Is the web now a scout and spy for the passions?

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thom...

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We often see the web as a place where people can share information and learn. In many ways, the web provides information in ways that break down traditional hierarchies as it allows information to be linked horizontally while traditional approaches to information were often found vertically which required going through a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper could be the physical distance from the information as well as a person or institution that controlled access. Now, the web allows people to search for information and connected in ways that they choose. They can explore and investigate issues that interest them and feed their appetite or thirst for knowledge and information. The web allows us to pursue those interests better than any previous era.

Democratic access to knowledge and our appetites

Unlike any previous era, the web has opened up opportunities and knowledge for the average person that would have only been available to the wealthy and the connected. The average person can follow their intellectual interests and their passions faster than previously. By democratising our access, the web has also allowed something implicit within the human person to become explicit or at least provide it with more capacity. The web has allowed our thoughts to become scouts and spies for our passions. The phrase, taken from Thomas, an English philosopher, suggests the way that our intellect serves our passions.

Pursue power or pointless proclivities?

In his most famous book, The Leviathan, Hobbes raised this point in his discussion on the intellectual virtues. In chapter 8, Of the Virtues Commonly Called Intellectual and Their contrary Defect, he argued that all men want to pursue power, riches, knowledge and honour but all of these can be reduce to the pursuit of power. If a man does not pursue these with his thoughts then, he may as well be dead because if his interests go to less important or inconsequential matters, then he is less than fully human. In making this argument Hobbes argues that our thoughts become the scouts and spies for the passions. Our thoughts work for our passion, the passion to pursue (and obtain) power or some other passion.

“For the thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies to range abroad and find the way to the things desired, all steadiness of the mind’s motion, and all quickness of the same, proceeding from thence.”

The web is almost a purpose built mechanism to be a scout and spy for our desires. The search engines allow us to fulfil our desires either for gossip, titillation, sexual gratification and occasionally curiosity and learning. In some cases, they can be used for the pursuit of power. However, this appears to be rare because of the dominance of the other goals for the average person. Technology, it would appear, has enhanced our reason so that it serves our desires rather than reason directing and ordering our passions. Moreover, it does not direct us towards power but the less important interests.

If you do not pursue power you may as well be dead

Hobbes continues by explaining that without the desire for power, man may has well be dead. Yet, if an individual pursue those other goals, the entertainments, the web may unleash the flaws within the person. We start to explore for the weirdest, the most extreme, and the most outlandish beyond our usual needs.

“For as to have no desire is to be dead; so to have weak passions is dullness; and to have passions indifferently for everything, giddiness and distraction; and to have stronger and more vehement passions for anything than is ordinarily seen in others is that which men call madness.”

The web does introduce a type of madness in individuals in two ways. First, it introduces them to goals other than the pursuit of power. Second, it encourages people to pursue their passions in a disordered manner such as narcissism.

Whereof there be almost as many kinds as of the passions themselves. Sometimes the extraordinary and extravagant passion proceedeth from the evil constitution of the organs of the body, or harm done them; and sometimes the hurt, and indisposition of the organs, is caused by the vehemence or long continuance of the passion. But in both cases the madness is of one and the same nature.

If we apply Hobbes to our current condition, we see in him a description of the narcissism of the web and the way the web disillusions the mind. In that sense, the web creates a solipsistic syndrome where the individual is either full self-conceit or simply disillusioned and depressed by it.

The passion whose violence or continuance maketh madness is either great vainglory, which is commonly called pride and self-conceit, or great dejection of mind.

However, the problem is not the solipsistic syndrome by itself. The deeper problem for Hobbes, and for us, is that when man is not pursuing power, his pursuits of experiences that confirm his pride lead to anger. When the life on the web does not correspond to his reality, he becomes angry.

Pride subjecteth a man to anger, the excess whereof is the madness called rage, and fury. And thus it comes to pass that excessive desire of revenge, when it becomes habitual, hurteth the organs, and becomes rage: that excessive love, with jealousy, becomes also rage: excessive opinion of a man’s own self, for divine inspiration, for wisdom, learning, form, and the like, becomes distraction and giddiness: the same, joined with envy, rage: vehement opinion of the truth of anything, contradicted by others, rage.

Thus Hobbes helps us to understand how our experience on the web is translated into behaviours in the physical domain. The deeper challenge, though, that Hobbes reminds us of is that the liberalism he created unleashes that pride and therefore needs to be restrained. Hobbes created a restraint in the form of the Leviathan. Today that Leviathan is in danger and is unable to restrain the passions that have been unleashed by technology. The forces unleashed by undirected pride cannot be contained by the commonwealth. The Leviathan is literally being consumed from within as each individual wants to exercise their unlimited pride and demands that the Leviathan enable it rather than restrain it. Each person, through their technological augmentation, or rather the web’s promise of such power, demands that their pride be satisfied. The digital domain might be able to entertain such notions, but the physical domain cannot.

I want to be the judge in my own case, what could be wrong with that?

