After reading this article you will learn about the bio, life and political ideas of Thomas Hobbes.
Life and Time of Thomas Hobbes:
Recent biographers of Hobbes say that “Hobbes and fear were born twins.” He was born prematurely in 1588. On his birth there was the news of The Spanish Armada. There were also other disturbances at the time of his birth and historians are of opinion that he survived all the fears and vicissitudes of the seventeenth century Britain.
In the last few decades, especially from 1580s, there were severe political turmoil’s. There were also economic and social instabilities. His span of life was quite long, as long as ninety-one years, which means that 1679 was the year of his death.
Historians are of opinion that when he was just fifteen years old James I ascended the British throne and clamped absolute rule upon the British people. James I strongly advocated absolute monarchy by reviving Divine Right theory.
His absolutism immediately created a long and penetrating schism between monarchy and parliament. Because, by the end of sixteenth century, British parliament had already accumulated power and it wanted to establish its authority and, at the same time superiority over the king.
The war and other factors imposed unprecedented pressure upon the British administration in general and the treasury in particular. The British treasury was practically empty and in order to fill it up the king made attempts to impose taxes upon the British people.
This was faced with stiff opposition from the parliament because its argument was that since its members were elected by the people the monarchy had no authority to ignore it. But James I refused to give due cognizance to the view or argument of parliament and this ultimately aggravated the relationship between king and parliament.
Thus the reign of James I was full of conflict between king and parliament but somehow he managed the whole affair without any amicable settlement. His son Charles I ascended the throne and the conflict continued even during the rule of Charles I.
As an administrator James I was a failure, but he managed to carry on. Charles I was, again, most inefficient. His father was involved in the long quarrel with parliament and even during Charles I this did not die.
The tragedy was that Charles I was directly involved in the conflict between Puritan and Conservative branches of English Church.
At the time of Charles I there was also the Catholic question and this created troubles for Charles I because of his mismanagement. Thus the political and religious conflicts completely engulfed the entire British society and Thomas Hobbes was the witness of all these exciting drama, since he was not an inanimate object all these events created serious impact upon his mind and thought. His biographers are of opinion that the events helped him to form his opinion.
Let us turn to another aspect of Hobbes’s contemporary situation which was also quite remarkable. When he was a student of the university Plato and Aristotle were taught within a very short time, Hobbes observed that various branches of knowledge, especially science, had remarkably developed and his university was far away from those developed branches of knowledge.
There was significant progress in mechanical science. For example there were discoveries of Kepler, Galileo and Descartes and serious attempts were made to enter into new domains of science and knowledge.
New light was thrown on physiology and magnetism. Newton’s Principia created sensation in the academic world. In a word there was miraculous discovery in material science. Materialism took the place of philosophy.
Hobbes’s mind, from the very beginning, was quite scientific and reasonable. The result was that, though he was the son of a clergyman, religion failed to create any positive impact on his mind.
This is because during his student life he seriously studied mechanical and materialist science and subjects. He was also acquainted with geometry, calculus and other material subjects. He studied Leibniz and Newton. His inquisitiveness was also deep and wide.
He not only studied various subjects of science and philosophy, he had an intention to know the world, peoples, society and culture around him. He extensively toured various parts of Europe and mixed with men of various walks of life.
He was also a part of many educational tours and this quenched his thirst for knowledge. He also got the opportunity to mix with many celebrities of his time.
This also broadened his mind and outlook. He got the scope to mix with great people of science, geometry and literature. It is said that during one tour he came in contact with Euclid’s ideas. His biographers claim that he finally fell in love with geometry. In fact this love with geometry considerably moulded his academic life.
This geometry is a material science. Thomas Hobbes thought that geometrical principles and formula could easily be applied to practical situations. He also arrived at the conclusion that material world and situations could easily be studied with the help of geometry.
The study of geometry influenced him in various ways and one such is social and natural phenomena can be studied geometrically. He thought that behind every social action and incident there is movement.
In this world, nothing is static or fixed. Everything moves from one point to another and if one fails to grasp it he will never be able to know the material world.
Factors that Directly Influenced Thomas Hobbes:
In A Review and Conclusion section of Leviathan Hobbes makes the following observation:
“And thus I have brought to an end my Discourse on Civil and Ecclesiastical Government, occasioned by the disorders of the present time, without partiality, without application, and without other design than to set before men’s eyes the mutual relation between protection and obedience of which the condition of human nature and the laws of divine (both natural and positive) require an inviolable observation”.
This observation of Hobbes is the best proof of the “fact” that his political and other observations contained in the Leviathan were strongly influenced by the circumstances he was confronted with or about which he had first-hand experience.
We can naturally say that he did not have the habit of roaming in an imaginary world. He witnessed so many incidents which were not to his liking mark in his mind. The incidents also pained him. He had a bright and prosperous picture about his motherland he loved so much and he thought that the incidents would destroy the future of his motherland.
We know that Machiavelli was the son or product of Renaissance. In the same breath we can say Hobbes was the product of embroiled political, social, economic and religious situation that he witnessed.
Particularly the gradual deteriorating political situation of Britain made Hobbes extremely thoughtful. Britain’s long involvement in war created serious impact in his mind because he thought that the war had completely exhausted the treasury.
