Covenants without Swords; Swords without Covenants

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Hobbes declared that 'covenants, without the sword, are but words'. But the reverse it true as well. Even the most oppressive regimes avoid relying on mere force, and constantly seek justification for their actions.

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Covenants without swords, swords without covenants


Professor Rodney Barker


Hobbes declared that ‘covenants, without the sword, are but words’. But the reverse it true as well. Even the most oppressive regimes avoid relying on mere force, and constantly seek justification for their actions

1. Covenants and swords

Writing in 1651, Thomas Hobbes declared that covenants without swords were but words.


By covenants he meant voluntary agreements amongst people, but the point has a wider cutting force: the suggestion is that ideas, values, beliefs, are all very well, but that what counts is the ability to compel people. It is an earlier version of Stalin’s alleged dismissive enquiry , ‘The Pope? How many divisions has he got?’ The reader should immediately have been suspicious that someone who apparently dismissed words so lightly should nonetheless devote his life to producing long and complex creations from them: Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (1640); De Cive(1642) Leviathan (1651), De Homine (1657), and De Corpore (1665). It is particularly odd given the circumstances in which he was writing. England – particularly England, but Scotland and Ireland as well – had been torn and shredded over wars which, whatever their commercial, class, and economic dimensions, were also about the justifications of kingship and government, the accounts to be given of divinity and of people’s obligations to the deity, the ways of worship and the words of worship. If words were a slight thing, they were a slight thing to which Hobbes’s fellow English had devoted an enormous amount of energy, a great deal of paper and printer’s ink, and years of passion.
And similarly with Stalin. A huge amount of effort was put into suppressing religion and in particular the Orthodox Church under Stalin’s rule. Stalin acted more like Napoleon who, on being asked how to deal with the Pope, replied ‘as if he had 200,000 men’

It’s not only political theorists who take covenants, and the beliefs and values which they express and which inform them, very seriously indeed.

2.      Justified behaviour, human action

Something of what was missing from his account can be seen by going back 250 years to an earlier monarchy in crisis, that of Richard II.

* 2 PICTURE       

In the National Gallery is the Wilton Diptych. It is small and, by the standards of the time – and the servants available to kings – easily portable. It folds shut, like a laptop today

On one side, the kneeling King, supported by the company of John the Baptist, Edward the Confessor, and Saint Edmund
On the other side is the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, supported by a retinue of angels, each of them bearing on their garments the white hind which was the king’s symbol.

What is it for? Kings might well carry around with them maps, and treasure, and weapons. In Walerian Borowczyk’s 1971 film Blanche even the rosaries and crucifixes of the monks attending the king concealed the weapons of his clerical bodyguard.

But the Wilton Diptych is something else, not a concealed map or anything to do with the material resources of government. It makes a clear religious and political statement for the king.

As Lucy Freeman Sandler put it, the Diptych ‘served to focus Richard's own meditation, to re-enact his devotion, whether he was present or not, to proclaim to himself the certainty of his prospective welcome in Heaven, and finally, to reinforce his idea of earthly kingship under heavenly protection.’

3. What Makes Swords Work?

The reverse of Hobbes’s remark is true as well. Despite all the talk about power politics and political realism, the most consistently observable feature of human politics and government is the giving of meaning and justification to behaviour. People not only seek their own material advantage, they construct accounts of the world and of their actions which justify and give meaning to what they do.  

Mountaineers may climb a mountain ‘because it’s there’, but governments very, very rarely pass laws, raise taxes, or invade territory ‘because I can’ – they normally believe they should.

4. Weber

This is what Max Weber described at the start of the Twentieth Century, when he said that states were those institutions which claimed a monopoly of legitimate coercion within a given territory. It is a mistake to see legitimacy and coercion as alternative sources or instruments of government; they are, together, the bottom line of government, and each exists as it does only in relation to the other. It is legitimate coercion, not either the claim to legitimacy or the use of coercion, which characterises government. Justified behaviour, in other words.

This is part of a wider observation: people do not just behave, they act. In other words, there is meaning and justification as an inherent part or dimension of human action, otherwise it is mere reaction or reflex. Weber puts it neatly again:

‘’The fortunate is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune...Good fortune thus wants to be "legitimate" fortune.’

Whether or not swords would be effective without meaning and justification, the fact is that they are very rarely found without them. When they are, we speak not of laws and government, but of crime. There is a human reliance on meaning, since the meaning people give to their behaviour is what makes sense of and justifies their life. Weber gives the example of bureaucrat arriving punctually at his office, because not to do so would conflict with his sense of duty. No doubt if he were consistenly late, there would be sanctions. But that is not why he acts as he does. And if sanctions were applied to a recalcitrant colleague, what went on would not be adequately understood in terms of some cost benefit calculation of loss and gain: the sanctions would have a moral dimension, the late-comer would have been justly shamed, not just materially disadvantaged.

