The Perspectives of Thomas Hobbes on Justice and an Introduction of Augustinian Critique on the Hobbesian Sovereign

Categories: Thomas Hobbes

Both Thomas Hobbes and Saint Augustine wrote with monumental goals in mind. Hobbes’ treatise reads as a textbook on how to run a state. Professor Emeritus, Edwin Curley calls the Leviathan a “scientific treatise” and writes that Hobbes is “making civic philosophy… scientific for the first time.”[1] Augustine intended City of God to be an intellectual defense of Christianity after his lifetime of reflection on philosophy. This essay’s goal is to provide a brief overview of Hobbes’ view on justice and to introduce an Augustinian critique on it.

To do this, this essay will examine what Hobbes means by justice; clarify the nature of Hobbes’ sovereign monarch; and apply Augustine’s notion of pride to critique the Hobbesian sovereign.

Hobbes view on justice is deep-rooted in covenants. He finds justice to be “that men perform covenants made” and that sovereigns enforce covenants (xv.1-2). Sovereigns, in his view, are essentially the chief arbiters of justice and are to use the sword and terror to enforce it.

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“There must be some coercive power [the sovereign] to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants,” Hobbes continues “by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant…” (xv.3). Moreover, this arrangement becomes “a great Leviathan… which is but an artificial man… and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul” Hobbes claims (intro.1). Indeed, this seems like an artificial body whose inner-order is one wherein the subjects are subservient to the sovereign power as a body is to a soul.

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While for Hobbes the sovereign can be an assembly or an aristocracy, Hobbes clearly prefers a monarchy. When he writes on the subjects establishing a sovereign power he states that, “[they should] appoint one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills… unto one will” (xvii.13). Hobbes suggests a monarch is the most capable of benefiting the subjects. He states, “Where the public and private interests are most closely united, there is the public most advanced. Now in monarchy the private interest is the same with the public” (xix.4). Furthermore, according to the theorist, a monarch is also more capable of receiving wise council than an assembly of rulers, for he dictates everything in matters which he is involved. Thus he “may hear the opinion of men versed in the matter about which he deliberates, of what… quality soever and as long…, and with as much secrecy, as he [the monarch] will” the theorist asserts (xix.5). The monarch has virtually unlimited freedom in certain facets of governance. Hobbes thinks the monarch has advantages at the individual level. For instance, a monarch cannot disagree with himself for petty passions like envy (xix.7). Whereas between members of an assembly, Hobbes emphasizes envy is not only likely to occur but also capable of inciting a civil war. Given this, an Augustinian critique of Hobbes’ view on justice and the sovereign is worthwhile.

Moving forward, the laws of nature are critical in understanding what Hobbes means by justice. The first Law of Nature is peace. Hobbes treatment of the notion peace is largely fixated on the elements of its opposite: war. To state it more precisely, he focuses on a perpetual state of war. “The condition of man [the State of Nature] is a condition of war of everyone against everyone,” the theorist asserts. (xiv.4). It is through an examination of war Hobbes declares what is peace. He states that “war consisteth… in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known;” and he then adds, “all other time is peace” (xiii.8). The absence of one constitutes its opposite. For the rest of this essay, this essay will reference Hobbesian peace as Negative Peace, as peace in his view is merely the lack of conflict.[2]

Negative Peace in Hobbes’ view only arises when there is a single power reigning over all, and each man who is beneath his reign must transfer his natural right. Hobbes states, “The Right of Nature… is the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature…” (xiv.1). In this respect, the State of Nature has a type of equality for each man in it possesses the Right of Nature. Hobbes also says, “as long as this natural right… endureth, there can be no security to any man… “(xiv.4). On the transferring of rights his view is “the… end for transferring of right… is nothing else but the security of a man’s person” (xiv.8). Thus, in order to usher in security, Hobbes asserts that a single power must act as a “common power to [strike] fear” in others, and as such he holds all people’s Right of Nature and terrorizes them to maintain the Negative Peace (xiii.11; xiv.5). The theorist states, “For as long as ever man holdeth this right of doing anything he liketh, so long are all men in the condition of war” (xiii.5). In other words, each man the powerful individual makes subservient is to transfer his Right of Nature in order to establish Negative Peace. Moreover, the powerful individual is to perpetuate his reign by terrorizing those beneath him in order to maintain the era of Negative Peace.

In many respects, both the powerful individual and the sovereign are alike.  Hobbes provides a new take on justice when we states, “Justice, therefore, that is to say, keeping of covenant, is a rule of reason by which we are forbidden to do anything destructive to our life and consequently a Law of Nature” (xv.7). In other words, the sovereign must maintain the Right of Nature of himself, the soul of the artificial body, and Negative Peace. The sovereign’s chief duty is to preserve the artificial body of which he is the soul. “[The sovereign] is enabled to conform the wills of [the subjects]… to peace at home and mutual aid against enemies abroad,” Hobbes states (xvii.13). Thus, it is clear the sovereign’s duty is to maintain the absence of domestic war—Negative Peace— through enforcing justice and handle conflicts with foreign sovereign states. Such is no different from how the powerful individual in the natural state must behave in the natural state. It goes without saying that it takes a certain inner-order of the mind and discipline to be expedient in preserving oneself in the perpetual state of war. While the sovereign must handle conflict in two dimensions—within his artificial body and outside of it against other bodies—the powerful individual must have Negative Peace within his natural body in order to be decisive and physically strong in order to conquer other men. Moreover, Hobbes prefers a monarch due to his liberality, indeed. The powerful individual is the only individual who maintains his right of nature. He retains his initial freedom. Therefore, both the sovereign and powerful individual retain their Right of Nature.

