because of fear or retribution; to paraphrase: ‘the just man is a happy man’ (102). The state would therefore stand as a moral citadel or vanguard against the profane. Similarly, Locke (2014) rejects the nightmarish depiction offered by Hobbes (2008), asserting a romanticised state of nature– permeated with God’s compassion – whereby humans seek liberty above all; not individual thrill-seekers but rather banded by familial bonds and communes – a pre-political conjugal society – possessing parochial values, norms and voluntary arrangements. However, he also appreciated that, without the presence of a central regulatory organisation, conflict could easily emerge and continue unabated. Hence, humanity ascends into a civil contract, the birth of the political, as a means of protecting the status quo of tranquillity, prosperity and ownership. Similarly, Rousseau (2015) also proposes a quixotic rendition of humanities social origins, considering such times as simplistic or mechanical (Durkheim 1972) inasmuch as populations were sparse, resources abundant and needs basic, implying that individuals where altruistic by nature and morally pure. Yet, the ascension of state, particularly the mechanisms of privatisation, polluted and contorted humankinds natural state into something wicked that not only coaxed but promoted tendencies of greed, selfishness and egocentrism. In this account, we find strong parallels with Marx (1991), specifically his critique of capitalism, which is conceptualised as a sadistic mechanism tearing humanity from its species-being – the world of idiosyncratic flare, enchantment and cultural wonder – and placing it into a rat-race of alienation (from ones fellow being), exploited labour and inequality. As Rousseau (2015) ably contends: ‘man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’ (78). Thus, government and the liberalism it allegedly promotes is a farce, seeking to keep the architectural means to create the social world within the possession of a minority – this he calls the current naturalized social contract. He calls for a new social order premised on consensus, reason and compassion; we must reconnect with ourselves, re-engage with our neighbours and discover who we are as a species.
The supposition of our philosophical ancestors is that we require governance as a process of realisation, we are social animals that demand and reciprocate encounters with others; alongside the impulse for sustenance and shelter is the yearning for social contact – indeed love and belonging are included in Maslow’s (2014) hierarchy of needs. Yet, within many philosophical transcripts is the deployment of religion as a legitimate form of authority, since antiquity monarchs, pharaohs, dynasties and early tribal formations have claimed power through divine right or approval. In fact, conviction in a celestial realm has pervaded for epochs – carved in millennia-old cave paintings around the globe (Stiglitz 2003) – and perhaps emerged from an enchanted, speculative and awe-inspired outlook of the world in which our ancestors occupied; religion complemented the life-cycle, delineating the sacred from the profane (Foucault 1975). As Schluchter (1989) argues, later missionaries would propagate their dogma; a prime example of this is the upsurge, dissemination and (even today) domination of Christianity as it overran its pagan predecessors, witchdoctors and mystics. Thus, religion has been attributed with generating social mores, collectivism and ushering the rise of civilisations. Indeed, Elias (2000), details the social evolution of humanity as the animalistic fades to the backstage – with the gradual monopolisation of violence and (political) power – and presented civil self takes credence. Initially, this was necessary for survival as people became more interdependent and significantly influenced later by the royal courts who became a celebrity-like beacon of perfect decorum and taste.
By the 19th century, most of Europe was regarded as civilised whilst other developing parts where considered savage lands; the violence, exploitation and subsequent domination of such nations as India and Africa by western societies is well documented (Buckinx and Treto-Mathys 2015). As Elias puts it: “people were forced to live in peace” (2000, 99). This was also accompanied with the advent of Enlightenment whereby the rule of logic, rationalisation and pragmatism disrobed and effectively dismantled the prevailing supremacy of religion; though religion remains a powerful force in certain cultures and is frequently accompanied with its own medieval brutality. As Anderson (2008) alludes, in Africa and the middle-east, where Christianity, Judaism and Islam prevail and to varying degrees dominate life, purported barbaric acts like (female) genital mutilation, segregation, and (domestic) violence – that affects mainly women – and public violence and executions are commonplace and sanctioned.
Thus, secularisation and the rise of empiricism unshackled humankind from its beastly beginnings and rehomed them within the embracing idioms of consensus, free-will and reciprocal courteousness – humans had undergone a transformation or courtisation whereby mannerisms, hygiene and self-restraint became governing tenants, the barbarian was adorned (concealed) with socially acceptable masks, equipped with approved social scripts and the rules of the game – Goffman’s (1990) social actor and his/her presented selves was born. In this conceptualisation, self-governance or policing is prerequisite for progress and forms the basis for society; enhanced with consciousness we are capable of resisting our impulsive drives – Freud’s (2010) Eros and Thantos are forsaken for the greater good – and creating a utilitarian civilisation. Today, in late-capitalist societies, we live in relative prosperity and peace; the elected government and its respective agencies provide sustenance, infrastructure, healthcare, protection and political democracy; this template of humanity is – like our religious proselytisers – distributed globally, perpetuated by the mass media, globalisation and free-markets (Stiglitz 2013).
