Hobbes the Science Fiction Writer (Part I)

Hobbes the Science Fiction Writer (Part I)

It is common to meet people who believe that much of the world is beset by “tribalism” and that the only thing holding back the chaos of a Hobbesian war of all against all is the presence of “strong leaders.” This worldview reached its apogee during the Cold War, when the US used it to justify propping up numerous dictators around the world, helping them brutally suppress separatist movements and impose authoritarian rule. The argument was that the alternative would be even worse. After the end of the Cold War, ethnic violence in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. were then used as “proof” of the wisdom of such realpolitik. It isn’t US imperialism which was at fault, the argument ran, but rather the ancient religious, tribal, and/or clan divisions which were always lying just beneath the surface.

What I find curious is that even though most liberals would scoff at such a neoconservative worldview, Hollywood productions such as the Star Trek: Discovery TV series, and the Black Panther movie, both of which are notable for taking some progressive stances on identity politics in other aspects of their productions, still manage to reproduce this Hobbesian myth. In this post I will argue that some of the enduring power of this myth comes from the fact that Hobbes himself was something of a science fiction writer who carefully crafted the myth as a tool to use for political ends. In a followup post I will then explore exactly how the myth is deployed in the above mentioned Hollywood productions. So unless you consider a discussion of Hobbes to be a “spoiler” this post is spoiler free, with all the spoilers saved for part two…

It is said that Doctor Who, which first ran from 1963 to 1989 and has been on again continuously since its revival in 2005 is the longest running TV series of all time, but perhaps that honor should be given to Thomas Hobbes? The Hobbesian myth of the foundational moment of sovereignty—in which a war of all against all is averted only by their surrender to a sovereign—was deliberately designed to scare his fellow citizens into submission. In doing so he hoped to bring peace to a nation beset by civil war.

Hobbes’s myth has two important elements: On the one hand there is the sovereign,1 depicted as an artificial man made up of the people who are subsumed in this larger identity like the Borg in Star Trek. On the other is the pre-social human who exists in a state of nature, which (for Hobbes) is a state of war. Only the monstrous artificial man can save us from the threat of a life that is ”solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Frontispiece of Leviathan
Frontispiece of Leviathan by Abraham Bosse, with input from Hobbes.

Above is the original front piece of Hobbes’s book. Hobbes spent a lot of time working on it. He had written his earlier, more academic work, De Cive, in Latin, but with Leviathan he hoped to reach a broader audience. For this reason he supplemented his use of logic and “geometric demonstration,” with “myth, imagery and illusion” in order to make a bigger impact.2 At a time that England was ravaged by civil war, he hoped that fear of the sovereign would move them to emotionally accept the “imperative of absolute obedience” that his logic demanded but couldn’t be relied upon to compel in his readers.3

Hobbes considered himself to be a scientist before he was a political philosopher, and longed to get back to his work on optics. As part of his research he had amassed a collection of optical instruments, including the “perspective glass” which he picked up in Paris:

The tube’s multifocal beveled lens was projected from a certain point onto an image of apparently unconnected fragments; the sections then came together to form a new arrangement. Hobbes apparently saw a witty example in which Ottoman sultans merge together and, from their fragments, reassemble themselves in the form of the young king of France, thus becoming visually subordinate to him. By optically sacrificing a part of themselves, they form their sovereign.2

Perspective Glass by Jean-Francois Niçeron
Perspective Glass by Jean-Francois Niçeron

Descartes accused Hobbes of having stolen his ideas on optics from him, but there were important differences between the two.4

For Descartes and other dualists, whilst they accepted that sensations are caused by motions in the brain, the seat of consciousness is another substance, mind, which is not material, whose essence is thought, in contrast with matter, whose essence is extension. Hobbes’s readers failed to appreciate the importance for Hobbes’s position of this distinction, which was a cause of considerable frustration for him.

This mechanical view of optics is replicated in the monster that graces the cover of Hobbes’ book. 2

If Descartes, in his Discours de la Méthode, presented a complex panorama of connections between bodily movement, the nervous system and the human structure of the brain, in order to compare the various functions of sensory perception, social control, memory and imagination with machines, he nevertheless maintained that machines do not possess reflexive language capabilities, and therefore could never possess intellect or reason. Yet Hobbes in the opening paragraph of Leviathan, takes up precisely this distinction, likening the body politic as a living machine to humans as the ‘rational and most excellent work of Nature’. And insofar as Leviathan as ‘Commonwealth or State’ has the capacity to protect and defend its citizens, it surpasses even human reason.

But it wasn’t enough to have a monster. Hobbes needed his readers to willingly choose obedience to the monster and for that he needed the alternative to be even more terrifying. The opposite of the artificial man was, for Hobbes, the concept of the pre-social other.

He produces an “outside” that is truly horrific in order to cause those “inside” to recognize themselves, to realize their good fortune, what they owe to the state, what the state enables. Without a common power, men are in conflict…5

It is here that the “savages of America” make their appearance in Hobbes writing. Drawing on racist accounts by early colonial settlers, he writes:

For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small Families, and concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner

Despite his claims to scientific rationality, there are serious problems with the “logic” of Hobbes two myths. On the one hand the idea that a sovereign will bind people together and bring an end to war ignores the fact that sovereigns are almost always at war with other sovereigns. On the other hand, the idea of a pre-social “savage” falls apart once you accept that these pre-social humans are organized into families. Also, where does language come from? Either we have language in the state of nature, in which case we are already social, or we don’t, in which case it is unclear how the conditions essential for language can emerge? But Hobbes’s myth requires both the artificial man and the state of nature, one part of the story cannot work without the other.

In part II, I will consider how closely the appearance of the Hobbesean myth in Star Trek: Discovery and Black Panther actually fits Hobbes’s own version, and explore what the differences might mean for the contemporary legacy of this sixteenth century work of science fiction.

UPDATE: Part II is now online.

  1. Or perhaps “herself” since Hobbes looked favorably upon the idea of a female sovereign. 
  2. Bredekamp, H. (2007). Thomas Hobbes’s Visual Strategies. In P. Springborg (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’s Leviathan (pp. 29-60). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521836670.002 
  3. Tralau, J. (2007). Leviathan, the Beast of Myth: Medusa, Dionysos, and the Riddle of Hobbes’s Sovereign Monster. In P. Springborg (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’s Leviathan (pp. 61-81). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521836670.003 
  4. Rogers, G. (2007). Hobbes and His Contemporaries. In P. Springborg (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’s Leviathan (pp. 413-440). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521836670.019 
  5. Shaw, Karena. Indigeneity and Political Theory: Sovereignty and the Limits of the Political Routledge, 2008.