Essay: Thomas Hobbes: the Long Reach of the Leviathan

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thom...

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It appeared in 1651 with a famous title-page engraving showing the towering body of a crowned giant, made up of tiny figures of human beings bearing swords.

Fear and the Social Contract:

Thomas Hobbes was exposed up close to the terror of the bloody English Civil Wars (1642-1651). As a result fear and self-preservation are the primary “passions” in his political framework.

Hobbes’ view of the “state of nature”, a philosophical representation for the time before civil government existed, is unsurprising when one understands the lens of insurrection and civil strife through which he was focusing. He asked himself what kind of political authority could best prevent a return to chaos? Leviathan is his attempt at answering that question. In it he claims to have found, using scientific methods, the single best way to end all wars. The price? For Hobbes it meant obeying a strong central authority.

Hobbes reasoned that a person with two brains (Royalists and Roundheads) will not function, therefore the power of the ruler (or Leviathan) must be absolute, otherwise the commonwealth will fall back into the warring state of nature.

About the tendency toward the abuse of power through absolute rule Hobbes says the interests of the ruler and subjects are so interdependent that any actions taken by the center will always be in the best interests of all equally. In his view the State won’t abuse its subjects because it is essentially a reflection of those same subjects’ desires– security being the primary desire. What happens if the state is no longer living up to its obligations to secure people’s lives? He allows for the contract to be broken. But in reality, even though he allows for the possibility of revolution, he strongly recommends against it– with the dissolution of the state people will be plunged back into the fearful nightmare of the state of nature, back to square one, with no other recourse but to take another stab at re-making the contract with no guarantee of success. The costs of revolution will always outweigh the benefits in other words.

The War of Each Against All:

At the most basic level Hobbes explains human conduct as being the direct output of human passions. The primal passions, fear of violent death and desire for power (glory), feed our most basic primitive impulse– the over-riding desire for “self preservation.” Hobbes asserts that the basic impulse is a “natural right” and all humans possess this natural right equally in the state of nature. In terms of physical prowess some are stronger than others but the weakest, through cunning, can still kill the strongest. It follows that man’s natural state becomes a place of constant conflict with one another.

This state of nature turns out to be a pretty scary place– Hobbes’ famous description of it is one of the most recognizable statements in the history of western political philosophy:

“Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. . . .In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Finding a Solution to Violent Anarchy:

But never fear says Hobbes, it’s never too late to escape the terror and violence of the state of nature, we just have to use our heads, or more specifically our reason. Simply by reasoning individuals will quickly realize that they must do something to escape from the state of nature. To facilitate the breakout Hobbes defines a natural law (or golden rule) as “. . .a Precept, or general Rule, found out by Reason, by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same.”

So, in order to preserve life and property, human reason guides people to the realization that only by giving up some of their liberty can they realistically begin to establish a system that will end the perpetual war of each against all. The mechanism for this is the “social contract,” a covenant between the people to form a civil commonwealth powerful enough to suppress individual inclinations toward self-advantage. The “Leviathan” is born.

The Scientific Approach:

Hobbes lived during a spectacularly fruitful period of history that later became known as the Scientific Revolution (some contemporaries: Galileo, Bacon, Kepler, Harvey, Descartes) so it isn’t a big surprise that his philosophy aspires to incorporate the scientific rigor of Galilean mechanics, or of Euclidian geometry. He wanted to describe the interactions between men and government with mathematical precision and provide a series of proofs justifying his recommendation for a strong state to check human “appetites.” As you follow the logic his claim emerges: that it is better for citizens to put up with the occasional despot than to risk the horror of “that condition which is called Warre…”

The argument is logical and systematic (remember this was written in the 1640s):

Starting from the ground up Hobbes insists that all of our ideas originate from sense impressions accumulated as we confront and engage our external universe. His thinking on sense impression led him next to wonder how it was that the external universe could affect (trick?) our senses to such a degree? Hobbes’s answer: Motion is the key. Hobbes takes it for granted that people, like the celestial bodies of Galileo’s discipline, are in perpetual motion, moved by their appetites for power.

It follows then that a person’s power is his/her ability to obtain some sought after good– the best ones increase security and self preservation. Motion naturally leads humans, for good or bad, to cross each other’s paths and eventually smash into each other. In a sort of near-zero sum game every person’s power directly affects the path to power of others. Thus, if all people have equal liberty to pursue their natural rights in the state of nature, then:

Absolute liberty + absolute equality = mutual fear …

Mutual fear – mutual security = “warre” …

Reason suggests a better way to self-preservation (to peace): the law of nature should trump the right of nature:

* The right of nature is our liberty to use our power for self-preservation.
* The law of nature predicts that in the interests of peace we will lay down our natural right and only allow ourselves as much liberty as we would allow others to have against us (the golden rule).

