Monday, August 18, 2008

Hobbes: Learn the "Rules of Civil Life" and Stop Civil War

"The end of knowledge is power," Hobbes wrote. The point of thinking is to get things done. One of the most important tasks to achieve, he believed, having lived through the seventeenth-century English Civil War, is the cessation of wars.

Hobbes blamed civil wars on the citizens' ignorance of their moral duties: "The cause...of civil war is, that men know not the causes neither of war nor peace," he wrote. "Now, the knowledge of these rules [of civil life] is moral philosophy." More philosophy, more peace.

But this does not seem right. Many of the people who initiate civil wars surely have an over-developed sense of their moral duties as citizens, and they are outraged by people and institutions with fundamentally different beliefs. Such thinkers resort to violence, not for lack of philosophy, but for lack of dialogue with other philosophers.

If one of the warring sides is defending a political belief that is popularly considered to be more obviously right--perhaps democracy against totalitarianism, freedom against fear--then one could also argue it demeans the people and degrades their ideals to imply that both sides are ignorant, when one appears to be correct. It may also be unproductive to blame either side for a lack of education or moral literacy if each perceives itself to be defending itself against imminent physical aggression.

Thomas Hobbes. Elements of Philosophy Concerning Body. Part 1: Computation or Logic. Chapter 1: Of Philosophy. (1655, Latin; 1656, English.)