The king imposed heavy taxation upon the common people. The entire economy was in shambles, trade and commerce were on the verge of collapse.
Apart from this the tentacles of corruption were spread in every nook and corner of society.
“The corruption of justice to which James had resorted to accomplish his ends Charles carried to the point of outrageous tyranny, the bitter quarrel with parliament” Maxey also writes – “The intellectual life of the country was correspondingly disturbed…. The role of the printing press was as significant as that of the sword”.
The culture of art and literature was seriously affected. Hobbes himself was a great intellectual of his time. He was a genius and had the full ability to traverse almost all the branches of knowledge.
Naturally when he found the miserable condition of art and literature and collectively of the intellectual world he decided to suggest a way out.
Thomas Hobbes believed that the battle among the ideas could ensure the advancement of knowledge and intellect. But he saw that there was no battle of ideas, but a conflict among various religious faiths, which may reasonably be called religious fanaticism and in-toleration and according to Hobbes all these completely dwarfed the progress of knowledge and intellect.
Cultivation of knowledge was the first priority to Hobbes and when he saw its absence he was extremely disheartened. He desired an overall prosperity of Britain.
He was not against religions but against its domination. He wanted individual freedom, but it was not all. The general progress of society was far more important and crucial than the progress of freedom of individuals.
He paid less importance to any particular type of government. This particular philosophy of Hobbes practically inspired him to suggest a type of government with absolute power at its disposal. This is Hobbes.
Political Ideas of Thomas Hobbes:
1. Scientific Materialism:
As a political philosopher Hobbes is remembered by the students of western political thought not simply for his theory of social contract, but chiefly for his contribution to scientific materialism.
He made this scientific materialism as the basis or foundation of civil society which will be based on absolutism and secularism. Bodin’s theory of sovereignty was absolute.
He strongly defended absolute monarchy and he did this in the background of St. Bartholomew Massacre of 1572. His belief was that if the monarchy had absolute power at his disposal such a heinous incident would not happen but Hobbes viewed the idea of absolution in the perspective of materialism. Machiavelli was also a proponent of absolutism.
But he founded his theory on different ground. According to Machiavelli the growing strength of opposing forces and the war among them created an atmosphere of extreme form of political instability and according to Machiavelli that retarded the over-all progress and political unity of Italy. Viewed in this light he prescribed absolute monarchy.
Hobbes studied geometry and other noted scientific works of his time. All these moulded his thought, ideas and outlook in a considerable way. Not only this, he applied his scientific knowledge and outlook to the study of political, social and all other situations. The logic and geometrical ideas helped the formulation of political ideas.
It is a fact that there is no place of historicity in the theory of social contract. But his method is scientific and based on logic. The result is Hobbes’s political philosophy is scientific.
Sabine, the renowned interpreter of Western political thought, makes the following observation:
“The defence of monarchical absolutism formed therefore a very superficial part of his effective political philosophy, and though the civil wars occasioned his thinking and writing, they account only in a small degree for the importance of what he had to say. Hobbes was in fact the first of the great modern philosophers who attempted to bring political theory into intimate relation with a thoroughly modern system of thought…on scientific principles”. This assessment of Sabine about Hobbes is perfectly correct. He had developed an inordinate passion for geometry which he studied and later on applied for the study of political phenomena.
His purpose was to start from simple propositions and on the basis of these propositions he built up complex theoretical structure. He needed a two part method and arrived at the conclusion that the Euclidian method could not help him.
The Galilean method might come to his help. Galileo adopted the resolutive competitive method. The resolutive part was the way to reach the required simple basic propositions; the competitive part was the way to build the complex one from those.
He adopted the resolutive part of Galilean method to the study of the main issues of political science. Hobbes found out the motions of political society and wanted to solve the political problems.
He developed great love for motion and applied it to the study of political problems and issues. According to Hobbes man is not an inanimate object. He thinks, observes, hopes and plans for further action.
In other words, he proceeds from one step to another and selects the most suitable alternative. In this way he arrives at the final stage of his programme. This is called motion and this he borrowed from geometry.
Hobbes’s bold hypothesis was that the motion of individual beings could be reduced to the effects of mechanical apparatus consisting of sense organs, nerves, muscles, imagination, memory and reason.
The apparatus did not have the capacity to move on its own accord. Its motion was created by external forces or objects. By applying the concept of motion to the study of political issues he introduced a new thought—the thought of motion and this thought he borrowed from geometry and other branches of mechanical science.
It is said that here lies the credit of Hobbes. He imported the basic ideas of contemporary science and Euclidian geometry in order to enrich the study of political ideas.
The whole vs. parts is another aspect of Hobbesian study of political issues. He could have started with the whole and then arrived at the conclusion, or the reverse could have been – He could start from the parts and then finally arrive at the whole. The fact is that his love for geometry led him to adopt the latter method.
He started his survey of political concepts with the state of nature and its inhabitants whom he called natural men. Since they were the members of the state of nature it cannot be expected that they will have civilised behaviour. Rather, they possessed all the uncivilised or rustic manners. This is quite logical and natural.