Therefore, by adopting the golden rule the people enter into a social contract = (the commonwealth)…

Then, an absolute authority, the sovereign, must be established to enforce the contract (to suppress individual appetites). That sovereign embodies the will of the people and leads the commonwealth = (the Leviathan).

If setup correctly (using Hobbes’ recipe) the commonwealth will run like clockwork: “That great Leviathan is but an artificial man with an artificial soul.”

The book closes with a direct comment on the civil war that was raging, raising the question: what is a subject’s right to change allegiance (presumably to Oliver Cromwell’s side) when a former sovereign’s power to protect has drained away?. This was not well received and got him banished by the Royalists. His secularist positions on religion got him in hot water with both Anglicans and Catholics. Like his contemporary Galileo, Hobbes’ new system was both revolutionary and controversial at the time, bordering on heresy to many, and also like Galileo his insights have been studied and built upon and still resonate down to this day.

Why Care about Thomas Hobbes?

Throughout human history the single most fundamental political question from which all others must flow is the question concerning human cooperation — what is the most effective political structure for promoting peaceful social relations between individuals?

In his brilliant response Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) gives us one of the earliest examples of political science and in it he laid the foundation for the social contract tradition. Rousseau and Locke came along later and cut their teeth in direct response to Hobbes. The foundational political questions that we take for granted today were rejuvenated first by Hobbes after centuries of monarchic dominance in Europe: the limits of the ruler’s power, the role of religion, the question of political turnover and the ownership of property are all concepts that crystallize as you work your way through Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke.

Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University had this to say about Hobbes’ influence on the western political tradition:

“Hobbes was neither a liberal nor a democrat. He thought that consolidating power in the hands of one man was the only way to relieve citizens of their mutual fears. But over the next few centuries, Western thinkers like John Locke, who adopted his approach, began to imagine a new kind of political order in which power would be limited, divided and widely shared; in which those in power at one moment would relinquish it peacefully at another, without fear of retribution; in which public law would govern relations among citizens and institutions; in which many different religions would be allowed to flourish, free from state interference; and in which individuals would have inalienable rights to protect them from government and their fellows. This liberal-democratic order is the only one we in the West recognize as legitimate today, and we owe it primarily to Hobbes. In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith, political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation.”

How does Hobbes affect us today?

The evolution of the social contract tradition was well understood by many of America’s founding philosophers so it follows that we should find strong traces of the three great theorists embedded in our own constitution, and we do. In many ways Thomas Hobbes’ groundbreaking political treatise is the seed from which all subsequent western political philosophy has grown. His account of human nature as self-interested cooperation has stood the test of time and remains the baseline from which all others are measured.

But what about Hobbes’ rejection the doctrine of separation of powers, that certainly has not become the western model? True, but his alternative– an all powerful sovereign holding sway over consenting minions– might have been the model the founders had in mind when they convened the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to define our ruling document. For Hobbes the sovereign, the Leviathan, is realized in a single person who retains all civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers. The founders on the other hand entered into a corporate body and invested it with the powers of the sovereign. Thier lasting authority resides in the US Constitution which, backed by the potential for an amending Convention, possesses the clout to accomplish each of Hobbes’ requirements. And so, with the long reaching arms of the Leviathan, our sovereign, the original Constitutional Convention, still binds our lives today.

Problems for the Hobbes Recipe for Perpetual Peace:

1) Unchecked greed or political hubris by the absolute ruler can lead to the downfall of the Commonwealth when foreign debt or international disputes lead to military confrontation.

2) Hobbes’ key assumption, that humans in a state of nature are uncontrolled savages in need of a firm ruling hand, was used by conquerors to justify wars to colonize, and sometimes enslave, indigenous populations for centuries. These wars ultimately led to more wars (for independence).

3) Throughout history colonized people have fought for independence against their colonial sovereigns. For Hobbes, these wars for independence would be considered dangerous and irrational. But we know from the downfall of colonialism that people desire to build their own road to the future even if it means starting all over.

4) Hobbes’ prohibitive stance on internal corporations (associations with autonomous power) means that everything must be planned and executed by the sovereign alone– this is obviously subject to size constraints and is unrealistic in modern societies. Nevertheless, for Hobbes: “Corporations are lesser commonwealths in the bowels of a greater, like worms in the entrails of a natural man.”

5) strong leaders of consenting masses sometimes foster a totalitarianism that turns “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Germany and Italy under Hitler and Mussolini come to mind…

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