The Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, Part V: Political Life and Society

In finishing the first part of Thomas Hobbes’s magisterial and path breaking work Leviathan, we are transitioning out of Hobbes’s anthropology and state of nature and toward the artificial construction that is the political.  The rise of covenant political theory is foundational to political liberalism, and Chapters 14-16 deal with what Hobbes means by covenant politics.  While caught on the side of the absolutists against the parliamentarians during the English Civil War, Hobbes was also kept at an arm’s length from his fellow travelers.  Why?  Hobbes denied the divine right of kings at the end of the first part.  God covenants with men for salvation, not for politics.  All authority that government has is artificial.  True, Hobbes believes we should obey it otherwise we descend into the chaotic state of nature, but Hobbes’s argument that political authority comes from the laws of nature was just as revolutionary in its time as were he comments about human freedom and equality in the state of nature, along with his synthesis of the new science with political philosophy, philosophy more generally, and anthropology.

Chapters 14-15:  The Laws of Nature and Liberty

“The right of nature, which writers commonly call jus natural, is the liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature.”  The beginning of Chapter 14 opens with these fateful words.  For Hobbes, liberty and self-preservation are intimately tied together.  Liberty is about power, primarily the power of action or motion/movement.  The ability to do as one wills without any external constraints or forces opposing you.  The only thing that limits your liberty in the nature state is yourself (e.g. deciding not to do something).  Hobbes goes a step further to say absolute liberty includes being able to do anything to another’s person’s body.  If I have the power to use you, or kill you, or enslave you, my freedom permits me to do this.  This is how the absolute freedom of the state of nature descends into the war of all against all.

The primary law of nature is that of self-preservation.  And in the war of everyman against everyman, the law of self-preservation moves us to desire peace.  For it is in peace that we can secure our self-preservation.  In the state of nature, that state of war and brutish existence which Hobbes had just described in Chapter 13, is untenable and unwarranted.

While Hobbes states that there are two fundamental laws of nature in this chapter, and he goes on to expand even more laws of nature in Chapter 15, the astute reader will realize that all the laws of nature that Hobbes speaks of are rooted in self-preservation.  For it is the law of self-preservation, as he tells us, that move men to peace.  Men desire peace because without peace they cannot enjoy their lives, which is what the law of self-preservation seeks for itself.

Man, in laying down his rights he possesses in the state of nature, is laying down his right to use his physical power to do whatever he so wills.  He is no longer the judge, jury, and executioner as it were.  The social contract makes us recognize others.  We are all threats to each other’s liberty so much so in the state of nature that we cancel out one another’s liberty by colliding and conflicting with each other.

Absolute freedom would be great – if it weren’t for those damned people over there.  If I were the only person alive, I would have absolute freedom to do whatever I want.  But because other people exist, there is a tendency – nay, guarantee – that we will come into conflict where we both want the same thing: We both want to preserve our lives and we must resort to the use of force to ensure our lives are preserved, either by taking what we need to live or by maiming or killing another who threatens my existence.

Therefore, the law of self-preservation, leading to peace, leads to a secured life.

Hobbes carries onward in Chapter 15 to discuss justice.  For Hobbes, justice is about following the rules that one has agreed to in the social contract or following the rules that one has been born into since one is not born into a state of nature but born into covenant-contract society.  Failure to obey the rules is injustice.  To obey the rules of the society is just.

This is where Hobbes gets controversial.  Civil disobedience is unjust because you are, in your actions, showing that you have no respect for law.  Since law was enacted to secure all of our self-preservation, not merely my own since the social contract agreement involves at least more than one party, my demonstration shows that I have no regard for your life either.  If law has no force behind it law disintegrates, and we return to the state of war which is what we had left by agreeing to form the social contract.

The only way life is secure is through social order.  By refusing to obey laws, not only is one refusing the duties of upholding the social contract, one is blatantly disregarding the first principle of law itself: Self-preservation.  All of the other laws of nature that Hobbes outlines in this chapter, emanating from self-preservation and want for peace, aim at what self-preservation itself desires: A peaceable and secure life.

What is the law of nature, or the natural law for Hobbes?  Self-preservation.

