In this essay, I shall try to summarize the main arguments of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan while commenting on how the context of the time influenced the work and how it should be understood under this light. Furthermore, I will highlight how the various reactions of subsequent decades came about and where they were provoked from.
The central thesis of Leviathan is the idea that in order for human society to function without widespread conflict there is a need for totalitarian rule in the form of a Leviathan, necessitated by man’s continual state of fear in a state of nature caused by limited knowledge of the utside world and therefore the intentions of other humans. Hobbes proposes that the only right we as humans have is the right to self-preservation.
Adding to this, the focus that Hobbes clearly had on peace, first initiated by his readings of Thucydides, he sets out an argument for why a totalitarian rule that safeguards individuals is the best way to secure liberty and peace. Published in 1651, towards the end of the English Civil War, Hobbes clearly was attempting to spell out why the Leviathan was the most effective governmental system for achieving peace. While many have accused Leviathan of being a otalitarian manifesto, many liberal and libertarian thoughts sprung from Hobbes’ ideas such as the right of the individual versus that of a collective body.
The basis of the entire thesis, is Hobbes’ claim that in a state of nature, men will engage in pre- emptive strikes against one another out of necessity. All of this was caused by Hobbes’ skepticism about knowledge, refuting the idea of the Aristotelians that there were intrinsic qualities to humans that can be recognized; instead Hobbes was highly skeptical of such claims and assumed that in reality most of us know little of the external world, beyond ourselves.
Hobbes, in large rejected much of the field of ethics as it was not based on any fact and so flew in direct opposition to the Aristotelians, for Hobbes there could never be agreement on morals and there was therefore no point trying to construct societies of the back of such ideas. Tuck has pointed out that where skepticism had become the normal response of the humanists during and running up to this period, Hobbes claimed to offer science instead.
This led to a priori materialism whereby he recognized that every starts from physical motions and we can trace everything down from this, but that we cannot know the real ature of these motions of the interactions themselves. This lack of knowledge of the external world was a critical part of Hobbes philosophical bases. Therefore, due to this lack of knowledge it was a fair assumption to make that other humans may attack without any notice in a state of nature and so, in order to preserve oneself, one would have to engage in pre-emptive strikes to ensure one’s own safety.
Therefore, any state of nature, regardless of the inhabitant’s intentions, will result in anarchy, with a total absence of peace because, regardless of how pacific people’s intentions may be, their limited knowledge ill force them into engaging pre-emptively in fights, and therefore in order to remove the independency of judgment, which leads to this anarchy, a totalitarian figure must be assumed to hold sway in judgment over all matters of fact. Not then a call for despotism in the modern sense of the word, Leviathan, rather was intent on establishing the best system for ensuring long term peace.
Hobbes claimed that there were only two principles worth pursuing; self-preservation and peace. There can be no doubt that, Leviathan, built on the principles put forward by Grotius, principally that all men have the right to reserve themselves and they should not be blamed for acting on this principle. Since, as already demonstrated, Hobbes dismissed the field of ethics, he was left with just idea that the only right we have is to protect ourselves at all costs and that whatever was necessary for self-preservation must be morally acceptable.
Ensuring peace, was a central concern for Hobbes. Early in his career he embarked on a translation and study of Thucydides. Thucydides had a keen interest in peace and how best to establish it, rejecting the calls for total democracy as an effective method. Having lived through the thirty years’ war and hen writing Leviathan, during the English Civil War, it is of little surprise that Hobbes was constructing the idea of a Leviathan to establish long term peace, something he saw threatened by republicans and royalists alike.
Hobbes goes into great detail on why in a state of nature, mankind cannot function sociably with each other: “First, that men are continually in competition for Honour and Dignity, which these creatures are not; and consequently amongst men there ariseth on that ground, Envy and Hatred, and finally Warre; but amongst these not so. Secondly, that amongst these creatures, the Common good iffereth not from the Private; and being by nature enclined to their private, they procure thereby the common benefit.
