The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes can help us understand why some, whilst not sharing their ideology, have welcomed the recent sweeping Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The work of John Gray and Albert Camus, however, show us that Hobbes was overly optimistic to believe that dilemmas of ethics and politics are always soluble through the application of reason and that there could be one handbook for governance for all. Gray’s critique of Hobbes provides us with some hope amongst the despair.
The Taliban’s sweeping return to power has led many commentators to proclaim the end of American hegemony and the retreat of Western liberal values. In Washington DC, London and the capitols of other countries that contributed to the coalition that fought in Afghanistan, there is heartbreak and anger about what has happened in the last few weeks. But there is also a heavy pessimism as to what comes next, both in Afghanistan and the wider world. A political philosopher known for his pessimism about the human condition, writing in the shadow of another brutal war, can offer us some insights into the reasons for the Taliban’s success. A critique of his work can also help explain our failure and provide some hope amongst the tragedy.
One of the founders of modern political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes was born on 5 April 1588 in Malmesbury, England. Even before the war that would profoundly influence his political philosophy, the English Civil War (1642–1651), Hobbes was pessimistic about human nature. He wrote in his autobiography that his mother, who allegedly went into early labor when she heard of the approaching Spanish Armada, had given birth to twins: him, and fear (2).
In 1640, as tensions between King Charles I of England and the English Parliament were rising, Hobbes released a translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (the fifth century BC war between Sparta and Athens) with the intention of warning his countrymen against the follies of democracy and the violent chaos of civil war. When war broke out, Hobbes publicly supported the authority of the king. Soon after, fearing persecution by the parliamentarians, Hobbes fled to Paris where he wrote his most famous work, Leviathan (1651) (1). In it he argues that human beings are governed by both involuntary passions and deliberate reason. He claims that a man’s power is nothing more than his ability to acquire what he deems good and evade what he deems bad; with good and bad equating to things we like or dislike. His fundamental principle of human nature is that each of us is in a relentless quest for domination over others, in what Hobbes calls a “war of all against all” (1). We are each seeking only to further our own ability to have the power to do what we like and avoid doing what we don’t like. This is a recipe for endless conflict, driven by competition, distrust and the attainment of glory or status. In this state it can be rational to kill others before they kill you. This forever war is known as the Hobbesian “state of nature”, the ubiquitous and inescapable basic state of humankind. In this state Hobbes famously claims that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (1).
Hobbes’ solution is to put a powerful individual or parliament in charge of what he terms a commonwealth. He argues that, motivated by their strongest passions – the fear of violent death and their desire for a comfortable and pleasurable life – individuals must enter a social contract with the state. In doing so they give up some freedoms in exchange for security. They also agree to allow the state to exercise power of punishment over them and other individuals if they break this contract.
For many, during the twenty years of the coalition’s presence in Afghanistan, the government did not fulfil their side of this contract, getting rich off rampant corruption and failing to provide security. In many areas people lived in a state of constant fear of violent death, as local power struggles, like those envisaged in Hobbes’ state of nature, played out. In such a desperate situation it is reasonable for citizens to trade personal freedoms for safety and security, even if many in the West find the handing over of personal freedoms hard to understand. In interwar Europe, dictatorship was popular in many countries because it seemed to offer a way out from the economic and social chaos that followed the years of insecurity experienced during the First World War.
There are many in Afghanistan, not least most women, members of the LGBT+ community, those who worked for the coalition and former government, and members of many other minority social, ethnic, and religious groups, who will now be more at risk of violent death under the Taliban. There is a real risk their lives will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. There are however many who, if not welcoming the Taliban, will not oppose them, due to the hope that they will at least provide security and end the forever war. They will trade western-style freedoms for the security and consistency of Taliban governance (assuming the fractured and incoherent entity that is the Taliban can provide this and avoid factional infighting, which could lead to another brutal civil war).
Whilst in the early twentieth century, psychologists would support Hobbes’ insight that we are mainly motivated by our fear of death, and many of our beliefs derive from this fear, it may however be in what Hobbes got wrong that we can find some optimism amongst the current tragedy.
English philosopher John Gray claims that Hobbes’ pessimism about human nature is accompanied by a confidence that the human condition can be greatly improved if only those in power would listen to reason. Leviathan was a guide to rulers on how to use reason to control the passions of the masses. Gray traces this Enlightenment thinking from Hobbes through to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. As well as the more prosaic reasons of oil and revenge, Western countries were in Iraq and Afghanistan for ideological reasons. They were there to supplant different cultures and political systems with what was believed to be the single best objective way of organizing all societies, and the end point of Western reasoning: liberal democracy. The coalition brought universal models and templates of good governance, and crunched vast amounts of data using the most powerful reason-machines the world has ever seen; but none of this helped. Hobbes believed that religious enthusiasm, suicidal heroism, and the practice of violence for its own sake were all forms of madness, which an intelligent ruler could overcome. For a born pessimist this was very optimistic.
