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Beware the new leviathans Have we returned to a state of nature?

A modern Leviathan (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A modern Leviathan (Scott Olson/Getty Images)


September 1, 2023   6 mins

Are men and women naturally good? The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought so, though he admits that we began in a state of “savagery” in which moral terms such as good and bad simply didn’t apply. From there, however, the human race graduated to a more positive stage, mid-way between “the stupidity of brutes” and what Rousseau saw as the disaster of civilisation. With the birth of civilised society, a state of peace, innocence and compassion gave way to one of war, law, government and the unequal distribution of property.

Government, for Rousseau, is a largely fraudulent contract imposed by the rich on the poor, and the founder of civil society was simply the first man to say “This is mine” of a piece of land and found people credulous enough to believe him. How much crime, war, murder, misery and horror, he reflects, could have been avoided if someone had pointed out that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone, and the earth itself to nobody at all? Progress is an illusion, and science the ruin of humanity. Civilisation has made us neither happier nor more virtuous. Yet once we had been expelled from the happy garden, there was no way back.

Some may see this view as a trifle one-sided. What’s surely more convincing is the suggestion that civilisation has made us both better and worse. If it holds the solution to some of our troubles, it also creates problems all of its own. It tempers and restrains our more anti-social impulses, but in doing so brings with it forms of devastation beyond the scope of “primitive” humanity. If their problem was weakness, ours is power. “To be able to overpower the monstrous progeny of our own intelligence,” writes the art historian Malcolm Bull, “has always been the condition of human survival.” Humanity is constantly in danger of overreaching itself and bringing itself to nothing. Its abiding defect is hubris. The monstrous progeny of our own intelligence is now known as AI.

For a certain strain of conservatism, human nature is mostly degenerate and has always been that way. “It is not that our age is particularly corrupt,” remarks the Anglo-Catholic Tory T.S. Eliot. “All ages are corrupt.” This isn’t to say you can’t squeeze something valuable out of people, but to do so you need order and discipline, sometimes of a draconian kind. Goodness exists, but only the incurably bright-eyed see it as spontaneous.

Classical liberalism takes the opposite view. People fare best when they are left alone to develop their talents. Repressing them will simply stunt their growth, whereas spiritual laissez-faire will allow them to flourish. Human beings may abuse their freedom, but they are not truly human without it. If they are to go right, you have to allow for the possibility of their going wrong. Romanticism is a particularly affirmative instance of this creed. Men and women have certain creative capacities which demand fulfilment, and most of the world’s evils stem from the fact that these powers are being obstructed. The names of the obstructers are legion: the state, religion, colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, ethnic supremacism, the dominant class and so on. Revolution is the moment when energies which have been suppressed burst triumphantly through these barriers and come into their own.

There are a number of things wrong with this theory. Are all human capacities to be realised? What about my ability to assassinate the Pope, along with my burning desire to do so? Some of our powers are clearly noxious, but how do we distinguish these from the more life-affirming ones? And what if some of our capabilities are at war with others? As for repression, there are those like Freud who claim that a certain amount of it is necessary for our functioning. Repression can be good for you, even if too much of it is likely to make you ill. It will also be good for the Pope if I manage to stifle my urge to topple him from the balcony of the Vatican.

And if all we need is for expression to break through repression, why doesn’t it happen more often? One answer is because the Law is already present within desire, disciplining and restraining it. Patriarchy, colonialism and the like aren’t just external powers; it’s because they persuade us to internalise them that they can thrive so vigorously. The aim of the Law is that we should love it, not simply obey it. By identifying our own desires with those of authority, a trespass against authority feels like a violation of ourselves. It’s partly because this identification can never be perfect — because we hate the Law of the Father as well as loving it — that states, empires and sovereignties are brought low from time to time.

Radicals agree with conservatives that liberals are too sanguine about human nature. But they also agree with liberals that conservatives downplay its positive potential. One can see the argument in religious terms. There are happy-clappy Christians who bash tambourines, play down sin, ooze moral smugness and rejoice in their own salvation. For these rather weird types, faith is mostly a matter of grinning. There are also gloomy Christians for whom human nature is entirely corrupt, and for whom we would be heading towards hell-fire were it not for the arbitrary fact that Christ has redeemed us. The general sense is that Christ succumbed to a moment of liberal sentimentalism in rescuing us from the Devil, and may well have been better advised to let us fall into his clutches.