But man, whose Joy consisteth in comparing himselfe with other men, can relish nothing but what is eminent. Thirdly, that these creatures, having not (as man) the use of reason, do not see, nor think they see any fault, in the administration of their common businesse: whereas amongst men, there are very many, that thinke themselves wiser, and abler to govern the Publique, better than the rest; and these strive to reforme and innovate, one this way, another that way; and thereby bring it into Distraction and Civill warre.
Fourthly, that these creatures, though they have some use of voice, in making knowne to one another their desires, and other affections; yet they want that art of words, by which some men can represent to others, that which is Good, in the likenesse of Evill; and Evill, in the likenesse of Good; and augment, or diminish the apparent greatnesse of Good and Evill; discontenting men, and troubling their Peace at their pleasure. Fiftly, irrationall creatures cannot distinguish betweene Injury, and Dammage; and therefore as long as they be at ease, they are not offended with their fellowes: whereas
Man is then most troublesome, when he is most at ease: for then it is that he loves to shew his Wisdome, and controule the Actions of them that governe the Common-wealth. Lastly, the agreement of these creatures is Naturall; that of men, is by Covenant only, which is Artificiall: and therefore it is no wonder if there be somewhat else required (besides Covenant) to make their Agreement constant and lasting; which is a Common Power, to keep them in awe, and to direct their actions to the Common Benefit. In reality here, Hobbes is claiming that mankind’s own qualities of rational thought, intelligence and drive necessitate the need or a strong overarching “common power” to keep the society working together and not turn in on itself. So, the central point of establishing a common power or Leviathan was to establish a monopoly on the interpretation of words in public language as Tuck has pointed out. While admitting that men could believe whatever they pleased in private, it was crucial to Hobbes that they agree in public on common matters so as to avoid conflict.
Under the Leviathan, there was no room for a collective body holding Leviathan accountable or trying to curb its power. Hobbes claimed that: “A Multitude of men, are made One Person, when they are by one man, or one Person, Represented; so that it be done with the consent of every one of that Multitude in particular. For it is the Unity of the Representer, not the Unity of the Represented, that maketh the Person One. And it is the Representer that beareth the Person, and but one Person: And Unity, cannot otherwise be understood in Multitude. It was not for them to formulate opinions, but rather to accept the judgment of Leviathan so long as Leviathan was maintaining peace and security. This for many, was where totalitarianism seemed to become unstoppable for Hobbes as by maintaining his line of thought it meant it was imperative for the central power, of whatever form, to have ‘unlimited ideological authority, over morality and religion as well as day-to-day politics’.
At points, certainly, Leviathan becomes very totalitarian, Hobbes claims that once a citizen has accepted the social contract there can be no legitimate cause of complaint, despite what the sovereign may do when Hobbes claims that: “For it has been already shewn, that nothing the Soveraign Representative can doe to a Subject, on what pretence soever, can properly be called Injustice, or Injury; because every Subject s Author of every act the Soveraign doth; so that he never wanteth Right to any thing, otherwise, than as he himself is the Subject of God, and bound thereby to observe the laws of Nature. However, here is where an understanding of the implications of Leviathan has split. On the one hand, it could be read as a manifesto for an unconditional despot. However, this would ignore the central limitation Hobbes applies to the contract between subject and Leviathan, being that of maintenance of peace. So long as the Leviathan, maintained peace and did not threaten the individual’s self-preservation, they could as like by ay of laws and actions, liberty in this sense could be ignored.
However as soon as, peace and the right to life were overturned, the contract was broken and there was no need to obey the Leviathan, indeed people were expected not to obey. This is shown by Hobbes when he said: “The Obligation of Subjects to the Soveraign 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. The Soveraignty is the Soule of the Common- ealth; which once departed from the Body, the members doe no more receive their motion from it.
The end of Obedience is Protection; which, wheresoever a man seeth it, either in his own, or in anothers sword, Nature applyeth his obedience to it, and his endeavour to maintaine it. And though Soveraignty, in the intention of them that make it, be immortall; yet is it in its own nature, not only subject to violent death, by forreign war; but also through the ignorance, and passions of men, it hath in it, from the very institution, many seeds of a naturall mortality, by Intestine Discord. “