For students of Early Modern culture, the events at the U.S. Capitol on 6 January, 2021, might have called to mind Act III of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. To stoke confusion for his political advantage, Antony riles up “the stones of Rome,” a crowd of fickle commoners, “to rise and mutiny.” As the mob marches to chants of “Go fetch fire. Pluck down forms, windows, anything,” Antony laughs to himself, as the president might have, “Now let it work: Mischief thou art afoot, Take thou what course thou wilt.” Parallels between the theatrical scene and the historical events of The Epiphany Riot abound, even, unfortunately, the mob’s murder of a bystander as they chant, “Tear him to pieces!”[i] Indeed, many object lessons about manipulating masses can be drawn from Shakespeare’s play; however, as the January 6th Report and continuing reverberations reveal, the Early Modern specter that seems most to haunt the events of that day is the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. As various jurisdictions of the justice system seek to reaffirm the rule of law, it is Hobbes that reminds us of the implicit violence always beneath the surface of even the most stable societies.
Hobbes gets a bad rap as a depressing pessimist cheering for the royalists in the English Civil War. Most undergraduates know him for characterizing human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” However, that phrase from Chapter 13 of Leviathan is actually a subjunctive part of a longer statement that claims without coming together to form a commonwealth, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes’ ambition was to use the methods of Bacon and the model of geometry to discover the necessary laws of sovereignty. The killing of his friend, the poet Sidney Godolphin, by an anonymous Parliamentary militiaman in 1643 left him with what he called “a weighty lasting grief” and inspired “My life and writings [to] speak one congruous sense; Justice I teach, and justice reverence.”[ii] His argument goes something like this: Human beings have a Natural Right to everything, even to one another’s bodies. On the other hand, human beings are bound by the Natural Law that prevents self-harm. The predicament of our species is that Natural Right conflicts with Natural Law. If we exercise our Natural Right, the violent competition that ensues would undermine our Natural desire for perpetual peace. To avoid lives that are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, we must give up our Natural Right to everything. The right to everything cannot be annihilated, so it must be transferred to something. That something is the sovereign to which we all give our consent. Hobbes is describing a necessary contract. However, that contract is not between the subjects and the sovereign; the contract exists between every member of the commonwealth. He arrives at this “precept, or general rule, of reason:” that every person must “be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.”[iii]
Hobbes unfortunately uses the phrase “state of nature” to describe a hypothetical situation that would result in a war of all against all. The 18th-century political theorists who designed the United States objected to what they saw as his pessimistic view of human nature. Because of Hobbes’ materialism, which they labeled vaguely “atheism,” they leaned more on John Locke, who claimed certainly disingenuously he didn’t know much about his English predecessor. Locke argued that property does exist in a state of nature. He liked the example of a hypothetical natural man picking an apple from a tree. Because the man “owns” (that is, must will to alienate the potency of) the energy in his body that picks the apple, ownership naturally transfers to the apple. Hobbes, on the other hand, had argued earlier that human beings have a Natural Right to everything. Nothing belongs to any particular human individual; rather, everyone has an equal claim to everything that might produce felicity. What Hobbes might have pointed point out about Locke’s apple is that the same logic applies to the hypothetical natural man that picks up a stone with the energy of his body and bashes in the skull of Locke’s hypothetical natural man. The apple, then, becomes the extension of his energy. And so on until a hypothetical natural man who, realizing his own physical weakness, convinces other hypothetical natural men to form a confederacy of apple foragers to the benefit of them all.
Rather than a “state of nature,” which was a popular phrase of the time, sometimes referring to an actual historical period of human development, Hobbes was describing an ontological material predicament. There are willed and desiring human beings and there are a lot of things in nature (apples, etc.), but there is no natural way to say who gets what. Everyone gets everything. Hobbes’ “state of nature” is not a historical period of human development, though certain anthropological conclusions reveal the species was sometimes very close to a war of all against all. Instead, the “state of nature” is an enduring ontological predicament. It is always “there” producing the commonwealth. It is not categorically different; rather it is a productive constituent of human political necessity. Likewise, there is always a sovereign, some more responsive to the consenting public. Local crime syndicates, rural warlords, transnational gangs, monarchs, and democratic tri-branched republics are all different historical versions of the same thing. They are not morally equivalent, of course, as some produce more peace than others, but they are all answers to the basic material predicament of the human species. Hobbes’ goal was to reveal this necessity to enable rational humans to design the most just and peace-productive sovereigns, which is, it seems, what 1776 was really about.