Society is inhabited by human beings. But they are complicated, more intelligent than other members of society such as beasts or animals. The society is built up with human beings and, therefore, any study of society must start with the proper analysis of various aspects of human nature.
Naturally a society inhabited by human beings must be studied in its proper perspective and this proper perspective is the study of human nature.
Thomas Hobbes started his analysis with man. But his man has reason, feeling, motive and emotion. He moves, works, acts or behaves being guided by all these. The interpreters of Hobbes’ thought and philosophy are of opinion that these characteristics of man are simply the background factors of motion.
In other words, man works because he has motive or feeling or reason. From here starts the concept of motion. Explaining Hobbesian philosophy Sabine rightly observes; At bottom every event is a motion and all sorts of natural processes must be explained by analysing complex appearances into the underlying motions of which they consist. …Thus he conceived the project of a system of philosophy in three parts, the first dealing with body and including what would now be called geometry and mechanics”. In the second part we find physiology and psychology of the individuals.
It means that when individuals act both body and mind are in active position. In other words, both guide each other and this is a very important manifestation of motion. Finally there appears the civil society or body-politic or state.
The body-politic, though artificial, is a part or manifestation of motion. The members of the state of nature founded such an artificial organization and, at the root of this organization, there was motion. If we thoroughly study Hobbes’s materialism few basic points will emerge.
One is, matter is the real thing and there is nothing real except matter. Morality, religion etc. are all of secondary importance. Second is, there is no hidden hand behind the rise and fall of society. Practical or material factors guide everything. We conclude that motion was the central idea of Hobbesian political philosophy and he explained it scientifically.
Simply stated the premises of Hobbes’s scientific materialism are the following:
He was extremely dissatisfied with the prevailing situation of England, and wanted to save British society from the turmoil. He had a desire to lay the foundation of a new society, he studied geometry and other branches of science and finally he wanted to build up the foundation of a new society on the basis of knowledge he culled.
The tragedy is that he did not enter into the details of the matter. That is, whether the application of scientific principles to the foundation of a new civil society will be relevant or not. The human society and geometry or mechanical sciences are separate subjects.
The people of the state of nature abandoned that and proceeded to build up a new civil society. Hobbes discovered motion in this simple act. It is amusing. Human society and political philosophy have nothing to do with politics and Hobbes failed to understand this.
Tom Sorell says:
“Hobbes’s idea is closer to the Baconian one that philosophy or science can contribute to the relief of man’s estate.” Philosophical knowledge may be helpful for the study of science or vice-versa. But it is not at all correct to hold the view that science is at the root of the foundation of human society.
In our analysis of Hobbes’s scientific materialism we have noted that he has taken the help of motion which is chiefly a Galilean principle for the study of politics. But many interpreters of Hobbes’s political philosophy term it as “Coercive philosophy”.
Thomas Hobbes was a great scholar of his time. He studied various subjects. He very carefully and intelligently arranged the arguments and the readers are so mesmerized that they are compelled to buy his arguments.
Some critics say that Hobbes has given no scope to his readers to think in their own way and apply their own view. He has arranged everything in such a manner that the readers are indirectly forced to accept his views. This attitude is not a welcome feature of his thought.
Tom Sorell says that the purpose of Hobbes’s scientific materialism or science of moral and politics is to correct people’s untutored belief of right or wrong and harmful behaviour and attitude.
Thomas Hobbes speaks of the “prospective glasses” civil society makes available to counteract our natural short-sightedness in matters of moral politics. People are generally ignorant of the rules of peace. They are not well acquainted with what to do at the time of crisis such as war or general crisis.
They are not also capable of dealing with love, passion etc. In all these cases the application of science or geometrical motion will not come to any assistance. Hobbes was overconfident that the application of motion or other principles of science will rectify people’s harmful behaviour or bad attitude. But this is not the case.
Rectification of people’s undesirable behaviour requires different technique. His analysis of state of nature or human behaviour is not based on historical facts. Or these are not empirically tested.
Even he does not claim that his study is empirically tested. Finally we hold the view that modern political scientists do not admit that there can be definite and scientifically tested morals and these can be usefully applied to political science.
At least Tom Sorell thinks so. So we conclude that Hobbes’s scientific materialism is not fully scientific. The credit of Hobbes is he did not base his theory on religion, ethics and morality.
2. Human Nature:
Hobbes’s social contract may not be fully historical or question may be raised about the scientificity of his thought, but one cannot question the logical consequence. People may question why did the inhabitants of the state of nature decide to set up a civil society?
He has not given any scope. He has started his analysis with the depiction of human nature and this he has done in chapter XIII of Leviathan (1651).
Let us quote few lines from this chapter:
Nature has made men as equal in the faculties of body and mind as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or quicker in mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable. Men are in the point of equal than unequal.
There is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of anything. From this equality of ability arises equality of hope in attaining of our ends. If any two men desire the same thing they become enemies.
They Endeavour to destroy or subdue one another. In the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel, the competition, diffidence and glory. The first makes men invade for gain, the second for safety and the third for reputation.
