Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

The Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, Part IV: War and the State of Nature

Proceeding to reading Chapters 10-13 we hit the meat of Hobbes’s Leviathan.  We approach his famous commentary on the state of nature, wherein we are burdened by the “war of every man against everyman” or “war of all against all” (from the Latin edition: Bellum omnium contra omnes) and his bleak assessment that life in this state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Chapters 10 and 11, in particular, while discussing man in his basic anthropological state, Hobbes is also much more greatly foreshadowing how this state of atomistic man plays itself out in that state of nature.  Concerning what I am to cover in this post, I am skipping Chapter 12 (On Religion) because it doesn’t really fit the thematic nature of Chapters 10, 11, and 13 which really deal with Hobbes’s infamous description of the state of nature.

Chapter 10: The Two Powers of Man

It is important to know Hobbes’s definition of liberty and freedom, which he gives in Chapter 14 as “the absence of external impediments: which impediments, may oft taken away part of a man’s power to do what he would,” and in Chapter 21 (discussing freedom in society) as, “Liberty, or freedom, signifies (properly) the absence of opposition; (by opposition, I mean external impediments of motion;) and may be applied no less to irrational, and inanimate creatures, than to rational.”  Hobbes understands liberty as essentially endless choice (for being limited in choice is an impediment) and free exertion of power which is motion or movement (for having anything opposing one’s exertion of action, motion, is an impediment).  This is important to know when reading Chapter 10.  For Hobbes says that there are two kinds of power: Original (or natural) and Instrumental (or to be acquired).

Original Power refers to the power of the body since the body is matter in motion.  Since we are all bodies in motion in our natural state and composition, we all possess equal original power.  For, as Hobbes also says very definitively in Chapter 13, “Nature has made men so equal, in the faculties of body, and mind.”  This is the great liberal principle of equality established by Hobbes which was revolutionary in the history of anthropology.  Prior to Hobbes ‘equality’ was only ever conceived of as equality before God or before judgement.  Now, however, Hobbes gives us the great liberal creed: All men (humans) are equal!

Instrumental Power refers to the power to ever acquire more things or more power.  The disassociation between original and instrumental power has also had a longstanding effect on liberal thought.  The idea of Hobbes’s instrumental power is the basis of “instrumental liberalism,” the notion that the State or some outside force besides man can be utilized to help man fulfill his power and desires.  For, as Hobbes states, come Chapter 11, “I put forth a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death.”

Therefore, original power is the natural liberty we have to do whatever we want to in order to gain whatever we want to gain.  Instrumental power refers to enhancing one’s ability to do whatever one wants to do in order to gain whatever one wants to gain – to feed off of that restless desire of power after power.  After Rousseau, liberalism understood instrumental power as liberating individuals from social bonds and social structures that impede one’s power to attain power: For example, systematic racism, oppression, gender inequality, etc.; anything that might impede one’s power to gain power must be overcome.  The ‘lifting up’ of people to have the ability (power) to acquire what they desire is instrumental power.  Hence, instrumental liberalism.  Again, contrary to defenders of classical liberalism or ‘American Libertarianism,’ the very principles of modern social liberalism are found in the classical liberal fathers.

Hobbes continues in Chapter 10 to discuss how honors, titles, and reputation are linked to one’s power: The power to have accomplished something wherein honors, titles, or reputation are gained.  Dishonor and bad reputation are terms and ideas that come to signify someone who has failed at acquiring what he or she set out to acquire.  They become undependable, dishonorable, and have a “bad reputation” because they cannot achieve what they have either been asked to accomplish or have set out to accomplish for themselves.

Again, one should see the principle of bodies being matter in motion here.  The greater the motion of a body the greater the honors, titles, and reputation that person will gain for themselves.  The slower the motion of a body, bogged and weighed down by impediments, leads to less accomplishments or failure to attain or acquire whereby dishonor, poor reputation, and lack of titles is how we describe that type of person.  Again, Hobbes does not actually think honors, titles, and reputation mean anything.  They are merely signifiers for bodies in motion wherein we are all the same since we are all bodies in motion.  But it’s like running a race.

We can understand what Hobbes is saying by this analogy.  In a race – from start to finish – we are all bodies in motion.  The first body to cross the finish line ‘wins.’  Whereby we praise that body and give all sorts of rewards and titles and honors to that body.  If that body wins many races that body acquires a reputation.  Bodies that finish last or don’t finish the race are not given rewards and titles and honors.  If this body keeps “losing” their races they acquire a “bad” reputation.  In reality, however, we are all but bodies in motion.  Titles and rewards and reputation simply signify things about a body in motion.

