Hobbes: Notes on Leviathan

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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20 Responses

  1. Avatar James Hanley
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    At the heart of Hobbes’s argument seems, to me anyway, to be an error that would have been fully understandable at the time, but is less so now: Hobbes believes that monarchy is the ideal form of rule because, “the Private interest is the same as the Public”.

    Good point of emphasis.

    Political theory tends to begin with an idea of what people are like, which then tells us what sort of political order would best suit them.

    And therein lies the weakness of all, I think, political theory to date–it is all derived from theories of human nature that all suffer the same defect, not being based in a true empirical understanding of human nature.  We are still developing that understanding, but through a combination of evolutionary theory and laboratory experiments in the social sciences, we are beginning to build a foundation for it.  What sort of political order(s) will consequently be seen as best suited to our species is something political philosophers are starting to play around with now, but I think they’re premature.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to James Hanley
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      Good point of emphasis.

      Thanks! It’s what stuck with me anyway. In future posts, I’m hoping to make some comparisons to Locke, Rousseau, and the Federalists.

      And therein lies the weakness of all, I think, political theory to date–it is all derived from theories of human nature that all suffer the same defect, not being based in a true empirical understanding of human nature. 

      It’s interesting- I read an article in the Times about a year and a half ago (should’ve clipped it out) about a group of anthropologists who are now making the case through their research that classical anthropology greatly overlooked the extent to which tribal communities take part in coöperation and exchange between tribes and overstated the amount of war and struggle. I remember thinking there are a lot of theories that take into account war and struggle as the “natural state” and not as many that see coöperation as natural. It’s especially common when you get to the nineteenth century.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Rufus F.
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        I remember thinking there are a lot of theories that take into account war and struggle as the “natural state” and not as many that see coöperation as natural.

        From an incentive-based view, both would be natural.  If politics is, as Harold Lasswell says, “who gets what, when, and how,” then we would expect to see a combination of warfare and peaceful exchange, varying as the people involved found or or the other to have a greater value.

        From an evolutionary point of view, it’s slightly messier, and we can’t cling very tightly to notions of rationality (as in homo economicus), but incentives still clearly matter–it’s just that they’re shaped and mediated by factors such as group membership (tribal affiliations and religious differences), charismatic leadership, and the like.  But if we look at North American plains Indians, for example, we see repeated examples of both more or less on-going (usually low-level) warfare and more or less on-going trade.

        This is where I think Locke gets closer to the mark than Hobbes.  Hobbes assumed we just couldn’t get along without a dominating government, and that all would be theft and violence.  Locke thought we could get along to some extent, and that there would be some exchange, but that it would all be hindered in its development by the presence of theft and violence.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley
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      Yes, exactly.   I’d extend your point considerably farther, pointing out the fundamentally reactionary nature of political theory.   Even when it tries to extend what is known into the seemingly obvious, human nature resists empirical definition.

      If we are to gain any insight into how human nature evolves, we could do worse than examine what older political theorists considered axiomatic about human nature.   In violation of my own rule about not viewing history through the lenses of the present, well, maybe not an explicit violation, but consider Hobbes’ questionable equivalence of Public and Private interest.   Nowadays, nobody would say that sort of thing but it was how even the wisest men were thinking in those days.   That equivalence was progress for them in an era where men could be evicted from their property at the whim of the despot.   Our axioms are so different.   We have evolved away from that sort of thinking, at least in the West.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to BlaiseP
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        I’d extend your point considerably farther, pointing out the fundamentally reactionary nature of political theory.   Even when it tries to extend what is known into the seemingly obvious, human nature resists empirical definition.

        That’s a really good point. None of the theories thus far have been nearly flexible enough to contain a fraction of men. Maybe an ideal theory would be one supple enough to be abandoned without trouble.

        but consider Hobbes’ questionable equivalence of Public and Private interest.   Nowadays, nobody would say that sort of thing but it was how even the wisest men were thinking in those days. 

        I was struck by the fact that the Federalists seemed to see it as a problem to be solved and seemingly did so. I wonder if that’s why it’s a moot issue now. I’d also wondered if there aren’t parallels to be made with the ideas that the needs of the public coincide with those of the state or with those of capital. But that’s a whole other topic.