Thomas Hobbes says that competition, glory and diffidence are the three characteristics of men who lived in the state of nature. These features of men created an atmosphere of animosity and there was none to stop or check it because there was no power to put an end to that undesirable situation. These three features of men created a condition of war.
It was a war of everyman against everyman. The war was caused by man’s desire to win the desired goal.
Thomas Hobbes has admitted that everyman in the state of nature was not rebellious; that is, he was not prepared to declare war against another. The real situation was some people were quarrelsome and this attitude instigated others which finally created a warlike situation.
Again, every man thought that in no respect he is inferior to others and this mentality created unhealthy atmosphere. Man in the state of nature thought that he was not inferior to another man and this feeling led him to be involved in quarrel. Again, there was no end to the desire of man and because of this man jumped from one action to another.
Since in the state of nature there was no recognizable power or authority to put restraints on the unbecoming behaviour of man, competition and quarrel continued to dominate the entire atmosphere of the state of nature.
Thomas Hobbes treated good and bad as subjective concepts and they fall within the private domain of individuals. Naturally, state has nothing to do. W. T. Jones says – “No man’s judgment of value can be mistaken since his judgment “this is good” or “this is bad” is simply an expression of the motion of his body towards or away from object about which he makes judgment.”
In other words the decision of men is not separate from their activities. By saying this Hobbes has imported the idea of motion into his analysis of human nature. The idea of motion thus works in the activities or behaviour of every man.
We say that the behaviour of one person is the reaction to the behaviour of another man. Again, man is not concerned with the satisfaction of momentary desires. He wants his own preservation. To achieve this goal man seeks to get power and, in fact, there is no end to this desire.
3. State of Nature:
We have just now concluded Hobbes’s depiction of human nature. We shall now land on his description of state of nature. Needless to say that both these are well-connected. He has said that in the state of nature people were involved in continuous quarrel and according to him competition, diffidence and glory were the principal causes of quarrel. Hobbes very often called it war.
However, it may not be actual war, it is warlike situation. This was war of everyman against everyman which means that the entire state of nature was in the brink of war or warlike atmosphere.
In other words, the state of nature was not a place of peace and tranquillity, but tension and animosity. The animosity created a sense of insecurity of life. One man believed that another man was his enemy, but actually this was not. The ill-feeling and suspicion actually controlled the general atmosphere of state of nature.
After saying all these Hobbes opened his “Pandora’s box” (His depiction of state of nature opens floodgates of issues). He says – In such a condition, there is no place for industries, 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, no knowledge, 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 .This was the picture of the state of nature. Hobbes admits that the picture of the state of nature depicted by him may not be universally correct. But in many places of America that situation prevailed.
Thomas Hobbes admits that all may not agree with his analysis of state of nature. But it is supposed that the state of nature will assume that picture because there was no general way of living and common manner to which everyone will have obligation.
Again, in the state of nature there was no common power that everyone will fear. Hence anarchy and warlike situation where the inevitable consequences.
According to Hobbes, state of nature lacked the following – there was no well-defined law; there was no power to implement any decision, again, no authority to take decision. Most of the people were obstinate and competitive. They loved reputation or glory. Their nature was quarrelsome. In such an atmosphere there cannot prevail peace and security.
Critics generally argue that Hobbes’s depiction of state of nature is full of sheer imagination, that is, it has no practical value. But on this ground we cannot reject Hobbesian conception of state of nature.
He has said that in many places of world there was savage-like situation. Hobbes’s depiction may not be fully correct, but the prevalence of anarchical situation cannot be denied. It has been asserted that in the state of nature there was law of nature and inhabitants followed or adopted this law of nature. Grotius, the noted authority of international law, at least claims so.
The independent states sincerely followed the law of nature. The prevalence of law of nature cannot create any anarchy. We are, however, not interested in the historicity of the state of nature.
It is said that he offered us this particular picture of state of nature keeping in mind the picture of his contemporary Britain.
4. Social Contract:
We have noted briefly the state of nature depicted by Hobbes. The question is how men “managed to get themselves out of the awfulness of the state of nature into civil society with its law and its reasonable degree of social stability” —J. S. Mac-Clelland History of Western Political Thought By frightening or controlling other men the evils of the state of nature could not be avoided or overcome.
It was thought that if all men were brought within the “orbit” of a single organization and put under the administration of law the evils of the state of nature could be avoided. This is the best way.
The “fear of punishment for breaking laws would be strong enough to secure obedience, then all might be well” Hence the most powerful palliative to the evils of state of nature is the creation of a civil society along with a sovereign power of laws. Then the state of nature would never appear to be miserable.
After considering all the aspects of society Hobbes arrived at the conclusion that if a “common power” could be created through the instrument of covenant the awfulness of the state of nature could be overcome.
He mentioned several things simultaneously. A covenant or contract would be finalized and all the members of the state of nature would be the party of the contract. Once a civil society is formed the separate existence of each member would be lost.
All will create one person or one great multitude and the entire civil society would be a single unit. Hobbes writes – “The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners and the injuries of one another…is to confer all their power and strength upon one man or the assembly of men”.
The central part of Hobbes’s contract can be stated in the following words:
“I authorize and give my right of governing myself to this man or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. This done the multitude so united in one person is called the commonwealth in Latin Civitas. This is the generation of that great Leviathan or rather of that mortal God, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence”.
