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Thomas Hobbes Essay

The philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, especially that of his major work, Leviathan, is designed to understand the motives of human nature and, from these, seek the surest way to civil peace. This is one of the earliest examples of a “scientific” method of understanding political science in that the commonwealth was to be built on a handful of axioms, all deriving from what Hobbes considered facts of human nature (cf. Matthews, 118). The nature of these axioms leading to civil peace is the purpose of this present essay. The primary understanding of human nature that, if applied properly, would lead to social peace is that human beings desire power.

This is nearly identical to Machiavelli’s approach to politics. It seems that in both Hobbes and Machiavelli, human beings desire power, and hence, develop “moral” systems that justify the present holding or seeking of power (Morgan, 528-530, and 581-582). But the nature of this axiom is that people are naturally programmed to seek power and no matter of moral suasion will stop this. Hobbes wants to begin from a single concept and build upon it rather than attempt to suppress it, since any attempt at suppression itself proves the axiom correct.

If human nature is taken seriously rather than covered over with metaphysical theories, then peace might be the consequent: human beings must be taken as they are, not as one might want them to be. If the above axiom is true, that is, people desire power, than many other axioms follow from it. The first axiom that follows from the first is that reason is a slave to the passions (Morgan, 641). Reason, in other words, cannot provide ends, but merely means, and significantly, justifications after the fact. Appealing to reason is hence, not appropriate with such a view of humanity, and only the appeal to passion will work here.

Passion is nothing that can be suppressed, but it can be controlled. Passion is the engine of human nature in a similar sense that hunks of matter in a vacuum will continue in constant morion unless acted upon by another force. This is an exact parallel to Hobbes here, and the only opposing force to passionate human motion is other human beings, and hence, the problem: humans are constantly, following from this, in a state of war. What makes this state of war particularly harsh is that the abilities of human beings as individuals, or organizing into groups, are roughly equal (Morgan, 591).

This means that the war of all against all will continue constantly, with no clear winner. Any “winner” will be only a temporary winner, and will soon be dethroned by another faction. The fact of equality is not something here taken from observation, but from a deduction from “atomic” theory (or at least, the theories of matter current at the time), where atoms, in their basic structure, are all the same. Matter is matter, energy is energy, humans are humans. From the above, it follows that human beings are determined. Free will, to an extent, is rejected in Hobbes.

For him, liberty is the ability to do what one wills without outside opposition (Morgan, 621). This is consistent with determinism in that the will must have a reason, that is, a cause, for having the desire it has and bringing it to fruition. Hence, man is determined, but since he does what he wants, he is thus free. This just underscores the fact that reason is impotent to being about peace, only the passions can be appealed to in that the constant clashing of wills and the frustration of one’s freedom as Hobbes describes it is constant warfare.

From the above, Hobbes deduces that humanity is egocentric, power hungry and willful, and as a result, without some countervailing power, is in a constant state of warfare. The nature of this countervailing power is the real centerpiece of the Leviathan. The general point is that if humanity can be reduced to a few, simple, clear axioms that follow logically from one another, as any good scientific theory should do, then the state, the countervailing power that keeps these human “atoms” in line relative to one another, should also be simple, unified and follow logically from the axioms about human nature.

Hence, Hobbes is seeking to be completely scientific and a “realist” about both humanity and the state that they will live under in order to reach peace. At this point in the logical progression, it seems impossible to live in a state of peace. Human beings are depicted as lustful, egocentric and equal beings constantly in a state of motion and hence, clashing with all other peoples, essentially hunks of matter in motion, connected to an almost arbitrary engine of passion.

But it is the Leviathan that will bring this peace, and it is passion that it will use to justify itself and bring peace to the commonwealth. Hobbes describes humanity prior to all law and custom, that is, the “law of nature. ” The primary motive force of humanity is power, considered generally. But if warfare is a constant feature of the “state of nature,” then the drive for power for each and all is constantly being frustrated. It seems logical to hold that eventually, these egocentric people will constantly see their designs thwarted and their purposes constantly harmed y others.

From this, all those that seek power, that is, everyone, will be forced to come to some agreement, a “covenant” among themselves that will provide a measure of peace so that the power struggle can continue in more peaceful channels. This is the nature of the covenant (Morgan, 594). This agreement comes not about through reason, but through the constant frustration of passion. Reason is a means to an end, and power is always that end. But power cannot be had in the state of nature given its constantly shifting nature, and therefore, reason then acts as a slave to passion and demands some kind of agreement, a contract that will bring peace.

