J.P.SOMMERVILLE

 

367-9 (2)

Hobbesian politics

 

Self-preservation.

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Hobbes believed that self-preservation was everyone's fundamental natural instinct. He believed it was essential to ground political philosophy on this basic principle.

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Hobbes distinguished the law of nature (the rules that tell us how to preserve ourselves) from the right of nature - our freedom to do anything (including killing and eating others) that seems necessary to this end.
 

"The right of nature, which writers commonly call jus naturale, is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life; and consequently, of doing anything which, in his own judgement and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto."
"A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved."
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Hobbes' definition of the law of nature was very different from that used by traditional natural law theorists. They saw natural law as the basic moral precepts that every civilized nation acknowledged. Many equated Natural Law with the Ten Commandments.

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Hobbes argued that from self-preservation we could deduce the obligation to seek peace, avoid drunkenness and gluttony, and so on.

 

The State of Nature

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Natural law commanded people to seek peace as the readiest way to personal security. However, until civil society was created the state of nature was a state of war:
 

"… that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man".

 

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Self-preservation requires utilizing natural resources and - if necessary - using force to take them from others. Conflict was inevitable where resources were scarce or where arrogant people tried to dominate and exploit others. Since people are roughly equal in physical strength and intelligence, this struggle could never be resolved.

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In a state of anarchy, the continual danger of theft and enslavement meant that even those peaceably inclined might often feel that the only rational course would be to launch a pre-emptive strike.
 

"In such condition there is no place for industry, 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 as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; 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".

 

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People might temporarily establish a truce with their neighbors and agree to cooperate but - without some power to enforce the agreement - neither side could ever be sure it would be kept. Indeed, if there appeared any risk others might renege on the agreement, the only rational course would be to try and gaining advantage by breaking it first.
 

"For he that performeth first has no assurance the other will
perform after, because the bonds of words are too weak to bridle men's ambition, avarice, anger, and other passions, without the fear of some coercive power; which in the condition of mere nature, where all men are equal, and judges of the justness of their own fears, cannot possibly be supposed. And therefore he which performeth first does but betray himself to his enemy, contrary to the right he can never abandon of defending his life and means of living".


 

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In a state of nature it would be absurd and self-destructive to observe traditional Christian morality - the battle would go to the strong and deceitful.
 

"The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues".

 

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The state of nature/ war is so dangerous and unpleasant that everyone would try to escape it and establish some more secure arrangements.

 

The Covenant

As long as each individual decides personally the best means of preservation, conflict is inevitable.

Hobbes thought the way to escape this was for everyone - except the sovereign - to renounce their right and to promise to use their power in support of the sovereign's decisions. (That sovereign could be a single person or an assembly).

Once everyone has agreed to accept and enforce the sovereign's decisions, it will be possible to impose peace and order.

 

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Unlike earlier - unenforceable - agreements, the covenant establishing the state would create the coercive authority able to enforce it.

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Hobbes thought that people could not surrender their power of self-defense, but held that they must give up all their other natural rights. If people gave up only some of their rights - granting the sovereign limited power - who would be judge of any infringement? Anarchy would rapidly return if any disgruntled citizen could decide to resist the sovereign.

 

Sovereignty and property

 

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Hobbes followed Bodin in regarding sovereignty as absolute and indivisible. Bodin thought that the sovereign should respect his subjects' property rights (except in emergencies) but Hobbes afforded subjects no property rights at all against the sovereign.

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In the state of nature/war, property did not exist. People might agree (say) to divide a certain field between them, but without a coercive power, either side could renege on the bargain whenever it was convenient. (Not to mention outsiders, who might intrude).

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Property exists only after the creation of a sovereign power capable of enforcing contracts.
 

"From whence we may collect that the propriety which a subject hath in his lands consisteth in a right to exclude all other subjects from the use of them; and not to exclude their sovereign, be it an assembly or a monarch".

 


Frank Hals, Couple in Arcadia (1626)

In Hobbes' view, just as property is the creation of the state, so is marriage. A couple in the state of nature might agree to mutual fidelity and child support, but there would be nothing to stop either breaking their word if so inclined. Only with the creation of the state could marriage contracts be enforced, therefore the rules of marriage (regarding adultery, divorce, polygamy, &c.) were all at the discretion of the state's laws.

 

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Earlier absolutist thinkers, such as Bodin, had argued that obedience to the sovereign was always limited - nobody should obey a sovereign who ordered the breach of fundamental moral laws instituted by God. Hobbes stripped away the substantive moral content of natural law. A subject should obey the sovereign's orders in any case except where personal survival was at issue.

 

"If the sovereign command a man, though justly condemned, to kill, wound, or maim himself; or not to resist those that assault him; or to abstain from the use of food, air, medicine, or any other thing without which he cannot live; yet hath that man the liberty to disobey".