Both of these cases are deviations from mainstream Christianity, for which human beings have the potential to be virtuous but need radical self-transformation in order to be so. Goodness is neither spontaneous nor non-existent; instead, it requires a degree of hard labour. It doesn’t come automatically, but when it does come, we recognise it as a fulfilment of the creatures we are. So the bad news is that we won’t do as we are right now; the good news, however, is that virtue requires a transformation that we have the potential to achieve, which rules out the idea that we are utterly degenerate.

For Enlightenment liberals, moral and material progress go hand in hand. Nobody believes this any longer, if you take it to mean that the more washing machines you have, the more merciful and compassionate you become. Even so, there is a kernel of truth in this mythical shell, which is that material scarcity breeds violence and exploitation. People who aren’t afflicted by famine and disease are more likely to be altruistic than those who have to fight over a crust of bread. They are too busy staying alive to bother fishing you out of the river. For some conservatives, by contrast, moral progress is in inverse proportion to the growth of prosperity. The more civilisation advances, the more greedy, selfish and heartless it becomes. The radical sees this as true of our present form of social life, but not as a judgement on civilisation as such.

The so-called state of nature which preceded our Fall into war and private property was a blessed time for Rousseau but a nightmare for Thomas Hobbes. In Hobbes’s view, it is a condition of unending conflict in which every individual’s hand is raised against every other; and only by collectively agreeing to become subject to unlimited government, in the so-called social contract, will peace ever be established. (There is a logical problem about how people can come to make such a contract without having the concepts of contract, law, authority, obedience and so on in the first place, in which case they would seem to be already in a state of civilisation.)

Despite being a genial fellow who enjoyed a drink and liked a good laugh, Hobbes is commonly seen as the most pessimistic of English philosophers, though the contemporary thinker John Gray runs him a close second. His latest book, The New Leviathans, argues that we have returned to Hobbes’s state of nature in artificial form. Liberalism is finished, and the practice of tolerance has passed into history. (He seems to have wokeness in mind here, which is to ascribe world-historical status to a passing phenomenon.)

It is good, however, that liberal individualism is washed up, since as Hobbes would agree, unfettered self-determination is a fantasy. In luridly apocalyptic language, Gray speaks of “a spectacle of self-immolation, at once tragic and farcical”, taking place in the West. Hobbes was mistaken to believe that there was any deliverance from the brutal state of nature, since “the war of all against all begins in every human bring, and it never ends”. The book ends with a lame concession that human beings can “act in the service of life”, a proposition it has spent some time trying to demolish.

Pessimism isn’t popular with governments, since disillusion can lead to disaffection. So this won’t be Rishi Sunak’s book of the year, not least because it pushes pessimism unnervingly close to nihilism. All the same, it confronts the truth that no politician dares utter: that things are very bad with a world in which, in Gray’s words, either market forces are directed by the state or the state has been captured by corporate power.

The myth of a benevolent state of nature was shattered a long time ago. More recently, a version of it known as childhood innocence was challenged by the psychoanalysts. Infantile sexuality had been known about for some time, not least by infants. But we had not been prepared for the work of Freud’s disciple, Melanie Klein, who writes of the baby’s murderous fantasies of pounding the mother’s breast to pieces.

Yet even if infants are indeed mini-murderers, at least in potential, this is not all there is to say. They are also able to recognise and respond to the love of their carers, a love without which they will fail to flourish. They experience a gratitude for it which in Freud’s view plants the seeds of human morality. Later on, this instinct will need to be educated into conscious moral awareness, a highly precarious enterprise. If we are not complete villains, it is because what greets us upon entering a violent world is something which points beyond it.


Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.


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Josh Allan
Josh Allan
10 months ago

‘Liberalism is finished, and the practice of tolerance has passed into history. (He seems to have wokeness in mind here, which is to ascribe world-historical status to a passing phenomenon.)’

I would like to share Eagleton’s optimism here, but it seems a little too early to define wokeness as an ephemeral phenomenon. We may well be in the dawn of a new world religion.

J Young
J Young
10 months ago
Reply to  Josh Allan

To be a world religion, wokeness would require a sense of the Absolute and mythology, like all religions do. It cannot sustain itself without a transcendent element. Without these influences, it is as mutable as Marxist dialectics and outdated Enlightenment treatises.