If we go through the details of the social contract we shall find certain interesting features of the contract:
(1) The covenant created a society or body-politic which can be called a legal institution. In the state of nature there was no existence of such a legal institution because people did not create such body.
(2) The commonwealth or civil society is a common power and Hobbes calls it so. It is because different people may have their separate opinions but the commonwealth will be governed by one single opinion. That is, unanimity shall be the basis of commonwealth. It is not only a collective body but one person.
(3) The covenant created a new political organisation which is called state and this destroyed the past concept of society. In other words, in Hobbesian covenant, there is no legal status of society. The natural society, through the mechanism of contract, was converted into civil society.
(4) The contract establishes the idea that the principle of transition acts very actively. In the state of nature men was self-interest seeking creatures, unreasonable and quarrelsome. The contract completely changed their character. Again, there was a transition from anarchy to civil administration.
(5) In Hobbesian theory of contract there is no scope of divided opinion. One surrenders his earlier views, scope and rights on the condition that others will do the same. So we can say the foundation of the commonwealth is unanimity. Hobbes understood it very well that division of opinion would be detrimental to the foundation and interest of the civil society.
(6) Somehow the inhabitants of the state of nature realized that for the general security and welfare a commonwealth or civil society was indispensable. If some-one question why the people of the state of nature realized this— there is no answer to this reasonable question. However, Hobbes has argued the whole concept in that way
(7) Hobbes arrived at the conclusion that the creation of a commonwealth with unlimited power is panacea to all evils. But it is sheer naivety. It is the imagination of Hobbes that the erection of “Common power” will solve all the problems. But the matter may be looked from different angle.
The anarchical condition of the British society he witnessed forced him to draw such a conclusion. Jean Bodin also thought that if there were an absolute power in France the most heinous Massacre could not get any opportunity to happen. So we do not find any un-reasonability in the belief of Hobbes.
(8) There is a very reasonable and interesting point in Hobbes’s contract theory. This is the transition from uncertainty to certainty from lawlessness to lawful atmosphere, from physical power to reason.
All the contractualists have spoken loudly about this transition though their language and techniques of analysis are different. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau have all specially emphasized the idea of transition. Of course the society is always in the process of transition.
The concluding paragraph of chapter 17 of Leviathan (Part II,1651) makes the following announcement:
“That person or assembly of persons is sovereign who is empowered to bring about peace and common defence.”
Thomas Hobbes uses the two words—sovereign and sovereign power— at the same breath. The attainment of sovereign power may take place in two ways—one is by natural force. This is the application of force. It means that a person with superior force may compel others to submit obedience to him.
The application of natural force may assume the form of war. Other than the application of natural force there is another way of creating sovereign power, and it is, some men may agree among themselves to submit to some man or assembly of men voluntarily, on confidence, to be protected by him against all others. This second type of sovereignty is the characteristic feature of political commonwealth.
Thus we see that two types of sovereign were quite active in the mind of Hobbes—sovereign created by institution and sovereign created by acquisition.
In Hobbes’s theory sovereignty is absolutely an indispensable part of commonwealth. In chapter 18, Hobbes has further announced that the institution of commonwealth will never be complete without the creation of sovereign power.
The creation of sovereign power will be completed in the manner the commonwealth was created or instituted. Hence we can say that the sovereignty is definitely an integral part of the commonwealth.
The rights, responsibilities, powers and other “faculties” of sovereign are derived from the covenant. Since this sovereign is instituted it is different from the sovereignty by acquisition. It is interesting to note that Hobbes was in favour of sovereignty by institution though he finally made it absolute.
It is again to be noted that Hobbes spoke of the institution of sovereignty by another covenant. He says – “From the institution of commonwealth are derived all the rights and faculties of him on whom the sovereign power is conferred by the consent of the people assembled.”
We thus find that after setting up of the civil society the contracting individuals proceeded to create sovereign power and there was the consent of the assembled men in this regard. “The consent of the assembled man” may be defined as a particular form of covenant.
Mere establishment of civil society is never the guarantor of the unity of people. The real and workable unity can be achieved through the institution of sovereignty. We think that this is an important part of Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty.
This particular aspect has been emphasized by J. S. McClelland in the following words:
“The unity of a thing consists not in the thing represented but in its representor. A civil society acts only as a unity though the sovereign unity does not arise spontaneously, but is the deliberate creation of disparate human wills. …It is important to remember that Hobbesian men do not come into civil society in order to change their natures. On the contrary, they enter civil society to fulfill their natures as rational egoists in so far as that is possible within the bounds of law”. We, therefore, see that Hobbes’s men were quite calculative.
Their main purpose was to rationalize their irrational or unreasonable behaviour that was prevalent in the state of nature. They had no intention to abandon their egoistic attitude but to rationalize or civilize it through the instrumentality of sovereign power created by them.
Features of Sovereignty:
1. The most important attribute of sovereignty is the new contract creating sovereignty and civil society would repudiate all the earlier contracts (if any) that people made in the state of nature because those contracts were not capable of fulfilling people’s aspirations.
