“And what tune is it you pull to, men?” “A dead whale or a stove boat!”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
A hundred years ago, the word Leviathan would have struck most people as a name suited to a great steam ship. Such was the opinion of President Woodrow Wilson when he renamed the commandeered German liner Vaterland in 1917. It was a natural association, a hundred years ago, when men and women understood biblical references and knew Leviathan as a great, smoking creature of the deep.
Today, the word Leviathan will more likely to call to mind Thomas Hobbes’ famous book of political philosophy, published under that title in 1651. Few today have read the book, and not many more could say with any certainty just what it is about, but a fair number understand the word Leviathan as having something to do with the bloated modern state and its ubiquitous regulatory machinery. The word is a particular favorite among libertarians such as Murray Rothbard, who in a typical line decries “the great shift in the locus of power in America from the people . . . to the apparatus of the Leviathan state” (1).
This shift in popular meaning is hardly complete, but it is real and significant. It reveals most obviously our change from a religious to a political people. This is not to say that we have altogether lost the religious impulse, or that we are particularly skilled in politics, but that we are now accustomed to think in political categories and presume political references. At a somewhat deeper level, the shift reflects a change in what we fear, for as we will see, Leviathan is in every case a symbol of fearsome power.
The oldest detailed description of Leviathan is Job 41, where a beast of that name is described as an invincible, fire-breathing sea dragon. It is often said that this creature is a whale, but strict identity with the marine mammal is hard to reconcile with “rows of scales,” which on its underbelly “are like sharp potsherds,” or with possession of anything resembling a “neck.” The smoke that “goes out of his nostrils as from a boiling pot” may sound like whale spume, but no whale-watcher in my experience has reported that “a flame goes out his mouth.” What we have here is, in fact, no actual sea creature, but a mythological beast composed of the more fearsome aspects of a whale, a crocodile, and a volcano.
This beast is a symbol of the awful powers of natural world, and by implication the even more awful powers of the God who made and governs that world. Viewed from a safe distance, or contemplated in the symbol of a mythological beast, these natural powers excite the sentiment of awe. Edmund Burke described this sentiment as “tranquility tinged with terror” or “tranquility shadowed with horror” (2). What he meant is that awe is terror (or horror) diluted to the point where it is a salutary, even agreeable, experience. The aesthetic property that excites this feeling of awe is what Burke and most later Romantics called the sublime.
The sublime is present in anything that arouses the idea of potential pain or danger, whether by its great size, its violent action, or its latent powers of destruction. When danger is real and pain is imminent or actual, a man is overwhelmed by unadulterated terror; “but at certain distances,” Burke writes, the prospect of pain and danger “may be delightful.” We can see this in the words of a Romantic visitor to Niagara Falls in 1807. He wrote: “casting the eye from the Table Rock into the basin beneath, the effect is awfully grand, magnificent and sublime . . . . The irresistible force . . . the swift agitation of the dashing waves below, the solemn and tremendous noise . . . tend to impress the imagination with . . . a train of sublime sensations . . . which terror lest the treacherous rock crumble beneath the feet by no means contributes to diminish” (3).
The experience of awe in the face of the sublime serves to remind a man that he is small, weak and fragile. As it says in Job, he cannot hope to “draw out Leviathan with a hook,” or to “fill his skin with harpoons.” If he slips into the Niagara River, or tumbles into its gorge, he knows he will smash like a bottle on the rocks below. This sense of insignificance is reinforced by awareness of the utter carelessness of the awful powers of the natural world, which will swallow a man or dash out his brains without hesitation or compunction. This is why Job tells us that the the heart of Leviathan is “as hard as stone.”
In Job, this sense of awe in the face of the sublime Leviathan is clearly intended to remind men of their dependence on God, who not only has the power to make and rule such a beast, but is also man’s only hope for protection from its awesome power. Among most Romantics, the sublime was likewise taken as a symbol pointing toward the transcendent; although when belief in the transcendent faded, it pointed to something else. It pointed to a pitiless universe, to the loveless Leviathan that we find in Melville’s Moby Dick or Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
Job 41 ends by telling us that Leviathan is “king over all the children of pride.” If we take the great sea monster as a mythic symbol of the sublime, it is easy to see why this should be so. Every awesome sight evokes humility. In the theistic universe of Job, the idea of sublime Leviathan leads a man to God. In the atheistic universe of Melville or Lovecraft, it leads a man to madness.
