8. Hobbes’s Leviathan

“Thomas Hobbes, whose long life actively covered most of the 17th century, was one of the greatest of British political philosophers…. His importance lies in his having insisted that the first requirement of political and moral institutions is that they should provide the citizens with security. Thus, Hobbes’s starting point was the individual, his rights and need for security–from which he passed to the social contract by which a sovereign is invested with absolute authority.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 8, page 970)

In the eighth reading of their The Development of Political Theory and Government (volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959), Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff consider the introduction to and chapters 13-21 of Hobbes’s Leviathan. After introducing Hobbes, they discuss his notion of the state of nature which he characterizes as a state of war, his affirmation that people can escape that state by following natural law to form a commonwealth or Leviathan, and the rights which he attributes to the sovereign and to his subjects in a commonwealth. They then compare Hobbes’s thought with the thought of some other writers considered in The Great Ideas Program: with Aristotle on whether the state is natural or conventional, with Locke on how they view the state of nature, with Aquinas on how they conceive natural law, and with Plato on how they picture justice. Here I’ll sketch Hobbes’s life and summarize Adler and Wolff’s presentation of his political theory. However, because of my limited knowledge of the thought of the other writers, I won’t try to compare Hobbes’s thought with theirs.

Hobbes was born in 1588 and lived through one of the most turbulent periods in English history‒from Elizabeth I to Charles II, including the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell. Feeling that his defence of the monarchy made it dangerous for him to be in England during the struggle between the king and Parliament, he spent eleven years in self-imposed exile (1640-51), mostly in Paris. However although Cromwell was still in power when he returned to England, he was unharmed. After the restoration of the monarchy he was protected by Charles II, whom he had tutored in mathematics while in Paris, but had difficulty in getting his work published, being suspected of teaching atheism in Leviathan. Thus many of his writings weren’t made public until after his death at ninety-one in 1679.

Leviathan was published in 1651. The political theory which Hobbes expressed in it is built around the notion of a state of nature, a primitive condition in which there was no king, no law, and no civil society. It is a state of war―“during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war”―caused by competition, diffidence, and glory. “The first makes men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third for reputation.” To be in a state of war, it is not necessary to be fighting all the time; it is enough that people are ready to fight. “For the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all time there is no assurance. All other time is peace.” Adler and Wolff observe that this description fits what we call a “cold war” and that “Hobbes clearly thought that sovereign states in the seventeenth century were as much in a condition of ‘cold war’ as the United States and Russia are in the twentieth” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 103; the other quotes in this paragraph are from Leviathan in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 23, page 85).

“It takes very little imagination to see that men’s condition in such a state of war…must be miserable. Few, however, have described this state as eloquently as Hobbes did: ‘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 fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (p. 85c).’ Should men, then, quit the state of nature or war? Hobbes’s answer is an emphatic Yes. His affirmation is drawn from the natural law.” (Adler and Wolff, pages 103-04)

Hobbes defines a law of nature 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, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved.” He identifies the first such law of nature as “that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war” and the second as “that man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down [his] right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself.” (The quotes in this paragraph are from Leviathan, pages 86-87.)

However, Hobbes argues, it isn’t enough for us to be willing to give up our natural rights. Others must be willing to do so too. But agreements to do so “are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.” Thus “something else [is] required, besides covenant, to make [men’s] agreement constant and lasting; which is a common power to keep them in awe and to direct their actions to the common benefit.” This power can come about only if people “confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will.” This person or assembly “is called a COMMONWEALTH” and “he that carryeth this person [or assembly] is called sovereign, and said to have sovereign power; and every one besides, his subject.” (The quotes in this paragraph are from Leviathan, pages 99-101.)

Hobbes devotes a whole chapter of Leviathan, Chapter XVIII, to identifying the rights of the sovereign. Adler and Wolff summarize them thus:
(1) The subjects cannot, under any conditions, cast off the sovereign and institute a new one.
(2) The sovereign has made no covenants with the subjects; rather they have made covenants among themselves. The sovereign cannot, therefore, ever be said to have broken the covenant with his subjects, and they can never be free from their subjection.
(3) When the majority of men has declared someone to be sovereign, the minority must go along.
(4) The sovereign can commit no injury against his subjects.
(5) Therefore, the sovereign can never be justly punished.
(6) The sovereign has the right of censorship over opinions and books.
(7) The sovereign’s will is the sole source of civil law.
(8) The sovereign has the judicial power in the state.
(9) The sovereign has the right of making wear and peace.
(10) [The sovereign has the right] of choosing his officers, counselors, ministers, etc., in both peace and war.
(11) The sovereign has the right of punishing and rewarding his subjects.
(12) [The sovereign] has the right of awarding honors and titles.
(Adler and Wolff, page 107)

Adler and Wolff sum up the above list by saying that for Hobbes “sovereignty is absolute” (Adler and Wolff, page 107). They then consider whether subjects retain any rights and conclude they do retain some rights, rights which they cannot give away, described thus by Hobbes: “As first a man cannot lay down the right of resisting them that assault him by force to take away his life, because he cannot be understood to aim thereby at any good to himself. The same may be said of wounds, and chains, and imprisonment” (Leviathan, page 87). Thus, as Adler and Wolff point out, Hobbes acknowledges only the first of the three inalienable rights mentioned in the American Declaration of Independence‒life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. “The right to life or of self-preservation is inalienable for him. As for the other two…liberty is quite alienable for Hobbes, being in fact totally alienated from the subjects by the social contract and given to the sovereign. Hobbes is silent on any right to a ‘pursuit of happiness.’ (Adler and Wolff, page 108)

Where does Leviathan get its title? Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “leviathan” as “anything huge or very powerful.” The only place in which I saw the word used in the part of Leviathan discussed in The Development of Political Theory and Government is where Hobbes tells how people enter into a covenant to give up their natural rights. Here is what he says: “This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH…. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal God, our peace and defence. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the Commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that, by the terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad” (Leviathan, page 100). (Although Hobbes refers here to “that great LEVIATHAN as “he” and as having his authority “given” to him, elsewhere he clarifies that it can be a single man or an assembly of men (see above in the paragraph beginning, “However, Hobbes argues”) and can attain its power by force or by voluntary agreement.) “That great LEVIATHAN” described by Hobbes certainly fits the dictionary definition of “leviathan.”


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