Self Defense–Some Conclusions

For several hundred years, ordinary people have been taught to regard such practical necessities as surviving and defending themselves as rights that derive from nature.  Theories of natural rights are, alas, a poisoned chalice, since every assertion of right can be met with a counter-assertion.  If an unborn child possesses a right to live, his mother possesses a right to privacy, which is made to stretch so far as infanticide.   If I have the right to speak my mind in public, others—particularly those who belong to privileged minorities—have the right not to be offended by their oppressors.  

The doctrine of natural rights, although often invoked in defending the possession of firearms or for outlawing abortion, is only a theory and not a very plausible one, and, even if it could be defended on philosophical grounds, it has been used so often to subvert the social and political order that it is dangerous.  For that reason, I prefer to speak of natural duties or natural necessities that can be best fulfilled by legitimate authorities that carry out the rules of the tribe, the city, or the state.  Since no law is perfect and no authority ideal, conflicts may arise between what an individual regards as his personal right or duty and the commands of the sovereign authority.  Under most circumstances, it is the duty of the citizen or subject to acquiesce.  So long as we are content to live within a social framework, we must abide by the rules, much as a licensed driver may not choose, on a personal whim, which side of the road on which to drive.  Playing by the rules does not require us to accept any fanciful theory of the social contract or compel us to surrender the need to defend ourselves if attacked.  A legitimate game-player, however, may not rebel against the system for frivolous reasons without incurring the charge of treason.  

Some societies have gone further in restricting weaponry than the British government of George III. The Tokugawa shogunate in Japan, in order to consolidate its power, systematically rounded up all the firearms.   Similar proposals are frequently made in the United States, where a creative misconstruction of the Second Amendment has been invoked to block anti-gun legislation within the states.  Perhaps the most relevant parallel is the Athenian Peisistratus, who is said to have summoned an armed muster of the citizens and tricked them into putting down their arms, which his followers then secretly gathered up.  In the account given by the Constitution of Athens attributed to Aristotle [XV.5], the aspiring tyrant, when he had finished his speech, told the Athenians not to be alarmed at what had happened to their weapons and to "go home and concern themselves with their private affairs, while he himself would take care of all the public business."

In every modern state, the government claims a virtual monopoly on the use of force.  That is, indeed, a famous German definition of the state.  The statement begs an important and difficult question:  What is the state?  The term is used loosely to refer a wide variety of political institutions, ranging from the kin-based cities of the Greeks and Sumerians, the Roman Empire, and such vast ideological despotisms as the defunct USSR and the moribund USA.  

Many volumes have been devoted to the subject of the origins of “the state”—a question as futile as the origin of language.  Even to inquire about state origins is to engage in anachronism, since the word itself only began to be applied to political regimes in the writings of Machiavelli, and even he did not use it in the abstract and impersonal sense in which it has been used for centuries.  Political theorists are frequently guilty of lumping together “the state” with the Greek politeia and the Roman res publica and invent such chimeras as “the Athenian state,” as if an Athenian could think of his city as something other than an association of kindreds bound together by blood, religion, and history.  For us moderns, the state exists apart from the citizens or subjects who are governed by it.  When Louis XIV declared himself to be the state, he was asserting a power never possessed by his ancestors.  To understand the difference between the modern state and pre-modern ways of governing and thinking about government we have only to make a distinction between the English words “state” and “country.”  Men would die for their country—their patria—as Greeks would die for Athens or Sparta and Romans for their res publica, but who but a madman would die for “the state”? 

   That modern states, which exist for the benefit of their proprietors, should claim a monopoly on the use of violence, is inevitable, because the very existence of the state requires it to dominate over such rival sources of loyalty as families, corporate associations, churches, and local and regional authorities.  Indeed, the history of the state is the triumph of this super-corporation over all other human bonds.  And, just as the modern state does, indeed, maintain its monopoly on violence, we might go so far as to define the state in those exact words:  The state is the monopoly on violence.  Some writers have been tempted to hold Machiavelli responsible for the shift in political theory away from the Aristotelian emphasis on politics as a means of securing and maintaining the common good to a more cynical emphasis on power and dominion over others.  This is, I believe, a mistake.  Machiavelli was simply responding to the changing realities of Italian politics. 

