Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 07:31 am
The Leviathan

The Leviathan is a masterpiece of political and social thought and one of the boldest and most consequential books ever written. Whilst evaluating the mutual relation between protection and obedience, Hobbes argues that in the state of nature, humans render obedience solely as they desire and as a result are in a perpetual state of conflict. From this, he defends the creation of an absolute sovereign who renders obedience to none, but which offers security and protection to its subjects.

The Great Beast is called upon to rescue humans from the fraility of their world and the consequent charge to liberate themselves from it. This fraility is a world in which humans have girded themselves for a hell in battle and mutual destruction and the Beast is the redemptive force from which humans are delivered from their passions and blind will.

Because every political theory which sets out to justify or advocate a particular system of government must rest on an explicit or implicit theory of human nature, means that to appreciate how Hobbes' arrives to own understanding, requires an interpretation of Hobbesian human nature and its role within the state of nature, before we can turn to a critical assessment of some of his most fundamental ideas.

A Brief Review

Humans, for Hobbes, are machines whose physiological and psychological functions are explained in terms of classical mechanics. Mental states are mechanical motions in the brain which inform and direct the individual's Passions. Some passions are voluntary, others innate, and all types are classed as either Appetites or Aversions. What the individual desires is Good and Pleasure is the motion that accompanies this appetite, and what a person dislikes is Evil, from which the movement is called Pain.

When deciding to actuate, numerous appetites and aversions press upon the brain and the winning passion is called the Will. To will independently of passions is impossible, for what humans decide to do is already determined by these physical pressures. One is free, however, so long as one is able to do without hindrance from others, and hence, Hobbes promotes a Compatibilist solution to the problem of free-will.

Hobbes, then identifies three types of human power: Natural Power; Instrumental Power (talents); (instruments which acquiesce or preserve power, such as money); and Power as Eminence, identified as a zero-sum game whereby any gain in power for individual p has a corresponding negative effect for individual q. This power is not merely the means to satisfy one's good, but of this ability in excess over that of others.

The individual's power is his present means, to obtain some future apparent Good and when successful, Felicity is enjoyed. This mental state has no end, it is the continued progress of the desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter. One's power, or lack of, promises one's success or failure in their pursuit of felicity and because all humans desire this unquenchable condition, life is the perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death.

The human individual by nature is a solitary, self-centred, felicity-seeking creature, whose natural powers relative to all others is more or less equal. The individual has the potential to close down this solitude through language; and via the use of reason, further the chances of obtaining felicity. However, in relation to all others, this pursuit is difficult, because power as eminence signifies that everyone's power resists and hinders the effects of one's own, and so begins the struggle for power, of continual competition and envy and hatred and finally war.

And such is human nature and the state of nature in which humans live in the absence of civil government. A condition which is neither good nor bad, right or wrong. The fundamental Right of Nature is to do anything to stay alive and in such a condition, Hobbes argues, there can only be continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

According to Hobbes, people will want to leave this state and can do it by virtue of their passions, reason and volition. Passions teach one the fear of death and the desires of such things as are necessary to commodious living. Reason teaches one to obey Natural Laws which are the doctrines of civil society and Volition enables one to actuate upon the dictates of reason.

If the Natural Right is the freedom to do anything and possess all that one wishes, then the first Law of Nature is to seek peace, and to follow it. For those who seek peace the prescription is to surrender their Natural Right, provided that all others do likewise. This limitation on one's volition can be accomplished if everyone agrees to transfer their Natural Right to a common representative whose Will is a substitution for all the individual conflicting Wills.

Transference of Will is the means by which individuals find peace and the representative of each individual's Will is an artificial person referred to as the State, or Leviathan. Once the contract of transference is made, it is irrevocable. However, in the state of nature it would be irrational for people to keep their promises in any truce agreement because people can go back on their word. Therefore, something more is required, besides covenant and this something is a common power to keep them all in awe. This representative of the people is human who enacts the artificial person of the State and is referred to as the Sovereign.
A Critique

There are a number of tensions running through this account and I shall begin by drawing your attention to Hobbes' physiological theory, before moving on to a critique of some his more pertinent assertions.

For Hobbes, a passion indicates the direction of thought (endeavour). For example, I think of writing and this appetite is conveyed by my movement towards a pen. But it is the thought writing which makes the thought about something, not the movement. Even if we accept the analogy that humans are machines, it does not follow that mechanical mental states can be said to be about anything. Mental phenomena have an object, they are about something and it is this aboutness which is a problem for Hobbes's materialist account of human nature.

His compatibilist argument is also unconvincing: that one is determined by passions, but free so long as one is able to act without hindrance. The difficulty here, is that Hobbes has merged the philosophical problem of free-will with the idea of negative freedom.

Moving from these concerns, Hobbes asserts that the individual's competitive drive is a natural property, but perhaps the individual characterised by ruthless competition is not a natural feature of human nature, but more a force encouraged by capitalist society. In consequence, Hobbes has universalised a deduction drawn from his contemporary society which also tells on his notion of power as eminence. One could speculate that this power is merely an early formulation of the economic theory of comparative advantage given in terms of human nature, which, in either case, need not necessarily involve zero-sum games.