Thomas Hobbes took the title of his famous book from this image of Leviathan, but he was not at all concerned with the sublimity of stupendous nature or with leading men to God. His concern was with kings, and with children of pride (their subjects), and with ways that the former could prevent the latter from tearing each other to bits. Having read in Job that Leviathan is “king over all the children of pride,” Hobbes concluded that human kings would do well to model themselves on this sublime creature of the deep, and tame their subjects with awe.
At the heart of Hobbes’ political philosophy is the proposition that every man (and woman) is naturally selfish, or “proud.” This means that every man has an insatiable appetite to gather unto himself the means of his own preservation, which is to say power. Even when he attains a state of temporary ease and security, a man will covet yet more power, because he lives in constant fear of pain and has no assurance that he is not about to suffer some grievous reverse or calamity. But, alas, he can never get the power he craves because he is locked in a desperate rivalry with other men, all of whom possess a strength, a wit, and a motivating fear of future pain that is equal to his own. The result is the terrible and perpetual Hobbesian struggle of all against all, the “state of nature” in which every man’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As Hobbes put it, “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man” (4).
Hobbes used the symbol of Leviathan to represent this common power that awed warring men into submission, ended the Hobbesian struggle, and raised men from the brutish state of nature to the peace and prosperity of civil society. In Hobbes’ philosophy, this common power was brought into being by men who realized the futility of their endless and indecisive struggle for power, and who consequently surrendered their meager share of power to a sovereign who guarantees their security. With this surrender they “confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men,” Hobbes wrote, “that may reduce all their wills . . . unto one Will,” and this “is the generation of that great Leviathan” (5).
It must be stressed that the monarch or ruling assembly of men is merely the head of Hobbes’ Leviathan, a political monster that includes all the instruments and apparatus of the state, right down to the bodies, souls and property of its subjects. Hobbes calls this leviathan state an “artificial man” compounded of many men, and therefore “of greater stature and strength than the natural [man].” Hobbes’ Leviathan is, in other words, an awesome social Goliath that men create to protect themselves “from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another” (6). Like the Leviathan of the deep, this Goliath tames proud and ambitious men by filling their hearts with awe.
If awe is, as Burke claims, “tranquility shadowed with horror,” we must see the peace and prosperity of the leviathan state in a melancholy light. Life is no longer a savage Hobbesian struggle, but it is everywhere clouded with fear and overcast with a menacing threat of official violence. What is more, this peace and prosperity is purchased at the price of personal freedom, for in forming themselves into a Leviathan, men “submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgments, to his judgment.” In some respects, they cease to be men.
We find an even more fearsome Leviathan in Isaiah 27, where it is written that, on the Day of the Lord, Leviathan shall be punished and slain. This Leviathan is, as in Job, a sea serpent, but he is something quite other than a symbol of sublime nature. This monster is a symbol of the Devil and his minions, who are in this world but hidden, like a serpent that lurks beneath the waves. This was the opinion of John Calvin, who in his commentary on Isaiah wrote: “for mine own part I make no question but by way of allegory he speaks of Satan and his whole kingdom . . . . all his imps and instruments by whom he governs his kingdom and molests the Church of God” (7).
The Leviathan of Isaiah resembles the Leviathan of Hobbes insofar as it is a corporate being—what we might call an artificial devil, of greater stature and strength than the natural. Satan himself is the head, “giving life and motion to the whole body,” but his “imps and instruments” complete the fearsom frame. Thus the Leviathan of Isaiah is an amalgamation of the the Devil and his children. In a word, it is Antichrist.
According to the seventeenth-century century Anglican bishop Griffith Williams, this “congregation of the wicked” is likewise indicated by such symbols as “the City of Babylon,” “the Beast,” “the great whore and Jezebel,” “the painted Harlot,” “the Synagogue of Satan,” and “the Man of Sin.” Each of these epithets names a “multitude,” “one Army,” or “one grand enemy.” They “are spoken of, in the singular number, as if they were all but one man . . . because they all have but one Head, that is, the Devil.” Thus, like the leviathan state of Hobbes, “these wicked Senators and Members of the Beast, have but one mind . . . one will, one course, one end, and one main scope and desire, to destroy the truth, to overthrow the church of Christ, to wear out his servants, and to root out the right service of God, and all piety from off the earth” (8).
