John Leland

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The State as Ultimate Authority- Leland vs. Hobbes

There is a tendency in the modern age to turn the nation state into the ultimate authority and arbiter among people. Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher who focused on political philosophy, remains deeply influential to this day. In his work, Leviathan, he proposes the “social contract” theory of governance in which basically sees the individual as ceding some powers to a controlling interest like the government in exchange for things like protection. What many fail to acknowledge is that Hobbes also felt this would be best implemented by an autocratic state with an absolute sovereign. Yet many modern political theorists continue to fall under this same spell of creating an absolute or ultimate authority of the nation state. Included in this is the presumption of secularism in which an alleged neutral secular government may arbitrate all governance and even international politics.

Moreover, as William Cavanaugh has rather convincingly argued in his The Myth of Religious Violence, what often happens in these cases is that violence is given over to the nation state and whatever violence is perpetuated by that nation state is sanctified as neutral and secular, therefore making it “right.”

Yet these concerns are not new. John Leland (1691-1766) addressed these concerns in his own discussion of Hobbes in his work, A View of the Principle Deistical Writers that Have Appeared in the Last and Present Century (1764):

In Mr. Hobbes we have a remarkable instance what strange extravagances men of wit and genius may fall into, who, whilst they value themselves upon their superior penetration, and laugh at popular errors and superstition, often give into notions so wild and ridiculous, as none of the people that govern themselves by plain common sense could be guilty of… Mr. Hobbes’ scheme strikes at the foundation of all religion… That it tendeth not only to subvert the authority of the scripture, but to destroy God’s moral administration…. it confoundeth the natural differences of good and evil… taketh away the distinction between the soul and the body, and the liberty of human actions…. [Hobbes’ deism] erecteth an absolute tyranny in the state and church, which it confounds, and maketh the will of the prince or governing power the sole standard of right and wrong… – 34-35.

Unpacking this point, we see that Leland argues that Hobbes’ system of government ironically does the very thing that he and many deistic writers of his time accused Christianity of doing–creating nation states where people were obligated to act or believe in certain ways by coercive force–while also going beyond it. Hobbes’ plan takes away any possibility of judging the nation state to be in the wrong. Instead, the “will of the prince or governing power” becomes the “sole standard of right and wrong.”

We see this problem today when nation states are given all authority to kill others. Vietnam, the war in Iraq, and many more examples could be raised. But criticism of such activities is often ceded to internal critique, and the ultimate arbiter is the decision of the nation state.

While some would argue that giving all power to the nation state makes a kind of neutral ground that allows for the flourishing of any worldview, the opposite is often the case, as nation states begin to thwart freedoms of the individuals in favor of the nation state’s supremacy. Though it is possible to arbitrate conflicts of worldview utilizing the nation state as a ground to do so, it also means that the nation state has final authority in such moral decisions.

Intriguingly, individuals often find themselves in the position of defending the actions of the nation state, even when they know that those actions may be wrong. Whether it is allegiance to a political party or person that becomes valued more highly than one’s own moral compass, people begin to dismiss or defend the nation state’s authority to determine right from wrong.

I believe Leland came out well on top of Hobbes and other deists throughout his exchange, and his warning ceding too much authority to the governing powers is well on point.

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SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Natural Law, human morality, and self-interest in Leland vs. Bolingbroke: A centuries-old discussion that remains relevant today

leland-viewJohn Leland’s (1691-1766) epic takedown of Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke’s (1678-1751) argument for natural law from a deistic perspective as found in Leland’s A View of the Principal Deistical Writers That Have Appeared in England in the Last and Present Century (available free online) is a wonder to behold. Leland’s work is a massive 2-Volume tome that basically surveys the entire field of the deistic controversy in the 18th century and provides not just an overview of the deists’ writings, but also response to them and extensive commentary on other written responses. In other words, the book is probably the single most valuable contemporary account of the deistic controversy that was written.

Leland deals extensively with Bolingbroke and engages nearly every part of Bolingbroke’s argument for deism. Here, I want to highlight one passage from Leland’s account:

Those may justly regard universal benevolence as a fundamental law of our nature, who suppose a social principle, and a benevolent disposition, distinct from self-love, to be an original disposition, natural to the human heart, and implanted by the Author of our beings; but if self-love be, as [Lord Bolingbroke] represents it, the only original spring of human actions, and the centre of the whole system, universal benevolence cannot be properly represented as the fundamental law of our nature. Upon this scheme the private interest of the individual, whenever it happens to come in competition with the public good, ought to be preferred.

The relevance of this very argument to modern debates over morality, particularly on atheistic schema, is immediately apparent. Without God, in a universe sans not just creation but also sans design, sans lawgiver, etc., it seems self-interest is really the only possible “ought” to be found. But if that is the case, why not acknowledge that morality in the best interest of “all” or “the group” is at best a fiction? Let’s not be mistaken; many atheists do acknowledge exactly that. But there remain holdouts, certain that a framework for discovering morality.

As Leland notes, however, it would be very difficult to get around the notion that without some kind of divine law or lawgiver, self-interest seemingly must become the basis for morality. Indeed, though Leland lived before Darwin, it would seem that non-theistic evolution would suggest this as well: self-preservation and the passing on of one’s genes as the greatest good. But if that is the case, it becomes clear that no matter how lofty our expectations or claims about morality become, when it comes down to it, self-interest will be the final arbiter of morality. If that is the case, then it becomes difficult to maintain that universal benevolence or some other good could be actually attainable on such a system.

Perhaps a counter-argument could be that we could set the goal at universal benevolence, but acknowledge the failings of the system. But if that is the case, it seems the failings of the system itself–allowing self-preservation/interest to be the true ultimate arbiter of morality–decries the system. The goal would become “universal benevolence, so long as it does not impede my self-interest” and that seems to be a very problematic way to view morality. Of course, one could simply bite the bullet and acknowledge this as the best possible moral system to offer without God. So be it.

Links

Historical Apologetics– Check out all my posts on historical apologetics.

For more reading on the psychological studies behind spanking, see Psychology Today as well as the summary article linked above (or here).

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for posts on Star Trek, science fiction, fantasy, books, sports, food, and more!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Really Recommended Posts 1/20/17- deism, geology, and more!

postHello dear readers! Sorry for the long absence from Really Recommended Posts. It’s been insanely busy, and with a baby due any day now, I may not have another of these for a bit. So enjoy the posts I have compiled here!

Young Earth Creationists arguing in circles– I’ve seen the claim made time and again: the fossils date the rocks, and the rocks date the fossils–it’s a circle! Young Earth Creationists frequently make this claim. Here is a look at one such instance of the claim and the facts behind the tools of geology.

Lies about Relics– An interesting look at the proliferation of relics in the Middle Ages, what Martin Luther had to say about them, and the meaning and usage of the term. I highly recommend readers subscribe to the Christian History magazine. It is free (donations encouraged) and excellent.

John Leland– John Leland was a pastor who wrote extensively on the deist controversy in the 17th and 18th centuries. He wrote a two-volume work that surveys the entire field, offering both exposition and refutation of the works of basically every major player in the controversy. Read more about him and his work here.

Herodotus, Osiris, Dionysus, and the Jesus Myth– A brief look at the historical method of those who claim Jesus is a myth, with a specific look at Herodotus and his discussion of Osiris and Dionysus.

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