Thomas Hobbes and The Wilderness of Civilization

This course pivots from the methodological introductions to environmentality and ecocritique by constructing and demonstrating ecocriticism using theoretical and empirical sources to produce an interdisciplinary framework. We begin by examining two thinkers separated by time, an ocean and war to argue that “wilderness” is not something conquered and destroyed, but something that manifests within and through activities related to “civilization.” It takes Thomas Hobbes and his justification for the sovereign in his book, Leviathan, as its jumping off point to explore states of nature constructed and understood as civilizational activity. That is, those activities which are credited with “building” civilization are, in fact, rethreading the State of Nature into the everyday lives of humans and non-humans the world over. In short, Hobbes’ justification for sovereign power fails to recognize that wildness, and the very things he feared, are extensions of the State of Nature that can never be expelled from the Leviathan and are, in fact, created by it and its activities. 

The second thinker is Benton MacKaye – the planner of the Appalachian Trail and founder of The Wilderness Society – in a series of essays beginning in the 1920’s and collected as The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning published first by Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1928. I use MacKaye in an attempt to stand Hobbes on his head. That is, to flip his thinking to fit with the thesis above by rethinking “Wilderness” in relation to “Civilization.” I hope the reader will permit the small adjustment in language between Hobbes and MacKaye without much philosophical argument to justify what might be equivocations between “wilderness” and “the state of nature” or “civilization” and “the Leviathan,” or “sovereign.” Possible equivocations aside, I believe that our popular imaginations of wilderness, or wildness contain the dynamics Hobbes used to set his thought experiment leading to the justification of sovereign power. At the end of this essay, I hope the reader will have a better understanding of the two thinkers above and how they were working on similar problems, but from different angles as well as an appreciation for how Hobbes may have got it wrong during the English Civil War as he published Leviathan in 1651.

The course does not simply pit philosophers against one another. It builds a case every week that adds another dimension to the argument empirically. Thus, this class is an exercise in empirically grounded theory that begins with philosophical disagreement and then looks to disciplines as varied and ranging as geography, anthropology, sociology, critical animal studies, environmental planning, and ecology. Drawing from those disciplines is an attempt to add richness to theoretical debate concerning justifications for the state by examining the effects of its actions and inactions through the lives of humans and nonhumans in the U.S. and internationally. The global scope is selected because this course will argue that “civilization” transcends nation-state borders and looks for evidence of that through the mentalities and rationales for sacrificing “wilderness” at the altar of the Leviathan. Borrowing from MacKaye, and adjusting Hobbes, the Leviathan is the world of the machine; while “wilderness” might be thought of as the organic worlds of the living that the Leviathan creates and attempts to dominate. 

My thesis above will take us through the lives of animals living in zoos, or ghettoized into “wilderness areas,” or preserves, as well as people living on the frontiers of expanding machine civilization. We will hear from people living in the toxic sacrifice zones in the United States, the rainforests of Borneo and Malaysia, as well as discuss non-humans within environmental governance and these sites and case studies will be employed to argue that states of nature, as Hobbes would have them, materialize and manifest through the actions of the Leviathan. Further, I argue that “civilization” and “wilderness” contain one another such that they can neither be separated from each other conceptually, nor materially. The reader will have to bear with me on that argument as I did not ask the course to read Lewis Mumford – a friend of MacKaye’s, nor Theodore Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, however both are speaking in the background concerning the remark above. In short, one must define “wilderness” through “civilization” or its derivatives, and one cannot help but recognize that “wildernesses” are material zones created by civilization and its politics. Thus, as the state attempts to rid itself of wildness, it simply creates “wildernesses” elsewhere in its material being through its needs for expansion. This means that one of the key arguments for sovereign power and its artificial rule over the living, the wild or the nonhuman, lacks a credible justification both conceptually and in practice. We may, after this examination, if it is sound, conclude that the Leviathan does not end the state of nature, but in fact extends and energizes it through manifesting multiple “states of nature” where life may be “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Hobbes wrote.

Flipping Hobbes on his Head: A Lesson in Political Ninjutsu:

Stated above, this course attempts to refute Hobbes on his own terms. This is a lesson in political ninjutsu in that I will attempt to use the weight of Hobbes’ own argument against him in what’s commonly known as immanent critique, but I’ll call kubi-nage.

