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Hobbes, Stirner & Authority
More than three centuries after the death of Thomas Hobbes, the issue of state power versus individual rights remains as contentious as ever. Paul Rowlandson on the case for strong government.
In 1967 Commander George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, launched his campaign for the Presidency. (He was assassinated later the same year by one of his own lieutenants). At one of his televised press conferences he was asked about his policy towards Red China, then undergoing the Cultural Revolution. “Fifteen minutes after I’m President” he replied, “there won’t be any Red China.”
Rockwell was a believer in the virtue of Force. In his magnum opus White Power, published shortly before his death, he wrote as follows:
“The central fact which is being forgotten in today’s insane world is Force!
Liberalism and intellectualism have so blinded Western Man that the majority of us have forgotten the absolute and total primacy of force. Every grain of sand on every beach in the world is where it is because of a force which put it there. When superior force meets weaker force, superior force always conquers and annihilates the weaker. The liberals and mushheads wish it were otherwise, and today’s artificial world of machinery makes it appear possible to them that force can be replaced by ‘reason’.
But this is as irrational and superstitious a bit of jungle ‘thought’ as that of any witch doctor waving a lizard’s tail over a cannibal with a broken leg. If good men abandon and denigrate force, then bad men will take it up and beat us to death with it. When good men lay down their club, bad men will smash them with that club sooner or later.
If I get over only one single point in this book let it be this fact: that civilisation, peace, and order depend, not on ‘good will’, but force, policemen, armies, and weapons.
Hitler put it more succinctly and more poetically than I could hope to: ‘The gentle Goddess of Peace can walk Safely only at the side of the Fierce God of War’.”
Rockwell was one of those extraordinary people, like Freud’s Dr Schreber, who channel their obsessions into one particular area, leaving the rest of the mind clear. His book is, like Hitler’s Mein Kampf, an arresting mixture of genius and madness.
Robert Heinlein, the science fiction writer, made a similar argument to Rockwell’s in his novel Starship Troopers (1959), on which the 1997 movie was [loosely] based. Heinlein uses the character of a Mr Dubois, a teacher of History & Moral Philosophy in the Starship Academy, as a mouthpiece for his views on violence:
“One girl told him bluntly: ‘My mother says that violence never settles anything.’
‘So?’ Mr Dubois looked at her bleakly. ‘I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that… Wouldn’t you say that violence had settled their destinies rather thoroughly? …Anyone who clings to the historically untrue – and thoroughly immoral – doctrine that ‘violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.”
The use of force, and the limits of coercion have always been central concerns in the philosophy of morals and politics.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Max Stirner (1806-56) were two egoist philosophers who came to very different conclusions about Force and Authority.
In The Leviathan Hobbes argued the case for a powerful State. Stirner opposed the State in his book The Ego and His Own: The Case of The Individual Against Authority.
Hobbes has been described as the first English philosopher, that is, he was the first to cover the whole range of philosophical investigation – physics, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and theology. He was, like Stirner, a sceptic, an individualist, and an egoist. Unlike Stirner he concerned himself at length with the nature of civil society.
Hobbes was concerned with the problem of how to arrange society in such a way that the individual self-interest of its members was allowed maximum freedom to operate without encroaching on the ‘rights’ of others.
He argued that everyone desires what he called ‘felicity’, by which he meant their self interest. The means of obtaining felicity is by the exercise of power. Each man enjoys (or suffers) a perpetual and restless desire for power, because power is the essential requirement for felicity.
All men are egoists, said Hobbes. It is self-evident that self-interest can be the only motive for action.
The original condition of man was that of a creature living in a ‘state of nature’, in which he was in constant conflict with his fellows. He lived in a perpetual state of fear. There was no law, property, justice or ‘right’ (apart from Might).
In a state of nature it is very difficult, if not impossible, to escape from other people, who constantly get in the way of the individual’s pursuit of his self-interest and security. People compete for possession of the same objects and thereby become enemies. The most successful competitors acquire the most enemies and are consequently in the most danger.
