George Walford: Of Warre and Peace and Hinges

Warre and Peace
Thomas Hobbes gained fame with his philosophising and notoriety with some sour comments on societies without government, including this: “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.” [1] Marshall Sahlins suggests he may have written with a meaning more subtle than we always realise [2]

When Hobbes spoke of “Warre” he did not mean simply fighting but rather a disposition to fight and the right to do so when considered necessary. To quote
Leviathan again: “For Warre consisteth not in Battell only, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known… the nature of War, consisteth not in actual fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.
All other time is PEACE.”

By Warre Hobbes did not mean war, but a social condition in which each person can legitimately resort to force, there being no overriding power to prevent them doing so. It does not follow that they will in fact fight. Sahlins points out that a Hopi pueblo is about as nonbelligerent as a community can be, while the United States suffer from a level of internal violence almost without parallel. But the US citizens, unlike the Hopi, have what Hobbes called “a common Power to keep them all in awe,” namely the state. They therefore live in a condition of peace while the Hopi, without a sovereign political and moral authority, having each of them the right to use force and do “battell,” live in a condition of Warre.

The Hopi do not fight much among themselves and the nature of their community has a lot to do with this; their kin groupings usually succeed in suppressing feuding and they also have economic, social and ritual institutions which conduce to good order. Yet these arrangements, not possessing the monopoly of force which marks the state, are able to do their job only because no deep divisions appear among the people; ethnically united, they all live in much the same way and share the same occupations. A civilisation is a different matter. Divided by ethnic origin, occupation, religion, income and privilege, in the absence of overriding power the system would collapse into a chaotic welter of sedition, factionalism and civil war. Sahlins concludes that “The cultural richness that we call civilization has to be instituted in state form,” and opponents of the state come close to agreement with him when they specify, as the condition for a non-state society, general agreement that peaceful co-existence should be valued above these other interests. Until that agreement has been established we do seem to be better off with the state than without it.

[1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.
[2] Marshall D. Sahlins 1968 Tribesmen Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall 4-5.

Hinges of History
In order to perceive the major steps in either social or ideological development one has to stand, so to speak, at sufficient distance from the events to lose sight of most of the details, for otherwise these obscure the larger movement. This procedure does not enjoy universal approval. The details, one hears, carry significance; overlooking them means losing the specificity of the event or the conditions.

The argument has value so long as it resists any tendency to submerge the details permanently under the general. Taking it to the point of asserting that only the details possess reality lands the speaker in an absurdity which comes to light as soon as one looks at all closely at these details, for examination reveals every one of them as itself a generalisation. This appears, for example, each time a historian tries to get beyond the general statement “a revolution took place,” seeking to penetrate to what really happened. In principle, if seldom in practice, the investigator can break down “the people” who forced the ruler to abdicate into their constituent groups, trace each of these to its home village and show the conditions – cultural, historical, ideological, econ- omic or whatever – that produced dissatisfaction there. But only by arbitrary decision does the analysis halt at this point, for each local group comprises individual people; the real details consist of the various actions of each one of these. But do they? Each of those actions in turn consists of its psychological, physiological and physical components, and to trace these would take the investigation out of the field of even the most resolutely detail-oriented historian.

Final reality does not emerge at any point in progressive analysis, and neither does it disappear at any point in progressive synthesis. We can decide on the “right” level of generality only by considering the purpose in view, and when we have set out to study the behaviour of society as a whole it comes high on the scale.

from Ideological Commentary 55, Spring 1992.