Can We Oppose The Powers That Be?

On Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke.

Photo by Asael Peña on Unsplash.

One of the many issues addressed by political theorists is to establish whether we may oppose the powers that be. Have we got the power to vocally disagree and practically act against what governments have been doing? And if it is case, how far can we go? This article will endeavour to answer these questions by discussing the political blueprints of three main political thinkers, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke; afterwards, conclusions will be drawn on the basis of the insights put forward by the three philosophers. It also important to note that this article will also discuss defending or questioning rights we take for granted, like state secularism. Let us begin!

Hobbes, why democracy is most undesirable.

Any student of political philosophy undoubtedly knows Thomas Hobbes, the author of one of the most important works of political theory, Leviathan (1651). Hobbes lived during one of the gloomiest and bleakest times of English history, the Civil War. The Civil War began because the king, Charles I, had raised taxes without parliamentary consent. Not only was the economy the main reason why the war erupted, but also religious policies played a crucial role in the conflict and in the English social fabric during the 17th century.

Like his father James I, even Charles believed in the divine rights of kings: a monarch is such because it was God who had wanted him to be so.This is why the newly established Protestant Church of England shifted to a more Roman Catholic style: albeit a Protestant, the king wanted his church to be more majestic and attuned to his personal and religious aesthetic.

This is why the loyal defenders of a simpler and less elaborate religious polity, the Puritans, soon attacked Charles; Catholic ceremonies were anathema to them.

Charles’ contempt of Parliament and his Roman Catholic tendencies caused the civil conflict to erupt. Charles I died in 1649, beheaded by Cromwell. And it is at this stage that Thomas Hobbes stepped into the political foray.

He had experienced the the glum time of the war, where he had witnessed how people could kill each other. Therefore, his political blueprint is based on the unquestionable authority of the sovereign,i.e. Leviathan. The Leviathan, a gigantic Biblical sea monster,wields absolute power. Citizens give up on their rights and cede them to Leviathan, a fictive creature that is a metaphor for monarchical power.

It is so because monarchs are the only ones who can restrain people’s potential for evil and aggressiveness. Also, under the Leviathan, there is no such thing as state secularism on the grounds that religious issues could lead up to the war being reignited and causing chaos and disruption. The State decides on the religion subjects should abide by.

Do we like a political scenario where the famous war of everybody against everyone makes our lives nasty, short, and brutish? Maybe not.

“If men are naturally in a state of war, why do they always carry arms and why do they have keys to lock their doors?”

And now let us survey Spinoza’s blueprint.

Baruch Spinoza, the task of the State is liberty.

Baruch Spinoza is undoubtedly one of the best philosophers of early-modern Europe. A Sephardi Jew, Spinoza lived in the Low Countries for all his life. An otherwise reserved glass-cutter, he attracted a great deal of controversy when his philosophical oeuvre came under the scrutiny of the religious authorities of his time.

Even for the tolerant Dutch Christians, Spinoza’s denial of the soul and his questioning of the Bible were too much. Something about Spinoza can already be made sense of: he has no intention to be subjected to the trite readings of the Bible, and wants to prove the very Bible is a man-made book written at various intervals by human beings, not by God. God is everywhere: it is not a transcendent agent, but an immanent one.

We can already appreciate a significant difference from Hobbesian political philosophy: the State is not an authoritarian monster transcending humankind, but immanent, viable. We are the State, because we want the State to grant us liberty. Therefore, the State is not there to browbeat us into fear, but to make us free. A very different take on politics.

John Locke, the foundation of the contemporary liberal State.

I confess to not loving John Locke. The many political problems beleaguering the world nowadays stem from his thinking; otherwise, it would be intellectually dishonest if I failed to mention his contribution to political philosophy.

Locke believed the State should fulfil only a task: defending life, liberty and, above all, property. By using Isaiah Berlin’s political idiom, Locke prioritised what he defines as ‘negative liberty’, i.e. non-interference. The Bill of Rights, the amendments to the US Constitution, stems from Locke’s thinking. Non-interference is actually the accurate definition of Locke’s political thought: I cannot be imposed on because, as a rational human agent, I am entitled to free speech, to live in a secular state, or to not have my own life threatened. Another very different take on politics and political theory.

The current situation

The contemporary political set-up is an offshoot of the Hobbesian state; the State does something for us the moment we give up on some of our rights.

At the same time, I have reservations about the Lockean state because it is the plight of present-day politics: politicians are benumbed or, by using the idiom of the political theorist Raymond Geuss, they pursue anodyne (‘sleepy,’ benumbing.’) policies. Their main interest is upholding the defence of property and non-interference. If governments interfere in our existence, then we have the right (we are actually expected to do so) to oppose the government.

This is what Locke theorised in his Second Treatise:

If governments are despotic, then we are expected to oppose them.

“Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”

The only possible solution: accountability

I fully endorse opposing the government that run counter what people want the powers that be must be up to speed with a very simple word: accountability.

If the decision they take clash with the very notion of accountability, then we are supposed to protest the powers that be and the decisions they take. As Spinoza wrote, the task of the state is liberty.

We citizens elect our representatives, and then they govern on our behalf. If any of them gets something wrong, then they have to face the consequences of their action. Accountability is the thing that politics should always bear in mind. And it is a fair compromise between Hobbes’ Leviathan, Spinoza’s and Locke’s idea of politics.

3 thoughts on “Can We Oppose The Powers That Be?

  1. My wife’s hairdresser- the proprietor of the toniest shop in town- told her that she’s heard of ‘democracy’, but doesn’t really know what it means. Shocking. Forget Hobbes and Locke; where does one begin? What hope for the future?


    1. Hi Bob,

      Thanks so much for getting in touch and for your answer. Yes, you voice a point of great concern to me as a professional philosopher and academic. The notion of democracy we have is NOT the same as the one the Romans and the Greeks had (have a look at Constant’s essay on the differences between the liberty of the Ancients and the Liberals in post-revolution France.). This is an issue that, albeit complicated, should be dealt with in school, along with history.


      1. Thanks for your recommendation, Andrea, I shall have a look at Constant. I agree with your point about starting in school with history, very important, but is it still being taught?
        Best regards, Bob


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