Monday, November 16, 2009

Nice to see you again, Mr. Hobbes

I saw in this morning’s paper that Hobbes’ Leviathan has just been translated into Hebrew.

I might have put that with my collection of things like “pieces of string too small to use,” but for the fact that Israel and I share a birthday (even if mine came eight years earlier). Maybe that’s why I’ve always had some interest in what goes on there.

In any case, I’m aware that for most of my lifetime Hebrew was spoken by too few people to warrant a translation of something this esoteric. You publish a book, somebody’s got to want to pay to read it. Norway has figured out it’s easier to have all their university students learn English than pay for everything to be translated into Norwegian. Hebrew, too, not that long ago, had only about a million speakers. If you wanted to read Leviathan, you read it in a European language.

Native speakers of Hebrew now number nine million and the scales have shifted. A Hebrew edition of Leviathan is now financially viable. Practical linguists take note and move on. Few others even do that much.

But this is no ordinary applied linguist you’re talking to. I’m also a sucker for conspiracy theories. I live by the maxim that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. I anticipate foul play. I’ve known nefariousness. My shortwave is constantly tuned to trouble and scarcely a day goes by that I don’t exclaim, “Aha! I just knew it!”

My aha moment this morning came when I read the comment that the real reason Leviathan never saw Hebrew’s affectionate embrace was that the people who founded Israel wanted the young theocratic nation never to doubt that they, the children of Abraham, were carrying out God’s plan, and Hobbes, as we know, was concerned about keeping religion in its place.

The aha didn't last. That can’t be right about the initial motives for not translating Hobbes. 80% of Israel consists of non-religious folk, and the Zionists were overwhelmingly secular. Still, one has to consider that since its founding and despite its secular origins, Israel functions very much like a theocratic state. No non-orthodox marriage. No busses or trains on the sabbath. And not much luck in turning back the takeover of “Judea and Samaria” (i.e., the West Bank), an idea which would never have gotten off the ground and become the stumbling block it is to Jewish-Arab relations without the power of religion.

You might argue I’m making too big a deal of Hobbes. He’s the big daddy of political science because of his notion that we need to form social contracts and govern ourselves lest our lives remain “nasty, brutish and short” as they were in the pre-civilization wild. But others have surpassed him in furthering human rights and the pursuit of happiness. And his idea that it’s better to put up with an autocrat’s abuse than surrender to chaos doesn’t sit well. But we know that he wrote Leviathan during the English Civil War, and from his perspective, keeping men’s passions in check was the greater challenge.

And what makes my ears perk up is the information that in 1666 the House of Commons went after Leviathan for its “atheism, blasphemy and profaneness.” The guy had something going for him, obviously.

Hobbes was not an atheist, actually. All he was doing was urging that, for the sake of proper governance, we needed to keep religion in check. “They who have no supernaturall Revelation to the contrary,” he wrote, (Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 40) "… ought to obey the laws of their own Soveraign, in the externall acts and profession of Religion…. "

Thanks to the Enlightenment and modern democratic thought, we have come to understand “the people” as our sovereign. Otherwise, the principle stands.

As one commentator to the Hebrew Leviathan story in this morning’s New York Times has pointed out, it was the polytheists who invented democracy. (See comment #7.) (And for more of this guy's ideas, see his blog.

The trouble with monotheism, Hobbes understood, is that those who buy into it believe they have to knock down your god and put theirs in its place. Check out the works of Papa Ratzi. You and I worry about health care. Benedict XVI has his tail in a knot over relativism.

Unlike the apparently trivial issue of how many folk speak Hebrew, whether we run our country on relativistic values or absolutist ones is no small matter. The universal golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is relativistic. It doesn’t say, “Do only the right thing.” It says, “Make judgments on the basis of what feels right to you.” Not what the Almighty or the College of Cardinals says. What you say.

I, for one, am delighted Hobbes will now be read in Hebrew. It is unlikely to hit the best seller lists, but it never hurts for the foundational texts of modern democracy to be revisited and distributed more broadly from time to time.

Here in America, we struggle constantly against religion. We’re losing at the moment. George Niederauer, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, riled up his Mormon friends in Salt Lake City and together they organized the campaign to remove the right of gays in California to marry. The Catholic Church then made it happen again in Maine.

They haven’t stopped there, of course. Now they’re working with another set of absolutist religionists holding health care in America hostage over abortion.

Well-intentioned folk, for the most part. All convinced their universal God wants them to step in and take away your rights as a citizen to decide for yourself how you will be governed.

Hobbes’ Leviathan is far too heavy going for the average person today. But, even if we get him now mostly in the Wikipedia version, it’s good to be reminded from time to time how much we owe to the the father of modern political theory.

Without his urging that we keep religion in check, just think where we might be.

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