Chapter 14-16: Toward Covenant Politics

At the same time as Hobbes is discussing his theory of the laws of nature, he also sketches out his theory of covenant politics.  Contract is something that men draft to agree to.  Covenant is the final outcome of a contract where we have mutually binding parties having agreed to this contract which now require certain duties, or responsibilities, to follow.  For if we do not follow the rules stipulated, the contract is void and loses all of its power.  (This returns us to the state of nature.)

The covenant is the covenant of the union of life.  Hobbes plays off of Calvinist covenant theology in constructing this philosophy of the political.  Men cannot make a covenant with God.  However, men can make a covenant with other men.  God’s covenant with man, in the Calvinist tradition, is the covenant of grace which guarantees life to fallen and depraved humans.  God reaches out first, but our responsibility to God is to have faith in him – trust in him – whereby life is our guarantee.  Hobbes essentially humanizes, or secularizes, depending on the scholars, the covenant of grace in Calvinist theology.

God doesn’t owe man anything because man had sinned.  In his generosity and love, however, God reaches out to sinful man to guarantee him life.  Likewise, we don’t owe anything to any man.  Man is a wicked and wretched animal.  However, the first act of grace between men is the willingness to come together to ensure life.  Plus, the law of self-preservation moves us in this direction anyway.  What is owed in the covenant? Life itself.

However, since men covenant with men for the purpose of politics, and God covenants with man not for politics but for salvation, this means that God’s covenant with man is apolitical.  Ergo, no divine right of kings.  Political authority is artificial and arbitrary.  This is what made Hobbes controversial in royalists circles who defended the divine right of kings which implies, in some manner, God has chosen certain men to rule and others to be ruled.  Hobbes rejects this.  God doesn’t covenant with man for the end of politics.  And neither can man covenant with God.  Therefore, only men covenant with men implies that all authority is artificial and arbitrary.  Yet, given that the state of nature is awful, we should respect this artificial construct.

In the state of nature all have authority.  In civil society only the political order itself, or the political sovereign, have authority.  In Chapter 17 Hobbes says, “This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that mortal God which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defense.”  What Hobbes is saying between Chapters 14-16 concerning political authority is: Yes, it is artificial; yes, it is a construction of men, but this artificial construction ensures our peace and defense, it ensures our lives and our ability to live without fear of violent death.  This is why we owe it our loyalty and submission.

In other words, when people no longer respect political order, when people no longer respect and follow political laws, and when people believe themselves to be above the law, our peace and defense, our lives and property, our secured lives which the social contract was drafted to secure, evaporate.  We return to the state of lawlessness, which is a state of war.  There is no respect for people’s lives; this is seen through the destruction of property, the harm committed to a person’s body, and even the killing of others when law and order break down and “anarchy reigns” supreme.  Do you want to see the result of this lack of obedience to political authority?  Look no further to the riots that occur today and the vandalism, destruction, and murders, that occur in this state of lawlessness.  Hobbes maintains that this state of lawlessness is what the state of nature is like.  Man does anything he wants without fear of repercussion because he believes he’ll get away with it.  This is why we owe the mortal god – because the artificial body politic can be destroyed, or killed, Hobbes witnessed this in the execution of Charles I – our obedience.  What was the ramification of killing the mortal god?  A decade of brutal civil war and political instability.

Hobbes and the Great English Tradition of “Civilization”

Hobbes begins, with the publication of Leviathan, what Leo Strauss paradoxically noted is both the grand aim of civilization: happiness, pleasure, and contentment, with the negative construction of a society that races to the bottom because self-preservation and hedonism is the lowest common denominator in human nature. Where other society’s and their philosophers praised the classical tradition of excellence and the martial virtues, beginning with Hobbes, and taken up by Locke and the Whig followers after the Glorious Revolution, right up through the 20th century, the prevailing Whig-Liberal orthodoxy that emerged in Britain was the emphasis toward peaceful consumerism and producerism. Man should not strive to be excellent or continuously be belabored by the strenuousness of work. Instead, man should seek to life comfortably, pleasantly, and leisurely.

After all, if Aristotle said that the aim of civilization was the consummation of eudemonia, and if humans are just bodies in motion where eudemonia comes from sensory (bodily) sizzling, was Hobbes such a dramatic break from the classics after all? The irony is that the genuineness of the classics lived on in post-Hobbesian England, at places like Oxford and Cambridge, among the conservative Tory philosophers who praised the classical way of life and pleasant agrarianism. What is civilization if anything but that horrid life of war and misery?


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