Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan , from 1651, is one of the first and most influential arguments towards social contract. Written in the midst of the English Civil War, it concerns the structure of government and society and argues for strong central governance and the rule of an absolute sovereign as the way to avoid civil war and chaos.
It took almost two months to plow through this book, but I’m not sorry I did.
Like most “great books”, the things I heard about it were rather simplistic and one-faceted. The actual book was more complex than I expected. I expected a detailed
As Oakeshott says in his introduction, Hobbes was fascinated by geometry and it shows in the first part – “Of Man” – in which he develops a rather medieaval (in the sense of human consciousness being described as a series of internal “motions” caused by external objects) theory of psychology. Hobbes, in a style reminescent of a geometrical proof, starts out by defining certain human traits and emotions then constructs, using these definitions, theorems of human psychology. Hobbes view of man is realistic. He sees him as neither purely a creature of emotion (though he dedicates much time to exploring this aspect of humanity) or reason. He sees wisdom and rationality arising from human attempts to predict the future based on experience.
The book ends with some surly, sarcastic – but convincing – attacks on key elements of Catholic theology – the immortal soul, eternal torment in hell, purgatory. There is a lot of emphasis on the importance of ghosts – which Hobbes briefly deals with along with demon possession – as pertaining to purgatory, and the arguments about both that were going on at this time, and the trinity. He also takes a shot at the idea of the temporal rule of the Catholic Church over sovereigns. (Some of this is covered under the last section called “Of the Kingdom of Darkness”.)
Still, much of the book is Hobbes’ argument not only for an absolute sovereign (whether a king – which he prefers – or committee or assembly) but an absolute theocracy with religion and politics absolutely melded. Hobbes, according to the introduction, gets accussed of immorality. I don’t think Hobbes was amoral or immoral but his philosophy is extremely pragmatic. Hobbes, as the starting point of his philosophy (and this is extended, by contract, to the Leviathan of the state), sees a man as having the right to whatever he desires. The problem – of course – is that a man does not exist, mankind does and each man competes with the other for “honor, riches, and authority”. Hobbes says that man’s life, in a state of nature without government, is, to use his most famous phrase “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. That in nature every man is at war with every other man, that no society, no art, no science, no letters exist, only continual fear. As Hobbes rightly notes, this state of anarchy is so intolerable that even the most primitive tribe has some form of government.
However, I think there are a couple of minor flaws to his vision of man’s competition. First, each person has different notions of “honor, riches, and authority”, each niche, each subtle variation in the term “riches”, “honor”, and “authority” can be occuppied by a different person. Second, Hobbes seems to postulate a zero-sum society where one person’s gain is another’s loss. This flies in the face of economic history. Still, Hobbes’ point, that commerce, trade, and economic security can’t exist in such conditions, is true. Hobbes’ ultimate statement – that all religious and political authority must be invested in the Leviathan (the artificial body of the state with the government as its head) to prevent this natural state of war and foster civilization – is understandable given the civil and religious conflicts of English society at the time.
However, Hobbes bluntly reaches several conclusions that would make a libertarian wince. Subjects have no right to attempt changing their government. The sovereign cannot forfeit his power. The laws of the commonwealth do not apply to the sovereign. Dissent is not allowed. The sovereign’s power is not limited. Hobbes hates separation of powers too. Hobbes acknowledges that this is a recipe for tyranny. Hobbes even denies the right of dissent based on religious conscience. He demands the outward form of obedience to whatever the sovereign mandates religiously. You can believe, according to him, whatever you want, and God will judge you accordingly, but even God expects absolute obedience. Hobbes says that government wanting power is always much worse than too much power. He blithely adds that the government is always concerned with its subjects' welfare because it is a component of their welfare. He is also quaintly naïve when he says that the sovereign will grant his subjects much freedom because there are many areas he will not seek to regulate. Obviously, he didn’t forsee the regulatory zeal of the modern Leviathan.