Furthermore, man aims at greater power.  And ever greater power, Hobbes says.  This is all vain-glorious if you recall from Chapter 6.  In essence, there is no difference between people (bodies).  There are no “exceptional” or “honorable” bodies.  These are merely terms we create to signify something, to express a thought or emotion.  This is why we are all equal in our natural state.  But we are all in competition with each other in this natural state.

Chapter 11: Competition and Foreshadowing the State of Nature

The eleventh chapter of Leviathan is another pivotal chapter for the astute reader, for the eleventh chapter foreshadows the state of nature.  Building off of Chapter 10, Hobbes turns his discussion to “manners.”  But as he says, “By manners, I mean not here, decency of behavior.”  Instead, by manners, he means, “But those qualities of mankind, that concern their living together in peace, and unity.  To which end we are to consider, that felicity ([happiness]) of this life consists not in the repose of the mind satisfied.  For there is no such Finis ultimus, (ultimate aim,) nor Summum Bonum, (Greatest Good,) as is spoken of in the Books of the old moral philosophers.”

Again, people unfamiliar with the long tradition of philosophy prior to Hobbes would not see just how revolutionary that statement of his is.  For in one succession after another, Hobbes dispenses with the idea that we can have absolute knowledge of Truth (repose of the mind satisfied), that we can ever have lived a happy life because there is no ultimate aim (no eudemonistic teleology, and more importantly, no telos at all), and that there is no Greatest Good.  In three short and simple sentences, as he is to explain in the rest of the Chapter, Hobbes assails Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Christianity, all in one move.  And, of course, Hobbes being knowledgeable of the tradition of philosophy before him, by attacking all in one he was equally attacking Christianity which had synthesized Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism in its doctrines and philosophy.

Instead, Hobbes argues that since all things are matter in motion that the only thing man seeks is the aimless quest for ever greater power.  Since we are all bodies in motion (remember back to the early chapters) there can be no “tranquility of the mind” unless you’re dead because your mind dies with your body.  Since we are all bodies in motion coming from material things there is no Transcendent Truth to know or to be made happy by living in accordance with.  Since there is no Transcendent Truth, there is no Transcendentals: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful, wherein that is the highest aim and Greatest Good to live by and strive for in life.  We are simply forceful creatures of desire exuded our desire in quest for power.

This becomes a problem for this leads to competition in the state of nature.  The competition for greater power leads to competition for riches, honor, and glory – like the race analogy I hitherto used – wherein this leads to conflict.  “Competition of riches, honor, command, or other power, inclines to contention, enmity, and war; because the way of one competition, to the attaining of his desire, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other.”  This competition leads to conflict and conflict is bad.  How do we avoid conflict?  The answer is obvious: We avoid competition!

We can hopefully see the problem that Hobbes is wrestling with.  In this state of nature, endowed with original power, and because we are self-centered and atomistic beings (e.g. a-social), we come into conflict with each other.  Because freedom is freedom from external oppositions or impediments, the absolute power and absolute freedom we have in the state of nature leads to no freedom at all because we are conflicted with one another wherein others act as impediments to my desires.  This is not good.

This is how we turn to society.  Our taking on of a social animus is pragmatic.  We are social only because we gain something for ourselves to be social.  Society is self-centered.  Humans, Hobbes tells us, are motivated by fear and death to join society with other humans to protect what we have from those who will take from us.  “Fear of oppression, disposes a man to anticipate, or to seek aid by society: for there is no other way by which a man can secure his life and liberty.”  Do take note the place that Hobbes gives fear and of death in his outlook.  Another famous classical liberal claimed by (American) libertarians, John Locke, says the same in Two Treatises concerning why men would leave the state of nature despite this absolute power and freedom they have in it, “This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers.”  Likewise, part of this fear that compels men to quit the state of nature is being deprived of “the fruit of his labor…his life, [and] liberty” (Hobbes directly states this in Chapter 13).  Yet again one will note how Locke is in perfect agreement with Hobbes that fear of life, liberty, and property (labor) are the motivating factors for Locke as well, which the government seeks to “secure” for us just as it does in Hobbes.

Furthermore, by the end of the chapter, Hobbes discusses why men seek God.  They seek and understand God as the final cause, or first cause, of all knowledge (pending on where you fall over the additive or reductive epistemological camps).  God as Truth, Hobbes notes, “is [what] men call God.”  The absolute Truth of things is what the philosophers and theologians (prior to Hobbes) had always considered God.  Hobbes, again, is very fluent in the tradition of philosophy and theology that came before him (his own father was a clergyman).  But since there is no ultimate Truth (if we recall from his commentary on epistemology in the preceding chapters) there is no God.  Hobbes deftly hides his atheism and relativism by saying that men could never know God if God existed, or confused from their senses and imagination of order and intricacy and beauty of the natural world, claim this “admirable order” of beauty which they see as God or emanating from God (e.g. like the pagans did in seeing the gods as part of creation).  Man is not born with innate ideas, as Hobbes makes clear – he is “born blind.”