2. Sovereignty is not a party to the covenant and naturally he is not bound by the terms of the contract. People transfer their rights and other privileges which they enjoyed in the state of nature. That is, they make the sovereign their agent at large. They authorize the sovereignty.
3. Sovereignty is incapable of injuring anybody—why? Hobbes says that the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it and the law of nature is God’s command and in the civil society nobody has any power to disobey the command of God that prevailed in state of nature.
4. Some critics say that the covenant may not have the support of everyone. Hobbes had a belief that the covenant must be supported by majority of men and it will make it voted.
5. The sovereign has no power to kill or invalidate his subjects and, in the same way, the subjects cannot kill sovereign.
6. The sovereign has been empowered to settle all matters regarding internal peace.
7. An important job of sovereign is to censor all religions opinions and decide on forms of worship. Sovereign cannot change the inner form of faith, but it can determine the expression for public interests.
8. All courts in the land shall be his courts and the decisions of the courts shall be treated as sovereign’s decision.
9. It is not possible to perform all the activities of the state by the sovereign himself. He can take help and advice from others. Others will discharge functions on his behalf, but they will be in the name of sovereignty.
Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty is absolute in the sense that people or members of the contract who lived in the state of nature made him all-powerful almost in all respects. Let us quote few words, in support of our view, from Leviathan – “And covenants, without swords, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.”
“The bonds of words are too weak to bridle men’s ambition, avarice, anger, and other passions, without the fear of some coercive power.” He has also said that in one hand of the sovereign authority there shall be a law book and in the other hand he will hold a sword.
He will first of all try to rule with the help of law and any failure will force him to use the sword. The simple implication is, according to Hobbes, sword is the best way to put everything under control.
The law book is simply a symbol. This is the picture of absolute sovereignty. Hobbes has called his sovereign Leviathan and the dictionary meaning of the word is; a sea monster, a very large aquatic creature, something very large and powerful, an autocratic monarch.
Critics are of opinion that Hobbes has depicted the picture of sovereignty in this way deliberately. He had somehow formed the opinion that in order to control the unruly behaviour of the people of state of nature a ruler with absolute power was needed.
An ordinary ruler would be an inappropriate selection. We, therefore, hold the view that the creation of an absolute sovereignty is not an un-thoughtful creation. There was enough thought and plan.
J. S. McChelland has assessed Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty from different perspective. He says – Hobbes’s account of sovereignty is sovereignty on the grand scale. It is worth repeating that Hobbes infers all the attributes of sovereignty from the original case of voluntary contract by institution, and only then does he say that conquest sovereignty by acquisition would enjoy the same rights”.
The idea that resided in the topmost place of his mind is that a weak sovereign power with a lot of limitations might be a welcome venture but it would never be a welcome suggestion for the stability and general well being for the commonwealth.
Therefore J. S. McChelland is right when he says— “Hobbes is above all concerned with laying the ideological groundwork for an un-disputatious and therefore stable commonwealth”.
Hobbes’s sovereignty is outside the contract, that is, he is not party to the contract and on that ground he is not obliged to obey the terms and conditions of the contract. He will govern according to the rules of the contract, but he may not obey the rules and this condition makes him absolute.
War making is the ultimate act of sovereignty—ultima ratio regis—the king’s final argument. Since sovereign resides above everything else the subjects have no legal right or power to accuse him of doing or not doing anything.
It is the primary responsibility of the sovereignty to keep the law and order of the commonwealth within contract. We think this is the basic duty of the sovereign. He may seek advice of others, but he is not bound to act in accordance with the advice.
Arguing in this way Hobbes reminds us the political and administrative situation in England that prevailed in his time. English monarch had a group of advisers, but he did not always act in accordance with their advice. Hobbes’s sovereign simply repeats it.
6. Absolutism and Individualism:
Hobbes’s concept of sovereignty reveals certain basic elements of absolutism and on the ground his critics have arrived at the conclusion that he was a supporter of absolutism. This allegation is not without any reason.
The sovereignty is not a party to the contract and, naturally, he is not legally bound by its terms. This automatically makes the sovereign power absolute which means that in his idea of sovereignty there are powerful elements of absolutism.
According to Hobbes, subjects are bound to show obligation to the sovereignty. But the sovereign’s accountability to people is not admitted. His love for absolutism can be argued from another angle. Hobbes ruled out the division of sovereign power. The division of sovereign power would have ruled out the possibility of absoluteness.
Hobbes’s absolutism can be justified from another angle. He did not endorse people’s right to express opinion freely. The sovereign power may censor opinions, particularly religious opinions.
He has also the power to lay down lawful rules for public worship. This means that freedom of faith and worship has no place in Hobbes’s philosophy. The sovereign will have power to interfere in the judicial system.
In Hobbes’s state system, public opinion has no place. The sovereignty will rule the state with law and sword. This is nothing but sheer absolutism. It is generally argued that Hobbes gave maximum importance to the unity and integrity of civil society and in his mind there was no place of man’s freedom and opinion. Integrity of the state is very important no doubt, but for it individual’s freedom cannot be sacrificed.
