Even the most casual student of political philosophy knows the quote: In the prehistoric state of nature, wrote philosopher Thomas Hobbes, humans existed in a “war of all against all.” Our life without Leviathan—the state, empowered by the social contract to hold a monopoly on legitimate use of force—was “nasty, brutish, and short.”
British philosopher John Gray begins his latest book, The New Leviathans: Thoughts after Liberalism, with a fuller version of Hobbes’s passage, and so we, too, should begin here.
The longer excerpt reveals two things: first, that Hobbes didn’t want a powerful, unchallenged state for its own sake. Though often taught in contrast with Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Hobbes had the usual liberal interest in a state that makes space for a benevolent, creative, and well-ordered society to flourish.
Leviathan is needed, Hobbes wrote, because in war “there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and”—here’s the famous part—“the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The second revelation is darker. Hobbes’s talk of complex navigation, arts, and letters is awfully anachronistic for prehistory, isn’t it? Perhaps it is not only prehistory Hobbes had in mind. Perhaps, as Gray argues, his concern was not “the distant past before the emergence of society but the breakdown of society,” and perhaps that breakdown could happen to us.
That prospect is the central theme of The New Leviathans, a short volume of three essays in which Gray doesn’t mount a unified argument so much as he presents vignettes of tragedy, small studies of writers—especially pre-revolutionary and Soviet-era Russians—little known in the West, and excursions into tangents of Hobbesian thought.
Throughout, he envisions humanity at a frightening precipice, toes over the edge of Hobbes’s abyss of cultural and economic desolation. Liberalism in its classical sense—commitment to rule of law, the rights enshrined in our First Amendment, and a culture centered on free exchange of ideas—is not perfect. But it is benevolent and familiar, and a world after liberalism will be morally worse than the world before it. That was a tyranny of ignorance. This would be a tyranny of amnesia.
Gray’s titular new Leviathans may be of the same genus as the old Hobbesian creature, but they are larger and more slippery beasts, content with neither a limited nor solely material remit. Hobbes’s Leviathan state was all-powerful in its purview, but that purview was small: “securing its subjects against one another and external enemies.” In this sense, for all its brutish feel, the classic Leviathan was a limited government—a liberal state.
“The purposes of the new Leviathans are more far-reaching,” Gray writes. “In a time when the future seems profoundly uncertain, they aim to secure meaning in life for their subjects.” They offer “the security of belonging in imaginary communities and the pleasures of persecution,” and they “aim to deliver their subjects from the burdens of freedom.”
This post-liberal turn is not only a matter of governance, Gray argues. We are organically losing the old liberal ideals of free thought and art for the sake of beauty and truth rather than social engineering and political power.
Typically, this “repression is not the work of governments”—not here in the West, anyway, where the “ruling catechisms are formulated and enforced by civil society.” Post-liberalism seeps out of the political realm to stain how we think, relate, and even worship.
A footnote to Christianity
The subject of worship in The New Leviathans is a fascinating one, and not only for Christian readers. Gray himself is an atheist, but an atheist whose knowledge of Christianity and its role in Western history and thought is demonstrably deep and nuanced.
His story of liberalism’s decline is set squarely within church history, because liberalism, as Gray rightly observes, “is a footnote to Christianity,” and specifically to Protestantism. That’s evident in the explicit claims of key thinkers, like Locke, and in its major principles, as Gray summarizes:
All four of the defining ideas of liberal thought are continuations of Christian monotheism. The primacy of the individual is a secular translation of the belief that each human being is created by the Deity, which has an authority over them which transcends any worldly power. The egalitarian belief that human beings have the same moral status reproduces the idea that all human beings are equal in the sight of God. Liberal universalism—the belief that generically human attributes are more important than particular cultural identities—reflects the idea that humankind is created in God's image. The belief that human institutions are indefinitely improvable replicates the theistic faith that history is a moral narrative of sin followed by redemption.
These four ideas can stand alone, attracting adherents and building governments in purely secular terms. But the historical link is real, as is Christianity’s function (not its only function, of course, but one of them) as a cultural context in which liberalism can thrive. This is the gist of John Adams’s declaration that our “Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
What happens, then, as the West deconverts? Our culture’s post-Christianity and its post-liberalism go hand in hand, Gray suggests. Christendom is supplanted not by a reversion to paganism, as some conservatives think, but by a perversion of Puritanism, bloated with rules and bereft of redemption.
“Christian values continue to be widely authoritative if not often practiced,” Gray observes. But “unmoored from their theological matrix, they become inordinate and extreme. Society descends into a state of moral warfare unrestrained by the Christian insight into human imperfection.”
This, Gray says, is the origin “of what has come to be called the woke movement” and its chaos-courting champions among the Western elite.
Having jettisoned liberalism’s individualism and universalism—along with Christianity’s bestowal of identity and community in Christ and the unchosen bonds of family and place—we’re left to define ourselves from scratch as chaos swells around us.
For many, this is a petty project of image-crafting both online and in real life, the stuff of Tara Isabella Burton’s recent book, Self-Made. But for an elite few whose resources and skills equip them for the task, Gray contends, that self-definition has found expression in what we call wokeness. It’s a lifestyle, worldview, and career path; morally stringent and tirelessly political; personal identity, public power, and ethical cleansing all wrapped up together: “The stakes are not only the selves that are chosen but the positions in society that go with them.”
Those positions are beneficial for elites who can play and win, but the game is fundamentally destabilizing. Envisioning a representative member of this intellectual elite, Gray charges him with “[r]ecycling the fashionable detritus that millions like him unthinkingly believe [while being] convinced of his independence of mind.” That false confidence risks his destruction—and ours. “He denounces society while never doubting its stability or his place in it. Gleefully conniving in the destruction of traditional morality, he is pitifully unprepared for the savagery that ensues when it breaks down.”