We can see such prideful thinking today in the logic that supports Edward Snowden and other web libertarians. They demand that the physical world reflect their vision, and behaviour, in the digital domain where they can be the judges in their own case. When their pursuits, for which they are lauded and glorified, do not translate into power, for they have not pursued political power, they become angry and resentful. They then believe that the sovereign state represses their ability to translate their digital status into the physical domain. They have judged themselves worthy, and others have acknowledged their status, so the only thing that stands in the way of their pride, in this view, is the Leviathan. We can see this thinking encouraged by theorists like Corey Robbin. In his article on failed Hobbesian states he appears to make the claim that the sovereign state, according to Hobbes, forbids us from holding our own opinions or being the judges in our own cases. His argument suggests that the Leviathan is going to determine our thoughts. However, the passage he cites (below) to support this view means the opposite. The Leviathan only becomes involved in doubtful cases concerning the interpretation of miracles, hardly the same as discussing personal safety, and it only suggests that the Sovereign is the only neutral judge in such matters. In other words, individuals need to offer their disputes to the sovereign, a third party, to avoid a partisan decision as an individual will not be neutral in judging their own case.

The individual judges what is best for society?

The alternative, which Robbin appears to be suggesting, is the solipsistic syndrome, where each individual will judge what is best in their own cases which leads to anarchy. The approach denies that the community or the sovereign, is empowered to determine peace or war and right or wrong for the community. The individual need only pursue what they believe to be right, they only need to follow their passions, be the judges of their own case. Curiously, Robbin fails to realize that such an approach, if it were true, would lead us back to the point that Hobbes wanted to avoid: the state of nature.

Does a sovereign take away our private thoughts or our public acts?

Robbin says that the sovereign is taking away our ability to decide what might threaten us. We cannot judge what a threat is and therefore the sovereign must decide for us.

The only solution to this problem, Hobbes concludes, is to create an all-powerful sovereign to whom we cede this basic right — not the right to defend ourselves from certain and immediate danger (a right no one can rationally cede) but the right to be the judge of what might threaten us and of what actions we will take to protect ourselves from what might threaten us. When we submit to sovereign power, Hobbes says in Elements of Law, we are forbidden “to be our own judges” of our security, for the sovereign, Hobbes adds in Leviathan, is he “to whom in all doubtfull cases, wee have submitted our private judgments.” [emphasis added]

The passage appears to distort what Hobbes meant. When we look at Robbin’s use of Elements of the Law quotation, we begin to see what appears to be the problem. In Chapter 17 there is only one reference to being forbidden to be our own judges and it does not relate to security. The social contract is predicated on the idea that we give up our private decisions to create a community so that we will not have to live with the constant threat that exemplifies the state of nature.

Here is the reference being our own judges in chapter 17 of the Elements of the Laws.

For every man’s passion weigheth heavy in his own scale, but not in the scale of his neighbour. And this rule is very well known and expressed by this old dictate, Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris. [Do unto others as you would have them do unto you [Translated by Google]]

10. These laws of nature, the sum whereof consisteth in forbidding us to be our own judges, and our own carvers, and in commanding us to accommodate one another; in case they should be observed by some, and not by others, would make the observers but a prey to them that should neglect them; leaving the good, both without defence against the wicked, and also with a charge to assist them: which is against the scope of the said laws, that are made only for the protection and defence of them that keep them.

What we find is that it is not the sovereign that forbids us from being our own judges, but the laws of nature. In other words, the proper application of reason in accordance with nature tells us that we cannot judge in our own case. The passage is explaining the basic rule of fairness or justice; you cannot judge your own case. The law is designed to protect those who obey them and punish those who disobey. We can still decide if we have been injured and whether we wish to bring our case to court, before the sovereign, as we still retain our freedom in this regard.

Can we have peace and order if every one judges their own case?

The second problem is that the reference that we must submit our private judgements to the sovereign is taken out of context. The section from which it is taken is not focused on security or on private judgement simply. The section covers a specific issue where private judgements must be offered to an arbiter to avoid greater problems. To understand this quotation, we have to turn to chapter 37 of the Leviathan where the quotation is found. The section is about miracles and man is only giving up his judgement about religious dogma which the sovereign, per chapter 18, must monitor for the danger of threat to public order or safety. It is not that man must give up his judgement about his security, he has given up his judgement to the sovereign on doubtful cases regarding whether something is a miracle.

And when that is done, the thing they pretend to be a miracle, we must both see it done and use all means possible to consider whether it be really done; and not only so, but whether it be such as no man can do the like by his natural power, but that it requires the immediate hand of God. And in this also we must have recourse to God’s lieutenant, to whom in all doubtful cases we have submitted our private judgements. For example, if a man pretend that after certain words spoken over a piece of bread, that presently God hath made it not bread, but a god, or a man, or both, and nevertheless it looketh still as like bread as ever it did, there is no reason for any man to think it really done, nor consequently to fear him till he enquire of God by his vicar or lieutenant whether it be done or not.

The sovereign intervenes in doubtful matters concerning religious dogma rather than all private judgements. As Hobbes lived in an age of religion fuelled civil war, he understood how disputes involving religious dogma become a spark for violent conflict. Moreover, he argued in chapter 18 of the Leviathan that when man creaes the sovereign, the sovereign is given the power, the right, to determine public opinion on matters relating to public safety. In other words, the sovereign has responsibility to maintain public order, as no one individual can decide their own case regarding the public order lest a tyranny be created. The sovereign is not interested in what opinions are best as their only concern is for public opinions that threaten the public order.