Still, Hobbes (at least in my very uneducated opinion) seems to straddle not only an authoritarian tradition but a libertarian one. He says that “force and fraud” are the cardinal virtues of war. Presumably that includes the war of man with every other man that occurs in nature. Government is instituted to eliminate this warfare. Interestingly, libertarians view government’s sole legitimate function as preventing “force and fraud”. In other words, like Hobbes, they wish to quell warfare in the state of nature. Libertarians base much of their philosophy on the use of contracts, and Hobbes bases his philosophy on that too. The subject, to avoid the unpleasant state of man in nature, voluntarily gives up his rights and will to a sovereign that promises security from violence. Much of the book is a detailed explication of this idea in its various political and religious implications. However, though Hobbes is about as an extreme advocate of governmental power as there is, he says a subject can – with justice (which, in Hobbes’ terms, means without violating the contract the subject forms with his sovereign) – resist a sovereign’s attempt to kill him. The whole point of the contract, Hobbes argues, is for the subject to avoid death. A subject can also justly refuse to kill himself, testify against themselves, or defend their life (even if they are criminals who have committed an unjust act the state seeks to punish) against the sovereign. While Hobbes views every action of the sovereign authorized by the subject via contract to get security, he points out that logically the contract is void when the subject’s life is at stake.
Named for a (presumably) mythical sea beast, the work considers the nature of man, the state, their interactions with faith, and knowledge. Human thought, he argues, comes in several flavours: Sense, Imagination (or, decaying sense), Reason, and Science. People combine these in order that they might “obtain some future apparent good,” and he describes a variety of acts that build (or destroy) honour, and therefore reputation, and therefore power in people; and people seek power ad infinitum.
There’s just one problem with that desire: the natural condition is one of perpetual war of all versus all; referencing Thucydides, he believes that life on its own is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Therefore, sensing that to be unpleasant, peoples came together to create a “commonwealth,” which can (through fear of punishment) compel good behaviour – acquiescence to the laws of nature, adherence to contracts, etc. Considering three varieties of commonwealth – Monarchy, Democracy, and Aristocracy – he finds the former alone has the capacity to make conclusive, learned, reasoned, decisions; and therefore despite its “inconveniences” is far superior.
To a large extent, however, this ‘finding’ isn’t so much reasoned as empirical; nearly any observer, in the same context, would have come to the same conclusion. Not only was the entire known world governed by a monarch of one form or another, but historical attempts to create either democratic or aristocratic governments had all met failure. Famously, democratic Athens was conquered by monarchic Sparta; the Roman Republic dissolved into the Roman Empire. As Hobbes was writing, the Polish sejm (an aristocratic assembly) had become so ineffective that Poland was conquered by its neighbours. And, most immediately to Hobbes, the English Parliament, having won the civil war, was disintegrating in to factionalism.
One would be remiss, however, to overlook one additional factor: His exile notwithstanding, Hobbes was on the king’s payroll in the 1640s, and worked directly with the future King Charles II. His salary beholden to a strong believer in the divine right of kings, any argument against monarchical supremacy – especially in light of the parliamentary uprising – could come with dire economic consequences. “Taking of the sword out of the hand of the sovereign” is “contrary to the peace and safety of the people.”
Yet in the centuries since, it’s been shown that assemblies – whether of the entire population or a subset of it – can govern effectively and sustainably. Less than a decade after Hobbes’ death, the Glorious Revolution made England a constitutional monarchy; a century after that, a collective of wayward colonies shucked even the pretense of the crown, and has persisted for centuries even in the face of war, civil strife, and disagreement. Meanwhile, ‘monarchically’ ruled countries have risen and fallen around the world.
Hobbes believes that the human mind is incapable of understanding infinity; for this reason, he argues, we have anthropomorphized God as a vehicle with which to conceptualize that which we cannot… and in fact states that presuming the whereabouts of God is idolatrous (since idols are finite and God is not). He points out that God can speak to mankind either directly or indirectly (i.e. through prophets); but in the latter case, how does one distinguish a prophet from a liar? Or from misinterpreting the scriptures?
It seems that his answer neglects to include a useful answer (and, to be fair, it’s no easy task) – but the important point is to establish that laws temporal and spiritual must be enforced by the sovereign to ensure the success of the commonwealth. He delicately implies that the pope’s authority is derived from a misinterpretation of scripture – Charles I was protestant, after all, and Hobbes (like the contemporaneous Treaty of Westphalia) obligingly grants the sovereign power over religious activity. At the same time, though, his views on religion were somewhat unorthodox, and later accusations of heresy would inhibit publication of his later works.
Notwithstanding that his driving interest in Leviathan was relatively immediate, Hobbes’ view of man and of government would come to influence the Continental Congress. Both the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution (1789) expressly enumerate the purpose of government and stress the importance of establishing and maintaining peace. The responsibilities accorded to governments are, with a few exceptions, not far removed from the rights of sovereigns enumerated; although his positions supporting governmental infallibility, and opposing free expression and separation of powers were rejected.
