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544. Before completion (II)

Hobbes has a ferocious reputation. His name is most associated with the view that life is nasty, brutish, and short—and yet it is Hobbesian philosophy that led to the West’s contemporary health and safety culture. It is always difficult to attribute an idea to one man, so many ideas have been around for thousands of years; yet certain men take these ideas and refine them into a form that changes reality—and Hobbes was such a man.

At first, contemporary health and safety culture seems to be the opposite to Hobbes’s philosophy. Hobbes developed his philosophy—quite physiological and hardly metaphysical—during the English Civil War. His concern was to avoid blood and fire, though his most famous work is named after the fearsome Leviathan. However, Hobbes was very concerned to avoid civil wars, bloodshed, and disruption; and his political ideas were designed to prevent just such events.

Hobbes saw that disputes over how to live—over the good life—led to tremendous wars, the wars of religion. The English Civil War showed this to be so, as did the many wars between Catholics and Protestants that then dogged Europe. How to end this great evil? Hobbes said that all men, whatever their persuasion, can agree that it is bad to lose your life and property. Hence a state built on a practical concern over material loss, rather than airy-fairy metaphysical notions about the Trinity (whether it existed or no), would avoid fierce religious disputations. Hobbes made a step towards what is today normative in the West, a situation whereby religious concerns are “privatised”—the state has no metaphysical view, it exists to preserve life and property; and this is true even in Britain, nominally a Christian country but for centuries de facto a state that only concerns itself with material existence.

This view is in some ways ingenious and it is related to the Machiavellian idea—the scientific idea—that you should watch what people do and not what they say, then act so as to be effective. However, an unforeseen drawback has been the way the Hobbesian principle has developed. When you see policemen in Canada shove their way into a church to enforce Covid-19 regulations you see Hobbesian men. Although old-style Christians might say the police act in a Satanic way, the police genuinely have no view as to whether the service has metaphysical value—the policeman who enforces the edict may or may not believe that a wafer confers some spiritual beneficence on the congregation, but he knows that the state exists to protect life and property.

The policeman knows that really the priest, the vicar, the rabbi, and so on all accept the germ theory of disease. Whatever they think they do in their “sacred spaces” is their business, whether the wafer turns into the body of Jesus we cannot reach common agreement over—we can say that fifty people in an enclosed space during a pandemic could spread disease, just as a man who waved a sword about in a pub could injure and kill people.

Hence the state must take action to protect life and limb in a new spirit, the spirit of health and safety; it is just that Hobbes never conceived that his principles would lead to such micromanagement—and not just micromanagement during a pandemic, the general “health and safety” culture that has existed for decades springs from the idea that the state’s role is to prevent injury and death. It is just that the ambit has steadily increased over the centuries, especially as the state successfully suppressed highway robbers and general banditry—and so expanded to find new threats to human security. A “health and safety culture” is not a substitute religion, it is more like an anti-religion; it starts as a purely practical concern, prides itself on its clever separation from religion, and yet eventually begins to rearrange the entire social structure around itself—around a negation, the absence of danger and death.


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