Grover Norquist v. Thomas Hobbes: After Drowning Leviathan in the Bathtub, What Next?

“I don’t want to abolish government.  I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”  That quotation one finds attributed to the guiding genius of contemporary conservatism, Grover Norquist. [1]

The image of government drowned has arrested me for a decade.  Explicitly or implicitly conservatives in my lifetime have represented government as leviathan, the great sea monster, swallowing Jonahs and Jobs – and jobs.

But the creator of the metaphor of government as leviathan wrote in 1651 when government, as he’d known it, had just had its heads chopped off – the King’s (literally and figuratively) and the House of Lords’ (figuratively).

Today, as then, the big question is, ‘What happens, Mr. Norquist, after you drown the monster?’

Hobbes’ Leviathan

The monster metaphor for government comes from Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in Leviathan or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651). [2]

I wrote the other day Hobbes saw war as humankind’s natural state – hardly a surprising view in the midst of a civil war (1642-51) twice as long the American (1861-65).  ‘For  war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known….’ [3]

Pride and Equality

Weston, Vt.: Old Parish Church 9/5/11

Hobbes’ view of human nature could allow no peace for sinful man without his acknowledging that ‘pride and other passions … compelled him to submit himself to government….’ [4]

Pride is the sin that cost Adam and Eve the Garden.  Said St. Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century:

Pride is the commencement of all sin’ because it was this which [caused the downfall of] the devil…; and afterwards, when his malice and envy [of God] pursued man,… it subverted [man]in the same way….  For the serpent, in fact, only sought for the door of pride whereby to enter when he said, ‘Ye shall be as gods.’ [5]

 Thus, ‘pride’ is a human asserting equality with god.

Hobbes’ definition of ‘pride’ – which he, too, sees as humanity’s original sin – is radically different from Augustine’s.

If nature therefore have made men equal, that equality is to be acknowledged; or if nature have made men unequal, yet because men that think themselves equal will not enter into conditions of peace, but upon equal terms, such equality must be admitted.  And therefore…, I put this that every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature.  The breach of this precept is pride. [6]

Thus, for Hobbes, ‘pride’ is man’s failure to grant his equality with others.

That recognition is the essential pre-condition for peace which must come through government.  One hears Hobbes clearly in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

Leviathan: an ‘Artificial Animal’

So, what is government?

Here is Hobbes’ first sentence:  ‘Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal.’ [7]  That artificial animal is government.  No text I know on government compares to Hobbes’ later in the same paragraph:

Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of Nature, man.  For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE…, which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength; salus populi (the people’s safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death. Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politic were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation. [8]

 The Bible’s Leviathan

Hobbes tells us he draws his title from the Book of Job. [9]

Starting at Job 40:6, God is lecturing Job, hectoring him really, on what Job’s travails have made clear.  The Lord contrasts himself and his powers with two great – yet mortal – beasts, ‘behemoth’ (40:15-24) and ‘leviathan’ (41:1-34) [10], both artificial animals, metaphors in God’s imaginings.  Here’s Hobbes on why he adopted ‘leviathan’:

…I have set forth the nature of man, whose pride and other passions have compelled him to submit himself to government, together with the great power of his governor, whom I compared to Leviathan [in Job 41:33-34]….  “There is nothing,” saith [God], “on earth to be compared with him.  He is made so as not to be afraid.  He seeth every high thing below him; and is king of all the children of pride.”  But because he is mortal, and subject to decay, as all other earthly creatures are, and because there is that in heaven, though not on earth, that he should stand in fear of, and whose laws he ought to obey, I shall … speak of his diseases and the causes of his mortality…. [11]

Title page of 1651 edition of Leviathan which Hobbes may have designed in part. Note the sovereign's body is made of human figures.

After the Drowning, What?

Thus, leviathan, the artificial animal to which those wanting peace among the children of the original sin submit, is ‘mortal, and subject to decay, as all other earthly creatures are’.