Such a monopoly makes obvious sense in foreign affairs.  One can imagine the problems that would occur, if American companies hired mercenaries to fight private wars in the Third World--rather, we do not have to imagine, since it has been done. 

It is obvious that pre-modern kingdoms, commonwealths, and more loosely organized societies did not in fact exercise such a monopoly but shared, however grudgingly, the right to kill with kindreds, regional powers, and even lynch mobs. In the postmodern West, the limits on the state’s monopoly are no longer of merely historical interest.  Although the “state of nature” and “the social contract” are imaginary devices created to justify the political claims of one or another institution or ruling class, states, which are an historical invention of no ancient date, do have an implicit social contract with their citizens: Give up carrying weapons and fighting duels, they are told, and the state's police forces will guarantee your security.  This is a practical matter, not a question of absolute right, and, so long as the people are satisfied with the security the state provides, they, as subjects or citizens, should be willing to delegate their obligation to defend our persons and property to an orderly system of criminal justice.  If, however, they we are not satisfied with the degree of protection they receive from criminals, thugs, and rioters, then they may prefer to rely on their own strength and courage for protection. 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Vince Cornell says:

    The practical problem is that relying on one’s own strength and courage can result in persecution from the State to the tune of multiple “Federal Hate Crimes” stacking up to hundreds of years in jail, even in situations where one is not being frivolous or treasonous. While not familiar with all the ins or outs of the case (I did not follow it very closely), the recent case in Georgia where 3 men, all with law enforcement training and experience, lawfully apprehended someone they believed was threatening their community, and only resorted to violence when the man became irrational, hostile, and attempted to wrest a firearm away from them – those guys are lucky if they ever see their families again not through a thick plexiglass window.

    The State is a jealous god, and it defends its monopoly with ferocity. It wants to provoke vigilantism only so that it can then brutally punish vigilantism. The difference in the old adage “Rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6” gets increasingly difficult to discern.

  2. William Shofner says:

    Once groups of people or the individuals in a group brutally, begrudgingly, negligently or purposefully forfeit or lose their customs, traditions, religions, families, clans, tribes, nobles, aristocrats, language, dialects, communities, guilds, etc… sum, their “intermediaries” (as the great sociologist Robert Nisbet [1913-1996] labeled them) that exist or once existed to guide, protect, and intervene for the individual against the State, each individual then stands naked before the Leviathan, the great Minotaur (to borrow a term from Bertrand de Jouvenel [1903-1987]), to be abused, devoured and destroyed at the pleasure of the State. To talk of law, justice, 2nd Amendment, the US Constitution, honor, duty, country, to the Beast is a waste of breath. What can one do? Look for and then embrace the intermediaries….if they still exist and if you can find them.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The argument does not so much concern the practical considerations arising from situations in which a man might be forced to defend himself but is an attempt to reestablish an ethical framework in which the larger questions of justice can be viewed. Most of what I have read in writers who have taken up these questions since the Renaissance has appeared to me counter-factual and counter-intuitive.

    Bob Nisbet, whom I was proud to call a friend, is much neglected these days, and I thank WS for bringing his name up. One of Nisbet’s great strengths, on view in The Sociological Tradition, was his study of 19th century French social thought, much of which was an ongoing attempt to grapple with the Revolution and its disastrous consequences. To read even the sometimes whacky Utopian Socialists without considering the historical context in which they wrote is to miss the point of what they were trying to do, namely, to reestablish society after the devastation of the monarchy, nobility, and the Church. A good parallel is the fiction of Balzac, which has also been seriously misunderstood for the same reason. I was rereading Pere Goriot, as part of my project to get my French up to snuff, and the writer of the introduction rather breezily dismisses Balzac’s youthful monarchism.

  4. Gregory Fogg says:

    For a different point of view on this topic I would recommend the writings of LTC “Jeff” Cooper.