People who accept its precedents die; the next generation evolves from them but will not share exact opinions. Technology, the environment, and the cultural shifts (some affected by the woke) will define the new thinking of this personality type. Many of us are dying things being dragged along with the tide. Marx was right about his theory of alienation- though derivative of Feuerbach- for without a solid absolute, our opinions are coloured by the whims of the everchanging material environment. By necessity and survival, we form the opinions for our time. Nietzsche is also right: we are all decadents now. The era is us and we are not free to he crabs and wander away out of tradition.

To make wokeness our like it is a current fad is disingenuous, used by people who want to say “the kids aren’t alright,” and avoid the longer evolution of western nations. What differences do the woke have with the characters of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up and Zabriskie Point? Very little. The latter film’s opening scene could be filmed today without many changes: White students arguing how they can be more like radical Black activists. It is not far from the BLM ‘fad’, but neither are these are just history repeating itslef. One can reach back to before the great war, to the Enlightenment, further still to Descartes, and the collapse of Templar Order, to see the evolution from today. First Cause thinking can be ultimately useless. We can trace Wokeness in certain strands of Christianity, in the same way Richard Dawkins is a Christian in denial. They may be opposed, but they share genes, for we are all Western and sourced from the same soup.

I say why does Darwinism exist? For Paradise Lost came before it.

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
10 months ago
Reply to  J Young

It might be more accurate to call it a denomination than an entire religion. Then again, both might be inaccurate. Wokeness has all the elements of a traditional faith, from high priests to blasphemy to ritualistic kneeling. But as you point out, it’s lacking anything truly transcendental, which may with any luck be its downfall.

T Bone
T Bone
10 months ago
Reply to  J Young

The Marxist stated goal might have been relief from alienation but it was always a ruse. For class abolition to occur, there would always have to be a new ruling class bureacracy of Experts that arbitrarily determine new values and those values would need to be imposed by force.

The thing we call Wokeness is just a Gnostic expression of hyper-awareness. The soul is imprisoned in the body and only by becoming hyperaware of the mechanics of an unjust world can the soul break free from the prison and find oneness with the Divine.

But the true virology is actually Hermetic and Pantheist/Panentheist. Hegel is probably the chief Theologian since he constructed the dialectic in it’s clearest form. Marx inverted it into a bottom up structure making the Self a Historical Actor bringing History to its endpoint. Marx was effectively a Gnostic prophet using Alchemy to transform social conditions through revolution.

The Dialectic is all transmutation or social alchemy. Evaporating the particulars of opposites whether Class/Race/Gender and condensing/sublating them into a singular oneness, IE a Hivemind.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

…no misteak there T bone. The Hivemind is indeed a most accurate articulation of where things are at, incorporating as it does, the demographic of the female role in the fusion/con-fusion of policy across so many social and economic institutions.

Last edited 10 months ago by Bernard Hill
Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
10 months ago
Reply to  J Young

The word for which you search to categorize “wokeness” is “heresy.” It is a corruption of Western Christianity, esp. Protestantism. That explains in part why it has so little sway in other parts of the world, yet is so hard to combat in its home.
For maybe the best analysis to date, read Millenarian Mobs by the late Angelo Codevilla in the Summer 2020 Claremont Review of Books: https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/millenarian-mobs/

Frank Scavelli
Frank Scavelli
7 months ago
Reply to  J Young

Are you Julian Young, the Nietzsche / Schop / Heidegger scholar?

polidori redux
polidori redux
10 months ago
Reply to  Josh Allan

I recently saw wokery described as autistic literalism, designed to protect the egos of mediocre minds.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
10 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

That’s a very good description. I equate wokeism with cowardice and groupthink.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
10 months ago
Reply to  Josh Allan

Dawn of a new religion? Could be. In my more morose moments, I sometimes wonder if there is a cycle in western history with an obligatory religious revival every few centuries which recharges the internalised morality that arguably society needs – followed by long periods as liberty and licence gradually regrow, everyone has a good time but amorality spreads until it threatens society and the next age of censorious zeal is triggered. This would make the Woke the equivalent of the Evangelicals of the 1830s, who gave us middle class morality for more than a century, the Puritans of the 1630s, the religious revivals in the fourteenth and eleventh centuries and so on. Depressing thought. Fortunately, there is no hard evidence for this theory so I am sticking with my copy of JS Mill, with uninhibited self indulgence and with the hope that history will *** the woke.

