Sunday, May 15, 2011

Shakespeare: King Henry IV part 1 & 2

Henry IV of England
The next GBWW on political theory are Shakespeare's plays King Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, which seemed at first like an odd diversion from political philosophy.  However, I can appreciate how these two plays complement the previous readings.  In 1399 King Henry IV usurped the crown from his unpopular relative King Richard II.  Henry IV then spent the remaining years of his life trying to suppress rebellions throughout his kingdom.  One can imagine all the legal and political questions Henry IV has to address, not to mention the irony of having to suppress revolts similar to the one he participated in.  What make those rebels different from Henry IV overthrowing Richard II?  There is only one great difference: now Henry IV is the king. 

Many of Shakespeare's plays deal with the overthrow of rulers, as for example Hamlet and MacBeth. Interestingly, both King Cladius in Hamlet and MacBeth have to worry about being overthrown, similar to Henry IV.  The question should therefore be, "by what right does a king govern?"  Hobbes and others would say by the majority consent, but he would add that no subject can rebel against a sovereign.  John Locke and Thomas Aquinas would like counter that the rebellion of Henry IV against Richard II is justified since the former king does not maintain the common good.  However, this is a delicate and subjective arguement. I think this is the most fascinating question raised by Shakespeare's interpretation of history.  There is even some Machiavelli in King Henry's son, Prince John, who tricks rebel leaders into surrendering and then has them executed. 

After King Henry IV dies his son, Prince (Hal) Harry, assumes the throne as Henry V.  The transition is peaceful, but Shakespeare's description of Prince Harry's wild youth would make one wonder if he is ready for the responsibility of governing a kingdom.  Fortunately Prince Harry will depend more on his royal council for guidance than on his previous drinking companions like Falstaff.  It is this dual persona that I think it quite fascintating.  Nearly everyone, including his father, feels that Prince Harry would rather spend his time in a bar associating with characters of ill repute rather than shouldering the burdens of a king.  Even if Harry does become king, many fear he will bring ruin to England.  However, as King Henry V, Prince Harry actually becomes one of England's greatest kings.  Therefore, having spent his formative years in the association of commoners does not appear to have diminished in any way Harry's noble character or innate ability to lead.  In fact he may be a greater king for having  had these experiences. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Leviathan and Political Philosophy

It has always bothered me when, after the elections of Bush and Obama, people have stated that the elected president is not their president.  Who is your president then?  Personally, I do not care who you voted for, but this person now represents you, your country, and the voices of millions of Americans - just like Hobbes's Leviathan. However, I do recognize that it is perfectly acceptable for you to not recognize the ruling authority if you are willing to give up all the rights and privilages that come with American citizentry and return to Hobbes's "state of war".   

Let's assume you decide to not recognize the president and make a partial return to an atavistic and brutal state of existance.  What constraints would you now have your freedom?  Hobbes says that liberty is inversely proportional to opposition.  Therefore, if you are freed from rules that you do not recognize you will have almost unlimited freedom - not a bad deal. 

What about good and evil?  Hobbes says that "good and evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions".  Therefore good is whatever you like and evil is whatever you do not care for.  So far this is working out pretty well - I would say beer is good and mowing my lawn is evil. 

Interestingly, Hobbes does addresss the rogue individual who decides to not recognize the soverign authority.  To Hobbes, this is perhaps the most dangerous individual to the state because this person receives all the benifits of the state (protection from attack, excellent infrastructure, cheap food) while not contributing to its maintainence.  That state can tolerate a few of these free-loaders, but too many will destroy the government. 

This reminds me of a mixed population of bacteria where some express antibiotic resistance genes (e.g. beta-lactamase for penicillin).  These proteins are metabolically expensive, but keep the bacteria alive in the presence of antibiotics. However, some bacteria do not express these factors but depend on the resistance factors of other bacteria to keep them alive (i.e. herd immunity).  The non-resistant bacteria will grow faster, consuming more resources, until they begin to outcompete the resistant bacteria.  At this point, there will not be enough resistance factors present to keep the bacteria alive and they will die.  Hobbes describes something similiar when he talks about bees and ants living together.  He says that these animals operate in a commonwealth because of instinct, although I think that there is probably some evolutionary pressure similar to my bacterial colony example.

Compared with other political philosophers

Hobbes is emphatic that for men the state of nature is a state of war and even in civilized times men could revert to a state of nature if the common authority that keeps men in "awe" is removed. However, Hobbes says that majority desire to live in a society with rules and restraints on our freedoms.  Therefore the need to live in a commonwealth is a natural one and prefered. Aristotle would agree that men require laws to restraints to be perfected.  Both philosophers also recognized that the State is a natural development that arises from man's need for peace and justice. 
On justice Hobbes seems to come down on the side of Might makes Right, and since the soveriegn is the most powerful entity whatever he does is correct.  Machiavelli would concur this, as would Thraymachus from Plato's Republic.  However, Plato would say that we cannot always depend on the soveriegn being correct, just like a friend who has gone insane with a sword in his hand. 

