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Hobbes's Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes

Life and Works
. . Human Nature
. . Society
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Even more than Bacon, Thomas Hobbes illustrated the transition from medieval to modern thinking in Britain. His Leviathan effectively developed a vocabulary for philosophy in the English language by using Anglicized versions of the technical terms employed by Greek and Latin authors. Careful use of words to signify common ideas in the mind, Hobbes maintained, avoids the difficulties to which human reasoning is most obviously prone and makes it possible to articulate a clear conception of reality. (Leviathan I 4)

For Hobbes, that conception is bound to be a mechanistic one: the movements of physical objects will turn out to be sufficient to explain everything in the universe. The chief purpose of scientific investigation, then, is to develop a geometrical account of the motion of bodies, which will reveal the genuine basis of their causal interactions and the regularity of the natural world. Thus, Hobbes defended a strictly materialist view of the world.

Human Nature

Human beings are physical objects, according to Hobbes, sophisticated machines all of whose functions and activities can be described and explained in purely mechanistic terms. Even thought itself, therefore, must be understood as an instance of the physical operation of the human body. Sensation, for example, involves a series of mechanical processes operating within the human nervous system, by means of which the sensible features of material things produce ideas in the brains of the human beings who perceive them. (Leviathan I 1)

Human action is similarly to be explained on Hobbes's view. Specific desires and appetites arise in the human body and are experienced as discomforts or pains which must be overcome. Thus, each of us is motivated to act in such ways as we believe likely to relieve our discomfort, to preserve and promote our own well-being. (Leviathan I 6) Everything we choose to do is strictly determined by this natural inclination to relieve the physical pressures that impinge upon our bodies. Human volition is nothing but the determination of the will by the strongest present desire.

Hobbes nevertheless supposed that human agents are free in the sense that their activities are not under constraint from anyone else. On this compatibilist view, we have no reason to complain about the strict determination of the will so long as we are not subject to interference from outside ourselves. (Leviathan II 21)

As Hobbes acknowledged, this account of human nature emphasizes our animal nature, leaving each of us to live independently of everyone else, acting only in his or her own self-interest, without regard for others. This produces what he called the "state of war," a way of life that is certain to prove "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Leviathan I 13) The only escape is by entering into contracts with each other—mutually beneficial agreements to surrender our individual interests in order to achieve the advantages of security that only a social existence can provide. (Leviathan I 14)

Human Society

Unable to rely indefinitely on their individual powers in the effort to secure livelihood and contentment, Hobbes supposed, human beings join together in the formation of a commonwealth. Thus, the commonwealth as a whole embodies a network of associated contracts and provides for the highest form of social organization. On Hobbes's view, the formation of the commonwealth creates a new, artificial person (the Leviathan) to whom all responsibility for social order and public welfare is entrusted. (Leviathan II 17)

Of course, someone must make decisions on behalf of this new whole, and that person will be the sovereign. The commonwealth-creating covenant is not in essence a relationship between subjects and their sovereign at all. Rather, what counts is the relationship among subjects, all of whom agree to divest themselves of their native powers in order to secure the benefits of orderly government by obeying the dictates of the sovereign authority. (Leviathan II 18) That's why the minority who might prefer a different sovereign authority have no complaint, on Hobbes's view: even though they have no respect for this particular sovereign, they are still bound by their contract with fellow-subjects to be governed by a single authority. The sovereign is nothing more than the institutional embodiment of orderly government.

Since the decisions of the sovereign are entirely arbitrary, it hardly matters where they come from, so long as they are understood and obeyed universally. Thus, Hobbes's account explicitly leaves open the possibility that the sovereign will itself be a corporate person—a legislature or an assembly of all citizens—as well as a single human being. Regarding these three forms, however, Hobbes himself maintained that the commonwealth operates most effectively when a hereditary monarch assumes the sovereign role. (Leviathan II 19) Investing power in a single natural person who can choose advisors and rule consistently without fear of internal conflicts is the best fulfillment of our social needs. Thus, the radical metaphysical positions defended by Hobbes lead to a notably conservative political result, an endorsement of the paternalistic view.

Hobbes argued that the commonwealth secures the liberty of its citizens. Genuine human freedom, he maintained, is just the ability to carry out one's will without interference from others. This doesn't entail an absence of law; indeed, our agreement to be subject to a common authority helps each of us to secure liberty with respect to others. (Leviathan II 21) Submission to the sovereign is absolutely decisive, except where it is silent or where it claims control over individual rights to life itself, which cannot be transferred to anyone else. But the structure provided by orderly government, according to Hobbes, enhances rather than restricts individual liberty.

Whether or not the sovereign is a single heredetary monarch, of course, its administration of social order may require the cooperation and assistance of others. Within the commonwealth as a whole, there may arise smaller "bodies politic" with authority over portions of the lives of those who enter into them. The sovereign will appoint agents whose responsibility is to act on its behalf in matters of less than highest importance. Most important, the will of the sovereign for its subjects will be expressed in the form of civil laws that have either been decreed or tacitly accepted. (Leviathan II 26) Criminal violations of these laws by any subject will be appropriately punished by the sovereign authority.

Despite his firm insistence on the vital role of the sovereign as the embodiment of the commonwealth, Hobbes acknowledged that there are particular circumstances under which it may fail to accomplish its purpose. (Leviathan II 29) If the sovereign has too little power, is made subject to its own laws, or allows its power to be divided, problems will arise. Similarly, if individual subjects make private judgments of right and wrong based on conscience, succomb to religious enthisiasm, or acquire excessive private property, the state will suffer. Even a well-designed commonwealth may, over time, cease to function and will be dissolved.

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