Last edited 10 months ago by Alex Carnegie
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

“Hell hath no fury like an an academic scorned”.
Thus the vendetta between Eagleton and Gray continues, much to the amusement of many.

polidori redux
polidori redux
10 months ago

I find Gray interesting. Eagleton not at all – a one trick pony.

Tony Fitzgerald
Tony Fitzgerald
10 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

I find Gray very perceptive and Eagleton very perceptive too. I do hope the debate continues

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
10 months ago

“The aim of the Law is that we should love it, not simply obey it. By identifying our own desires with those of authority, a trespass against authority feels like a violation of ourselves.”

In conversation with my woke son I posited that the effect of a physical assault on me would be the same whatever the motivation for the attack. We have good laws against assault, therefore additional laws against assault motivated by woke concerns (race etc.,) we’re superfluous.

He was genuinely flabbergasted. To him, the fact a racial assault is just worse in some way was so internalised he was, to use the awful vernacular, triggered.

Woke us not a passing phase. Much of our population now identifies its own desires with those of the (new) authority.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
10 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Where do you draw the line? A sexual assault is presumably also a physical assault so why do need a distinct category of sexual assault?

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
10 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

A sexual assault violates identity in a deeper and more long-lasting way than a non-sexual physical assault. However, an assault motivated by race – or homophobia or whatever – says something about the frailty of the assailant’s identity.

AC Harper
AC Harper
10 months ago

There’s a basic philosophical weakness in these philosophies, interesting as they are. The political and philosophical labels are usually applied to whole populations. But a moments Googling will show that about 5% of people are psychopaths, about 1% experience alcohol use disorders, roughly half are politically Left inclined, half politically Right inclined. Approximately 0.1% are in prison in the UK. Some are Christians, some are Muslims, many are neither or something else.
So no, there is no benevolent state of nature – and to try and force people of differing predispositions into a benevolent state of Utopia is doomed to fail because of it.

Steve Houseman
Steve Houseman
10 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

‘
doomed to fail
.’ Agreed completely.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago

“Unequal distribution of property” by whom, exactly? Is there some Great Benevolence missing whose job it is to dole out equal shares of every single thing? The cancer researcher and the crack head should live next door to one another in identical circumstances as the teen mom, the veteran aerial firefight pilot, and the retired supermarket deli manager?
Next you’ll be telling us we can only have two beers a week and three items of clothing . . .

michael harris
michael harris
10 months ago

You’ll have one beer a week, wash your underwear by hand, fly to Majorca once every few years and wait for ‘public’ transport like everyone else.
And you’ll be HAPPY!
Even as you see the Zils drive past. Clap harder!

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
10 months ago

No one is going to be telling you that. But how far are you prepared to go? Let’s say one family dynasty over generations of inherited wealth managed to buy up all the land in a country so they own everything. Everyone else has to rent from this one family – the family can charge what they want, they kind of own the society. Nothing illegal has taken place. Would you say that is just how the cookie crumbles? – no problem.

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
10 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Martin, I think that is a big “let’s suppose.”

Couldn’t we equally suppose the family decides to give away the land because they were no longer interested in administering it? (Counting all that money gets boring, don’tcha know?!). Then everyone has their own home and bob’s your uncle


It seems to me, suppositions can take us many places.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
10 months ago
Reply to  Ralph Hanke

I merely give the extreme of where unregulated libertarian capitalism can end. I don’t suppose it will go that far. But the relentless increase in inequality, and the rise of an unaccountable oligarchy, shows the direction we are going. All I’m asking is how far are we going to go before ‘society’ (which does exist after all) decides that it’s perhaps not such a good idea after all? I find it bizarre that so called conservatives can in one breath moan about ‘elites’ but then wax lyrical about the wonders of the free market. The wealthy elites are result of the free market which ultimately ends in monopolies – e.g Google.

Last edited 10 months ago by Martin Butler
Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
10 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Martin, thank you for thinking about what I wrote and responding.

I would suggest your concern about wealth inequality and monopolies is misplaced as those lines of thinking are based in a fixed pie perspective on wealth. Although that perspective tends to predominate economic/political opinions, IMHO it does not reflect reality.

As long as the poorest in the world continue to get wealthier and suffer less deprivation, which—with the exception of the pandemic years—has been the case for quite some time now; who cares how much money the wealthiest make?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

And NO second homes, particularly in Cornwall!