The fact is that Hobbes has done it. These are the chief elements of absolutism in Hobbes’s thought. Hobbes’s political thought is full of several anomalies and one such anomaly is he was a great worshipper of absolutism and simultaneously he was an individualist, or at least there are several elements of individualism in his thought.
There is an important chapter in his Leviathan—Chapter XXI of Part II which deals with, inter alia, the individualism. The headline of the chapter is of the Liberty of Subject.
He has defined liberty in the following words:
“Liberty or freedom signifies the absence of opposition. By opposition I mean external impediments of motion”. According to Hobbes a freeman is he who is able to do and is not hindered to do what he has a will to.
So we find that in Hobbes’s thought system persons on individuals were not reduced to insignificant elements. People may have their own thoughts and plan to work and when they are given full opportunity to perform those works, it will be taken for granted that they have freedom.
It is interesting to note that in the second half of the seventeenth century Hobbes was quite alert of individuals’ freedom and the proof of his alertness is he has devoted a chapter for the analysis of individuals’ freedom.
Hobbes says that to get rid of the drawbacks of the state of nature people created an “artificial man” and this artificial man is the commonwealth. He wants to say that in creating a commonwealth people exercised their freedom. That is, they were not forced or induced by others to set up a commonwealth.
Again, along with the creation of commonwealth, or, in his word, artificial man, they also made artificial chains, that are civil laws. It is to be noted that people deliberately created artificial chains that is laws, for the proper management and stability of the commonwealth.
They were quite aware that the laws would curtail the quantum of liberty; notwithstanding they made some civil laws. Hence the laws cannot be treated as impediment to freedom.
He has further defined liberty in the following manner. The liberty of a subject lies, therefore, only in those things which, in regulating their actions, the sovereign has permitted, such as in the liberty to buy and sell and otherwise contract with one another, to choose their own abode, their own diet, their own trade of life and institute their children as they themselves think fit and the like In this passage Hobbes has stated in no uncertain terms that in several spheres individuals will enjoy unhindered freedom and none has any authority to prevent him.
There are also other aspects of individualism. For example, the sovereign cannot order any person to kill or wound himself. Or, if anyone attacks, the person shall have the right to defend himself. That is, every individual has the right of self-defence. Individuals have the right to live and for that purpose they can take food, medicine and other necessary things that they require.
The sovereign has no power to force a man to confess something. Another aspect of his individualism is the sovereign cannot force a person to join army if he provides a substitute.
In case of any controversy with the sovereign the individual can demand justice and the method of demanding justice shall be decided by the person concerned. The individuals have the right to earn property and enjoy the benefits.
J. S. McClelland thinks that it is unreasonable to brand Hobbes as totalitarian.
McClelland’s arguments run as follows:
When the people of the state of nature decided to set up a civil society, they did it without being forced or influenced by anybody.
In other words they did it on their own volition which means that the individuals enjoyed autonomy. Naturally we can say that Hobbes admitted individual’s freedom of thought and action. McClelland further argues that Hobbes met Descartes and Galileo.
He was impressed by Harvey’s discovery that blood circulated. We have already noted that he came under the influence of motion and gravity. Both internal and external motion control human happiness.
He cannot pursue happiness endlessly. So these types of persons cannot be totalitarian-minded. They know how far to proceed. Hobbes also never indulged in totalitarianism.
C. B. Macpherson is also a well-known interpreter of Hobbes’s political thought. His The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Hobbes to Locke—is a well-read and widely discussed book. Hobbes’s men are aggressive, self-interest seeking market men. His men are possessive individualists.
They always want realization of their own interest and these interests relate to economic interests. Economic problems were of great importance to them; such persons are not generally totalitarian-minded.
Thomas Hobbes was chiefly concerned with such persons and he has pictured their nature keeping in mind their basic nature and primary objective. Hobbes’s men were aggressive no doubt, but that aggressiveness does not fall into the category of absolutism or totalitarianism.
Was Hobbes a Totalitarian?
The critics of Hobbes’s philosophy have discovered the shadow of totalitarianism in his analysis. Ebenstein believes that this is mainly due to the reason that his critics or opponents were great believers of parliamentary form of government. Particularly the people of the English speaking world were against absolutism. Naturally they had no intention to endorse the absolutist philosophy of Hobbes.
“Yet to call Hobbes one of the spiritual fathers of totalitarian fascism or communism is more untenable than would appear from a cursory glance at several key phrases in the Leviathan”.
His certain uses carry the idea of totalitarianism. For example the parties to the contract handed over all the powers and authority to the sovereign.
Only in a totalitarian form of government this can happen. Hobbes’s sovereignty is all-powerful. His other comments carry the meaning of totalitarianism. But Ebenstein says that Hobbes’s state is authoritarian but not totalitarian.
Hobbes’s sovereign authority is a supreme administrator and, at the same time, a lawgiver. In earlier centuries the supreme administrator was more or less a lawmaker. But this need not make a man totalitarian.
The term totalitarian has a different meaning in political science. Hobbes has made enough scope for freedom of action and exercise of thought. He never made his subject slave.