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  2. Avatar tarylcabot
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    My hat’s off to you for finishing such a dense & lengthy tome.  I made one serious attempt, but the endless parenthetical clauses destroyed any interest that i might have had in finishing/flogging myself through even one of the four parts.  Though I did wonder what the original edition looked like – many clauses in my edition were (inserted between parenthesis) and that made the book that much harder to slog through.

    In answer to your question it remains hard for me to understand what people mean when they call themselves Hobbesians  – i believe the term is usually used in the sense that unless we have a very strong state, then the life of man, (wlll be) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.Report

  3. Avatar Stillwater
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    This moved off the front page quickly! I haven’t read it carefully yet, Rufus, but I will soon and make some comments after I do.

    From what I’ve read so far, nice work!Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP
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    A well-written essay. Every sentence seems necessary. Reading Hobbes is like eating pound cake: someone should undertake to bring his books into modern English. The worst fate to befall any author is to lapse into eponym, Orwellian, Hobbesian, Swiftian come to mind immediately. I’m glad you put Marx on that list.

    Hobbes was a monarchist during the English Civil War but a ruthlessly honest one. As you say, Hobbes laid out what a sovereign cannot ask of his subjects without upsetting the apple cart of Natural Law. Hobbes’ critics would do well to put him in that context and thereby save themselves from embarrassment. The English Civil War was truly horrible and Hobbes had predicted it in Elements of Law.

    It seems clear enough the Founding Founders had read Hobbes as a cautionary example of how even the best thinkers will resort to the seeming necessity of monarchy as the most efficent framework for stability. No, said Jefferson and especially Madison, a Republic is the best framework. The American version of the Social Contract dug deep trenches around the power of the Executive. Though they understood the necessity of an Executive and Commander in Chief, at least a dozen of the Federalist Papers explicate their concerns on this subject. In these times, Congress has ceded ever more power to the Executive, especially in time of war. The Executive branch hasn’t returned those powers to Congress: Congress doesn’t want them back, seemingly.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to BlaiseP
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      Thank you very much for the kind words Blaise- they mean a lot.

      I’ve heard the Federalist papers described as a “Lockean solution to a Hobbesian problem”. I suppose that comes from the emphasis on security in the early papers- and I also do think it’s a vast oversimplifcation- but I also agree that, to some extent, they are responding to Hobbes there and that their answer is not Hobbes’.

      As for the ever-monarchical executive, I find it increasingly disconcerting how many problems the President is called upon to solve and how many he claims authority to solve. Congress is, as you’ve said, all too thrilled to cede both power and authority in order to absolve themselves of responsibility.Report

  5. Avatar Stillwater
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    He also was nothing like an anthropologist and his account of the state of nature is essentially a mental exercise; one wonders how many self-proclaimed “Hobbesians” actually realize that.**

    Yeah, I agree. Hobbes was arguing the state of nature as an abstraction, not a cultural or physical  reality. He certainly – in my mind – wasn’t saying that it ever existed in any robust sense. People have always been social, and social arrangements – society, as it were – has always existed in some form or another. So the point of the State of Nature section, it seems to me, is to lay out the conceptual – not the causal – foundations of the social contract, and to provide a rational justification based on enlightened self-interest for government as the enforcer of that contract. That is, independently of whether the state of nature ever as a matter of fact existed is irrelevant to whether people are justified in granting legitimate authority to government to enforce contracts and agreements.

    Hobbes sees all human accomplishments, from industry to culture to religion and philosophy as flourishing in a basic state of peace that is made possible only, in his opinion, by having a legitimate and coercive power that can hold men to their contracts.

    Yes. Having a Contract Enforcer is necessary to ensure the protection individual contracts, agreements, etc. at a first order level: immediate self-interest, as it were. But it also has necessary instrumental value as well: to create a society peaceful enough for people to pursue other interests.

    and perhaps what we can rightfully call “Hobbesian” is precisely this emphasis on order and stability and the attendant fear of violence and disorder.

    This is a good insight and sounds about right to me. (I’m not a Hobbes scholar or anything like that, so I can’t say if it’s historically accurate…) But a Hobbesian view might just reduce to what you’ve written here: that the expression of enlightened self-interest requires order and stability, and the purpose of government is to foster and compel it.

    what mattered most in 1651 was the assumption that a King could lose legitimacy by violating very basic “laws of nature”, which are hard for me to distinguish from human rights.