Michael Oakeshott, in his introduction to Hobbes’ Leviathan, described the problem as follows:
“To have built a house and cultivated a garden is to have issued an invitation to all others to take it by force, for it is against the common view of felicity to weary oneself with making what can be acquired by less arduous means.”
Further, felicity is not absolute but comparative. A large part of one’s felicity comes from a feeling of superiority, of having more or better than others. Competition is therefore essential, not accidental. Hobbes described it as “A perpetual contention for Honour, Riches and Authority.” The greatest hindrance to the achievement of felicity is also the most hateful, death.
Men can take care to avoid occasions where death is a likely possibility, but in a state of nature there are many such occasions. In all its forms, said Hobbes, death is something to be feared as well as hated. The most fearful death is that which no foresight can guard against – sudden death.
Each man is nearly the equal of every other man in power. Superiority in strength is either an illusion or, if real, is temporary. The natural state is therefore one of the competition of equals for felicity, which is necessarily scarce because of the desire for superiority.
Equality of power brings equality of hope and equality of fear. Every man tries to outwit his neighbour. The result is open conflict, a war of all against all. For each man, surrounded by his enemies, death is more likely than felicity. Life is, in Hobbes famous phrase, “ solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Hobbes concluded that it is not possible to attain felicity unless each man acts so as not to do to another what he would not have done to himself.
Oakeshott summarises Hobbes’ requirement for a civilised society under three conditions.
 Felicity is impossible unless each man is willing, in agreement with each other man, to surrender his natural right to pursue his own felicity as if he were alone in the world, the surrender being equal for all men.
 Felicity is impossible unless each man performs his promises under the agreement he makes with each other man.
 Felicity is impossible unless it is understood that, notwithstanding any agreement entered into, no man shall be held to have promised to act in such a way as to preclude further pursuit of felicity.
The ‘rights’ surrendered by each individual (to pursue their own self-interest as if they were alone in the world) are transferred in the form of a contract or covenant: “I transfer to X my natural right to the free exercise of my will and authorise him to act on my behalf on condition that you make a similar transfer and give a similar authority.”
The transfer is to what Hobbes called a ‘Representative Person’, by which he meant an office, which may be held by one man, such as a Monarch or Protector (as Oliver Cromwell was styled), or an assembly: “He that carrieth this person is called sovereign and hath sovereign power; and everyone besides, his subject.”
By the transfer of rights the Representative acquires Authority – to deliberate, will and act in place of the deliberation, will and action of each separate man.
Obviously the covenant would be worthless if it were not enforced. Some would retract. Others would dissemble. So, in addition to the contract there must be the power to enforce it. Supreme power must go to the supreme authority: “Covenants, without the sword, are but words”, said Hobbes. Oakeshott comments: “This is the generation of the great Leviathan… And its authority and power are designed not only to create and maintain the internal peace of a number of men living together and seeking felicity in proximity to one another, but also to protect this society as a whole against the attacks of natural man and other societies.”
The sovereign’s right to rule derives from his ability to fulfil the conditions and to realise the purposes which led men to vest their powers in him. C.E.M. Joad expressed the relationship between might and right in The Leviathan as follows: “His right resides in his might, and his might is the measure of his right. Thus the sovereign possesses a moral right to rule his subjects in so far as, and only in so far as, he has power to rule them.” (Joad, Guide to the Philosophy of Morals and Politics 1940)
How would the dissident, the rebel, the man who refuses to accept the Authority of the sovereign, fare in Hobbes’ Commonwealth?
Hobbes: “Because the major part hath by consenting voices declared a sovereign; he that dissented must now consent with the rest; that is, be contented to avow all the actions he shall do, or else justly be destroyed by the rest.”