In short, my aim is to show that lives under the Leviathan are of the quality in the quote above, and are the way they are because of the Leviathan. This statement should not be taken universally. I am not arguing that everyone is worse off, but that some lifeforms are the way they are because of the Sovereign. Furthermore, those living within States of Nature, or civilizational wildernesses have no reason to bind themselves to the Leviathan as it is the Leviathan that threatens their lives by placing them in a state of nature. First, however, it is necessary to examine Hobbes, and to correct a minor misperception of his thought commonly found in political discussion. 

Hobbes is not interested in justice per se. He is interested in peace. Writing before spell-check, and during the crumbling English Monarchy that ruled much of what we know as the UK today, he advanced a social contract theory for why there ought to be a sovereign power to bring order to a chaotic world by keeping men “in awe,” of its power. That is, Hobbes is principally worried about the social, political, and ethical stakes within the war he watches from self-imposed exile in Paris and the shape of the state taking form through the crucible of civil war. Much of political philosophy these days is concerned with questions of justice. That is, questions concerning how society ought to be constituted such that we could call them “just.” You have many people working on those questions stretching from Plato, to Locke, to Kant, to Marx, to John Rawls, Robert Nozick…and that’s just a very small selection from “Western” or “Occidental” philosophy. This is not so with Hobbes – or downplayed, at the least: 

“Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.”

There is much to unpack in the above and I shall do so in the following steps: (1) Hobbes’ conception of agential rationality is a condition found within the State of Nature; (2) The State of Nature is a condition of perpetual warfare related to individual sovereignty; (3) Peace is distinct from Justice in Commonwealth as Hobbes sees it. 

I turn to Hobbes’ conception of agents as they exist within his State of Nature to give an overview that will serve us going forward. Specifically, agents within the state of nature are at constant odds with one another such that it is impossible – really more improbable, but I’ll give Hobbes some leeway – for agreements (or covenants, as he calls them) to stabilize and be fulfilled. This is because he conceives the State of Nature through notions of scarcity in which all must struggle for their existence because resources themselves are scarce and, he thinks, cannot be held in common. Resources cannot be held in common because agents have no reason to trust one another as all are locked in competition. This condition of distrust is called diffidence and is used a little differently than it is today. For Hobbes, and for us in our course, diffidence is the condition of being distrustful of others but not overly hostile. It’s the feeling you get when someone is telling you something and you question whether their motives are true or if they are merely trying to get something from you. This is critical for us and Hobbes because characterizing his agents in this way, leads him to conclude that no covenants made between agents would carry the force of promise as all agents are aware that they are locked in their struggle for existence. In other words, people simply can’t and won’t trust each other as a condition of being rational given their conditions. 

Diffidence is a central feature of the State of Nature (SON) and this means that the SON is a state in which people cannot and will not trust each other. This is a problem for Hobbes in that it means people will be unwilling to make promises and it is here that he thinks any sort of community-wide and larger scale economies will suffer, if not fail to exist. Think about it: How would any economic activity gain any purchase in a world where your partner, who you rely on, can just walk away or fail to deliver? Hobbes answers that it wouldn’t be possible for “society” to exist because “industry” would suffer and thus agential satisfaction in life would diminish compared to a state in which the force of covenants and covenant-making is grounded in the rule of law and the right to lethal force by some power greater than any one human. 

Following the above, accumulation of resources, wealth-building, any of those activities associated with the accumulation and capture of anything broadly construed as “capital” would be frustrated because anyone has the potential to rob or go to war against the wealthy accumulators for resources and survival. This is the condition of perpetual war characterizing the State of Nature for Hobbes within which no one will benefit from holding wealth as it is an attractive nuisance for bandits or other brigunds who would take it for themselves. Thus, one is at arms with one another at all times in the SON because agents cannot trust one another and they have reason to fear one another through the loss of their means of survival. It is the rule of law for Hobbes that would serve as a guarantor for covenants made but this law cannot be composed of empty formalisms and must have the power of lethal force behind them for any agent to trust one another. Without this trust, without the rule of law backed by lethal force, there is nothing that will, for Hobbes, allow for the creation of a society grounded in the accumulation of wealth and the concentration of political power. 

There are a few things that fall out of the rationale above. First, the condition of the State of Nature is not anything real in the sense that he’s not thinking about some actual state, but is using this as a heuristic for thinking – it’s a thought experiment for those familiar with the term – and this is actually a moral justification for the Leviathan as it concerns the shape of civilization as a state to be achieved for the purposes of human excellence (notice the second to last sentence): 

“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.”

