Reading Hobbes During the Era of Fake News and Authoritarianism

My newly published book Beyond Reason, Beyond Doubt: Sovereign Belief in Hobbes’s Leviathan is a must-read for understanding how politics is linked to belief. Hobbes would have understood the current battle for public opinion in America and elsewhere as a question of religion.

1. Beyond Reason, Beyond Doubt

My latest non-fiction book, titled Beyond Reason, Beyond Doubt: Sovereign Belief in Hobbes’s Leviathan, has just been published. I started researching it about two years ago and was inititally interested in the project because I noticed how much Thomas Hobbes – the controversial 17th century jurist, historian, scientist, philosopher and classicist – discussed questions of religion and faith in his celebrated political work, Leviathan (1651). Although it certainly wasn’t uncommon for political works of the time to be interspersed with religious musings, Hobbes’s modern approach to politics combined with his immersion in questions of faith is noteworthy.  

Hobbes split questions of belief into religion – which was public and thus fell under sovereign control – and faith – which were privately and sincerely held (though not necessarily true) convictions. Initially I intended to merely examine how Hobbes approached the division of religion and faith. As the project moved on, however, the focus shifted. Hobbes, it seems, had sought a totality of what may be termed ‘sovereign faith.’ 

2. Hobbes’s Goal

Although the Catholic Church was his greatest foe, he essentially agreed with the Roman clergy that church and state should be united (although he drew the line at heresy, which is essentially an inquiry into private faith). Hobbes tried to erect a barrier of impregnability around the government. He attacked decentralizing forces who wanted to subjugate the sovereign to reason or Scripture, or who simply wanted to divide power. Avoiding a crisis of authoritarian faith was critical. He allowed a private space for belief but wanted control of the public faith to stave off such a crisis. For him the English Civil War was rooted in controversies of authority, not merely power politics.

3. Hobbes and Us

What lessons does Hobbes have for us in the age of autocrats and (mis-?) information? As an example, let’s take one common factor uniting authoritarian leaders like Trump, Erdogan, and Netanyahu. That is their war on sources of supposedly objective information, the media. Media usually see themselves as authoritative and beyond reproach. As a corollary, dictators like Putin and Dutette are suspect. The war on the press (‘enemy of the people’) by such leaders is a war on one authority – a source which the public believes in – so that the government will have more authority. 

4. Final Thoughts

Although the ‘press’ in Hobbes’s day would have been limited to philosophers like himself and religious preachers, we can take it that he would have understood the current war between autocrats and the media as more about belief than democracy or freedom. Trump’s labelling of the liberal media as ‘fake news’ is a dumbed-down tactic of Hobbes protecting sovereign faith. And it as much a religious strategy as a political one.

Click here to find out more about my latest book. 

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