To which Oakeshott adds this comment: “To be a dissident, that is, to refuse the peace established among one’s neighbours by continuing to exercise one’s natural right intact, is to choose the worst of both worlds – to depend on one’s individual power against the concentrated power of all others, which is the action of a lunatic. And only a similar lunacy would lead a man, who thought he had not been a party to the covenant, to stand out for his natural rights.”
So the fate of the rebel is clear. He would be an obvious lunatic who might justly be destroyed by the Commonwealth forces.
While Hobbes saw the setting of limits to his liberty as a fair price to pay for security and order, Max Stirner took a different view.
Both agreed that man is sociable by nature. Joad describes Hobbes as thinking that “Man is lonely, and his loneliness drives him to congregate with his fellows.” Stirner held a similar view: “Not isolation or being alone, but society, is man’s original state. Our existence begins with the most intimate conjunction, as we are already living with our mother before we breathe; when we see the light of the world, we at once lie on a human being’s breast again, her love cradles us in the lap, leads us in the go-cart, and chains us to her person with a thousand ties. Society is our state of nature.”
Both Hobbes and Stirner agree, substantially, on the ethics and motives of the conscious egoist. Both attempt to answer the question of how the conscious egoist is best to survive and prosper.
Stirner’s objections to the sort of society Hobbes advocated are directed precisely against what Hobbes considered its chief virtue – the Authority of the sovereign, in Stirner’s words, “a power of itself, a power above me.”
Stirner was opposed to every higher power: “It would be foolish to assert that there is no power above mine. Only the attitude that I take toward it will be quite another than that of the religious age: I shall be the enemy of every higher power, while religion teaches us to make it our friend and be humble toward it.”
He does not object in principle to a ‘society’ depriving him of some liberties, providing it is voluntary: “A society which I join does indeed take from me many liberties, but in return it affords me other liberties, neither does it matter if I myself deprive myself of this and that liberty (such as by any contract).”
What Stirner does object to is the infringement of his ‘own-ness’: “I want to hold jealously to my ownness. Community has the propensity, stronger or weaker according to the fullness of its power, to become an authority to its members and to set limits for them; it asks, and must ask, for a ‘subject’s limited understanding’, it asks that those who belong to it be subjected to it, be its ‘subjects’; it exists only by subjection…. The society demands that those who belong to it shall not go beyond it and exalt themselves, but remain ‘within the bounds of legality’, that is, allow themselves only so much as the society and its law allow them.”
But this is precisely the sort of Commonwealth Hobbes desired.
Instead of a Leviathan, Stirner proposed a ‘union of egoists’, a sort of voluntary association of conscious egoists. “The union will assuredly offer a greater measure of liberty; but nevertheless it will still contain enough of unfreedom and involuntariness. For its object is not the liberty (which on the contrary it sacrifices to ownness) but only ownness.”
Stirner draws another distinction between the State and this union: the State “is sacred…but the union is my own creation.” One imagines that ownership of this creation might be a topic of contention with the other members of the ‘union of egoists’!
Stirner does not go into detail about his union of egoists, leaving the general conception in rough outline only.
Clearly Hobbes and Stirner arrived at very different attitudes towards the State and the idea of a Sovereign Authority, while starting from similar egoist philosophies. Part of the explanation for their divergence may be explained by the backgrounds in which each man lived.
Hobbes lived through the English Civil War, the execution of the King, the restoration of the monarchy, and the religious struggles of the 17th Century between Anglicans, Presbyterian and ‘Independents’ (later known as Congregationalists).
(Hobbes was a sceptic, with a strong dislike of religious enthusiasm. He favoured the Independents because he thought that Independent churches would have less political influence than a national church. The sovereign should settle religious disputes by decree in order to prevent them becoming troublesome to the peace and order of the State. Religious disputes, he thought, were the worst sort, because they tended to fanaticism and excess.)
Stirner was born in Germany in 1806, the last year of the Holy Roman Empire, over a hundred years after Hobbes’ death.
Stirner’s life was spent in the nation-state building years of the German Confederation, created at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Prussia achieved the unification of Germany in 1866, ten years after Stirner’s death at the age of 50.
