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The Catholic Difference: Burke vs. Hobbes

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October 17, 2012

By George Weigel

You likely think, gentle reader, that the 2012 presidential race is a contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  That, of course, is true, insofar as the names of our November 6 ballots go.  But the 2012 race for the White House is something more, something more profound – something with deeper historical roots in modernity’s wrestling with political power and how that power contributes to the common good.


This is a contest, to take symbolic reference points, between Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Edmund Burke (1729-1797).


Both were British subjects.  Both had a profound impact on modern political theory.  Both knew that religion and politics – Church and state – had been thickly interwoven into the history of the West, although here the deep differences between these two paradigmatic figures begin to sharpen: Hobbes tried to drive religious conviction out of the modern public square, while Burke fashioned a vision of political modernity that drew in part on the rich social pluralism of the Catholic Middle Ages.


In the Hobbesian world, the only actors of consequence are the state and the individual.  In a Burkean world, the institutions of civil society – family, religious congregation, voluntary association, business, trade union and so forth – “mediate” between the individual and the state, and the just state takes care to provide an appropriate legal framework in which those civil-society institutions can flourish.


In the Hobbesian world, the state – “Leviathan,” in the title of Hobbe’s most famous and influential work – monopolizes power for the sake of protecting individuals from the vicissitudes of a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  In a Burkean world, civil society provides a thick layer of mediation – protection, if you will – that cushions the interactions between individuals and life’s challenges.


A Hobbesian world is a world of contracts and legal relationships, period.  A Burkean world is a world in which there are both contracts – the rule of law and the covenants: those more subtly textured human associations (beginning with marriage) by which men and women form bonds of affections, allegiance, and mutual responsibility.


Catholic political theorists have always had major difficulties with Hobbes, and not simply for his promotion of what we would call, today, the “naked public square:” a public space shorn of religious conviction.  Hobbes’s vision of the state is far too cold for the social sensibilities of Catholics, who habitually think of society as organic, not artificial or contrived.


By contrast, Burke’s defense of society’s “small platoons” has numerous affinities with Catholic social doctrine, from Leo XIII through Benedict XVI.  John Paul II, for example, was particularly forceful in his defense of the mediating institutions of civil society, describing them in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus as schools of freedom: those natural human associations, beginning with the family, where beautiful, willful little tyrants (which is a precise description of every two-year old ever born) are transformed into the kind of civil, tolerant adult citizens who can participate in public life through their minds, not just their muscles.


No American presidential candidate is going to run on an explicitly Hobbesian platform.  And the complexities of life in a post-modern world are such that a purely Burkean republic is unlikely anytime soon.  The issue here is one of tendencies, orientations, and visions of possibility.  And at that level, 2012 really is shaping up as a contest between “Hobbes” and “Burke.”


For as the candidates have presented themselves to the country over the past months, and most recently at their conventions, it has become ever more clear that America will choose in 2012 between two paths into the future.  Along one path, there is finally, room for only the individual and the state.  Along the other path, the flourishing institutions of civil society empower individuals and contribute to real problem-solving.  In the former, the state defines responsibilities and awards benefits (and penalties).  In the latter, individuals and free, voluntary associations assume responsibility and thereby thus make their contributions to the common good.


Hobbes vs. Burke.  It’s an old argument.  It’s also the argument we shall have between now and November 6.



George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation. He is the author of the best-selling biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope and Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace.

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