TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Conscription through the Eyes of Hobbes and Schmitt

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Beau Mullen looks at Gabriella Slomp’s “Thomas Hobbes, Carl Schmitt, and the Event of Conscription” from Telos 147 (Summer 2009).

As Gabriella Slomp points out in the opening of her article “Thomas Hobbes, Carl Schmitt, and the Event of Conscription,” scholars are split on how to view the relationship between Hobbes and Schmitt. Some see Schmitt as Hobbes’s heir apparent, while others think that Schmitt’s thinking is in fact a rejection of much of Hobbes’s work. Both thinkers emphasize man’s warlike nature, they hold that the state exists to protect men from violent death at the hands of other men, and they maintain that a strong state with unlimited power is best suited to this aim. Both agree that man has an obligation to the state that is reciprocal to the duty of the state to provide security. In this piece, Slomp examines both Schmitt’s and Hobbes’s views of the extent of this obligation and comes to the conclusion that the two are in fact in disagreement. Using their writings on conscription, Slomp reveals that Hobbes has much more concern for the sovereignty of the individual whereas Schmitt never wavers in his affording primacy to the group or state.

Slomp points to Hobbes’s claim that an individual’s duty of self-preservation could limit his civil obligation. Conscription, of course, requires that an individual put the needs of the state before his own and may ultimately result in violent death; the very end that the state is meant to protect against. While Hobbes does not go so far as to suggest that conscription is unjust, he does set out circumstances under which disobeying conscription is just. Slomp details Hobbes’s two concerns that would necessitate limitations on civil obedience: self-preservation and salvation (151). Slomp points to these limitations arising from self-interest that Hobbes sets on civil obligation as evidence that his thought is in fact proto-liberal (163).

Turning first to the concern of self-preservation, Slomp emphasizes that in Hobbes’s world, the avoidance of violent death is understood to be man’s primary concern. This concern for self-preservation can trump one’s obligation to the state. She quotes Hobbes, who wrote that;

Upon this ground a man that is commanded as a soldier to fight against the enemy, though his sovereign have right enough to punish his refusal with death, may nevertheless in many cases refuse, without injustice; as when he substitutith a sufficient soldier in his place: for in this case he deserteth not the service of the Commonwealth. And there is an allowance to be made for natural timorousness, not only to women (of whom no such dangerous duty is expected), but also to men of feminine courage. When armies fight, there is on one side, or both, a running away; yet when they do it not out of treachery, but fear, they are not esttemed to do it unjustly, but dishonorably. For the same reason, to avoid battle is not injustice, but cowardice. (Hobbes quoted in Slomp, 153)

In the same passage, Hobbes does add the proviso that once a soldier accepts payment or otherwise enlists himself, he undertakes an obligation to fight and obey orders (153).

Next, Slomp views Hobbes’s limits on civil obedience set by salvation. Simply put, Hobbes contends that citizens should not obey the state if doing so would imperil their salvation (154). She quotes Hobbes in Leviathan: “Subjects owe to sovereigns simple obedience in all things wherein their obedience is not repugnant to the laws of God” (Slomp quoting Hobbes, 154). At first glance, one could come to the conclusion that Hobbes is giving citizens a formidable excuse to disobey the sovereign, particularly when the sovereign commands them to take up arms or to kill. In fact, Slomp admits, taken prima facie, the limit put on civil obedience by salvation seriously undermines Hobbes’s theory of the citizen’s obligation to the sovereign, even rendering it inconsistent.

Hobbes, however, has a very narrow view of what constitutes endangering salvation. Slomp quotes Hobbes’s criteria for salvation as the possession of “two virtues, faith in Christ, and obedience to laws” (Slomp quoting Hobbes, 155). As these two virtues are seen by Hobbes to be inseparable, the result is an obligation to obey the sovereign’s every law, including those of conscription. The only command in Hobbes’s view, it seems, that the citizens would be obliged to disobey would be one that literally asks them to renounce their faith in Christ. This very narrow conception of what is required for salvation coupled with the belief that it is the moral duty of the Christian to obey the sovereign leaves very little (in Hobbes’s era, realistically none) opportunity for the citizen to disobey the sovereign justly on the grounds that doing so imperils salvation. However, this does acknowledge a separation between the public and the private wills, a concession that will be crucial to Schmitt’s analysis of the subject.

Slomp then turns her eye to Schmitt’s views on Hobbes’s limitations on civil obedience, noting first that Schmitt wholeheartedly accepts Hobbes’s protection/obligation principle. Schmitt, however, rejects the salvation limitation, narrow as it is, seeing it as undermining the very premise of the protection/obligation principle (161). In Schmitt’s view, Hobbes’s putting the inner faith of citizens in a realm that is separate from outer confession, a realm that is out of the reach of the sovereign, he is allowing a crack, albeit minute, in the structure of the sovereign’s power that in time could grow to a chasm. According to Slomp, “He claims that by allowing the separation between inner faith and outer confession, between internal and external, between private and public, Hobbes provides the sort of environment in which liberal thought can develop and, in turn, undermine the unity of politics and religion and compromise domestic peace” (161). Schmitt takes this position, Slomp adds, citing his Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, with the opinion that the salvation limitation does nothing to restrict the sovereign’s power, objecting to it on the grounds that it is individualistic and proto-liberal.

In this case of conscription, it appears that Schmitt sees no reason that an obligation to take up arms called for by the state for reasons of emergency can be denied. Where Hobbes allows for the individual to weigh his own private emergency against the public emergency that necessitates his conscription, Schmitt acknowledges no such concession. While both Hobbes and Schmitt recognize the right of the sovereign to use conscription, Schmitt sees no right for the individual to disobey or challenge it, particularly for reasons of his own self-preservation or dignity (163). Slomp writes that “[a]n analysis of this concept (the event of conscription) exposes the ideological distance between Hobbes and Schmitt by bringing to the fore Hobbes’s commitment to the individual vis-à-vis Schmitt’s commitment to the group” (164). The fundamental difference in Schmitt’s and Hobbes’s views of the proper aim of the individual in the state; for Hobbes the primary aim is self-preservation whereas for Schmitt it is the preservation of the state. Hobbes’s proto-liberal concerns for the individual are the seeds of what Schmitt sees as the crisis of the twentieth-century liberal state.

Slomp’s piece contributes not only to the debate on Schmitt and Hobbes by putting forth evidence of their contrariness but in the process highlights the creeping individualism found in Hobbes and the outright rejection of liberal principles found in Schmitt. In doing so Slomp shows two thinkers working at two distinct epochs of liberalism: Hobbes at its birth, and Schmitt at the point when it was most violently challenged.

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