And that this excellence is grounded in political economy – the circulation of things – commodities in particular. This means that the moral justification for Sovereign power is grounded in an appeal to economic expansion which he believes to be a good for any agent concerned as it helps alleviate the suffering caused by scarcity

Secondly, he grounds his justification for the Sovereign in a desire to advance the conditions of humanity beyond the simple fulfillment of needs and propels it to the height culture that might come through the conditions of peace brought about through the reign of the Leviathan – a recognition of Justice: 

“To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be Unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice. Force, and Fraud, are in warre the two Cardinall vertues. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of the Body, nor Mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his Senses, and Passions. They are Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude.”

That is, it is only through the condition of peace raising humanity out of the State of Nature, that humanity can come to understand and contemplate morality and justice. Without the stability provided through the Sovereign, there can be no notion of justice, and no notion of morality for Hobbes. 

Thirdly, from the above, he thinks that the conditions of war in the SON will lead people to need a sovereign power to bind them together and keep them in awe. In other words, big brother is a necessity to keep the siblings from killing each other and taking each other’s spouses – because that sort of thing can be owned apparently. The power created through the mutual confederation of actors within the SON is to lift them collectively into an artificial unity we would recognize as a collective person – a corporation or a state in this instance – and this collective person is endowed with unlimited power to keep the peace and thus preserve the conditions of economy and political power:  

“This is more than Consent, or Concord; it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person, made by Covenant of every man with every man, in such manner, as if every man should say to every man, “I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner.” This done, the Multitude so united in one Person, is called a COMMON-WEALTH, in latine CIVITAS. This is the Generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speake more reverently) of that Mortall God, to which wee owe under the Immortall God, our peace and defence. For by this Authoritie, given him by every particular man in the Common-Wealth, he hath the use of so much Power and Strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is inabled to forme the wills of them all, to Peace at home, and mutuall ayd against their enemies abroad.”   

Thus it is a necessary condition of the Leviathan that all agents forgo their naturally endowed abilities to use lethal force against one another and bestow that power upon the collective, artificial person of the State. It is then, and only then, that the State of Nature is escaped and that humanity can work together in concord for the attainment of higher truths, such as justice and morality. Without the Sovereign keeping “men in awe,” there will be nothing but war of all against all and the State of Nature will be the “natural” condition of humanity. But what is the “natural” condition of the Leviathan? I argue it is the condition of artifice, following Hobbes and working through MacKaye. 

300 Years Later:

MacKaye is not going to receive lengthy treatment below in the detail to which I have tended to Hobbes. He was largely ignored in his life despite his contributions to our world, not the least being a “wilderness highway” through the Appalachian Mountain chain, known as the Appalachian Trail. It was not he who built it, but a retired admiralty lawyer named Avery who was apparently a jerk to work with. I’ll leave those remarks here. 

We’re looking at MacKaye for his fine vision of what “Civilization” is  and how “Wilderness” is wrapped up in the term as well as its material organization. As a planner, MacKaye is concerned with developing the material infrastructures of civilization that provide the real conduits of lived experience not only in rural Appalachia but across the world. He sees himself as a sort of engineer in a way, who is concerned with how to produce a specific type of culture – a wilderness culture. He does not believe that “the wilderness” has been conquered, nor does he believe that it can be regardless of how urban we become as a planet. Instead of looking for “wilderness” as composed of streams and rocks and animals, or otherwise “untouched” spaces, he finds it in the material structure of civilization itself: “The very conquering of one wilderness has been the weaving of another. Mankind has cleared the jungle and replaced it by a labyrinth. Through the sudden potent operation of industrial revolution a maze of iron bands has now been spun around the earth; this forms the modern labyrinth of ‘industrial civilization.’ And the unraveling of this tangled web is the problem of our day (5).” He does not see the end of scarcity within the materiality of civilization but understands that those structures, networks, and other means of procuring goods the world over are the very things that characterize a civilization. 

Furthermore, MacKaye sees different lifeforms arising from how things are organized and brings his regional view to bear on understanding the movement of people and things throughout space: “Two-thirds of this stream is made up of that product of metropolitanism known as the commuter, a somewhat human species which, to quote the press, is carried each day ‘from places where they would rather not live to places where they would rather not work and back again.” That is, the quality and character of life and the living within “civilization” can and does yield life-forms distinct from others known previously. In this sense, the Leviathan is a lifeform of political power presiding over the flows that keep it alive, as Hobbes argues, while making and remaking the conditions for life and the living within civilization. 