The Leviathan of Job is dangerous and hard-hearted, but he is not a malevolent enemy of all that is good. He is stupendous and he is strange, but he is ultimately nothing more than a creature operating under the laws of his own nature. Indeed, he is a symbol of nature. The sight of his heaving mass excites the idea of danger, and this evokes the sentiment of awe, but the danger is only a physical danger of being crushed between his jaws or charred by his fiery breath.
The Leviathan of Isaiah is, in contrast, a “spiritual Leviathan” with a will “most maliciously bent to hurt” (9). His way is not to break men’s bones or burn men’s flesh, but to “cast . . . mists in the eyes of men,” and this has been his way “since the creation of the world” (10). He is not just a destroyer and a despot, but also a deceiver.
The snake the monstrous dragon, Full of venom and of hard grace, Which in the sea large and great of space, With foul adders hath his mansion, Unto mankind to do illusion.” (11)
When the American writer Donald Davidson published The Attack on Leviathan in 1938, he used the word Leviathan as a symbol of the fearful amalgamating power of modernity. Hobbes’ leviathan state was a large part of this, and Davidson certainly sniffed an odor suggestive of the Synagogue of Satan, but his Leviathan had a wider significance and a more immediate application. Its essence was what Germans were then beginning to know as Gleichschaltung, a key policy of the National Socialist program. Although sometimes taken to mean a policy of making places the same, Gleichschaltung is more properly understood as a policy of incorporating places into a single system, of organizing and uniting them into one body under a single capital or center. Just as we have seen men united under a sovereign in Hobbes’ Leviathan; just as we have seen imps and their instruments united under Satan in Isaiah’s Leviathan; here we see regions united under a capital. Here we see, in a word, an empire.
Thus Davidson writes: “the sectional domination of the Northeast for the seventy years following the War between the States . . . can only be described as a form of sectional imperialism, with the other sections having . . . the status of colonial regions dominated by an imperial or capital region.” And, the “effective center from which cosmopolitan influences radiated was principally one city”—the city of New York (12).
Needless to say, this Leviathan has continued to annex, subdue and absorb. The better part of the world can now be plausibly described as “colonial regions dominated by an imperial or capital region.” This growth is conventionally explained as the work of capitalism, but this is an imperfect analysis that errs in reducing modernity to its economic function. The pursuit of profit is not the only impulse driving this program of Gleichschaltung, or even the main impulse. There is also, and more importantly, a messianic will to unite mankind in a single body—to form a global Leviathan.
This messianic will mistakes (or disguises) itself as an autonomous historical process, or what its officers and publicists delight to call the “arc of history.” This “arc of history” is, of course, what the officers and publicists of earlier empires delighted to call the “mandate of heaven.” And at the end of this arc there is said to lie a shining city that resembles (from a great distance) what used to be known as the New Jerusalem.
In 1747 the American theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote that there would come “a time wherein the whole earth will be united as one holy city,” and that in that city “men of all nations shall as it were dwell together . . . . all appointing over them one head.” In Christian eschatology this New Jerusalem stands opposed to what Edwards called the “New Babylon,” a second “spiritual city” that is home to “carnal society” and the “antichristian Church” (13). Here, too, men of all nations shall, as it were, dwell together (in spirit, that is), and under the direction of one head. Their head, of course, will be Satan; their city’s other name will be Leviathan.
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(1) Murray Rothbard, Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought, 1965-1968 (Auburn, Al.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007), p. 379.
(2)Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1757), pp. 7, 129.
(3) George Herior, Travels Through Canada (London: Richard Phillips, 1807), pp. 160-61.
(4) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (London: Andrew Crooke, 1651), p. 62.
(5) ibid., p. 87.
(6) ibid. p. 1.
(7) Jean Calvin, A Commentary Upon the Prophesy of Isaiah (London: William Cotton, 1609), p. 260.
(8) Gryffith Williams, The Great Antichrist Revealed (London, The Author, 1660), chap. 3.
(9) John Downame, The Christian Warfare (London: Cuthbert Burby, 1604), pp. 23, 44.
(10) Peter Martyr, Decades of the New World, trans. Richard Eden (London: Edward Sutton, 1555), p. xi.
(11) John Lydgate, The Ancient History and Only True and Sincere Chronicle of the War Betwixt the Grecians and the Trojans (London: Thomas Marshall, 1555).
(12) Donald Davidson, The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1938), pp. 26-27, 69.
(13) Jonathan Edwards, An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People (Boston: D. Henchman, 1747), pp. 42, 158-59.