The Tower of Babel crumbles – and with it falls Thomas Hobbes’s solution to the State of Nature

The stories of Noah and the Tower of Babel are juxtaposed as a curious diptych: first God destroys humanity; then he destroys a civilisation. God is disgusted with internecine violence, so provokes the Flood; then he disapproves of mankind’s cooperation, so shuts down construction of the Tower of Babel and scatters mankind across the face of the planet. Man is punished for being too divided, then too united; too destructive, then too creative: humanity cannot seem to do anything right. So, what does God want?

As human society begins to take form, mankind experiments with two extreme types of social system: anarchy and totalitarianism. The Bible disapproves of both, and in so doing, offers a fascinating segue into the philosophy of 17th-century theorist Thomas Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes wrote against the backdrop of the English Civil War (1642–1651) which tore England apart as Parliament and the King fought for control of the country. Hobbes saw firsthand the danger of anarchy: an absence of government. The State of Nature, as he puts it, is a State of War: with no law enforcement, it is in each person’s rational interest to become as strong as possible, and to strike his neighbours before they strike him. The State of Nature is a self-help, dog-eat-dog world, where the strong govern the weak but devour each other too, and where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

The State of Nature is, indeed, the world before the Flood: 

 .וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ, לִפְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, חָמָס

And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. (Genesis 6:11)

Hobbes’s answer to the State of Nature is the immediate establishment of a Leviathan: a single sovereign with absolute political authority. The Leviathan is executive, legislature and judiciary, all rolled into one: he is where the buck stops. Hobbes supports dictatorship because he believes there is no viable alternative. Anything short of absolutism is prone to disintegrate back into anarchy: if the buck doesn’t stop somewhere, the branches of the state that claim a share of sovereignty are doomed to fight for overall control. And anything is better than an “earth… filled with violence”: even tyranny. 

Indeed, it is Leviathan that the Bible suggests that mankind settles on as a solution to the State of Nature that provoked the Flood. The Netziv, writing in the nineteenth century, and later cited approvingly by Lord Sacks, interprets “the whole world was of one language and of one speech” (Genesis 11:1) to mean that freedom of expression is suppressed in Babel, as the mass of humanity is harnessed for one big building project. The rulers of Babel subordinate individual freedom for the sake of “state interests”, a euphemism for the interests of the ruling elites: they want to be remembered for building the tallest tower the world has ever known, even at the cost of enslaving humanity. The builders of the tower do not suddenly wake up one morning and start building for fun: they act under compulsion from an over-mighty state.

Babel, under this interpretation, is the world’s first tyranny: Leviathan restores order after the State of Nature, but at the cost of tyrannising mankind for the sake of a hopeless and phallic vanity project designed only to massage Leviathan’s ego and delusions of grandeur.

This is why God scatters mankind across the face of the Earth: he cannot allow the continuing existence of a state that tyrannises its own people. Dictatorships are terrifying machines, capable of committing atrocities with ease and precision: think of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Ba’athist Iraq. Violence is every bit as arbitrary as in the State of Nature, except now it is systematic and leaves the citizen little hope of self-defence. Tyranny offends every principle of human dignity and freedom, and God expresses this fear when he says:

עַתָּה לֹא-יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת

Now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. (Genesis 11:6)

God has to stop Babel before the terrifying power of the state becomes limitless. He has to stop Babel before the machine of government can harness its boundless powers for even more nefarious ends. The state should be circumscribed by law and limited in its authority over the individual: it should not, for want of a better phrase, be able to play God. The solution is to give different people different tongues: in short, political pluralism.

God rejects Leviathan as a solution to the State of Nature: even when the government claims to act for the sake of security, it should not be afforded unlimited power, because this power is so readily abused. We should give a government powers to protect us which we could not then stop it using from devouring us.

The story, therefore, is not just a parable about dictatorships: it warns liberal democracies, as they try to find that elusive ‘balance’ between liberty and security, that governments can also abuse their powers, and that we should bear this risk in mind before allowing the state’s security apparatus to become so large and so secretive that it could never be rolled back. The revelations that the NSA has been spying on people worldwide on a flabbergasting scale are certainly food for thought: if indeed power corrupts, and absolute power tends to do so absolutely, are we confident that our Watchtowers of Babel are not just a little bit too tall for comfort?

Shabbat shalom.