The word “capital,” from which we get “capitalism,” actual retains its original association with the Hobbesian sovereign and what was literally called the “commonwealth.” It derives from the Latin “caput,” meaning “head” as in the “head of the commonwealth.” Monarchies distributed the commonwealth as the “caput,” the head of the economy. Likewise, under our current sovereign, democratically-elected representation, private property is secured by the sovereign; therefore, rather than a natural right, private property is more accurately understood as an historical method by which the sovereign distributes the commonwealth.
That the world and all its fruits belong to everyone, for Hobbes, is not an ethical statement, not the way it should be; rather, it is the ontological situation in which we find ourselves, the way it is. The sovereign is simply that to which we each transfer that natural claim on everything. The sovereign is the “head,” the “caput,” that distributes. If the sovereign distributes sufficiently justly, it continues; if it fails at its task, it is replaced with another sovereign. That’s Hobbes’ geometry: Natural Right plus Natural Law equals Contract that requires Sovereign. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”[iv] is how Jefferson put it, borrowing that last phrase from Hobbes himself, as he imagined replacing the sovereignty of George III.
The leaders of the malcontents who stormed the Capitol, who according to the January 6th Report stopped on their way to their revolution at food trucks for a repast (food trucks! Valley Forge this wasn’t!)[v], are not students of early modern political theory. When Trump promised, “Will be wild,”[vi] he was not alluding to Hobbes’ “state of nature.” They are, however, reminders of Hobbes’ lessons for those of us who consent to a sovereign. The contract is not between the “people” and the “government.” The contract is between each of us. Each of us contracts with every other to give up our Natural Right to everything. The sovereign simply enforces the contracts. Again, Franklin, Adams, et al. tried to devise a system of sovereignty to allow the contractors (us) power to fashion that security. The Capitol Riot doesn’t seem to have been spontaneous, but its meaningfulness seems to exceed simple political diversion and carnival exuberance. To think of it another way, the motives of the Epiphany Insurrectionists and the protestors of Black Lives Matter are not morally equivalent, but from a Hobbesian perspective, they both reflect the state of the commonwealth and the quality of the sovereign. “But if other men will not lay down their right [to everything] as well as he, then there is no reason for anyone to divest himself of his,” Hobbes writes, “for that were to expose himself to prey rather than dispose himself to peace.”[vii] Both events should make us ask, how are our contracts with each other being secured?