Finally we argue that Hobbes was not a totalitarian, but this does not imply that he was a democrat. Let us again quote Ebenstein; “The Hobbesian state finds its realization in neither the modern democratic state nor the totalitarian dictatorship of the Nazi, Fascist or Soviet communist brand”.
7. Bourgeois Philosophy:
In recent years Hobbes’s political philosophy has been scanned from various perspectives and one of the perspectives is – Hobbes wrote Leviathan to support the cause and economic interests of the nascent bourgeois class or capitalists. C. B. Macpherson is the pioneer in this field. J. S. McClelland also falls in the same category. McClelland says that Hobbes was thinking of a market society.
Its implication is men’s requirements are fulfilled by the market. C. B. Macpherson observes; “We live in market society, our behaviours our values are largely-shaped, directly or indirectly, by the requirements of the market. We are bourgeois men. So were the men Hobbes described and analysed. His scientific method required him to build up a model of man and of society and the models he constructed were bourgeois models”. Hobbes built up the model of a bourgeois society and it is perfect bourgeois.
Thomas Hobbes apprehended that if there was no law and its proper application, if anarchy could be the prevailing characteristic of society industry, trade and commerce would be the greatest victim. That is, all these were to be adversely affected.
We hold the view that Hobbes was seriously thinking of the industrial development under the stewardship of the rising capitalists. Macpherson has argued that Hobbes’s system of taxation is absolutely bourgeois.
He supported the taxation on the ground that if sovereign power imposes heavy tax that will finally augment the government treasury and at the same time private businessmen will be financially benefited. The authority must make arrangement for the collection of taxes and remove the loopholes of evasion.
He was a supporter of the concept that the policy of the state must aim at the development of capitalism. Keeping this in mind he prepared a model of a civil society based on capitalism.
Apparently his civil society or commonwealth or mortal god is political. But beneath this political image there lies a perfect economic model. Thomas Hobbes has treated labour as a commodity and the same thing we find in capitalism.
The following statement may be cited in support of the above:
“A man’s labour, also, is a commodity exchangeable for benefit, as well as any other thing.” This comment of Hobbes is in complete similarity of capitalist conception.
Hobbes did not accept the theory of distributive justice. The central idea of distributive justice is there shall be arrangement for equal benefit to all men of equal merit. That is, all the persons of the same merit or work will get equal reward and any variation of this principle will mean violation of distributive justice.
Hobbes rejected the concept of distributive justice. Commenting on Hobbes’s idea about distributive justice and other related views Macpherson says; “From his treatment of distributive it is clear that Hobbes accepted not only the fact but also the justice of market society. The sovereign state he has justified is a bourgeois state”.
Thomas Hobbes has asserted that in the state of nature there was no security of life and property. Both these were too dear to the members of the state of nature. So for the clear purpose and enjoyment of property people created a civil society whose head will be sovereignty with unlimited power.
Hence the chief function of the sovereign power is to protect property of citizens. Elsewhere he has said that there are many things which are dear to man but the dearest of these are man’s limbs, riches and property.
If the sovereign power fails to provide proper security to property its utility will face a big question mark. In other words, the sovereign power must make arrangements for the protection of riches and property. This is undoubtedly a bourgeois mentality. That is why Macpherson has said that Hobbes’s state is a bourgeois state and the safety of the people means the safety of the property.
Thomas Hobbes believed that the perpetuation of absolute sovereignty would facilitate the growth of bourgeois interests or capitalism. In this regard his suggestion is the sovereign power whether single person or an assembly will have the power to nominate its successor. That is, a sovereign power before its departure will select the successor. Even the assembly will have the power to select its successor.
In this way the perpetuation of one sovereign power will be properly done. This is called self-perpetuating sovereign. The growth of capitalism and perpetuation of sovereign are closely related ideas in Hobbes’s political philosophy.
Macpherson says that for the realization of capitalists interest perpetuation of sovereignty was required and he understood it fully.
Some interpreters of Hobbes’s political philosophy claim that he may be regarded as one of the founders of utilitarianism. It is true that, like Bentham and J. S. Mill, Hobbes did not specifically deal with utilitarianism. But if we go through his analysis of state of nature and foundation of civil society we shall find that the concept of utility was quite active in his mind.
The people in the state of nature were faced with certain insurmountable problems and these ultimately made their lives hell. Therefore they decided to leave that atmosphere and lay the foundation of a civil society which would be able to meet their basic needs such as the protection of life, riches or property and ensure all sorts of security.
So in Hobbes’s model we find two societies—one is society that existed in nature. Some people may refuse to call it a society. We, however, call it a nature society where there was no administration, no government, no law etc. Because of this the life in the state of nature was not peaceful at all.
This situation forced the members of the state of nature to find out an alternative and that is why they set up a civil society. They somehow gathered the idea that the civil society could meet their basic requirements.
In other words, the civil society has utility. So the idea of utility arose in the mind of Hobbes or in the minds of the people of state of nature. But civil society without law is a misnomer and for that reason the members of the new society decided to make law and the law-making power was absolutely vested in the hands of the sovereignty.
Hence Thomas Hobbes gave a short outline of the famous theory of utilitarianism. But the fact is that he did not think the concept in that line. We have deduced the idea of utilitarianism from his analysis.