5. That’s how we do things here

But also the force of ‘that’s who we are, and that’s how we do things’ We cannot prise apart behaviour and legitimation. So the question of effectiveness comes second to the question of prevalence. The un-social individual who acts without any reference to the values or conventions of the society which she inhabits is habitually regarded as either deviant or dangerous, or dismissable. A whole school of humour depends on just that judgment

6.      Why we are sceptical or dismissive

There is an understandable reluctance to recognise or acknowledge this because, whatever kind of political system we ourselves either support or hope for, there will be other kinds of system whose claims to legitimacy we regard as misconceived or downright wicked. We would not be human if we did not make such judgments, but the judgments we make as actors in the political world, and observers of it, need to be distinguished for either of them to retain their full force. It is the very fact that we take words, the justification and meaning for our behaviour, so seriously, that makes us so prone to dismiss the words and justifications of other people with whom we disagree as mere window dressing or hypocrisy.

It is precisely because a Bolshevik after 1917 believes so passionately that the world is secular and material, that religion is suppressed and oppressed in the New Soviet Union. It might have seemed a more practical and altogether easier route if ‘mere’ power were all there was to it, for the new regime to recruit Orthodox Christianity to its retinue of support. But that would have been inconceivable. A Marxist materialist could not take seriously the claims of religion any more than and Orthodox Christian could treat the doctrines of Bolshevism as much more than a cover for materialism and the greed for goods and power.

So the first answer to the question why are swords so consistently wedded to covenants is a version of the punctual bureaucrat:  that’s how people universally act, and it’s one of the differences between them and other animals, as well as between them and intelligent machines, however intelligent the machines.

If ever a machine were developed with an independent conscience and set of values, that’s when we should really start to worry.

7. Covenants sharpen swords     

But because of that we come to the second answer:

The question of effectiveness has nonetheless often been posed. Mercenaries versus zealots. Machiavelli, that misrepresented icon for soulless opportunism, argued that mercenaries were useless because they were not motivated by any of the principles which motivated citizens. This of course raised other, and contemporary, questions. Milo Minderbinder in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22 argued that war would be more efficient if left to private enterprise, and took out a contract with the Luftwaffe to bomb his own airfield. But the bizarre logic of the imagined instance illustrated how untypical it was. Despite the use, in Iraq, of ‘for profit’ security guards, war is not generally conducted via PFI. Mercenaries may be less constrained by the moral rules of professional or national honour, but they may, equally, be less enthused by the excesses of zealous faith.

Warlords failed to control Somalia; the Islamic Courts Union succeeded

And yet mercenaries too have a sense of professional duty and professional identity. That was the point made in defence of the private detective Philip Marlowe as played by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’s 1946 film of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and who had been dismissed as amoral and opportunist. On the contrary, ran the counter narrative, he was a white knight coming to the rescue of a lonely old man.

8. Ideas and other kind of behaviour

It might be argued that actually they are part of the same phenomenon since, as social Darwinists we should suppose that the things that exist do so because they have survived, whilst other things, because they were not so well fitted to survival, have not. But that doesn’t get us very far, since on the one hand it looks reducible to saying things are as they are because they are as they are, and on the other it cannot account for variety and choice which are also an observable feature of human life.

No set of covenants are entirely coherent, any more than the technology of swords is complete and uniform, fixed for ever. Choices have continually to be made and in making them fresh dilemmas and occasions for choice are created.

9. Unrealistic realism

So the search for justification cannot be dismissed as mere cunning or hypocrisy. Even the argument that it can, is destroyed by its own assumptions. To argue that Bush and Blair did not themselves wish for a UN mandate to invade Iraq, but sought it only to satisfy or persuade others, works only if it is assumed that the normative essentials which B & B are supposed not to have are held by everyone else. There is no reason to suppose that this is so

10. Justified swords, and the reluctance to relinquish them

Books of advice for kings, and priests (George Herbert)

The covenants which justify the use of swords necessarily tell the sword wielder that he is exceptional.

It is not an observation always necessarily shared by ordinary people
Do you know who I am?

Rulers, believing that their swords are justified and their mission legitimate,  are almost universally loth to recognise that their time has come; Lyndon Johnson, Wilson, Franco.

11. The failure of covenants and the blunting of swords

When meaning and justification fail, so does action, and so does government.
Legitimacy and coercion are not alternative instruments of government, but each essential aspects of it, and each related to the other. They are a part, too, not only of obedience, but also of commanding.

When meaning and justification are maintained, however unreasonably, dogged persistence keeps action going in hopeless situations.  When they fail, the very continuance of a responsibility, a role, is crumbling

11. The abdications of 1989

There are many accounts of the revolutions which took place in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from 1989. But one crucial aspect in the collapse of managerial communism was not an assault from without, but a loss of meaning and justification within. One part of the disappearance of the regimes in Romania, or Eastern Germany, or Poland, was abdication.

12. Swords without covenants are vain.

Neither can be dismissed. And neither can be seen as simple reflexes of the other. A king in exile is not even half a king. But a king or government justified by covenants, is a king or government limited by them too.

EP Thompson and the practice and doctrine of the rule of law.

Even Trobriand Cricket is not Trobriand rugby.

© Professor Rodney Barker, Gresham College, 9 January 2007

This event was on Tue, 09 Jan 2007

professor rodney barker

Professor Rodney Barker

Professor of Rhetoric

Professor Rodney Barker is Emeritus Gresham Professor of Rhetoric, having held the chair between 2006 and 2009.

Professor Barker is Emeritus Professor of Government at...

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