Sixthly, it is annexed to the sovereignty to be judge of what opinions and doctrines are averse, and what conducing to peace; and consequently, on what occasions, how far, and what men are to be trusted withal in speaking to multitudes of people; and who shall examine the doctrines of all books before they be published. For the actions of men proceed from their opinions, and in the well governing of opinions consisteth the well governing of men’s actions in order to their peace and concord. ….It belonged therefore to him that hath the sovereign power to be judge, or constitute all judges of opinions and doctrines, as a thing necessary to peace; thereby to prevent discord and civil war.

The sovereign does not proscribe speech, but it will act to prevent speech that is dangerous to the public order. We can see that today as hate speech laws exist and statements that are libellous or slanderous or defamatory are outlawed. In this way, our speech is curbed and the sovereign has a role in determining those cases brought before it so that no one is a judge in their own case. Moreover, the issue is not simply speech; it is that speech leads to deeds. Thus, it is not speech or thought that is constrained it is the deeds that may follow from it.

Words and thoughts are safe but deeds are dangerous

The idea was developed by one of Hobbes’s contemporaries Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza explains in Chapter 20 of A Theologico-Political Treatise why speech and private judgements were defended by the state but not public acts that ran contrary to the state.

For, although mens free judgments are very diverse, each one thinking that he alone knows everything, and although complete unanimity of feeling and speech is out of the question, it is impossible to preserve peace, unless individuals abdicate their right of acting entirely on their own judgment. Therefore, the individual justly cedes the right of free action, though not of free reason and judgment; no one can act against the authorities without danger to the state, though his feelings and judgment may be at variance therewith; he may even speak against them, provided that he does so from rational conviction, not from fraud, anger, or hatred, and provided that he does not attempt to introduce any change on his private authority. [Emphasis added]

Robbin’s analysis of Hobbes appears to confirms the beliefs among the web libertarians that the sovereign is created solely to tell them what to think and how to act. The sovereign is only interested in how they act. Thoughts and speech are not the problem. Where they do become a possible problem is in national security, but this too reminds us of the sovereign’s limits. National security can justify intelligence collection system for electronic communication only to the extent that private statements or conspiracies can lead to public acts that threaten public safety.  Only in that circumstance, with a reasonable suspicious that such private judgements are linked to the reasonable threat of a public act, does the sovereign act. The sovereign, in other words, is doing its job to maintain the peace and stability needed to prosper. To that end, and that end alone, men consent to create a sovereign to protect their interests and make sure that no one is a judge in their own case.

Is the problem our pride or those who encourage rather than restrain it?

The web encourages a certain libertarian narcissism where people want to judge their own cases and they do not want to live by society’s obligations or rules. They want society to reflect their wishes and when it fails to react, they become angry. Their pride is injured so they claim either the sovereign is denying them their right to judge or their freedom of thought as it forces them to conform. In either case, their argument becomes one that the system is corrupt because their digital status is not reflected in the physical domain, which means the political system is broken. The physical world does not work on open access and the demand that it work like the digital domain forgets that the digital domain is a creature of the natural domain not the other way around no matter how hard they may wish for it. What compounds this problem is that those experienced in the world will encourage such thinking and encourage such behaviour at the expense of the young and idealistic. The web encourages the cynical exploitation of the solipsistic syndrome masked as youthful idealism. Once the deed occurs, those who encouraged it suddenly offer blame for a corrupt world masked as condolences.

The digital libertarians may yet learn to understand Hobbes’s lesson that all men pursue power and anything else, no matter how brilliant or how well received by the admiring crowd, is simply an entertainment.



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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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3 Responses to Is the web now a scout and spy for the passions?

  1. OGDEN M.R. says:

    Really interesting lawrence!

    Sent from Samsung tablet

    Philosophical Politics wrote:

    lawrence serewicz posted: ” We often see the web as a place where people can share information and learn. In many ways, the web provides information in ways that break down traditional hierarchies as it allows information to be linked horizontally while traditional approaches to”

    • Thanks. I am glad you found it interesting. The challenge is how a community deals with thoughts and speech that may or may not lead to acts. We assume that words are just words, but our laws often take our words to be acts, such as slander, libel and defamation. In that sense, we have moved beyond what Hobbes and Spinoza suggested, yet that raises secondary questions. If society has gone beyond Hobbes and Spinoza to restrain words when and why did that occur? If we restrain speech, do we restrain it as an act (political or not) or something of an injury to a person that is akin to an act because it affects their person in some manifest way?
      The web has brought these issues into greater relief as society wrestles with the idea of a right to be forgotten even though the origins or source of that right remain uncertain and perhaps, ultimately, contradictory. The danger, from an approach to rights in this way, is that they begin to reflect power (something Hobbes would have appreciated) rather than something intrinsic or natural to the person.

      Thanks for your comment.



  2. Pingback: Privacy and the political good. | Philosophical Politics

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