The nature of this covenant must follow from the facts of human nature outlined above. Hence, it cannot really be a parliamentary democracy because that merely leaves the state of nature intact, one faction constantly unseating another, leading to the same chaos as before. The kind of state that is agreed upon is basically a dictatorship of a party that must act equally between individuals and factions within the society. All power is hence transferred to the state, the dictatorship, and in return, this power is used to keep the warring factions from destroying each other.

The only real demand laid on the state is that of objectivity in judging among the factions, and hence, the state must ultimately be a monarchy (of sorts), equidistant from all centers of power in society and hence, able to judge among them fairly (Morgan, 613). Putting this differently, if power is the desire of all individuals and factions, then it follows that the state exists solely for security (Morgan, 606). If humanity is described in axiomatic terms all following one from another, and the state is itself part of this logical progression, then it also follows that the nature of the state’s action also must follow from the above.

This means that the state is unitary, dedicated to one purpose and based on a rule of law that is simple and dedicated entirely to security and, according to the contract, treats all individuals and factions as morally equal to one another (Morgan, 641). The logical structure of the Leviathan comes down to working out contradictions in the axiomatic description of human beings. If human beings desire power and cannot get it in the state of nature, then a powerful state must be crated that permits humanity to live and seek after power through peaceful means.

But since no faction will permit one group to rule at the expense of all others, the state must be single, focused and based on an agreed upon set of laws (a “constitution”) that enshrines this concept of political equality. Only then can all factions agree to give up their violent ways to the central authority. Since human beings are egocentric and passionate, the state based on the rule of law agreed to by all factions beforehand follows logically. The terms “peace” and “justice” are used here in highly technical and scientific ways that part radically with previous attempts to define and justify these words.

Peace, according to Hobbes, is merely the absence of war (Morgan, 592). It simply is a state of affairs that permits power hungry individuals to pursue their designs in a peaceful manner. Any breach of this peace will, ideally, lead to swift and harsh action from the state that they have empowered to keep watch over their actions. Justice is similar in that it is based on knowledge. The early parts of the Leviathan are based on a scientific method, a means of coming to know human nature as generally and simply as possible.

Justice just flows from this. Ultimately, justice derives from science, which is the knowledge of good and evil (Morgan, 603). In practice, this merely means that humans are attracted by the same set of things, and recoil from the same set of things. If power and what it implies are seen in the former, then the frustration of their liberty (as defined above) is what repels them. This knowledge alone allows one to see the basis and ultimate justice of the state.

Hence, justice is defined accordingly, as the ability of the person, or, at last, the state, to control the passions of the population when they threaten to disrupt the precarious balance of peace in the commonwealth (Morgan, 599-600). But this is understood by all who are punished by the state in that they have agreed to this on the basis that their own liberty is endlessly obstructed by others in the state of nature. But, as a final thought, this is the very nature of one’s civic duty–to eliminate all private desires and to follow the laws as laid down by the sovereign and agreed upon by those who have demanded these laws (Morgan, 610-611).

Duty is not something that is arrived at through reason, but through the passionate desire for power. It is frustrated in the state of nature, but permitted to function freely under the rule of law. There is no “thick” view of civic duty here, but rather, the control over one’s passions in the interest of those same passions, to permit them to develop in peace. The desire for peace derives from the identical desire for power, except that this desire is frustrated in a state of war. This is what makes Hobbes compelling: the approach to politics could not be simpler.

The concept of civic duty is summed up by Hobbes as the act of giving up “governing oneself” (Morgan, 608), and permitting the more violent elements of one’s passion to be governed by the state only. What is left to the person is the peaceful pursuit of his passionate desires. Politically speaking, the commonwealth is that entity that exists for the sake of peace and security by the efficient control of the private desires of the people involved. In its place, the public will as expressed by the laws of the sovereign so far as they do not violate the very simple terms of the contract.

In conclusion, the nature of peace and civic duty for Hobbes are two sides of the same coin. The public persona of the person in the commonwealth is as a public entity, a person dedicated to civic peace and dedicated to the elimination of all personal desires relative to other members of the community. The final end, according to Hobbes’ own description is the pursuit of power by peaceful means, engaging in commerce, etc. The sovereign is the public persona and serves to maintain this persona within the personalities of all involved.


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