The state building period in most newly created states is accompanied by a glorification of the National Idea or Myth and the forging or elevation of a national identity. During this period the State has a tendency to become omnipresent, and, to the sensitive individual, oppressive.
Hobbes lived in a weakened, factional, but old State, with no real identity problem. Stirner lived in a new, growing state with an identity problem. It was inevitable that they would view Authority and the State differently.
The new German nation-state was absolutist. Its chief philosopher was Hegel (1770-1831), a German nationalist who provided the philosophical underpinnings for the new German State. Stirner’s main work The Ego and His Own (1845) was described by Victor Basch as “the Anti-Hegel.” (in L’Individualism Anarchiste Max Stirner 1904, cited by James J. Martin in his intro to the 1963 edition of Stirner’s book).
Ludwig von Mises, in his book Bureaucracy, gave some examples of the arrogance of the new German Statists: “On January 15th 1838 the Prussian Minister of the Interior, G.A.R. von Rochow, declared in reply to a petition of citizens of a Prussian city: ‘It is not seemly for a subject to apply the yardstick of his wretched intellect to the acts of the Chief of the State and to arrogate to himself, in haughty insolence, a public judgement about their fairness’.”
This attitude lingered. Half a century later, in 1897, the Rector of the Imperial University of Strasbourg characterised the German system of government as follows: “Our officials will never tolerate anybody’s wresting the power from their hands, certainly not parliamentary majorities whom we know how to deal with in a masterly way. No kind of rule is endured so easily or accepted so gratefully as that of high minded and highly educated civil servants. The German State is a State of the supremacy of officialdom – let us hope that it will remain so.”
Stirner naturally reacted against the authoritarianism of the new German State – the only one of which he had any experience. Hobbes had different experiences of States. He experienced the collapse of monarchy, and the dissensions and weaknesses of the era following the Restoration. He had lived for ten years under a French monarch, and had travelled widely in Europe.
Today, a Swiss chafing under the bureaucracy and regulation of Switzerland, would have a different estimate of the virtues of State Authority than a citizen of Northern Ireland who has seen the State’s failure to maintain civil order and protect its citizens.
The main problem with Stirner’s union of egoists is his failure to consider the role of Force. What would happen if the union failed to enforce its contract with its members? If it failed to use force it would dissolve; it would be an unenforcable union and therefore valueless. If it used Force it would cease to be voluntary and would become – horror of horrors – “a power of itself – a power above me”. It would exist “only by subjection.”
Without the exercise of force, how would the union restrain those of its members who wished to occupy my house and garden? In the absence of a police force my house would be, as Oakeshott put it, an invitation to others to acquire it by force.
My felicity, as Hobbes suggested, is a perpetual search for “honour, riches and authority”. I want power and authority in order to satisfy my desires. Authority is a means to an end. My interest, on this account, would appear to be best served by acquiring a position of power and authority in the State.
Unfortunately, many other people have the same desire for ‘felicity’ and similar ideas about how to obtain their felicity. Consequently, my interest lies in trying to ensure that my pursuit of felicity is protected, as far as possible, from the exercise of arbitrary power by other people. That is, my interests require a civil authority with enough power to enforce the rules of civil society.
If success in acquiring the protection and benevolence of the higher power requires me to “make it my friend and be humble toward it” then that is what I will do. It is in my interests to do so, in the same way that it was in Hobbes’ interest to present himself as a Royalist to the Royalists, and a Roundhead to the Roundheads. In this way he lived to the grand old age of 91 in a reasonable degree of comfort.
© Paul Rowlandson 1998
Paul Rowlandson teaches philosophy at Magee College, part of the University of Ulster.
Hobbes, T. Leviathan. Edited revision of the 1651 edition by Michael Oakeshott. Oxford: Blackwell, 1960.
Stirner, M. The Ego and His Own. New York: Libertarian Book Club 1963
[translation of Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, Leipzig: Wigand, 1845].