Gray has shown that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were forms of utopian thinking that have at their heart the teleological notion of progress from unenlightened times to a future utopia, and a belief that violence is justified to achieve it (3). A message repeated throughout Gray’s work is that, despite the irrefutable material gains, this notion is misguided: scientific knowledge and the technologies at our disposal increase over time, but there’s no reason to think that morality or culture will also progress, nor that this progress is irreversible. As human beings we are no more reasonable now than ever before. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the flawed nature of our equally creative and destructive species and the cyclical nature of history. The people of Afghanistan are experiencing a particularly brutal turn of the cycle now: how far back it will turn, we are yet to see.
In a passage in Leviathan that stands apart from much of the rest of the book, Hobbes writes of “the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only” (1). We are distinguished from other animals by our tremendous capability for reasoned thinking, but we are also alone among the animals in our readiness to kill and be killed for nonsensical ideas in an attempt to give our lives meaning. We have an innate tendency to need more than the satisfaction of our base desires. We strive for meaning, purpose and belonging. Gray highlights that this striving has been behind much of the damage done in the last century by Stalinism and Nazi Fascism, and in this century by al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as the neoliberalism that fueled the attempted state-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Writing in the shadow of the Second World War, the French philosopher Albert Camus, who had faced Nazism in the French Resistance, showed us that we do not need to access this privilege of absurdity through any external ideology. He defined the whole human condition as absurd. This absurdity is the result of the confrontation between man’s desire for significance and the uncaring, meaningless universe. According to Camus, freedom lies in the recognition of this absurdity. Only when you recognize that the universe is devoid of absolutes can you be truly free. In this state you can then construct your own meaning, even if you know that death will still render the activity ultimately meaningless. Camus compares the absurdity of man’s life with the situation of Sisyphus, who in Greek mythology was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down again, and again. Camus concludes, “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (4).
Camus encouraged us to revolt. When faced with the brutal reality of the ideologies Gray highlights and Camus faced in the Resistance, a striving for meaning, purpose and belonging leads some to forgo reason, and sacrifice their security for their beliefs or for the struggle itself. This striving can lead us to conquer our fear of a violent death and put the lives of others before our own.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen many acts of selfless heroism as well as suicidal madness at the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, and across Afghanistan. There are many who are putting personal freedoms above their own safety, and some who would rather give their life resisting the Taliban’s enforcement of new social and political norms. Most obviously there was the armed resistance movement in the Panjshir Valley, but there are also those who are risking their own safety by helping others who are now at risk escape, and those who are staying at great risk to themselves to support their communities. Then there are the thousands of small acts of resistance happening out of our sight. This includes the teachers now holding classes for young girls in secret or the women’s groups who have met in secret throughout the conflicts in Afghanistan to continue the ancient oral Pashtun poetic tradition of reciting and creating couplets known as landays.
Once the infighting between the various factions over power is resolved, the Taliban will form an authoritarian “parliament” with an early aim of providing security for the people of Afghanistan in exchange for various freedoms. However, they will need to provide consensus across multiple groups who have different ideas about how best to live. Many will value freedoms greater than the security they are offering. Many will take up Camus’ challenge to revolt: some will be inspired by a competing ideology, some will fight for a specific belief, some for the struggle itself, all for a meaning they are willing to risk their lives for.
Hobbes’ own life was far from short: he lived to the age of ninety-one, at a time when the average life span was thirty-five. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought an end to a period of conflict in England and provided security for Hobbes. He saw his work gain prominence. He lived a comfortable life, despite the stresses caused by an investigation of the Leviathan for heretical content, resulting in a ban on Hobbes publishing anything in England on subjects relating to human conduct. Through the Leviathan, though, Hobbes had already left us an enduring view of human conduct that provides insight into our psychology during times of insecurity.
Hobbes was wrong, though, to think that dilemmas of ethics and politics are always soluble through the application of reason. There is no one handbook for governance and no right way for us all to live. As much as we disagree with significant aspects of what the Taliban believe, we will need to continue a dialogue with them. In a multi-polar world, conflict will always play a part in maintaining the uneasy equilibrium in which our competing societies and ideologies find themselves. Our leaders have a responsibility to recognize this and engage in diplomacy, seeking a way of living together despite the issues, as no amount of authoritarianism will force some to suspend their search for meaning and struggle. Through our dialogue with the Taliban, using the remaining soft power we have, we can attempt to convince the Taliban of the same, pushing them to accept that not all Afghans will share their vision of how to live. In the meantime, we should significantly step up our efforts to provide a haven for those currently at risk, after letting down so many we claimed we would not leave behind. We owe that to the Afghans who now, after our hasty and chaotic exit, fear for their security and for those for whom security alone is not enough.
- Hobbes, T., “Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil.”, 1909–14.
- Hobbes, T., “Opera Latina”. In Molesworth, W. (ed.), “Vita carmine expressa”, 1679.
- Gray, J., “Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia”, 2011.
- Camus, A., “The Myth of Sisyphus”, 1942.