It seems clear that Hobbes isn’t so much a philosopher or thinker, as he is an observer of history and current affairs. Any Englishman, writing a comprehensive book on government in the 1640s, could reasonably be expected to have emphasized the same points and arrived at the same conclusions. This does not, however, render the text meaningless. On the contrary, it provides a unique perspective on how government itself was viewed at a pivotal moment in British history – perhaps the first moment that people much thought about it. (Most citizens, after all, will not much concern themselves over whether this or that nobleman is the king.)
Hobbes’ desire to affiliate with the ‘winning side’ in the English Civil War was ultimately successful; the Cromwell regime judged him to be of no threat (perhaps because he cleverly defined ‘monarchy’ in such a way to include the new Lord Protector), and the restored Charles II later granted him a pension. But his wish to shape politics failed. The crown answered to Parliament after 1688, and the American Declaration of Independence made demands on the king that would have been unthinkable a century before. By inspiring, even in a few, the idea that government – a finite entity – could be defined, Leviathan was paramount to the development of modern political existence.
Hobbes writing is wonderful - short and direct, he makes his arguments sing! Strong and opinionated - he must have been wonderful company in real life. But also an arch old conservative - we find him arguing in the end of Part 2
Parts of the book are just a joy to read - Chapter 13 on people living in a "state of nature", i.e. outside of a political commonwealth, is short, sharp and persuasive. This is also the source of the famous quote of life outside a commonwealth as "solitary, poor nasty, brutish and short". But in others he deploys his skills to argue for the indefensible: he suggests that the people have a covenant with their monarch, but not the other way round, and even, remarkably, that the people are authors of the actions of a monarch, and thus have no cause for complaint at any action taken by the monarch!
I read an edition with current spelling, but I also referred to a text of the original. I found it amazing that the English in use in 1651 is so accessible today, whereas Shakespeare, from two generations earlier, is at times a struggle. Of course, one is written in academic terms while the other is vernacular, but it is striking how stable the language has become over 350 years.
Read August 2014.
"The Papacy, is no other, than the Ghost of the deceased Romane Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof..."
"The Ecclesiastiques are the Spirituall men, and Ghostly Fathers. The
Both from The Kingdome of Darknesse
Hobbes’ work is divided into four parts with the first, “Of Man”, covering human nature and why men form governments not for the greater good as other postulate but to protect themselves and their stuff. Hobbes essentially says that men give up their freedom to the government to be protected from other men so they can keep their life and possessions that they can add to. In the second part, “Of Commonwealth”, Hobbes argues that the perfect government is under one absolute sovereign—whether a monarch or legislative body—that will control all aspects of the government with the aim to preserve the persons of the governed by any means necessary and that the govern must obey the sovereign in all aspects of life including in religion and taxation, the later must be used to support those unable to maintain themselves. In part three, “Of a Christian Commonwealth”, Hobbes discusses how a Christian commonwealth should be governed and essentially says that the civil power is the final arbiter of all spiritual revelation and thus the religious power is subordinate to the sovereign as seen in the Holy Scriptures. In the final part, “Of the Kingdom of Darkness”, Hobbes turns his focus towards ignorance of the true light of knowledge and its causes which stem from religious deceivers through four things—misinterpretation, demonology and saints, the mixing of religion with erroneous Greek philosophy, and mixing of these false doctrines and traditions with feigned history. Hobbes blames all the churches and churchmen for these causes as they are the beneficiaries at the expense of the civil power which endangers the commonwealth and the preservation of every man in them.
As one of the earliest and most influential works on social contract theory, Hobbes’ political ideas are often cited and quoted. However, the fact that almost half the work is a religious discourse was a surprise and insightful. That Hobbes discredited church-led states was gratifying, though he then recommended state control of religion was a disappointment but not surprising given the theme of his work. Besides his views on the church-state relationship, Hobbes’ work is primary to understanding how the political thought of today began and how his contemporaries and those that followed him reacted to his views.
Leviathan is Thomas Hobbes’ magnum opus of political thought and has been influential for centuries, whether one agrees with his conclusions or vehemently disagrees.
The book is by volume mostly about scripture interpretation and running of the church. The moment when he finally badmouths other religions and ridicules them (including Judaism) is priceless. I've seen sacks of potatoes with more self awareness and tendency for introspection.