 

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Hobbes was a thoroughgoing nominalist: he believed that general terms are simply names, and that they do not represent anything that really exists. Truth "consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations", and reason "is nothing but reckoning (that is, adding and subtracting) of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thoughts."
The sovereign decided what words meant, because everyone agreed that the sovereign's will was their will.
 

"It belongeth therefore to him that hath the sovereign power to be judge, or constitute all judges of opinions and doctrines, as a thing necessary to peace; thereby to prevent discord and civil war".

 

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These views predictably outraged Christians who believed that God's will determined what was right and wrong, and regarded Hobbes' theory as an indication of his atheism.

 

Families and Conquest

Caravaggio - David & Goliath

 

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Hobbes recognized that covenants had not established all states.

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Conquest could lead to the creation of the state when the conquered population agreed to obey the victor as their sovereign. Although such consent was coerced, Hobbes thought that it was still voluntary and binding, for people might have continued to resist even at the cost of perpetual imprisonment or death.

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States could also grow out of families. Hobbes believed that originally mothers held dominion over their children, because the mother protected the child - so the child was bound to obey her; and because a father cannot be sure that a child is his. (This view was very different from the traditional approach to a child's obligations).

"And whereas some have attributed the dominion to the man only, as being of the more excellent sex, they misreckon in it. For there is not always that difference of strength or prudence between the man and the woman as that the right can be determined without war. In Commonwealths this controversy is decided by the civil law: and for the most part, but not always, the sentence is in favour of the father, because for the most part Commonwealths have been erected by the fathers, not by the mothers of families".
"If there be no contract, the dominion is in the mother. For in the condition of mere nature, where there are no matrimonial laws, it cannot be known who is the father unless it be declared by the mother;
and therefore the right of dominion over the child dependeth on her will, and is consequently hers. Again, seeing the infant is first in the power of the mother, so as she may either nourish or expose it; if she nourish it, it oweth its life to the mother, and is therefore obliged to obey her rather than any other; and by consequence the dominion over it is hers".

 

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However the state arose - whether by covenant, conquest or hereditary succession - Hobbes thought that the sovereign held a monopoly of power.

 

Protection, obedience
and the duties of the sovereign

 

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The Hobbesian sovereign cannot be bound by any contract with his subjects, but this did not mean he was without obligations. The law of nature demanded that the sovereign seek peace for his own self-preservation - systematic oppression of the state's subjects would lead to discontent and rebellion.

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Hobbes thought that subjects only had a right to resist if their lives were directly threatened, but he thought that they were released from any obligation of obedience if the government ceased to protect them.
 

"The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no covenant be relinquished".

 

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When the Stuarts could no longer protect their subjects, it was alright for them (including Hobbes) to transfer their allegiance to someone - like the Rump or Oliver Cromwell - who could.

 

 

God and religion


El Greco, Christ healing the blind

 

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Most of Hobbes' contemporaries believed him to be an atheist. But roughly half of Leviathan is about religion and relations between church and state. Why did Hobbes talk so much about God if he did not believe in him?

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Hobbes thought that reason could tell us little or nothing about God, and once expressed doubts that it was possible to prove God's existence. Hobbes was a materialist and a determinist (that is, he did not believe in souls or spirits, angels or devils, and he thought that every event in the universe - including human actions - was caused by what went before). "God" for Hobbes was simply the first cause in this predetermined chain of events.
 

"Whatsoever we imagine is finite. Therefore there is no idea or conception of anything we call infinite. … And therefore the name of God is used, not to make us conceive Him (for He is incomprehensible, and His greatness and power are unconceivable), but that we may honour Him".

 

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In addition, Hobbes did not think it possible to show that the Bible was divinely inspired: "it is manifest that none can know they are God's word (though all true Christians believe it) but those to whom God Himself hath revealed it supernaturally;" He was one of the first to deny that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.
 

"And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?"

 

(Numbers 22:27-8)

"And consequently, when we believe that the Scriptures are the word of God, having no immediate revelation from God Himself, our belief, faith, and trust is in the Church; whose word we take, and acquiesce therein. …If Livy say the gods made once a cow speak, and we believe it not, we distrust not God therein, but Livy. So that it is evident that whatsoever we believe, upon no other reason than what is drawn from authority of men only, and their writings, whether they be sent from God or not, is faith in men only".

(Leviathan)

 

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Hobbes also interpreted the Bible in ways very different from those of virtually all contemporary clerics and scholars. Practically all Christians thought that God was a spirit, but Hobbes was a materialist who said that nothing but body existed.
Hobbes also denied that devils were spirits and so denied the possibility of possession - those possessed by devils in the Bible were simply mad.
 

"And devils also came out of many, crying out, and saying, Thou art Christ the Son of God. And he rebuking them suffered them not to speak: for they knew that he was Christ".

(Luke 4:41)

"And whereas many of those devils are said to confess Christ, it is not necessary to interpret those places otherwise than that those madmen confessed Him. …  So that I see nothing at all in the Scripture that requireth a belief that demoniacs were any other thing but madmen."