Here The New Leviathans is at its most conservative. Gray echoes an older book with a similar title, R. G. Collingwood’s The New Leviathan. (In his acknowledgements, he notes that a history teacher recommended it to him 60 years ago in grammar school.)
“A life of peace does not mean a life of static quiescence and somnolence, a life in which no occasions for quarrels arise,” Collingwood warned in 1942. Peace requires constant maintenance and strenuous work. Those foolish enough to think that “because the work is done efficiently and without fuss, without broken bones and waving of flags and firing of guns, that no work is being done … are like ignorant visitors to some great building, who think because the building has stood firm for many years that it is at rest; not knowing that its component parts never sleep but are always moving this way or that, the movements always being watched and measured by the architects in charge, ready if a movement should exceed the fraction of an inch they allow it to take measures against the strain.”
Liberalism has been a pretty solid house, but we’ve gotten behind on the maintenance, and many of those with the most tools to hand are chucking them in the trash.
If this review is uniformly positive toward The New Leviathans so far, that’s because I was mostly delighted with the book, which is eclectic, compelling, and a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, on two significant subjects, Gray slips into the occasional progressive parochialism I find common among left-of-center thinkers who otherwise succeed in their efforts to read widely, interrogate their own side, and engage fairly to their right.
One issue is abortion. Gray decries the politicization of law, arguing that matters of public dispute should be settled by public debate and negotiation—that is, by politics, not administrative or judicial fiat.
Abortion, he says, is one such matter. “A legal framework governing abortion can only be reached by a political settlement, periodically renegotiated,” he writes. “When society is divided on such questions, the attempt to resolve them by inventing and enforcing rights is fatal to peace.”
On that basis, you might expect Gray to endorse the overturning of Roe v. Wade (1973), regardless of his own opinion of abortion, because it returned the issue to the realm of politics after a half-century sojourn in bench-made law. And though Gray does grant that the Supreme Court “is not prohibiting abortion” but “devolving the issue to Congress and state legislatures,” he is nevertheless dissatisfied with Roe’s end. His implicit political preference overruns his stated ideal for governance.
Similarly, on climate change, Gray’s grim expectations override his broader view of history. Speaking more generally, he argues that as “Western societies have dismantled liberal freedoms, the destination towards which the world was supposedly evolving has disappeared in the societies where it originated. There is no arc of history, short or long.”
Yet when he turns to climate, history is sharply arced, and it bends straight into a Malthusian hell on earth: “The Anthropocene is not the age of human dominion but the moment when the position of the species on the planet comes into question. Here human numbers are crucial.”
If we don’t adapt, slowing population growth, Gray says, “the planet will impose the necessary adjustment, regardless of humankind, and rewild itself.” Not only is liberalism declining, he predicts, but humanity itself “is ceasing to be central in the life of the planet, so that life itself may go on.”
Fade to dark
Christians believe, of course, that the future of humanity and our planet is determined by more than material realities. We have long disagreed on what the end of history will look like and what God will do to get us there. But we do agree on our hope of redemption, justice, peace, and life—and not life in general, but human life, restored and renewed in Christ in ways we do not fully understand.
That leaves, however, the question of the meantime. What should we expect, and how should we live?
Gray makes a persuasive case that we cannot reclaim the benefits of the pre-liberal order. We are too unmoored and hyper-individualistic, even as we discount liberal notions of individual rights.
“No modern society has the cultural resources” to replicate the positive aspects of older systems like feudalism, which offered serfs protection and an honorable place and purpose ordained by God. “The twenty-first-century underclass are offered no place in any scheme of things,” Gray says. They are treated instead as “retrograde specimens of humanity on the wrong side of history.”
Gray is also pessimistic about restoring liberalism: “A bill of rights may be useful in codifying liberties and entitlements, but it will be viable only insofar as it expresses values that are widely shared in society.” We are culturally post-liberal, even if our institutions haven’t quite caught up, and the “next stage,” Gray predicts, “is a breakdown of law.”
Yet if we cannot go back, what will we find as we move forward? Gray quotes a Russian Jewish writer, Isaac Babel, who was executed by the Soviets: “We are the vanguard, but of what?” Any lingering liberalism, in this telling, is nothing more than “therapy against fear of the dark,” and make no mistake: The dark is coming.
On this, Collingwood offers a more hopeful view. Not optimistic, but hopeful. That difference could be a matter of era. When Collingwood wrote, the mid-century consensus was still future, not past. Post-liberalism was not yet upon us. Maybe he was naive.
My theory, though, is that the difference is not time but faith. After all, Collingwood’s book was published in Britain in the middle of the Second World War, with Collingwood himself just months away from an early grave. But Collingwood was a Christian, and he wrote of duty with a sense of expectation that Gray does not match.
For Gray, “any project of reviving the liberal West is like Plato’s Republic as described by George Santayana, ‘a prescription to a diseased old man to become young again and try a second life of superhuman virtue. The old man preferred simply to die.’” But for Collingwood, that sort of wish for death over duty is intolerable: “Duty,” he writes, “admits of no alternatives.”
Our duty, I submit, is to do what is required to live in a free and orderly society, which Collingwood says requires “constantly overcoming one’s own passions and desires” and “living at the somewhat high and arduous level of mental adultness” because we “value [our] civilization and keep [our]selves by [our] own free will up to the standard [we] now recognize.”
Our duty is to seek freedom with restraint, for it is the only alternative to the new Leviathans’ endless constraint in the name of freedom.
Bonnie Kristian is editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.