Hume on the War of All Against All

In a remarkable passage of his History of England Hume paints a picture of pre-conquest Saxon society and mores (Appendix I). It is remarkable because it appears to give a glimpse of humanity in the state of nature, so to speak, before the establishment of organized government. But two different pictures emerge from Hume’s narration.

The Appendix opens with the assertion that, in contrast to the despotism of the Roman Empire, the various Saxon groups were always “extremely free.” Saxon warriors could not be ordered to perform an action by their leaders. They had to be persuaded. The king was no more than a first among equals and royal succession was irregular - not necessarily based on inheritance. The Saxon Wittenagemot met periodically to affirm general policy and pass laws.

The second picture arises from Hume’s assumption that, in England at least, such a slimness of centralized power compelled groups of men to organize for the purposes of mutual support and self-protection. He produces an example of such a bond in the record of a Cambridgeshire sodalitium, a group of gentlemen bound together by a pledge to report the injury of any of their members to the sheriff and to organize for mutual defense or revenge in case of threat or harm. They were also bound to bury each other and exchange honey.

Hume elaborates on this institution to draw two conclusions, which he himself admits are not based on historical documentation. First, he sees the need for these confederacies in an anarchical state of society fraught with robbers and physical threats. Second, he views the condition of men within the confederation as tantamount to subordination to a supreme leader and subjection to effectually the most extreme of tyrannies. Hume is forthright in admitting that the second picture is totally without historical foundation and based on his surmise as to what society must be like under conditions of extreme freedom. “Though we are not informed of any of these circumstances by ancient historians, they are so much founded on the nature of things, that we may admit them as a necessary and infallible consequence of the situation of the kingdom during those ages.”

The “nature of things” is how society must be according to Hume's rather Hobbesian belief that, lacking a certain degree of social cohesion, life is nasty, brutish etc. Hume adds the interstitial historical phase that, in dismay at the uncertainty of their life and well being, men are more than likely to throw themselves into abject submission to a local tyrant. The result is not a happy leviathan with a beneficent monarch but a sort of slavery headed, one assumes, by some individual who seized power within the confederation. This is Hume’s conclusion concerning one path civil society may take. “All anarchy is the immediate cause of tyranny.”

As a historical reconstruction necessitated by the lack of contemporaneous documentation, Hume’s speculation may have some value. It does not have equal value, however, in the context of an examination of political theories where some doubt may persist of the validity of Hobbes’ hypostasis of a state of brutish nature precedent to the establishment of organized society. For, of course, Hume is reading backwards into the facts of history his beliefs that it is the “nature of things” for extreme freedom to lead to anarchy and in consequence to tyranny. The picture so colors Hume’s narrative that it contrasts noticeably with the historical evidence he does present.

In fact would non-indentured Saxons who by all historical evidence were unstintingly jealous of their freedom from any monarch so easily surrender that very freedom to a hypothetical “powerful leader” of the band? Hume’s own document mentions a confederacy without a leader. Indeed no one member of the band seemed designated to receive more than his fair share of honey.

It is certainly a cliché to observe that the extraordinary freedom of the Saxons applied to only a portion of the population. The ceorls and slaves would have been surprised indeed to learn that they had any human rights. Historical injustices aside, the existence of slavery and a caste system offers merely another occasion to doubt the historical validity of the Hobbesian model. If these written records allow us to trace back as far as possible to a time touching when there may have been a war of all against all (Hume declares that the ancient Germans were “little removed from the state of nature.”), we find that a significant portion of humanity and probably the majority were in a situation nowhere approaching the complete self-dependence and indeed semi-isolation which Hobbes projects. The serf or slave found himself cast into a very unfree social system where his dependence was matched only by the requirement of his absolute obedience, where some degree of protection from unknown dangers was bought only at the expense of utter subjection to the capricious whim of an all too palpable lord.