Graham Bennett
Graham Bennett
10 months ago

Eagleton, like most communists, seems entirely oblivious to socialist forms of imperialism, both spatial and psychological (of which the 20thC is littered), and the deliberate and ochestratwd mass murder that came (and still comes) with it. Or at least he either avoids alluding to this, or is in total denial, as if all destruction can only lead from ‘oppressive’ class power structures developed in capitalist contexts. The difference is that Gray is a realist, Eagleton an idealist. Surely no one believes in the utopic world to come any more – it’s utterly naive. This is partly why Eagleton thinks ‘wokism’ is a passing fad, because as a leftist, he’s unable to identify what it is, let alone see it. If he sees it, it appears utterly harmless to him …. until, that is, it comes for him.

Steve Houseman
Steve Houseman
10 months ago
Reply to  Graham Bennett

Agreed whole heartedly with your idealist/realist contrast Eagleton/Grey. I’m a great fan of John Grey but also Roger Scruton. I totally think that someone needs to write about the two of them and their views on ‘The World’. They each often send me down completely different worm holes from which I’m unable to extract myself or rather if/when I do I am much bloodied, broken and confused. Perhaps Grey and Scruton have been simultaneously discussed? Perhaps someone has insight on the two? Individually I’m fine having most of their writings.

I have little use for Eagleton but none the less have for years now paid my dues to NLR to keep track of what’s going on in this part of the world.

Julian Hartley
Julian Hartley
10 months ago
Reply to  Graham Bennett

The “passing phenomenon” comment was the most revealing bit of the article.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
10 months ago

My god, I can’t even read past the first paragraph. The rule of law and society are more important for the poor than for the rich. As to, income distribution, if it bothers you change your job. You’re allowed to do that.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
10 months ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Unfortunately we’re back to the days when what mattered was who your parents are; how much they own, whether they’re educated, where they live and who they know. This is the best predictor of where you will end up however much we might want to fantasise otherwise.

Last edited 10 months ago by Martin Butler
Bret Larson
Bret Larson
10 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

What utopia are you making a comparison to? And why do you think it’s problematic that parents who invest in their kids have better results? And yes, it’s not the dollar value of investment that is the most important.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

On first seeing the Pont du Gard, Rousseau lamented “why was I not born a Roman”.
One can but sympathise!

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
10 months ago

…Acting in “the service of life” is only lame for those with excessive admiration of their own capabilities.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago

The culture wars – or partisan realignment into warring liberal and conservative blocs – is transmutating again into a Gnostic order.
That is to say, the young have been economically disenfranchised and so have take up the task of restoring Light to the darkness of the world created by the Demiurge.

Philip Gerrans
Philip Gerrans
10 months ago

This is a B- first year essay larded with senility. As are all his pieces. Does he pay Unherd to get published or have some sinister hold over the editors? There is no other explanation. If he wants to write this stuff he can post it on his instagram or get a substack but Unherd is not supposed to be tiktok for supeannuated 1980s arts academics.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago
Reply to  Philip Gerrans

That B- is generous. I think you may be grading on a curve.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
10 months ago
Reply to  Philip Gerrans

Not one substantive point

Julian Hartley
Julian Hartley
10 months ago

I think it’s a very self-important book review.

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
10 months ago

Rousseau didn’t know about Dunbar’s Number.

Steve Houseman
Steve Houseman
10 months ago

It’s all about empathy/sympathy and are we or do we behave in an altruistic/moral ways? Or do we need laws that constrain us to behave in societally acceptable ways? The jury is definitely out as the definition of civilized society is up for grabs. As one might expect. To equate Freud with progress is problematic. It’s 2023 and the world seems to be falling apart. We live in exciting times.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
10 months ago

There can be no freedom if there is no order.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
10 months ago

Wokeness will have a short life … commonsense will prevail

Julian Hartley
Julian Hartley
10 months ago

It’s already at least forty years old, if you count from the moment it first started shaping policy in institutions such as schools. How short is short?

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
10 months ago
Reply to  Julian Hartley

How short is short? In the span of overall human intellectual development? I’d say 40 years is rather short.

Judaeo/Christine philosophy is substantially older than that. As is Hinduism, Muslim thought, Confucianism, and the like. We are fairly new to the idea that religious thought need not be the foundation of our world view. As such, we are bound to come up with some pretty crazy shit before we work it out


Last edited 10 months ago by Ralph Hanke