    Personally, I think this is the deep insight of Hobbes, and I think you’re right to be confused about the distinction wrt rights he’s making here. At root, he didn’t use rights-talk to make his arguments, but the principles are there nonetheless (other theorists saw that and moved in that direction). So on my understanding of Hobbes, the central insight is this: the implicit in principle agreements between people – that is, those agreements which aren’t actually made (say between complete strangers) but hypothetically would be made (had they known each other) on a fully general level – form the constraints and permissions upon which rationally self-interested individuals act. agreements between people. And if a King violates those in principle agreements, the King has violated the authority granted to him by the people.

    In the end, however, he supports an absolute monarch because, as opposed to the factionalism that can result in a democracy, a legitimate monarch has interests that coincide with those of his people: if the kingdom is flourishing, his name will be renowned.

    Yes. The view Hobbes adopts here is the stationary bandit theory of government played out over the long run: even a government of totalitarian rule will eventually lead to justice and extensions of rights because the subjects thriving (economically, say) means that the King thrives (by increasing the revenue from taxation). It is a sanguine view, but that’s why others, like Locke, introduced democracy as a check on governmental power.

    Hobbes believes that monarchy is the ideal form of rule because, “the Private interest is the same as the Public”.

    I agree with you about this, and it’s where Hobbes loses me.

    Personally, I think the main value of Hobbes is the formalization of a justification of ‘being governed’ which all self-interested individuals would rationally accept. Of course, people are very interested in what remains at the end of the day, the ‘who guards the guardians?’ problem, which gets answers some of us are more comfortable with. But he outlined the basic structure of the social compact based on rights, and that compact exists either in a stationary bandit theory or in a straight-ahead social contract theory.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Stillwater
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      So on my understanding of Hobbes, the central insight is this: the implicit in principle agreements between people – that is, those agreements which aren’t actually made (say between complete strangers) but hypothetically would be made (had they known each other) on a fully general level – form the constraints and permissions upon which rationally self-interested individuals act.

      That’s interesting- there also a lot of agreements that have to be made in Hobbes in order for a contract to be legitimate in the first place- and there’s some implication with the natural laws that it could be illegitimate in the eyes of God, but also to all rational people.

      a Hobbesian view might just reduce to what you’ve written here: that the expression of enlightened self-interest requires order and stability, and the purpose of government is to foster and compel it.

      I think that’s about right, but I’m not sure the enlightened self-interest part wouldn’t apply more to Locke, who believes that men are intrinsically rational and so they formed societies that must have been an improvement on what came before (or they would have been irrational). Hobbes really does emphasize the passions quite a bit more than Locke, but oddly enough, comes to many of the same conclusions.

       Report

  6. Avatar Christopher Carr
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    Rufus, I didn’t even see this until now. I’ll get a response out this week.Report

  7. Avatar Murali
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    Rufus, awesome post!

    A few quibbles though!

    The first thing to note about Hobbes’s theory is its contractualism. Again, this might seem obvious today, but replacing a belief that Kings maintain their position by God’s will with one in which they maintain power by the agreement of the people, in exchange for upholding their end of the contract, is radical.

    Contractualism (no matter what Rousseau said) is not about government maintaining power by the agreement of the people. Rather, all a contractualist is saying is that governments are justified if people in a hypothetical situation would agree to it. So, if people in a hypothetical situation would agree to government, that government is justified even if no one in the actual world agrees to it.

     Yes. The view Hobbes adopts here is the stationary bandit theory of government played out over the long run: even a government of totalitarian rule will eventually lead to justice and extensions of rights because the subjects thriving (economically, say) means that the King thrives (by increasing the revenue from taxation).

    I agree with this actually. A lot of the problems that seem to riddle countries runby dictators in this age of democracy has to do with economic isolationism. Economic sanctions are counterproductive in terms of ameliorating the living conditions of those living in dicatatorial regimes. The better way to go is through diplomatic and economic engagement. If communist China can embrace global trade because they see the benefits of trade, then a lot of the horrible-ness of current dictatorships can be laid at the feet of economic sanctions.Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Murali
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      Murali, I’m failing to see the significant distinction between your view of contractualism and Rufus’s. Could you elaborate? Also, I must emphatically agree with your characterization of the evils of dictatorial regimes being ameliorated by engagement in global trade. The reach of a despotic government can only extend so far; the free market is much more powerful in bringing human happiness.Report

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