For Thomas Hobbes, Politics Was Simply About Doubt and Faith

Four hundred years ago, an English intellectual developed political ideas different to what we may recognize as familiar.

1. Schmitt and Hobbes

In his celebrated treatise, The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) reduced public life to that of friend or enemy. Enemies are the ‘other.’ If we are threatened by an ‘other,’ Schmitt claimed, we will herd together with political ‘friends.’ In my new book, Beyond Reason, Beyond Doubt, I argue that Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) – who greatly influenced Schmitt – employed a similar division to describe politics and political authority. However, as opposed to the distinction of friend/enemy, Hobbes used the criterion of doubt/faith in his most famous book Leviathan.

2. Doubt and Faith

What is meant when we say that Hobbes saw the question of authority as one of doubt and faith? One way of understanding this is that Hobbes understood the relationship between government and its citizens as like that between God and the Children of Israel. In the same way as the Hebrews trusted all affairs to God without necessarily understanding His commandments, subjects should obey the sovereign (“God’s lieutenant”) even without understanding his judgement. Specifically regarding a Biblical judgement, but generally applicable to all sovereign decisions, Hobbes states that

when anything therein written is too hard for our examination, we are bidden to captivate our understanding to the words; and not to labour in sifting out a philosophical truth by logic of such mysteries as are not comprehensible, nor fall under any rule of natural science (L. III, 32). 

3. Modern Perspective

To put into perspective how odd that sounds to our contemporary ears, let’s consider the general ethic of politics and critical theory in the modern world. Let’s take the specific example of the free press. The free press is supposed to harrass and constantly question power. Secrets are frowned upon and citizens should comprehend any action they are asked to undertake. This is part of the media’s political role although the press are not tasked with sovereign decision-making.

4. Countering the Sceptics

Hobbes disputes that a non-sovereign entity like the free press has the privilege of endless scepticism without public responsibility. We have laid down our personal rights of self-preservation upon entering society, according to Hobbes. Although everyone on their own, fighting for their own survival, would be aware of the dangers they face and opportunities for personal glory, a public authority senses danger and opportunities on behalf of the collective. A culture of political scepticism is inappropriate because individuals have placed their faith and trust in the sovereign. While they have a right to know of decisions and gain a deeper understanding of what such judgements command them, they have no right to disobey such measures provided they benefit from the peace and civilization sovereignty brings.

Hobbes would have loathed the modern free press – not necessarily because it sows doubt – but because its ethic is doubt itself. As a rule, the media believes that the government should represent the desires and wishes of the populace. A government not fulfilling this task is illegitimate.

Although there were no New York Times or Washington Post in the Jacobin, Caroline, or Cromwellian periods of English history, there were the Christian churches, natural rights theorists, and philosophers influenced by Aristotle, not to mind powerful public figures. These subjected power to standards of law, Christian morality, or freedom. Hobbes reserved scathing criticism for all of them. Perhaps the clearest sign of this is that Hobbes believed the sovereign should wield both the sword of power and the staff of religion. By controlling what people are allowed to believe and practise publicly, the sovereign can in turn mould the public, guiding them to have faith in his judgement.

5. Descriptive View

Another way of looking at Hobbes’s theory of politics is that it’s descriptive. Governments – however ineffectively – do exert maximal efforts to make the public believe in their sovereignty. They construct myths, institute national symbols, guard public buildings, and do their best to steer the national debate. No government can exist without there being faith in their legitimacy. Intuitively, all states understand the basic lesson an English philosopher taught us.

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