Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes: bow down before thy sovereign!

LeviathanLeviathan by Thomas Hobbes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wide-ranging, perceptive, and hard-nosed, this book seeks to establish the basis of the legitimacy of national governments, and to show why it is not only just that each of us should be under the absolute and arbitrary power of a sovereign, but that it is also necessary and good.

I came to this book not as one trained in philosophy or political science, but as one continuing to work out his own liberal education. So I had only the roughest idea of what Hobbes’s philosophy was, or how he fit into the world of political philosophy. I knew him mainly as the author of the famous description of the condition of man in the “state of nature”:

solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Well. I guess they don’t call him “Chuckles” Hobbes for nothing.

The state of nature, for Hobbes, is a state of war of every man with every other man. Each looks to his own survival as best he can, and protects himself against the depredations of others as best he can. Everyone has an equal right to everything in the world that he, in his own opinion, thinks might help him in these aims, and if conflict arises between men for any reason, there is no final recourse except to violence. Each issue is resolved with the submission or death of the weaker party in the conflict. Then you hope for a bit of peace before your next conflict. In the state of nature there is no such thing as justice or injustice; there is only survival or death.

In this, it seemed to me, Hobbes was describing the behavior of animals, and in the state of nature he sees the human animal as no different from any other. What does make the human animal different is his capacity for reason and language, which, together, enable him to understand his world better than other animals, and to enter into binding covenants with others of his kind. Our reason permits us to see that our peace and prosperity depend on people’s willingness to refrain from molesting each other, but there is no way to realize this condition except that everyone involved make a mutual covenant to respect this rule. But the covenant alone is not enough; it must be enforced; and for this task the sovereignty of the group must be placed in the hands of one person, and everyone must agree to defer to him as a condition of belonging. And thus the state is born.

This is the “social contract” theory of the state, and, according to Wikipedia, Hobbes was the originator of this theory. This sovereign, who may be an assembly as well as an individual, actually personates the group: he embodies the power of the group. And this is the source of Hobbes’s metaphorical title, for the commonwealth of individuals is compacted into the single great creature Leviathan, embodied in the sovereign. Whatever he does, he does by the will of the group, and this is by the explicit or implicit consent of each person in it. When he makes the rules, it is the group making the rules; when he punishes miscreants, it is the group doing the punishing. It boils down to this: no one can complain of anything the sovereign does, for everything the sovereign does is done with the prior consent of each subject. If I object, I am in effect objecting to my own will, which is an absurdity.

There are all kinds of problems with this idea, and I know that Mortimer Adler, among many other philosophers, rejected the social-contract theory outright. But Hobbes, no doubt conscious of the objections that could be raised against his idea, prepares his case with care and depth.

The first of the many surprises I got in reading this book was in discovering its structure when I opened the table of contents. The work is divided into four parts:

  1. Of Man
  2. Of Commonwealth
  3. Of a Christian Commonwealth
  4. Of The Kingdom of Darkness

I was surprised at the theological tone, and as I read the book I discovered that Hobbes was, among other things, a theologian, and that he had studied the Bible deeply, and drawn his own conclusions from it. These conclusions are key to his argument, for the question of the existence of God is all-important for the political philosopher as it is for any other kind of thinker. Hobbes believed that the existence of God was discoverable by human reason, but that the specific will of God was knowable only through revelation, which had been vouchsafed only to certain individuals, and then made generally known via the Bible. God’s laws are divided into two classes: natural laws, which are discoverable by reason; and positive laws, which are encoded in the Bible. His natural laws apply to everyone, but his positive laws were given to his chosen people, the Israelites, when they accepted him as their sovereign at Mount Sinai. At that time every Israelite covenanted to accept the sovereignty of God, and thus bound himself to accept all of God’s commandments; and this covenant is the type of the social contract. Thus God himself was the King of the Jews until they repudiated him at the time of Saul, when they demanded an earthly king of the same kind as other nations, and God acquiesced in their rejection of him. Then Saul became their sovereign, and the people were bound to him by the same kind of covenant they had made with God.

One of the important consequences of the existence of God for political philosophy is that it makes oaths binding. According to Hobbes, the oath of an atheist or heathen is worthless, because the atheist does not believe that he will be held to account by a supreme cosmic power. He will be tempted to renege if it suits him. The God-fearer, on the other hand, expects to face the consequences of his bad faith, even if no human catches him in it. It’s an important point, because it is of oaths that covenants are made; and covenant is the indispensable basis of any commonwealth.

But this seems to be more of a practical matter than a theoretical one, for Hobbes holds that all covenants are binding, even in the state of nature, and this is due to natural law. As far as I can understand and recall, Hobbes believes that our natural reason can perceive the logic of the covenant, and the necessity that it remain unbroken. But here I’m getting into an area that I find obscure and difficult. For Hobbes is emphatic that there is no such thing as justice or injustice until you have a commonwealth with a positive law given by its sovereign; then, any breaking of that law is an injustice. And anything else whatever is not. The principle by which covenants are to hold even in the state of nature is “equity,” which boils down to the Golden Rule. As far as I can make out, Hobbes is saying that if you break your covenant in the state of nature, you have violated equity, but you have not committed an injustice. To me this seems like a quibbling distinction, but to Hobbes it’s a big deal.

Does this mean that the only valid commonwealth is a Christian commonwealth? Interestingly, no, it does not. For the validity of covenants being applicable in the state of nature, any commonwealth is equally valid as a civil entity. And Hobbes is at pains to show how God in the Old Testament, and Jesus in the New, enjoined us to obey our worldly masters. Both our natural reason and the Bible tell us we should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. According to Hobbes, we each owe unswerving and even unquestioning allegiance to the civil power over us, whatsoever it may be.

This sticks in my gorge, and no doubt in that of almost every modern person. What would Hobbes have made of apartheid, or the Soviet gulag, or other forms of entrenched, “legal” injustice? His view is that whatever the “inconveniences” of one’s existing commonwealth, it is preferable to the condition of civil war, which is the inevitable result of a rip in the sovereignty of the state. For civil war is exactly the condition of divided sovereignty, and it inevitably produces great and undeserved suffering.

He may well have a point. Most of us enjoy the luxury of not having lived through a civil war—a luxury that Hobbes himself did not enjoy, since he was writing at the time of the English civil war, and lived in self-imposed exile for 11 years. As far as Hobbes is concerned, there will always be people who have complaints about the government; these complaints never constitute a reason to overthrow that government. The complainer is underestimating the benefit he continually draws from the state: namely, protection from his criminal neighbors, and protection from invading armies. Taking these protections for granted, he sets them at no value, but in this he is gravely mistaken.

Leviathan is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read; my Great Books copy is now heavily highlighted. Hobbes, while a devout Christian, is also a realist with a modern and scientific outlook. His thinking is rigorous and uncompromising, and he takes great care to work his argument up from basic principles and definitions. As an intellectual achievement it has few peers. Part of my discomfort with the book is due to my sense that many of his assertions, while uncongenial or even distressing, may be difficult to refute. Certainly, if we believe that the universe has an absolute Sovereign, then we can hardly have any fundamental objection to the notion of absolute sovereignty; and Hobbes shows how in bowing to that sovereignty we are most surely following God’s will.

View all my reviews

Share this post—why not?
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on Facebook
Share on Reddit
Email this to someone
This entry was posted in book reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *