Feb 6 — Bowing in the Square of Tahrir

Of the many stories that havei come out of the Egypt in the past week.  I like this one the best.  It is from the New York Times reporter, Nicholas Kristof.  He describes being in Tahrir Square on Wednesday when the pro Mubarak forces moved in wielding clubs, machetes, swords and straight razors.  The crowd opened up to let these loud and violent protesters have their way.

Then along came two middle-age sisters, Amal and Minna, walking toward the square to join the pro-democracy movement. They had their heads covered in the conservative Muslim style, and they looked timid and frail as thugs surrounded them, jostled them, shouted at them.

Yet side by side with the ugliest of humanity, you find the best. The two sisters stood their ground. They explained calmly to the mob why they favored democratic reform and listened patiently to the screams of the pro-Mubarak mob. When the women refused to be cowed, the men lost interest and began to move on — and the two women continued to walk to the center of Tahrir Square.

Kristof managed to interview these two women.  All they said was that they wanted democracy, just like you.

Wednesday was a bloody day.  Thursday was violent, but perhaps because of the strong condemnation by the US Government, the army was trying to keep the pro-Mubarak thugs from attacking the peaceful anti-government protesters.

Thomas Hobbes was famously dubious about the possibility of an uprising of the people accomplishing anything good.  It remains to be seen what will happen. But With Kristof, I have high hopes. Hobbes was wrong about his idea of power.  The two women he interviewed were not powerful.  And yet, it might be said that their presence and the presence of thousands of others urging their compatriots not to be angry at the pro-Mubarak forces and in fact urging them to simply say, in the face of scorn and violence, that they are standing here for them too — for their right to say and think and do as they feel right and good — kept Wednesday from blowing up into a maelstrom of blood and rocks and razors.

Rather than be philosophical with Hobbes, I want to use the story of Naaman, to rebut Hobbe’s position that honor consisteth only in the opinion of power. This one thing must be said, though, to understand Hobbes. His whole system of political philosophy, he called it a science, is based on the notion of power. At root that power is the power of the fear of death. All human activity is the response of this fundamental fear to the established power. Out of the fear of all against all, humans give up their rights on the condition that others do so as well. Hobbes calls this the covenant which lies at the basis of his science of the commonwealth. His philosophy cannot explain, nor deal with the problem of the right minority willing to challenge the erroneous majority.

So to Naaman. It is an extraordinary story and from it comes, at the very end, the phrase “Bowing down in the temple of Rimmon.” Whether we understand the condition, known as bowing down in the temple of Rimmon as a good thing or a bad thing, depends, on how we read this story — and how we read this story, depends on what we inherit from Hobbes.

Naaman is the commander of the army of Aram. Aram was part of the country north of Israel that we today call Syria. Second Samuel describes wars with the Aramaeans. A character from Aram means the story will not hold anything good for the Israelis. Nevertheless. Naaman is a man of high standing, and because a young girl gets involved with him on his behalf we can assume that his high regard had to do with his humanity, and not simply his position of military or political power.

Naaman has leprosy which becomes the raison d’etre of the story. The girl has heard of Elisha, the prophet who is in Samaria in the land of Israel, and his ability to heal. She approaches Naaman, and urges the general to seek him out.

Naaman finally agrees and has his king draft a letter for the king of Israel. This, as you can imagine mightily upsets the King Jehoram when he receives it. Perhaps this is a trap. It is unlikely that his comment, “Am I God, to give life or death?” had to do with a sense of humility before God. The record notes Jehoram committed evil acts before God. No, the letter frightens Jehoram as a threat to his throne.

Elisha hears word of all of this, and calmly asks Jehoram to send Naaman to him in Samaria. Naaman rides up to the entrance to Elisha’s house on horses and chariots. But Elisha will not come out. He sends a message — “go bath in the river Jordan seven times. Then your flesh shall be healed and you shall be clean.”

But this Naaman does not do. Incensed that he has come all this way not to have Elisha come to him and work his magic on him, he throws a fit. He is like the modern patient who demands for his time, all of the best tests, relevant or not, and a the private room on top of that. Finally, his servants convince him to do as was suggested, which he does and lo and behold he is healed and cleaned.

Naaman returns, bearing gifts of thanks for Elisha: great piles of gold and the best clothing.

Of course Elisha refuses. From the beginning Naaman has been playing a game with which Elisha will have nothing to do. Naaman is a Hobbesean. Elisha, Christ-like. Naaman is so thoroughly steeped in the theory that the greatest of human powers is that which is united in a ruler and that that ruler has use of all those powers depending on his will, that when he wants to speak to a prophet who lives in an unpretentious house in the country he visits a king in a palace in a city instead.

Naaman is so thoroughly a Hobbesean that when he arrives at the gate to Elisha’s house, he expects to be honored because Elisha is a man of reputation. When Elisha tells Naaman to leave to the river Jordan and be done with it, Naaman counters — the value of a man is his price. We honor one another as we put a price on our skills. Come out and talk to me, for I am honorable.

And finally when he is cured and ecstatic about it, he behaves as though he is still bound by the rules of power politics. If he does not offer him great gifts, he will dishonor him and worse will be dishonored through that dishonoring.

The story is full of twists — and the best ones come at the end. Naaman digs up some dirt and asks Elisha if he may take it home so that he may worship on Jewish soil. I can only imagine Elisha raising his eyebrows, but he approves, whereupon Naaman makes one last request. “May the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the temple of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the House of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” Elisha wishes him peace and they are done with each other.

Hobbes thought that he was writing a scientific account of civil society — and his analysis of power which so nearly matches a story from 2 thousand years before, suggests he got some of it at least, right. The question however, and this is why it is worth reading Hobbes today, is whether we want to follow Hobbes in his theory of the commonwealth, or whether we should rather follow Elisha in his Christ-like way.

Of course, theories mean nothing unless they are put to the test. Perhaps one of the most famous lines from Hobbes’ Leviathan is the one with which we concluded: Honor consisteth in the opinion of power. And the opinion of power has no concern for whether an action be just or unjust. Power is worn like the horns of a bull, to do no useful work except frighten away contenders.

To live in such a society where the power Hobbes proposes forms the basis of a peaceful covenant between people is to live in a society where only the illusion of peace is maintained like a calm lid on a pot of boiling water. For Hobbes, the ideal of freedom can serve no purpose in a commonwealth. Peace is maintained by knowing the subject’s duty — to bow down before Rimmon. Think what you like, but know who is your master.

Hobbes contributed mightily to the idea of a commonwealth. And he should still be read and studied for that contribution. But primarily he should be studies for his negative value, showing to what a dead world of autocracy we should speedily return, if the ultimate basis of freedom should ever cease to be the high demand by which alone it is maintained, either for our own soul’s or for the soul of a country — let a person deny him or herself.

For the sake of a country in Northern Africa, and perhaps the greater part of the middle east — people are denying themselves and no longer bowing down because their master orders it, to a false idea of freedom. Instead they have gathered in the Square of Liberty and bowed down to its noble ideals.


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