For Nietzsche (2013), this contemporary worldview was tantamount to emptiness where humanity had escaped their animalistic state of being, finding virtue in religion and will-to-power within to overcome and ascend, but is now found wanting with the demise of faith and contemporary nihilism that has proceeded (his famous ‘God is dead’ (13) quote). Indeed, he is dismissive of science, philosophical and religious idioms, particularly their totalitarian tendencies which (for him) inhibit, enslave or otherwise surrender life-affirming behaviours; similarities may be drawn with Marx and Engels (2008) critique of religion as the ‘sigh of the oppressed creature’ (45); religion (like governments or social contracts) demands that individuals relinquish or capitulate part of themselves; to genuflect the laws, tenets and values that rule. Such things seek to (re)capture or incarcerate our species being within a straightjacket. Therefore, humanity must re-engage their instinctual resolve – which Nietzsche (2014) regarded as stronger than our urge for sex or survival – and become supermen (Übermensch) untrammelled by instinct, to find wonder in the fluidity and unpredictability of nature and good conscience by re-evaluating our values, expectations and shortcomings as a species. Namely, a stateless civilisation, unhindered by permanency, premised on the continual refinement of self. Yet, whilst Nietzsche (2014) highlights the stifling effects of dogma, it seems unrealistic to suggest humans are capable of living in constant flux – even a war-torn nation offer consistency (Stiglitz 2003) – insofar as we instinctually seek to structure the surrounding environment in a comprehendible manner; we assign labels, judgements and behavioural codes as we produce order – predictability is the precondition for life and offers humans ontological security and wellbeing (Berger and Luckmann 1991). However, given the asymmetrical nature of society, some possess the architectural means to govern others – reformulated as a form of symbolic violence or barbarism. For example, the credence given to hegemonic masculinities and subsequent denigration and objectification of women or the subjugation of nations to western ideals (Mulvey and Rogers 2015). Moreover, the free-markets offered by capitalism seek to segregate, exploit and captivate masses into a consumerist world of shiny prizes (Marcuse 2002), coaxing our selfish and cut-throat tendencies, whilst so-called liberalist governments attempt to impose their civility globally through violence, bullying and manipulation; a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Kinker 2014). So, even under the rule of government and presence of civilisations our so-called animalistic (violent) heritage pervades, like a ghostly presence haunting the present.
Hobbes (2008) reasons for why individuals need governed – to cage our inner beast – seems defective. As Walsh and Teo (2014) allude, a major fault with many of the propositions outlined above is the emphasis placed on linearity – government is seen as a progressive necessity – rather than appreciating that as social creatures we are capable of creating communities with their own normative flows, ebbs, fluxes and (more importantly) governing ourselves both as matter of necessity or self-preservation and as a means of self-fulfilment or belonging; contemporary modes of practice have become so integrated and reified that finding a parallel alternative or a “way back” seems implausible. That said, as Browning (2011) argues, in an increasingly interdependent and global world, the requirement for centralised states seems unavoidable to handle the sheer mass of human activity and to maintain a level of equilibrium; an inevitable course of human progress.
This essay has been both illuminating and simultaneously problematic; the proposition of whether humans are capable of cohabiting without the requirement of a state or intervening supra-organisation remains a mystery. In fact, such an assertion is premised on how one defines the original state of nature; are we barbaric creatures who engage in a social contract for personal gain or are we instinctually social and empathic animals whose predisposition is not only to safeguard our interests but to generate genuine communal bonds and interconnections with others. The latter affords more manoeuvring for alternative (flexible) social figurations without government, where humanity can bask in the wonder of difference, variety and levels of unpredictability, whilst the former finds sanctuary only in the incarceration of humanity to defined idioms and laws imposed by a centre of authority and power. It is tempting to concede that, despite Hobbes’ depiction of government as the epitome of civility, on the contrary it appears to be (in this era of modernity) the primary agent of (symbolic) violence and struggle, whether masquerading as a religious, communist or neo-liberal state. Thus, one is reluctant to accept Hobbes assertion that people should be governed by a reified or separate entity. Instead, with a level of Nietzschean sentiment, perhaps people should be permitted and empowered to re-evaluate and govern themselves.
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