(Leviathan)

 

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Hobbes described God as the author of nature, and said that the laws of nature were God's commands. But all these were derived from reason - he did not acknowledge that God's revealed will was a source of law, and denied that Christ had made any laws.

 

Hobbes on revelation

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The truth of Christianity and the authority of the Church depended on the Bible being God's word, and according to Protestants the Holy Spirit inspired true believers to recognize God's word as such. But how can anyone know that their own beliefs (let alone somebody else's) result from divine inspiration?
 

"But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins"

(Matthew 1:20-1)

"And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him".

(Matthew 2:13)


Georges de la Tour, The Dream of St. Joseph, 1640

"For if a man pretend to me that God hath spoken to him supernaturally, and immediately, and I make doubt of it, I cannot easily perceive what argument he can produce to oblige me to believe it … To say He hath spoken to him in a dream is no more than to say he dreamed that God spake to him; which is not of force to win belief from any man that knows dreams are for the most part natural, and may proceed from former thoughts; and such dreams as that, from self-conceit, and foolish arrogance, and false opinion of a man's own goodliness, or virtue, by which he thinks he hath merited the favour of extraordinary revelation".

(Leviathan).

 

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Hobbes did not directly deny that divine revelation was possible - he simply argued that there was no possible way for one person to persuade another that God had actually made a revelation.

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Hobbes also thought that any truths of revelation were necessarily compatible with truth deduced by reason; but reason showed the necessity for the sovereign. The arguments of Catholic and Protestant extremists who attempted to use religion against the claims of government therefore had to be false.

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Religious mysteries were incapable of reasonable analysis, and could be accepted wholesale wherever they did not disrupt society and government.
 

"And the same thing befalls a man who endeavours to demonstrate the mysteries of Faith by natural reason, which happens to a sick man, who will needs chew before he will swallow his wholesome, but bitter pills; whence it comes to pass, that he presently brings them up again, which perhaps would otherwise, if he had taken them well down, have proved his remedy."

(De Cive)

 

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According to Thomas Hobbes, the sovereign's control of information was a vital part of his power. If some person or institution that was independent of the the sovereign could speak authoritatively about what actions were necessary to heavenly redemption, the sovereign's power would be significantly undermined.
 

"For if the command of the prince, or city be such, that he can obey it without hazard of his eternal salvation, it is unjust not to obey them, … On the contrary, if they command us to do those things which are punished with eternal death, it were madness not rather to chose to dye a natural death, than by obeying, to dye eternally".

(De Cive)

 

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Hobbes gave the sovereign exclusive power to interpret Scripture and to say which writings were scriptural. Of course, the sovereign could not control internal belief, but every subject must limit his public expressions in accordance with the sovereign's orders. (Hobbes perhaps felt free to put forward his own interpretation in Leviathan, because he was answerable to no sovereign at that time, since the struggle for sovereignty in England had not yet been resolved.)

 


Raphael, Prime Mover

"Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, religion; not allowed, superstition. And when the power imagined is truly such as we imagine, true religion".
 

 

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The main points of Hobbes' biblical interpretation were:

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Christianity is about salvation in the next world, and positively prescribes obedience to sovereigns in this.

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Christianity is very simple - all any Christian has to believe is "that Jesus is the Christ."

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There is no hell in the conventional sense - unbelievers merely die a final death at the Last Judgment.

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God has been "personated" (i.e. directly represented in the world) three times - firstly by Moses, then by Christ and thirdly by the Holy Spirit that Christ left with the Apostles to assist them after his ascension into heaven.

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Hobbes knew that religion was potentially extremely dangerous to civil peace and hoped it would decrease in importance as science spread and people stopped believing in "invisible powers". In the mean time, he favored religious toleration to diminish the possibilities for conflict.
 

"And they that make little or no inquiry into the natural causes of things, yet from the fear that proceeds from the ignorance itself of what it is that hath the power to do them much good or harm, are inclined to suppose and feign unto themselves, several kinds of powers invisible, and to stand in awe of their own imaginations, and in time of distress to invoke them; as also in the time of an expected good success, to give them thanks, making the creatures of their own fancy their gods".

 

 

 Hobbes on Church and State


Van Dyck, St. Mary's Church (1634)

 

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Hobbes thought that any attempt by the clergy to control secular matters should be vigorously opposed. He blamed the Civil War on the ambitions of clergymen and others who exploited religious enthusiasm.

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However, where religious views posed no threat to the state, Hobbes advocated permitting their free expression. Nor did he think the state should enquire into people's personal beliefs. Hobbes hoped that the free exchange of ideas would promote scientific progress.

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Hobbes was highly suspicious of claims based on individual conscience - like those made by the puritans who had undermined Charles' rule. If everybody ignored the laws and acted in accordance with their own conscience, civil society would dissolve into anarchy.

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Hobbes was equally hostile to claims to spiritual power. Hobbes wanted a broad toleration of different opinions, but only where they did not attempt to usurp power in the name of revelation.

 

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