Rather than simply baring pessimistic conclusions about human psychology, Hobbes also offered some answers. As he concluded in the 17th century, those answers require a different education. Bluntly, he concludes that Civil War is inevitable “except the vulgar be better taught than they have hitherto been.”[viii] Rather than revising the content, though, we need to demythologize our exceptionalism. For example, we need:
- Education about being a citizen without the mythologizing of the historical sovereign. In fact, we must point out the historical contingency of the sovereign. Jefferson was perfectly happy until he felt cheated out of his inheritance of liberty as an Englishmen. If the Hanoverian monarchs had been better sovereigns [or the Jacobeans before them for that matter], we might still be British subjects and fine with it. We can learn to practice our consent—voting and (very importantly!) jury duty—without pledging blind allegiance to the sovereign it creates. Here’s Hobbes’ possible replacement for our current pledge of allegiance: “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men [he means the sovereign], on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner.”[ix] My recommendation here is glib, but Hobbes’ point is important: a monarch (Charles I or George III) or a democratically elected assembly (U.S. Congress, President) is historical and contingent, they will come and go in time, but we the contractors are necessary;
- Education about contemporary media systems explaining how professional media producers, though human, have studied how to use media to inform, entertain, and sometimes persuade. Consumption of media is necessary to any modern commonwealth, but blaming the media rather than teaching consumers how to critique curators of information leads to more social confusion. Critical reading and thinking must be the primary goal of humanities education. Aesthetic appreciation, which is really difficult to assess anyhow, should be relegated to incidental and emergent consequences of pedagogy. When Chaucer warns his readers that the Miller’s Tale will be vulgar and offensive (it is!), he says, “Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys.”[x] As the January 6th Report laments, uneducated media consumers constantly choose amiss[xi];
- Education about economics that doesn’t mythologize private property or capitalism but that tells the story of human material being in which Euro-American capitalism is merely one means for producing and distributing the commonwealth. Capitalism is not natural or inevitable, though it might be preferable if justly managed according to public consent. Wage labor is one historical attempt to distribute justly, and without the teleological mystification of capitalism, rational human beings might discuss whether it is sufficiently just; and finally,
- Local control of local capital. Jefferson never wanted a far-flung, diverse commonwealth, not because he was racist (though he was) but because he believed common identification among stake-holders makes sovereignty easier to achieve and maintain for everyone involved. Over the past fifty years, the United States legislature has increasingly granted global private capitalist interests the sovereign responsibility of distributing the commonwealth, thus alienating those who consent to the representation by the government. Hobbes isn’t saying that the sovereign ought to be in control of distributing the commonwealth; he is saying that it is distributing necessarily, even by securing the privileges of global movers of capital. People want to see their labor producing capital flows that benefit their own worlds rather than siphoned to new imperial metropoles.
In less Hobbesian language, Hobbes claims that “all men are by nature provided of notable multiplying glasses (that is their passions and self-love), through which every little payment [of taxes, for example] appeareth a great grievance, but are destitute of those prospective glasses (namely moral and civil science), to see afar off the miseries that hang over them [okay, a little Hobbesian language], and cannot without such payments be avoided.”[xii] An education must provide “prospective glasses” through which private persons can recognize their own appetites served ultimately by the public will to which they consent. Though he is commonly understood to be legitimizing a coercive government, Hobbes is really explaining the natural precepts from which civic duty and responsibility arise. He calls the commonwealth “a real unity of them all, in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man.”[xiii]
Again, he is not saying this is how it should be; rather, this is how it is given our ontological predicament of radical rights and equality. The food-truck brigade of fantasist patriots that Trump sicced on Congress were blinded by their “multiplying glasses.” Having failed to educate them to participate critically in the continuous production of the commonwealth, the sovereign must now exercise its coercion through the justice system by replacing the Fred Parry polos of the Proud Boys with orange jumpsuits. Keep in mind, though, that it is not the government who convicts truck drivers, Oath Keepers, and former presidents of breaking the rules of the contract; it is juries of fellow contractors who have given up their natural right to everything in this historical occasion to the law which we presumably produce ourselves.
We’ve all heard Benjamin Franklin’s story about the carving of the sun on George Washington’s chair as he presided over the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia. Franklin worried whether the sun was rising or setting on the American experiment. 6 January 2021 was a violent recrudescence of that on-going experiment, and Hobbes reminds us that the sun both rises and sets every day.
[i] William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar,” The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 827.
[ii] Thomas Hobbes, “Verse Autobiography,” Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), lxiii.
[iii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 80.
[iv] The Constitution of the United States with the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2002), 81.
[v] The January 6th Report: The Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack at the United States Capitol, (New York: Celdon Books, 2022), 645.
[vi] The January 6th Report: The Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack at the United States Capitol, (New York: Celdon Books, 2022), 499.
[vii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 80.
[viii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 116.
[ix] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 109.
[x] Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Canterbury Tales,” The Riverside Chaucer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), 67.
[xi] The January 6th Report: The Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack at the United States Capitol, (New York: Celdon Books, 2022), 195-260.
[xii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 118.
[xiii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 109.