Before applying an Augustinian critique of Hobbes’ views, it is critical to understand that it is in one’s interest to be the monarch sovereign, according to Hobbes. Hobbes defines felicity as the “continual success in obtaining those things which a man from time to time desireth” (vi.58). Simply stated, felicity is merely satisfying one’s desires. Then he defines power initially as “riches joined with liberality…” and then goes to say that even “the reputation of power is power” (x.4-5). Then, he writes that “all mankind [has]… a perpetual and restless desire of power after power… because he cannot assure the power and means to live well” he continues, “and from hence, it is that kings, whose power is greatest, turn their endeavors to the assuring it at home… and when that is done, there succeedeth a new desire” (xi.2). In other words, the kings are most apt to achieve felicity because they possess power, or the means to felicity. It is clear that the monarch sovereign is both free and powerful, for he is the head of the state and answers to none. As Negative Peace is the equivalent of one oppressing all others as a means to stop quarrel, it is the duty of the sovereign to maintain his reign. Such reign provides him with unimaginable power. Therefore, the sovereign is the most inclined individual to achieve felicity according to Hobbes’ views. Given that justice is rule that states all men should follow covenants, covenants are to establish Negative Peace, Negative Peace leads to the sovereign being the only individual who retains his Right of Nature, and possessing the Right of Nature is in one’s interest; justice is nothing more than interest of the sovereign.

While for Hobbes he believes that the monarch’s private interest are to be in alignment with the subject’s interests, a leader such an Alcibiades shows that, even if this were the case, an empire can still implode on itself. The Athenian historian, Thucydides best captures the relatively brief reign of Alcibiades over Athens. Hobbes claims in the introduction of his own translation of Thucydides’ work that “in [Thucydides]… (I believe with many others) the faculty of writing history is at the highest” (xxi). Alcibiades lead the Athenian envoy to Sicily claiming it would secure Athens’ victory over the Peloponnesians, but after the demos decided to execute him, he fled to Sparta to advise them war against Athens (6.53.1, 6.88.10-91.1). Alcibiades’ advice is pivotal to the fall of his native land (8.56.1, 5). University of Toronto Professor of the Classics, Clifford Orwin, is a chief authority on Thucydides, and he writes on Alcibiades the following:

Alcibiades almost incarnates Athens: he models his conduct on hers… Accused by Nicias [a pious statesman and opponent to him] in the Sicilian debate of harboring private ambitious ruinous to the city, he denies neither his ambitions nor that these are private. Instead he has the cheek or candor to insist that his attempt to cast the widest shadow of any individual among the Greeks benefits incidentally the city as well… [Alcibiades thinks] for why not imitate the city by pursuing the greatest renown for oneself at the expense of one’s fellow citizens? The common good “unjustly understood” proves vulnerable to its inherent contradictions.[3]

The contradiction Orwell is referring to is Alcibiades argument to the Spartans for why he is betraying his native land. Alcibiades thinks it is not only his own but Athens’ common interest—or common good—for her to lose in the conflict. “We [Athens] endeavored to be more moderate than the licentious temper of the time…” Alcibiades continues, “… the true lover of his country is… he who longs for it so much that he will go to all lengths to recover it” (6.89.5, 6.92.4).  Those “lengths” are in this instance to destroy it. In other words, he thinks that she has become too soft for a strong leader’s reign and must suffer in her defeat as a means to purge her of weakness. Even if a strong leader, such as Alcibiades, believes he has his personal ambitions aimed towards the common good of the state, it is not at all clear those steps taken towards the common good are at all beneficial to the subjects living in it.

Nonetheless, Augustine and Hobbes have major differences, nonetheless. While Hobbes claims justice is that men perform covenants, Augustine finds that “the function of justice is to assign each his due” (xix.4). A key difference from the theorist and the theologian is that Augustine believes that justice comes from a certain order of all things. The theorist states “There is established in man himself a certain just order of nature , by which the soul is subordinate to God, and the body to the soul, and thus both body and soul are subordinate to God” (xix.4). Indeed, while Hobbes’ political view stipulates that the artificial body—the subjects—are subordinate to the artificial soul—the sovereign—the Hobbesian state is, nonetheless, devoid of true justice in Augustine’s view.

