Putin’s Bloody Leviathan | The Heritage Foundation


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The Russian autocrat’s dark and violent take on state power is not unprecedented, but neither is Lockean’s response.

The rise of authoritarian regimes, wars of aggression, the erosion of fundamental human rights, a bloody civil war, a refugee crisis in the heart of Europe, welcome to the 17th century.

Out of the turmoil of this period – what historian Paul Hazard has called “the crisis of the European mind” – emerged two visions of political society that are once again vying for dominance on the world stage. One belongs to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who saw unquestioning obedience to an all-powerful state, a leviathan, as the only path to security and political stability. The other belongs to John Locke (1632-1704), who held that freedom and equality were the birthright of mankind.

Russia has become Europe’s Hobbesian nightmare. Vladimir Putin’s regime is often compared to that of the Romanov tsars. But it looks more like a mixture of the Stuart kings of England and the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV in France. Charles I dismissed Parliament and suppressed political and religious dissent, sparking civil war in England. Louis XIV, who called himself “the Sun King”, launched a series of wars of aggression with the aim of making France the dominant power in Europe.

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The violence and instability of this period prompted deep reflection on the nature of man and political society. When Hobbes reflected on the realities of European society, he saw a “state of nature” in chaos: a ruthless war of all against all. The only remedy, he believed, was universal submission to absolute political authority. As he put it in Leviathan: “And though of such unlimited power, men can imagine many evil consequences, but the consequences of its absence, which is the perpetual war of every man against his neighbour, are far worse.” For much of the 17th century, the Hobbesian view seemed to be on the winning side of history.

Locke opposed it. Accustomed to political conflict, Locke was a teenager when Charles I was executed. He watched in dismay when the Act of Conformity criminalized dissent from the established Church of England; non-compliant churches were closed and tens of thousands of citizens were harassed and arrested. Catholic France followed suit when Louis XIV ended the policy of tolerance towards its Protestant minority, sending hundreds of thousands into exile. “I saw no sooner in the world,” wrote Locke, “but found myself in a stormwhich lasted almost so far.

Like Hobbes, Locke had no illusions about the dark tendencies of human nature. Yet, unlike Hobbes, he saw something beyond: a divine plan for human flourishing that provided the moral foundation of government by consent of the governed. Locke’s most important political work, Two treaties of governmentwho profoundly influenced the American revolutionaries, made this religious idea his common thread.

For Locke, the state of nature was rooted in a moral law, the obligation to protect human freedom so that each individual could pursue his divine calling and serve his true sovereign: “Men being all the work of a Creator omnipotent and infinitely wise. , all the servants of a single sovereign master, sent into the world by his order and for his business, they are his property, whose work they are made to last during his, not for the pleasure of another.

In his feverish imagination, Vladimir Putin sees Ukrainians not as citizens of a sovereign and independent state, but rather as the property of Russia. In Locke’s words, he would “enslave them under arbitrary power.” More than 4 million Ukrainians have fled the country and millions of ordinary citizens have taken up arms to resist Russian tyranny. As Locke warned, whenever political leaders treat basic human rights with contempt, they “put themselves into a state of war with the people.”

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Ukraine was not a model of liberal democracy before the Russian invasion. But Ukrainians, in their words and deeds, have demonstrated to the world that Locke’s vision of human freedom remains deeply compelling. Even Putin, when he was sworn in for his second term as President of Russia, found it necessary to invoke the language of Lockean liberalism. “Only free people in a free country can truly succeed,” he said. With his right hand resting on the country’s constitution, he nodded to pluralism and rejected authoritarian rule.

Many in the West wanted to believe it, imagining with nostalgia “the end of history”, that is to say the undeniable triumph of democratic ideals. But there can be no vacation in history, for there is no escaping the tragedy of the human condition: the spirit of Leviathan is never finally defeated.

Hobbes naively believed that an absolute monarch could preserve both order and justice. He might have thought more carefully about the ancient Leviathan symbolism. In Jewish mythology, Leviathan was a primordial sea serpent, something malevolent, chaotic, out of control, and beyond human comprehension.

Such is the Moscow regime, a 21st century version of this creature, armed with weapons of mass destruction. It presents a formidable challenge. As the author of the Old Testament book of Job warns his readers, those who oppose it will “curse the day, which are ready to awaken Leviathan.”


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