Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Political Time in Hobbes

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog. Includes picture of 17th Century clock, not just the link!

Clock in illustration is a late 17th Century lantern clock by Joseph Windmills of London.

In recent work on Hobbes something that struck me as very interesting, but which I will have to return to later is the place of time. No references, though I’ve got them in my notes, just some indications of what there is in De Homine/De Cive and Leviathan which I hope to return to later.

In the Leviathan description on the state of nature as war, Hobbes refers to the lack of any means of measuring time as part of the desolation of natural existence.

The covenant which sets up the sovereign (monarch, aristocratic or democratic assembly) refers to time in a way which normal contracts do not. One thing which marks out a covenant as a covenant is that is binds the covenanter for the future, whereas a normal contract refers to a present state of affairs.

The covenant not only binds for the future, it requires that the covenanting person make the first act of the covenant. Presumably the reason for that is to make sure that the subjects of the sovereign obey the sovereign without waiting for the sovereign to establish peace and all the benefits of government. The result is a political time in which subjects obey the sovereign and then the sovereign protects them, and that is how we leave the unmeasured time of the state of nature.

Though Hobbes rather strangely marks out the covenant as unique amongst contracts in binding for the future, he must think that contracts do bind contracting parties for the future, Perhaps what he thinks is that the covenant allows contracts to exist over time by establishing the stable governmental framework which allows there to be contracts. Contracts, and the benefits which flow from them, rely on some expectation that the future will be predictable so that parties can get expected benefits.

The state of nature includes constant fear of death, so a constant non-expectation of the future. We can expect a future, and think and plan towards the future, because there is government and civil law. That is the condition that allowed Hobbes to produce beautiful clocks like the one pictured above.

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