Regarding natural law, Thomas Aquinas would support some of Hobbes's ideas, but Aquinas places more emphasis on individual happiness and a true good, rather that just mere survival.  To Hobbes's subjects, just being alive and protected under a soveriegn is enough to be happy.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Hobbes: Leviathon

Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan to support the Royalist cause during the English Civil War.  However, the thesis of Leviathan is more complex that just the supremacy of a sovereignover his people.  There is also the agreement between individuals to sacrifice their own power and freedom to produce this overlord and the relationship between the sovereign (or assembly men) and the subjects. In many ways Leviathan is a perfect segue from my last reading, Machiavelli's The Prince.  Where Machiavelli proposed how a prince should govern, Hobbes goes into the details.  

Hobbes says that before we had government, we lived in a constant state of war where "every man is an enemy to every man". Everyone could act on their desires, depending on their own strength, taking whatever they wanted from any person.   Of course the resources and energy required to maintain this struggle meant that there was no culture, trade, art or letters and no society - not to mention continual fear at being attacked.  Of course these individuals did have interactions and were not always fighting.  However, a state of fear permeated everything and there was no common authority to establish justice or safety.

Eventually small groups of people agreed to give up some of their freedom in exchange for security.  Thus men would "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".  So now we have people agreeing to not kill and steal from each other.  However, who is going to enforce this covenant? What will be the "common power to keep them in awe and direct their actions to the common benefit"?   

Hobbes says that individuals in this society must "confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will".  This is the "artificial person" who unites all the people and maintains justice in that society.  The Leviathan has supreme power and all individuals must consent to the will of the "common power".  Not everyone will agree, but the will of the majority is represented and must be followed because "a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand".  If someone living in this society decides not to follow the sovereign, they have broken the covenant and they relinquish all rights.  These people have returned to a "state of war" and are no longer protected.

Charles II
Hobbes gives his sovereign almost absolute power, which reflects the monarchist spirit of the text.

For example:

- The covenant between the subjects makes the sovereign, but the subjects can never willingly change sovereigns. This is what gives the soveign his authority to rule over other men.
- The sovereign's will is absolute in civil law, war and peace and he can reward or punish subjects.

Although the soveriegn is almost omnipotent in a society, there are some limits on his power. 

-  Although the sovereign is the last word in justice he cannot force a man to testify (provide evidence) against himself - a hallmark of our Constitution (aka. "taking the Fifth")

- He cannot force a man to intentionally harm himself - sounds fair to me.

- He must protect his subjects. This is a biggie. If the sovereign cannot protect his people he has broken his agreement and the obligation of the people to this sovereign is nullified. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thomas Hobbes

I was excited to read the next GBWW book on political theory, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, a work that is widely recogonized for its contribution in the development of modern political thought.  Before we had governments, Hobbes says, we lived in a "state of nature" where we were in constant war with each other. In this savage world we were in continual fear and the life of a man was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".  Governments were created to lift us out of this primitive condition and allow us to exist in peace.  However, in exchange for protection against bodily harm and property loss, Hobbes says that people under a government must surrender some freedoms. The relinquished power of the masses is then invested into a single body or person, who becomes the "Leviathan", the singular power that governs and protects the state and maintains justice. The Leviathan represents the will of the people and is expressed in an artificially created man, a super-entity, a single person, such as a sovereign. 

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived at a time when the government and monarchy of England were under assault.  Hobbes was born on the day of the unsuccessful invasion of England by the Spanish Armada.  Later he witnessed the English Civil War (1642–1651) between supporters of Charles I and Parliament.  Because of his association with the Royalist cause, Hobbes fled for Paris.  While in exile, Hobbes finished Leviathan (1651) a book which supported the need for a strong sovereign.  However, Hobbes developed rancorous disagreements with Royalists living in France, partially because his work did not support a divine right to rule. Hobbes also thought that religion  was just a construct of man designed to better understand the origins of causes and did not have any role in emperical science.  He was put in the awkward position of being forced to flee back to England which, following the execution of Charles I, was now a Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. Luckily for Hobbes, most people seemed not to mind having him back in England.  When the Commonwealth dissolved in 1660 the monarchy was restored under Charles II, who had in fact been formerly tutored by Hobbes. 

Hobbes was walking the earth during a time of scientific discovery and philosophical explorations.  Hobbes met both Rene Descartes and Galileo and was a secretary for Sir Francis Bacon. One thing that is interesting about the legacy of  Hobbes is that although he supported a strong monarchy his work has often been referenced by more liberal thinkers.  This is because the foundation of a successful government, as Hobbes believes, begins with agreements between individuals expressing a shared will to work together to achieve a common goal. This covenant between men is what Hobbes believes has made civilization possible.