Hobbes defended himself from charges of atheism by saying the blame of not knowing God was man’s fault – not necessarily that God didn’t exist (though Hobbes thought that), but that man conceives of God via his imagination to serve as the final cause, or explanation of things, to have full knowledge, and arrive at Ultimate Truth, but being creatures of just the senses we are prone to making mistakes.  If we recall back to Chapter 7 wherein he discusses the role of faith in epistemology, because we do not believe cows can talk (because Livy said God made a cow talk in his History of Rome), “If Livy say the Gods made once a cow speak, and we believe it not; we distrust not God therein, but Livy.”  Hobbes used the same argumentation in his defense of charges of atheism.  It is foolish and easily deceived men we should be skeptical of and what they tell us about God.  However, this raises an important question: Can we trust anything that men have ever said of God?  (Hobbes, coming from a Protestant family background, disliked the natural theology of the Catholic Church, and his commentary over skepticism towards man’s claims about God was also a veiled attack against Catholic natural theology.)

Chapter 13: The State of Nature, or the State of War

Hobbes’s most famous chapter in Leviathan is Chapter 13.  Here he discusses the famous state of nature, laying the groundwork for future liberal philosophy for the next four centuries to come.  Not only does he declare all men equal by nature (in the state of nature), he famously gives that grimly description of life in the state of nature.  Everything that Hobbes had been building up to in Part I comes to fruition in this chapter concerning the state of nature.

It is in the state of nature whereby humans exert their power for want to satisfy desire.  There is no “private property” in the state of nature.  There is simply property, or material things, that people take by their power, to use to try and satisfy their desires – making them more powerful, but their desires are never satisfied until death, so those that grow in power want ever more power.  This is the origin of inequality according to Hobbes.  The conflict for goods leads to some men becoming more powerful than others.  The weaker, however, use their reckoning (reasoning) ability and unite with others.  Thereby, in unity, they become stronger than the individual who is strongest.  This is the birth of society.  Suddenly, this produces the revolution of Hobbes’s humanization of the covenant of Grace from Calvinism.  It is not God extending his hand of grace to unworthy humans to offer them a better life.  It is unworthy humans offering that extending hand of grace (peace) to other unworthy humans to achieve a better life than this wretched life in the state of nature.

Desire, or the passions, moves men to war in this state of nature.  The desire for power.  The desire of more power.  The desire for honor, glory, and prestige.  Desire, or passion, also moves men to peace  and the creation of society.  Namely the passions of fear and death.  Therefore, you see, there is no “Reason” in Hobbes.  It is all desire.  It is all passion.  The “bad passions” are the desires for power and glory and such things that lead to war.  The “good passions” are fear and death, which lead to more peaceful living with each other.  For those familiar with the Bible, this an old passage from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) might make resonance, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.”

The conflict of the desire for power leads to that “war of every man against every man” and a life that is defined by its brutal simplicity, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Since this life is not something desirable men conclude a compact with each other leading to the creation of the social contract whereby society is established to avoid this terrible state of conflict.  But follow the logic of Hobbes now: In the state of nature we are all atomized selves in conflict with each other; we create society only to benefit ourselves and not others, we merely see others as an end to our own self-desires and goals; others will do the same whom we don’t have contact with but are in conflict with other people; this leads to the creation of multiple societies (or multiple nations); while we are no longer individually rooted in conflict, the multiplicity of nations or societies leads to conflict between the plurality of communities or nations; this, again, is undesirable; therefore to avoid conflict altogether we have to establish the universal contract to govern everybody.

Here is a picture that illustrates the internal logic of Hobbes:


Because the avoidance of war, through conflict, is the goal of the social contract, observers of Hobbes have concluded the obvious from Hobbes’s logic.  As Leo Strauss famously said in Natural Right and History, the logic of Hobbes demands either the “outlawry of war” or the “establishment of a world state.”  This is why liberalism, of which Hobbes is one of the first fathers of, lends itself to universalism and globalism.  Liberalism’s very internal logic demands it to embark on this adventure.  The reduction of conflict is the entire goal of liberalism so as to live peaceful, united, (well-mannered) lives.

As Hobbes continues, the lack of any Law or State means there is no law in the state of nature.  What rules the state of nature is the law of power and force.  In other words, the very law of freedom rules the state of nature.  But this leads to my freedom coming up against your freedom whereby our freedom is canceled out by coming into conflict with each other.  This is why people are willing to surrender their freedom to the creation of society.  Because they’re not really surrendering anything since freedom is canceled out through conflict in the state of nature.  The only way to enjoy any freedom is through the acceptance of society whereby we carve out our own little spaces and “mind our own business” by not coming into conflict with anyone else therefore I can enjoy some freedom and you can enjoy some freedom because to have absolute freedom is to have no freedom.  That is paradox that Hobbes sees.  Unrestrained motion from body A and unrestrained motion from body B ultimately collide with each other, cancelling one another out, whereby we no longer have freedom since Hobbes defined freedom for us as lack of opposition from external forces or impediments.