In Hobbes' defence, we could argue that such critique is conflating competition with aggressiveness, that even plants compete for sunlight and that if the discourse of biology is accurate, competition seems to be an innate drive within humans. Hobbes might also add that the fixed pie divided between all humans is, in its totality, the finite world of resources, and that different claims to this pie will give rise to situations of distributive bargaining. So, unless some universal plan is devised, ensuring that everyone gets exactly what they desire, power as eminence will occur, regardless of the market system in force.

A more pertinent understanding of Hobbes comes from Hampton who offers two examples from game theory. She demonstrates that in standard prisoner-dilemma, individually speaking, it is rational for humans not to cooperate, but in the longer-term, cooperation might be a more rational course of action and likewise in Hobbes' state of nature, so long as one has sufficient reason to believe that others will cooperate.

In either case, in the absence of guarantee, Hobbes conclusion of a permanent state of conflict is maintained, but is supported upon weaker premises than usually suspected. Not that it is universally the case that everyone naturally desires more power, but that some will desire such a thing and from this mechanism, the modest are under threat.

On this reading, Hobbes' argument is rather convincing: humans by nature are generally content within modest bounds of desiring future apparent good, but due to immodest desires found within a given number, the unassuming will need to defend themselves, and because in both cases, attack is a good form of defence, the state of war is always conspicuous within the state of nature.

The question to ask now is, apart from inherent desiring, what other roles does human nature play within the state of nature? Is it where people find themselves and given the above conclusion, is it possible to exit?

Within this natural state, we find that any conception of collectivity is absent. There are no tribes, castes, or estates and although this is evidently not the case, it does not suit one's critique to merely assert that individuals have never lived in such a condition, because this is an empirical claim and Hobbes' argument is a conceptual one.

The state of nature is a hypothetical tool from which he arrives to the observation that the foundation of the State is violence and that this violence stems solely from human nature, and because humans are this force of will determined by passions, anything artificial, which includes the State, is fragile and tends to be destroyed. Nevertheless, we can argue that although the former premise is generally accepted with scant polemic, contrary to Hobbes, it is neither the case that disagreement and dispute, nor limiting sovereign powers, inevitably leads to the State's destruction, nor that forms of political absolutism stem conflict.

Because all individuals are more or less equal in their natural powers, Hobbes rejects Aristotle's idea that male dominance is a natural, rather than political, condition of humans. But if this is so, how is it possible that by the time the absolute sovereign is constructed, most women, less widows perhaps, are subjected to patriarchal cohesion? Hobbes is assuming that women who give birth in the state of nature alter the egalitarian balance so that women become susceptible to the dominance of men, but if this were so, many solitary, self-interested and competitive women, might abandon their pregnancy or infants. Thus, not only would individual life within the Hobbesian state of nature be short, but in time, so, too, the existence of the human species.

Another telling critique against Hobbes' understanding of the role human nature comes from the Fool himself, introduced in Chapter XV, who asks, why should I be moral? Why should I keep to promises, or the contract made? Hobbes replies that immoral actions are imprudent, and that the individual who breaks promises will not be accepted into society.

However, Machiavelli's Prince, for example, demonstrates that the former need not be so, and the latter reveals that individuals may act morally, if only to be trusted and accepted by others. If this were the case, that there is also motivation towards sociability, self-restraint and cooperation, then Hobbes has not only offered one of the earliest anarchist arguments against the State and for viability of a non-coercive form of association, but has also undermined the strong need for people to leave the state of nature.

Contrary to Hobbes, then, it is not the case that humans are necessarily atomised and solitary beings, nor does his Compatibilist position or mechanical analogy run free of criticism, but Hobbes is correct to point out the natural tendency towards conflict and, unintentionally, for revealing the human need to be accepted and trusted.

To this extent, Hobbes account of human nature is not as deformed as some may think, but the implications from this account are neither sufficient reason why individuals would ever leave the hypothetical state of nature, nor desire the Great Leviathan above other forms of governance.

Hobbes's program, then, fails to demonstrate why being ruled by the Leviathan is preferable to living in the state of nature, but this is no reason, for not reading or trying to understand the great masterpiece in political thought.

Hope this has helped understanding....

---------- Post added 05-12-2010 at 08:33 AM ----------

P.S. I've posted this up in the wrong section. Sorry about that, if it can be changed just let me know how so. Thank you, qualia
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Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 08:01 am
Thank you for a well-written discussion of some of Hobbes's positions; I have moved your post to its appropriate forum.
Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 06:35 pm
Thank you, jgweed, and I apologise for any inconvenience I caused you.
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Reply Thu 20 Apr, 2017 10:14 pm
Hi. I'm currently writting my dissertation (in spanish) about the role of god in Hobbes' philosophy. However I need help to locate the passages, in general, where Hobbes describes god in his works. I'm aware of the contradictions between de arguments from the elements and the corpore but I see it rather complementary. Please help me Smile
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