I think that I have discovered Hugh Nibley’s secret identity. It should come as no surprise, of course, that I believe that despite his veneer of other-worldly concern with ancient history and religious texts, Hugh Nibley was actually deeply involved in the philosophy of law.
Compare these two pictures. For myself, I am convinced that they are the same person. The man on the left is H.L.A. Hart, who for many years was a professor of legal philosophy at Oxford University. The man on the right, of course, is Hugh Nibley, who for many years was a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. Notice that both men have the same thick glasses, hawk-like nose, and white hair. Notice that both share the same piercing eyes and complete lack of fashion sense. As far as I am concerned the the conclusion is inescapable: H.L.A. Hart, the founder of the modern analytic philosophy of law, was none other than Hugh Nibley in disguise!
Needless to say, the evidence goes much deeper than these two pictures. Philosophically, Hart was a liberal utilitarian while Nibley was a platonic communitarian. In the true analytic tradition, Hart was basically uninterested in history, while Nibley insisted that history was the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Think about it! On every major metaphysical and methodological point, Nibley’s alter ego adopted a diametrically opposed position. It was the perfect cover. Furthermore, can anyone testify to ever seeing Nibley and Hart in the same room together? Of course not! It was all part of Nibley’s cunning plan.
The implications for this in terms of Mormon intellectual heft are huge. If Nibley was in fact Hart, then we can truly claim that one of the most influential philosophers in the 20th century was a member. Who needs urban legends about Steve Martin’s baptism when we can claim the man who was probably the most important English-language philosopher of law since Bentham!
Of course, we must still struggle with the now unanswered question of why Nibley did it. Why did he engage in the elaborate ruse of pretending to be Oxford professor of law and philosophy? There are a couple of possibilities. First, in the 1950s when Hart was doing his path breaking work, there was no law school or philosophy department at BYU. Nibley may have created his alter ego as an outlet for his jurisprudential energies that would not require that he uproot himself from Provo. Second, perhaps Nibley was already uncomfortable with the adulation that was being heaped on him by Mormon ancient-studies groupies. He just couldn’t handle the celebrity that would accompany being a philosophical super-star as well. Third, Nibley may have been embarrassed by the philosophical inconsistency of his corpus as a whole. Obviously, the liberalism and utilitarianism of Hart’s philosophy is in serious tension with the views set forth in Approaching Zion or Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints. The alter ego allowed him to maintain the purity of both positions.
Regardless, my discovery of Nibley’s secret identity as world-renowned legal philosopher increases my admiration for his scholarship and gives me hope for Mormon jurisprudence in general. We have already produced one great philosophical approach to the law. We can do it again!