Hobbes: Notes on Leviathan
Karl Marx once said that he wouldn’t consider himself to be a “Marxist” and reading Leviathan I don’t find that Hobbes was quite as “Hobbesian” as he’s made out to be either. Often, he’s described as a po-faced authoritarian, pessimistic about human nature and the outcome of unrestricted freedom; this is contrasted with Locke, who is depicted as a proto-liberal founding his hypothetical society on innate rights and property. There’s certainly some truth to it, but the two aren’t as far apart as the neat argument places them.*
First, there’s the issue of human equality. 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. Hobbes spends the first book, “Of Man”, detailing human nature, beginning with an account of perception similar to Locke’s famous tabula rasa rejection of innatism (rejecting the notion we’re born with innate ideas for one in which we come to all knowledge by perception and reflection). Hobbes comes to the further conclusion that “Nature has made man essentially equal in the faculties of body and mind”. This was not accepted wisdom at the time; note Locke’s conclusion in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding that,“ there is a greater distance between some men and others in this (intellectual) respect than between some men and some beasts”. But the idea of human equality is important for understanding Hobbes; the fact that men are equal in mental and physical capabilities means they will need to use force or trickery if they want to gain an unnatural advantage over one another.
Hobbes also spends a great deal of Book One discussing the passions, cataloging a profusion of passions starting from the basics, Appetite, Desire, Love, Aversion, Joy, Hate, and Grief, and making his way down from there. It seems fair to say that Hobbes characterizes mankind as being fundamentally passionate, which contrasts with Locke’s view of man as essentially rational. Hobbes tells us, in fact, that “the Passions of men are commonly more potent than their Reason”.
This is what brings us from the state of nature to that of civilization. Since men are both passionate and equal in abilities, it stands to reason they would have trouble living together, and it strikes me that Hobbes actually seems to see the state of nature as being basically asocial, ending with early proto communities. Leviathan initiated a fascination with the state of nature and how civilization came out of it, which went against an older belief that men had lived in civilizations since Adam and Eve (the “patriarchal” view that Locke attacks in the First Treatise on Government that few people read today because fewer subscribe to the patriarchal view of history any more). It’s a minor quibble but I suspect that Hobbes sees the trouble arising from the early state of community following an asocial state of nature, and that’s what becomes a “war of all against all” (the bellum omnium contra omnes). 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.**
It’s also important to note that this state of war does not only endanger men’s safety, and so civilization is not just a matter of securing body or property. 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. He rightfully believes that men cannot judge their own disputes, and therefore need a dispassionate judge. Basically, if men don’t keep their covenants between each other, there cannot be peace, and covenants made by fear of the other are unjust; so there needs to be a “visible power to keep them in awe” and compel men equally to the performance of their covenants. They sacrifice certain liberties in order to create this regulating force of order and stability and subdue violence and struggle. One might say that the English Civil War co-wrote this part of the text, and perhaps what we can rightfully call “Hobbesian” is precisely this emphasis on order and stability and the attendant fear of violence and disorder.
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. Hobbes, admittedly, says that the sovereign cannot be justly punished by his subjects since they’re the authors of his actions; but he also gives plenty of things the king cannot legitimately ask of them, for instance, to maim or kill themselves or dishonour their contracts. This suggests that Hobbes’s idea of absolute rule would no longer apply to a transgressive king and further that it’s therefore less “authoritarian” than it’s made out to be. Consider for a second the old belief that subjects suffer under a cruel King because God is angry with them, and then replace that with the suggestion that Kings suffer rebellions because they have sinned against the commonwealth. While Hobbes grants more power to an absolute ruler than we would likely be comfortable with, 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.
Hobbes spends a great deal of time, in fact, explaining what a King cannot ask of his subjects without violating natural law. 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. Factionalism was a very common fear associated with democracy- factions had destroyed most of the republics that had existed up until that time- notice that the Federalists spend a great deal of time on the problem of factions. But, Hobbes seems a bit sanguine to me, either about the possibility of having a virtuous king or the possibility of limiting the corrupt ones.
The third part, “Of a Christian Commonwealth”, contains quite a bit of Biblical analysis and seems, at times, to reach Biblical lengths, but the gist is easy enough to understand: there are men who would claim to make laws based upon divine revelation; however, “men need to be very circumspect and wary in obeying the voice of man, that pretending himself to be a prophet, requires us to obey God in that way, which he in God’s name tells us to be the way to happiness”. Hobbes reminds us that the Bible is crawling with tales of false prophets, and we must wonder if a proclaimed prophet isn’t capitalizing off the leverage that the Word of God would have with believers. His task here is to both affirm the authority of Scripture, while undercutting those who would undermine the civil authority, which he clearly places above the spiritual. Hobbes quotes several passages of Scripture, returning repeatedly to Christ’s “My Kingdom is not of this world”. Thus, Hobbes tells us, “there can be no spiritual commonwealth among men who are in the flesh” and no coercive power for God’s spokesmen. The context of Leviathan, again, is the English Civil War, and the target here would seem to be Pope Innocent X. In Part IV, Hobbes tries to clear up the sources of error in scriptural interpretation. As with Part III, this was likely hot reading during the Civil War, but is less so now. At least, my own knowledge of Scripture is insufficient to sort through his apparently unorthodox approach.
I am not a Hobbesian and it remains hard for me to understand what people mean when they call themselves Hobbesians. 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”. This is in contrast to the factionalism that was commonly associated with democracy; a Monarch’s interests are supposed to align with the public’s- if he does something that hurts the kingdom, it hurts him as well; his name will be synonymous with the fate of his domain.
Even if we grant that Hobbes has in mind a legitimate ruler who upholds his end of the contract, this seems like wishful thinking at best. A monarch can worry about how his rule will be remembered after his death and in that case, glory would be aligned with good rule. But he can just as easily ignore all of that and aggrandize himself in his time on the throne at the expense of his people. Certainly, history has offered many examples of absolute rulers who looted and repressed their people with near perfect detachment from how their actions might appear to their subjects, outsiders, or history. Hobbes’s monarchism seems to rely on the faith that such rulers are few and far between, instead of being a historical norm- Hobbesianism therefore seems to require a faith in rulers as such that I personally lack.
* Note: I intend to post very soon on Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, making this a bit less of a non sequitur.
** Note: Hey, Hobbesians! I just read the book. Take this as the beginning of a conversation in which I came in and said, “I just read this book and here are some scattered thoughts.” Feel free to give me your understanding of Hobbes, differ with my understanding, and take the conversation where you will.