If there is no “Greatest Good,” there’s only bad.

I’ve been reading Hobbes’ Leviathan. The book is one of these excellent old things written as a geometric proof. He carefully defines his terms, sets forth his postulates, makes syllogisms and builds an entire political philosophy……..all written in the English of the King James era. So good.

Hobbes had a rough life. He wrote that “my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.” Thomas’ father had to skip town after brawling in the church where he was vicar. Thomas, his siblings, and his mother were abandoned. In spite of this he received an excellent education and later found himself living in the middle of the English civil war. Fear seems to have been woven throughout his life.

For Hobbes, life is a war between each and every man. He wrote the famous passage:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

Then in Book 1, Chapter XI. Hobbes denies the existence of a summum bonum, Greatest Good.

BY MANNERS, I mean not here decency of behaviour; as how one man should salute another, or how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of the small morals; but those qualities of mankind that concern their living together in peace and unity.

Fine. He’s writing about how we “get along” with others.

To which end we are to consider that the felicity of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live whose desires are at an end than he whose senses and imaginations are at a stand.

Hobbes says here that the satisfied mind isn’t the greatest good because to achieve the greatest good would end desire. The desiring, attaining, procuring are the source of felicity for Hobbes. I hate this. In Hobbes’ world there is no contentment. There’s never enough. There’s no end. Certainly no finis ultimus.

Felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter. The cause whereof is that the object of man’s desire is not to enjoy once only, and for one instant of time, but to assure forever the way of his future desire. And therefore the voluntary actions and inclinations of all men tend not only to the procuring, but also to the assuring of a contented life, and differ only in the way, which ariseth partly from the diversity of passions in diverse men, and partly from the difference of the knowledge or opinion each one has of the causes which produce the effect desired.

He sees widely divergent values, passions, opinions, and desires as the source of conflict. Since he’s a relativist (there’s no supreme good) all values, passions, etc. must be managed. The Commonwealth Hobbes goes on to describe is not designed to obtain a greatest good, but to minimize conflict between men by subjecting them to a powerful sovereign. Such a government cannot elevate the lives of the citizenry. It’s only goal is to manage their desires and do damage control.

I believe there is a greatest good. It’s and objective, real thing and not a matter of opinion. By definition it is good for everyone and as such should be the goal of good government. Governing toward the good, the beautiful, and the true will move us towards Eudaemonia, Aristotle’s happiness.

It’s hard to nail down eudaemonia. What precisely is it? How do we get it? Who determines all of this? No one is exactly sure, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue it at every cost. All of these hard questions exist for any governing principle. What is “the common welfare?” What is “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” What is a “social norm?” Shying away from eudaemonia because the questions are hard is cowardice, or an excuse to perpetrate evil.

Wholesome government should be absolutist. It should ruthlessly stamp out the bad, the ugly, and the false, even at the expense of supposed “freedom.” The “freedom” that is fetishized today is not freeing. It is merely agency. It is gluttony. Everything is possible, especially evil. This supposed freedom allows men to stray from the good and in doing so allows enormous cruelty. Citizenry living at or near the highest good would experience exhilarating freedom, they would be happy.

Hobbes rejected the idea of a highest good and convinced most of the world to do the same. If you reject the highest good, what does that make you?

4 thoughts on “If there is no “Greatest Good,” there’s only bad.”

  1. Great content, as always Scott. You’ve really made me realize how unproductive post-modernism is. I’ve been running a great books group and any time someone says something post-modern it just doesn’t add to the conversation. It’s so much better to take a stance and say you believe in something than to say it’s all relative. You’re right, we should believe in a greatest good and pursue it.

      1. We’re following the list you have on your website. We just discussed the second half of the Iliad last Sunday so we’re moving on to the first half of the Odyssey for next month.
        The book group has just been a delight. It’s something that I look forward to every month now. I can already tell that it’s going to be so rewarding to have done this when I look back a few years from now.

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