The beheading of Charles I in 1649 and the ending of the monarchy made Hobbes’ statement one of the obvious.  In 1651, what would come next wasn’t.  Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians had established a republic, a ‘commonwealth’ (hence Leviathan’s subtitle).  What that word would mean in reality, Hobbes hoped to shape.

Hobbes ends Leviathan with a plea that the new Commonwealth’s leaders heed him.  His last paragraph, in which I see America today, begins:

And thus I have brought to an end my discourse of … government, occasioned by the disorders of the present time, …without other design than to set before men’s eyes the mutual relation between protection and obedience….  And though in the revolution of states there can be no very good constellation for truths of this nature to be born under (as having an angry aspect from the dissolvers of an old government, and seeing but the backs of them that erect a new), yet I cannot think it will be condemned at this time, either by the public judge of doctrine, or by any that desires the continuance of public peace. [12]

Grover Norquist’s ambition, then, may be realized.  But after the drowning, we have a Hobbesian choice:  war or peace.

If it be peace, we have a right to ask of the back bent over the bathtub,  ‘What new Leviathan?’


1.  The NPR link to which WikiPedia ties this quotation no longer produces the credited audio.   In a brief search (8/30/11), I could not find a sourced version of this quotation.

2.  Read Hobbes in this excellent edition:  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan [1651] (Edwin Curley, ed.) (Indianapolis: Hackett Publ. Co., 1994).  Avoid the Penguin Classics edition which is significantly cheaper but lacks an index (indispensable!) and Curley’s excellent introduction, annotations, etc.  The Penguin’s tiny type is near impossible to read.  Also beware of the Oregon State University site whose version contains typos, some significant, and eliminates much of Hobbes’ italicization and capitalization.  The latter has the effect of concealing Hobbes’ structure and care in interlinking definitions.  Beware, too, of the WikiPedia entry on Leviathan.  It is skewed sharply right, especially in its anachronistic description of Hobbes notion of the sovereign.  So is the entry on Hobbes which seems written by the same person.  A better read, on all counts, are the corresponding entries in the Stamford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

3.  Hobbes, Leviathan (Curley ed.), op. cit., chap. XIII ¶ 8, p. 76.

4.  Id., chap. XXVIII ¶ 27, p. 210.

5.  Source: which annotates the quotation:  ‘Augustine is here quoting from Ecclesiasticus 10:12-13, “The beginning of pride is when one departs from God, and his heart is turned away from his Maker.  For pride is the beginning of sin, and he that has it shall pour out abomination…”’ Philip Schaff, ed., A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume 5 St. Augustin:  Anti-pelagian Writings, chapter 33.’

6.  Leviathan, op. cit., chap. XV, ¶ 21, p. 97.  Hobbes wrote as a scientist.  He precisely defines his terms and orders his arguments.  Edwin Curley, “Introduction to Hobbes’ Leviathan” in Id., pp. viiiff.

7.  Id., Introduction ¶ 1, p. 3.

8.  Id., pp. 3-4.

9.  Id., chap. XXVIII, ¶ 27, p. 210, and the title page of the 1651 edition, reproduced at p. lxxviii.

10.  The WikiPedia entries to which I’ve linked here are models of what an entry should be: judicious, detailed, well-written.

11. Leviathan, op. cit., chap. XXVIII, ¶ 27, p. 210.

12.  Id., ‘A Review and Conclusion’, ¶ 17, p. 497.  After the preceding 494 pages, Hobbes final two sentences (not quoted here), capped with a brilliant aphorism, are a hoot.  The only apt word for his final two paragraphs is ‘scorching’.  He earned his many enemies in the universities and amongst the ruling classes.

One Comment

  1. Gordon Kinder said:

    You might find the link below interesting . A (former) republican strategist has admitted that destruction of government is their both their strategy and their goal. They are willing to suck the country down the maelstrom of dysfunction in order to prove that government its dysfunctional.

    Political Animal – Mike Lofgren leaves ‘the cult’

    September 6, 2011

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