Fear’s Intellectual Fruit: The Leviathan Formulation

Published in Underthrow Series .

Editor’s Note: Liberalism refers to self-government’s doctrine, not progressive politics.

The breakdown of a free civilization starts in the shadow. An urge to control originates in our unconscious minds, which comes from fear. Some project that urge, rationalize it, and then try to impose it on the world as a political ideology. 

Such projections can act as a veil of illusion between ourselves and the world, causing us to fail to see reality, and tempting us to submit and embrace the mechanisms of compulsion. From these shadow impulses, powerful concepts have emerged to threaten what remains of the liberal order.

The first comes from the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

* * *

Hobbes’s most famous work is Leviathan (1651), in which he laid out his views on the social contract and the necessity of a strong central authority to maintain civil society. Hobbes wrote during great political turmoil — the English Civil War — and his work reflects that era’s chaos and insecurity.

According to Hobbes, individuals come together to form a social contract, agreeing to give up certain freedoms and submit to authority in exchange for protection and order. The sovereign—be it a monarch, assembly, or legislature—must then provide that security. Failure to do so breaks the “social contract,” absolving citizens of their obligations to obey.

Though Hobbes is considered a proto-liberal when his work is taken as a whole, his Leviathan Formulation threatens liberalism itself. That formulation goes:

  1. Rule. Assume that sovereignty—that is, powerful rule—functions as a kind of monopoly over some territory; 
  2. Rules. People living together can only be a nation if they have a common system of rules; 
  3. Ruler. A common system of rules can only exist if those rules come from the same source, a ruler—an authority of such power that only it has the final say.

Rule. Rules. Ruler.

Political theorist Vincent Ostrom insists this sort of relationship,

must involve fundamental inequalities in society. Those who enforce rules must necessarily exercise an authority that is equal in relation to the objects of that enforcement effort. (Emphasis mine.)

Those objects are, well, the rest of us. 

Read more of Max Borders’s writing at Underthrow.

One day, as if by divine will, a man named Desh Subba wrote to me from Nepal. I had just written the preceding passage under the heading “The Leviathan Formulation.” I had never met Subba, but he wanted to share his philosophical perspectives. I almost didn’t pay any attention at all because it’s easy to ignore unsolicited contacts in broken English. Still, Subba had at that moment sent me an article he’d written on Thomas Hobbes, which piqued my curiosity.

Synchronicity and all that. In the article, Subba concludes:

To avoid the fear of the state of nature; [Hobbes] created artificial social contract and handed over to absolutely power (monarchy, government and commonwealth). Entire political philosophy of Hobbes wandered around the hide and seek of fear.

Broken English notwithstanding, Mr. Subba had just put fear right at the center of the Leviathan Formulation. 

And he is right.

Hobbes himself wrote the rudiments while fearful in France, having fled the English Civil War. Our formulations and philosophies are just architectures we construct around raw emotional centers we evolved more than 200,000 years ago. Since then, humanity has built Leviathan out of fear to varying degrees. In this way, one can say the state is an externalization of our fear. It offers the false idea that the more power we give it, the less fearful we will need to be.

Despite my liberalism, I have never so enthusiastically embraced the overwhelming power of Leviathan as I did in the days after September 11, 2001. In time, I came to regret that embrace. I was under the spell of Thanatos Masculine.

But I digress.

Hobbes’s rule-rules-ruler formulation has so thoroughly infected our minds that most of us have trouble interrogating it. It not only has a persuasive internal logic, but it has been our reality for so long it’s hard to imagine things being any other way. 

But maybe all those punks and hippies riding around with “Question Authority” stickers were on to something. Maybe those who wrote the Declaration of Independence were onto something, too. And maybe we should have paid more attention to those hippies, punks, and patriots. 

Instead, we listened to our fear and our urge to control.

Yet it’s curious that so much of liberalism, at least the doctrine of the American Founding, has accepted the Leviathan Formulation from the start. The founders wanted to figure out how to check power while preserving it, despite the protestations of Jefferson and Yates.

And since 1789, the central authority Hamilton wanted has grown both parasitic and predatory on the backs of the people. 

Max Borders is a senior advisor to the Advocates. Read more of his work at Underthrow.

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