Mortem violentam tanquam summum malum studet evitare

April 12, 2004

(Or: if you’re going to call the situation in Iraq a “Hobbesian moment” to impress your readers, you might want to meditate upon what Hobbes advises in regard to such moments…)

Thomas Friedman briefly invokes Thomas Hobbes in his Sunday New York Times op-ed “Nasty, Brutish, and Short”:

The U.S. operation in Iraq is hanging by a thread. If it has any hope of surviving this Hobbesian moment, we need three conversations to happen fast: George Bush needs to talk to his father, the Arab leaders need to talk to their sons — and daughters — and we need to talk to the Iraqi Governing Council.

Unfortunately, it appears to me that Mr. Friedman invoked Hobbes only to allude to that most famous and most dreadful image of Chapter XIII of Leviathan:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

… and not to use Hobbes to gain insight into and sympathy for the plight of Iraqis today. I say this because Mr. Friedman elaborates on the second proposed conversation on his checklist with:

When things were going all right in Baghdad with the political process, America could have its way by buying legitimacy with cash or imposing it with muscle. But when you are talking about killing rebellious Iraqi young men and clerics, you can’t buy the legitimacy for that and you can’t compel it. Iraqi moderates are just too frightened to stand up and defend that on their own. Indeed, they will run away from the U.S. Only a real coalition of the U.N., Arab and Muslim states and Europe — the Bush 41 coalition — might bolster them. It may be too late for that now, but the Bush folks had better try. We have a staggering legitimacy deficit for the task ahead. I am glad El Salvador is with us, but when Iraqis get satellite dishes, they don’t tune in TV El Salvador. They tune in TV Al Jazeera.

Granting his premise (and Lord knows I hope he’s right) that the bulk of Iraqis desire self-determination along the generally federalist lines that the currently amorphous American plan is expected to take when June arrives, the problem is not that these moderates “are just too frightened to stand up and defend [the suppression of nationalist and Islamist militants].” Rather, the problem is that these moderates are just too frightened, period. Our fundamental legitmacy deficit is not that we have demonstrated to Iraqis no particular understanding of their cultures and religions, but that we have demonstrated no particular ability to keep them safe from violence, let alone ensure their other basic needs. Until we can do that, no amount of public goodwill from Iraq’s neighbors will legitimate our actions in the eyes of most Iraqis.

The thing to be feared is not the continual war of all against all. The thing to be feared is the instinct that feeds it:

Mortem violentam tanquam summum malum studet evitare (roughly, “Violent death is the quintessential tragedy man strives to avoid.”) [Hobbes, De Homine Chap, 11, Art. 6]

Fear of violent death is the cornerstone of enlightened self-interest. By establishing a state, men replace the fear of violent death—an all-encompassing, mutual fear—with the fear that only those who break the law need face. [Robert D. Kaplan, Warrior Politics, p. 84]

This is our sin in Iraq. We citizens, in complacently allowing our leaders to wage war in a fashion willfully ignorant of the judgments of our own professional warriors*, have liberated 25 million Iraqis only into the freedom of anarchy and not into the freedom of law. [*See especially the articles by James Fallows in The Atlantic Monthly, both his well-known January 2004 article “Blind into Baghdad” and his one published 5 months before the war, “The Fifty-First State” .]

And this leaves us in our dilemma. If we are not careful, then we will only compound our sin by leaving Iraqi moderates only the choice of whether to fear being killed by their countrymen or to fear being killed by us.

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3 Responses to “Mortem violentam tanquam summum malum studet evitare”

  1. CSTAR Says:

    I dunno. Chapter 44 is pretty hobbesian, particularly if you consider it in the light of christian fundamentalism which is now such an inseparable part of our foreign policy.

    In any case, Friedman engages in the fallacy of ad-verecundium (better translated as appeal to authority, which fallacy is much more common on the right than on the left–my explanation for another time) when he uses remarks of this kind. Basically he is saying “trust me to interpret the classics of western thought, which is so superior to anything else, in particular to using your mind”.

    Now Hobbes is no idiot. In particular, he goes to great lengths to formulate a theory of human action and he is careful to formulate a theory of causality applicable to to human actions. Unfortunately, when our illustrious leaders(I mean the usual right-wing zealots like Kissinger, Perle, the Kristols) apply historical principles, they collapse into a silly historical determinism (for instance, about Munich, Chamberlain, appeasement).

    I claim causality, in particular historical causality cannot be understood without a process model of history. This process model in fact is a collection of possible evolutions (e.g. possible worlds, although I mean this more in the Kripkean sense). This is analogous to a statement that it is meaningless to talk about the probability of an event without some model of a set of possible outcomes. Despit this we commonly see arguments justifying intervention in Iraq by such absurd notions, at least as far as historical process is concerned, as “domino effect” or “momentum”

  2. Bill Says:

    I don’t exactly understand what you’re getting at, CSTAR. That one could easily argue that the present moment here at home in the US is “Hobbesian” too, assuming you’ve read toward the end of Leviathan? I assume by bringing up Chapter 44, you’re referring to something like the following:

    The greatest, and main abuse of Scripture, and to which almost all the rest are consequent, or subservient, is the wresting of it, to prove that the Kingdome of God, mentioned so often in the Scripture, is the present Church…

    Or were you alluding to something else?

  3. CSTAR Says:

    I was making 3 distinct points:

    (a) About Friedman’s (and other’s) fallacy of ad-verecundium

    (b) About other uses of the adjective “hobbesian”, particularly in relation to the present moment here in the US (your citation is a good example, although I didn’t have any specific segment of text in mind)

    (c) About causality and historical processes in general, Hobbes attempts to model them in particular and the annoying habit of most political pundits that claim to be experts to lapse into simple-minded historical determinacy.

    I am really primarily interested in (c).


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