One should notice that it is the flow of things throughout space that makes MacKaye think and consider the material shape of lived experience in civilization. The flows of these things, he observes, tends to go from the rural to the metropolis – the mother of cities, that then expands the world over. The flows of things and the machines upon and through which they flow form the material basis of civilization and it to those material bases that we will attend in this class. However, it is important to recognize that “civilization” for MacKaye, while grounded in materiality, is both global in its reach (12-13) and “psychic,” or psychological in the sense that it must promote humanity to higher culture (21). How things flow, where, when and to whom, these are political dimensions MacKaye writes into his thinking and must, as he argues, be considered when planning for its expansion and maintenance. He claims that this is a concern of environment

MacKaye thinks of environment as more than just bushes, atmospheric carbon loading, hypoxic dead zones, grizzly bears… and understands it as that from which humanity draws its creativity and strength – its culture: 

“These are enough for the ‘material fact,’ but not for the ‘spiritual form.’ They are enough for a mechanical state of ‘civilization,’ but not for a living ‘culture.’ Man needs more than this to cover God’s green earth if he would be a soul. He needs just one thing further. He needs it in his home and dooryard; he needs it within his community; he needs it throughout his country as his planet. It is the right kind of environment (29).”

That is, the environment for MacKaye is more than the physical stuff of it, but also how that physical stuff affects people and communities. He juxtaposes two environments to show the nuances in his thought: the indigenous, and the metropolitan, and choses the former as the true seat of human consciousness and culture. To the latter, he understands it as the dizzying array of technologies used for the acquisition of matter, men and thought that reproduces the mechanized formation of global civilization (39, 44-45). To the former, he sees a parasitism, or an invasion occurring by the metropolitan into the indigenous (95, 99). In the expansion of the Leviathan – that of metropolitan civilization, MacKaye observes assimilation or extermination of whole worlds based on how things flow (108).

MacKaye and Hobbes both recognize something in the indigenous, however it is MacKaye who recognizes the dynamics of assimilation and domestication as part and parcel of metropolitan expansion “The indigenous civilization of the North American Indian was no match for that of the iron horse or of the covered wagon, nor could the early cultures of Mexico or Peru stand up against the forces of Cortez or of Pizarro. These peoples have been in part assimilated, in part annihilated (108),” as part of the civilizational project. Hobbes also observed that not everyone the world over lives in civilization and made a common remark for the time, that compared Native Americans to savages and brutes living in a State of Nature: 

“It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places, where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small Families, the concord whereof dependeth on naturall lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before. Howsoever, it may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were no common Power to feare; by the manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peacefull government, use to degenerate into, in a civill Warre.”

The true and deep thing that separates humanity from animals, for Hobbes, is the ability to create artifice and to be ruled by it. Taking Aristotle’s observation that there are social animals, such as bees, that live in cooperation with one another Hobbes remarks “Lastly, the agreement of these creatures is Naturall; that of men, is by Covenant only, which is Artificiall: and therefore it is no wonder if there be somewhat else required (besides Covenant) to make their Agreement constant and lasting; which is a Common Power, to keep them in awe, and to direct their actions to the Common Benefit.” For MacKaye, that common benefit is environment. “The dormant conflict of indigenous vs. metropolitan is a struggle for home and for space: it is a struggle for a liveable environment…Environment, or the space in which to live, is as humanly fundamental as leisure, or the time in which to live; but the struggle being made for ‘space’ is as sickly and puny as the struggle made for “time” is as vigorous and violent. We seek not that the struggle for environment should ever become violent, but we seek that it should become conscious and deliberate (115-116).” His central point is that mechanized civilization is a Leviathan that directs the activities and energies of humanity huddled in cities and working the fields, or the mines, or docks or load ports that keeps the massive machine of civilization itself going. The struggle for environment is witnessed at the edges of the Leviathan’s expansion into the indigenous world and that expansion signals the death of culture and ossification and decay of lifeforms (215-225). It is at the edges that we look for evidence of the State of Nature created by the Leviathan following MacKaye: “The forces set loose in the jungle of our present civilization may prove more fierce than any beasts found in the jungle of the continents – far more terrible than any storms encountered within uncharted seas (226).” This course will argue that it is the Leviathan who authors environment and has the power to unleash wildness and create states of nature.