Hobbes: Leviathan


Hobbes was primarily a political, rather than ethical philosopher. While ethics stresses the good for the human being, political philosophy emphasizes the good for society. We saw in Plato a functional notion of the social good. Justice is the proper functioning of a society, where each plays the appropriate role and no one interferes with anyone else. This view was based on the optimistic analogy with health: the good state is the one functioning in a way that is best naturally.

Christian political philosophy was of two minds. Augustine typifies the attitude that the community of the church and state constitute two entirely separate realms. A political philosophy of the "city of man" is independent of that of the "city of God." The opposite view is that the state should be a theocracy, in which the laws of the state are the laws of God. There are some theocratic states in existence now (e.g., Iran), and in the medieval period most states in Europe were closely tied to the Roman Catholic Church.

Theocracies can flourish only when there is a considerable unity of religious thinking. With the Reformation and the breakup of the Roman Catholic Church, the close connection between church and state began to be torn asunder. Deadly religious wars were fought across the European continent. It was in this climate the Thomas Hobbes proposed the first modern political philosophy.

Hobbes returned to human nature as the basis of the state, but the nature he found was quite different from that discussed by Plato, Aristotle and most of the other Greek philosophers. Taking his cue from modern natural science, which rejected the Aristotelian world-view,Hobbes declared the human being to be nothing more than matter in motion: he was a materialist. Reason, formerly arbiter of the good, now becomes a mere calculating device, no different in principle from a computer.

Material man has as his end merely the preservation and promotion of his own existence. The ethical view here is known as egoism: the good is what is in my interests alone. Egoism works against social relations, Hobbes believed. It leads to competition, creating enmity among persons; to distrust, which leads us to master others for our own protection; to a lust for recognition for others, leading to revenge when it is not given. Further, each one of us is capable of subjugating or even destroying anyone else, through the use of technology, through collusion with others, etc.

This, Hobbes proclaimed, is the natural condition of the human race. It can only result in a war of all against all, with the consequence that all normal human endeavors (agriculture, industry, trade, etc. as in Plato's Republic) are doomed to failure. Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. There is no right or wrong, justice or injustice. These things come into being only with the creation of the state.

We may contrast Hobbes' description of the state of nature with that of Locke, whose work inspired the founders of the United States. He claimed that the natural state is one of peoples' liberty to do what they please without requiring permission of anyone else. This must be done in conformity with a law of nature, according to which "no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty, or possessions" (Second Treatise of Government, Book II, Chapter 2, p. 308 of our text). Locke emphasized the equality of all persons in their creation by God. He implicitly criticized Hobbes by claiming that the state of nature is not one of war, for in a state of war, one inflicts force on others without right, thus violating the law of nature.

Although in the state of nature, there is no right or wrong, no justice or injustice, there are still a "right of nature" and "laws of nature." The right of nature is that of self-preservation, and the only road to preserving one's self is through seeking peace and following it. Corresponding to this right is a law of nature, which enjoins us to defend ourselves. We can defend ourselves best when we give up our liberty, our "right to all things."

In Book II of Plato's Republic, Socrates' antagonists had claimed that this kind of agreement is in the interests of those who do not have the power to commit injustice. Hobbes could reply by pointing out that in the state of nature, everyone has the power to destroy anyone else, either through contrivance or through collusion with others. So the contract is in the interest of the strong as well as the weak.

Locke held that what we give up to form civil government is nothing more than inconvenience which results from the extreme liberty in the state of nature. In that state, each person must be the judge of right and wrong, which leads inevitably to conflicts. There is no recourse when there are transgressions, so the state is erected to adjudicate conflict.

Once one lays down one's rights, then one incurs a duty or obligation not to interfere with others who wish to take that which has been renounced. One would do this only for something in return. A contract is only good so long as it can be enforced, which requires that there be a "coercive power." Thus justice requires both a contract and the power of enforcement. Hobbes found many other conditions for giving up one's rights, some of them sounding quite modern. Punishment should be for the end of rehabilitation, there should be no overt declarations of hatred (compare the UCD "Principles of Community"), one has a right to govern one's own body, etc.

As stated above, the social contract requires that power be conferred on an individual or assembly, the sovereign. Otherwise, there can be no confidence that surrendered rights will yield security in return. This security is needed for there to be any hope of enjoying the fruits of one's labors. Hobbes listed various rights of the sovereign, including censorship, lawmaking, judging, and making war and peace. There is never a right to revolution against the sovereign, since this is a breaking of the contract. The sovereign cannot break the contract, since the contract itself gives him the right to do what he thinks fit.

In a discussion of the best form of the commonwealth, Hobbes came down in favor of the monarch, where the power is invested in one person. The chief advantage is that the monarch's public and private interests correspond exactly. (Compare the granting of stock options to corporate executives, on the grounds that if they have a personal stake in the company, they will perform better.) Locke later argued against the absolute monarch, on the grounds that there is no appeal to his decision. Since government is established to mediate disputes, if one cannot dispute with the monarch, the purpose of instituting government is undercut.