For Hobbes man embraces society for self-centered purposes.  Society is not actually about being social.  Society is about what I can get for myself through the rules that regulate everybody else.  Yet, in society, bound to the rules of law and state and other such forces, we “lose freedom” since these things act as impediments to my choice and motion.  This is where Rousseau comes in: Tear down these impediments to my motion to be free again!  But Hobbes warns that to do this leads us back to the state of war that defines that state of nature.

Nevertheless, one is struck by Hobbes and the seeming contradictions, or at best paradoxes, within his thought.  Namely, if freedom is lack of opposition to motion, but I have to subject myself to laws and such things in society, is not society oppressive?  In some way the answer is yes.  But it is better than the alternative which is the state of nature.  Readers should carefully reread Rousseau’s Discourses on Inequality and Social Contract to see how Rousseau deals with this problem.  Rousseau’s answer was to imagine an entirely peaceful and egalitarian state of nature defined by natural goodness and harmony, rather than the Hobbesian world defined by selfishness leading to conflict.  Thus, Rousseau saw civilization as a bane, and oppressive force, something that made men evil and selfish (rather than benignly self-centered).  Hobbes saw civilization as the only choice to avoid conflict and regulate selfish desire that would doom us all to destruction in the state of nature.  Of course, in Hobbes, civilizations (plural) lead to conflict between civilizations.  Ergo the move toward a universal and homogenous civilization is the only answer to avoid conflict; this can be done either through the outlawry of war (which seems implausible given the nature of agonism) or the creation of a universal world state.


In reading and understanding the logic of Hobbes in contrast to his state of nature, we can detect in Hobbes the early Whig Idea of Progress.  Progress is about the avoidance of conflict, the growth of liberty (because, again, there actually is no liberty in the state of nature because our liberties, in conflict with each other, cancel each other out).  Progress is the movement away from this state of nature and into society and the reduction of conflict between societies and the push toward the ultimate logical conclusion: The universal and homogeneous state to universally secure life, liberty, and labor (or property) and prevent conflict.  But what do we have to give up to achieve this?

The purpose of society is to allow ourselves to feed our desires without getting into conflict with others.  Hence why we can already establish in Hobbes the same economistic and consumeristic liberalism that Locke will more explicitly discuss in Two Treatises.  Desire is what we are.  Desire must be fed.  To be fed means to consume.  As Hobbes makes clear this is what we seek both in pursuit of power and glory, or through fear and death (of not being able to consume peacefully).  What we seek is peaceful consumerism then.  Hence, the goal of political liberalism is what scholars call ‘political hedonism.’  And because there is no Supreme Good for the society to aim for, there is no Common Good for society to work together for.  It’s all about me.  It’s all about my peaceful consumeristic and hedonistic life to live.  ‘Society’ simply allows me to achieve this peaceful hedonistic life in peace, security, and comfort.  (Rousseau, for instance, recognizes this self-centeredness to society in Hobbes and Locke which enables him to launch his critique of liberalism.)

But the most important misreading of Hobbes is that man is sinful or naturally evil.  Hobbes nowhere states this.  And neither is found anywhere in Hobbes’s other works.  Instead, Hobbes posits that man, absent any sovereign authority (God, the state, or family, etc.) gives into his most basic desires and this leads to competition with others which leads to conflict.  The problem is not man’s sinful humanity, or that man is naturally inclined to doing evil or malevolent deeds.  Rather, the problem really is other people that manifests itself in the form of competition.  In this competitive collision between me and you, my instincts is that I must survive and thrive even if that means you must suffer or die.  The heart of Hobbes’s philosophy rests on ethical egoism.  The delicate task of society, the social contract, is to create a space for ethical egoism to consummate itself without conflict with others.  The misreading of Hobbes’s natural man being evil is because people don’t read the preceding chapters (man is a-moral), and just assume some of the witticisms of Chapter 13 imply an evil nature.  Without authority atomized humans simply war with each other to fulfill their desires.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that; there is nothing good to be had from this conflict.  That is what Hobbes is trying to solve.  Because all problems, from the materialist and new science purview, is an equation waiting to be solved.  More simply, in the state of nature of absolute freedom (freedom to do whatever I want, e.g. unimpeded motion/action) freedom devolves into war because it is aimless (unregulated) and collides with other people exerting their freedom, hence cancelling the freedom of others and themselves.


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