In light of the philosophy of Augustine, the implications of Hobbes’ view on justice are grave. Pride may ultimately bring this state, almost entirely, to its demise. There are a few chief reasons that point to such a claim. On pride, Augustine states that “[1] pride hates a fellowship of equality under God, and [2] [it] seeks to impose its dominion on fellow men, [3] [it exists] in place of God’s rule” (xix.12). This is striking to discover in Augustine’s writing considering Hobbes’ Law of Nature. Negative Peace, which is merely the powerful individual oppressing all others, clearly meets the qualifications of element (2) in the quote. Then there is the transfer of Right of Nature from the plundered men to the powerful individual to consider. The Right of Nature was the chief characteristic that renders men in the State of Nature equal, for all men have it. In order to preserve himself, the powerful individual must rid of the equality that held him with his fellows; such is characteristic of element (1) in the quote. Finally, when Hobbes explains what he means precisely about the sovereign’s state he dubs the sovereign to be “a Moral God,” a title that virtually meets the criteria of element (3) in the quote. According to this evaluation of Augustine’s view of the proud, the sovereign is a quintessential example of Augustine’s usurping and tyrannical power. While not all monarchs necessarily have to be as dangerous as is Alcibiades, Augustine’s view on corruption and pride should give anyone warning to consider investing so much power into a single individual.

Given Augustine’s view on pride, Hobbes’ political views becomes more terrible. The sovereign has liberty like no other in his state; to what shall he apply it? According to Augustine, all individuals have the will to be happy, “even when he pursues happiness by living in a way which makes it impossible of attainment” (xiv.4). Although the sovereign is prideful and therefore wretched, his will causes him to seek happiness, but because he is proud, he will not find true happiness in life. Augustine also claims that the proud look inward rather than to God. Augustine writes, “When we ask the cause of the evil angels’ misery, we find that is the just result of their turning away from [God]… and their turning towards themselves” (xii.6.). He adds, “What other name is there for this fault than pride?” (xii.6). Further understanding Augustine’s view on pride, the ends of the sovereign’s desires will be within himself and will likely just be more of himself, for proud individuals find happiness in themselves. Furthermore, Hobbes’ poor and vulgar definition of justice is that men follow covenants. Therefore, the just man in the Hobbesian state must have a sense of right that is merely the following of covenants. Covenants, according to Hobbes, are merely an institution to perpetuate the reign of the sovereign. Would it not be the case that a just subject in a Hobbesian society views the common right as the perpetuation of the sovereign’s reign? According to Augustine, the more poor the objects of common agreement are, the more poor the people be (xix.24). “A people,” Augustine writes, “is an association of a multitude of… beings united by a common agreement on… objects…” (xix.24). He continues, “Obviously, the better the objects of this agreement the better the people; the worse the objects of this… the worse the people” (xix.24). According to Augustine’s view, it seems worth considering that just subjects in the Hobbesian state ought to be no less poor as the sovereign.

In conclusion, not only will the sovereign’s passions likely enslave him so much that he will meet what Augustine calls the Supreme Evil but the just subjects will too. Augustine states, “Eternal life is the Supreme Good, and eternal death the Supreme Evil, and that to achieve the one and escape the other, we must live rightly “(xix.4). In other words, eternal death in Augustine’s view is the permanent separation of the spirit from God—i.e. being sentenced to hell—and the opposite for eternal life.  Furthermore, living rightly, in Augustine’s view, means pursuing a good that mortal man cannot achieve unless they live a life through faith and by the Lord’s teachings (xix.4). If my analyses of Hobbes’ writings are correct, “justice” means the advancement of the sovereign’s interest and the sovereign’s interest is himself. Then the Hobbesian state is devoid of true justice, according to Augustine, as God is not the focus of the state but pride manifested in the flesh of a dominating sovereign. While pride is the beginning of all sin, if the just men focus on perpetuating the proud sovereign’s reign, what is to stop the just men from feeling a collective sense of pride, i.e. over-weening sense of nationalism? (xix.4, xii.6). According to Augustine, the poor sense of right leads to similarly poor citizens. Without true justice in Augustine’s view, there cannot be any truly righteous men living in the Hobbesian state, ergo none shall theoretically find the Supreme Good unless they leave their vicious state.

Works Cited

  1. Crawley, Richard. Trans. The History of Peloponnesian War. By Thucydides. Ed. Robert Strassler. New York: Free Press, 1996. Print.
  2. Hobbes, Thomas. Trans. The Peloponnesian War. By Thucydides. Ed. David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.
  3. Orwin, Clifford. The Humanity of Thucydides. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994. Print.
  4. Intro.viii-ix Curley is the editor for the Hackett edition, and the quotes are from his introduction. Henceforth all citations of the introduction are referencing Hobbes’ introduction.
  5. Similar to John Mill’s “negative liberty,” which is merely the lack of impediment.
  6.  Orwell cites 6.16.1-4 from Thucydides’ History of The Peloponnesian War for this passage (123-4).

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The Perspectives of Thomas Hobbes on Justice and an Introduction of Augustinian Critique on the Hobbesian Sovereign. (2021, Sep 13). Retrieved from

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