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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Hobbes: Origin of Government


Blogger SMJ said...

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary." (James Madison)

Hobbes certainly agrees with Madison that men are not angels, nor are they ever likely to behave so. Since the desires of men often collide, and having no arbitrator to settle their disputes, they resort to whatever violent means are necessary to resolve their differences, including death and/or subjugation ("Men have no pleasure, but on the contrary a great deal of grief, in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all.") . Government is, as Madison suggested, a reflection or judgement on human nature. And as a product of nature, man's first concern, as with all other creatures, is to preserve his own life. This basic truth forms the bedrock of Hobbes' political philosophy. Whatever lives strives to keep on living, to the exclusion of all other concerns. In theological terms, this condition (i.e., man in a state of nature) simply reflects the fallen or corrupted nature of man living in rebellion to His maker.

And so, in this untamed wilderness, the life of man must always be, as Hobbes says, "solitary , poor, nasty, brutish and short." Thus, man lives in a continual state of fear with the other members of his species. It is worth noting that Hobbes is not claiming that men fight over scarce resources. He believes basic human desires would clash even if they enjoyed a bountiful harvest from the earth. ("In the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.") In fact, men always compete for ownership of wives, food and property; they distrust one another's intentions; and, they seek to enhance their reputations, at the expense of others. Hobbes' mention of glory echoes the classical Greeks' pursuit of fame and their devotion to courage and honor, especially when demonstrated in war.

Glory represents the Homeric ideal of personal achievement. It rests on a widespread cultural belief (expressed in Aristotle's Politics) that some men are better than others, and that it is natural and proper for superior men to rule over their inferiors. Hobbes parts company with Aristotle on this point, for he argues that what inspires men to struggle with one another is a fundamental belief in their equality. If one man truly believed another man was his superior, he would yield his place to the better man. Instead, men contend with one another because they do not see themselves as being inferior. ("That which may perhaps make such equality incredible, is but a vain conceit of one's own wisdom, which almost all men think they have in greater degree, than the vulgar; that is, than all men but themselves...")

And so, in this continual struggle of all against all, man lives in constant fear of violent death. Hobbes uses the term "war" to describe this primitive stage of relations between men, but we might also use the term anarchy to characterize man's natural (i.e., pre-political) life. Anarchy is a state of disorder wherein no authority rules, no laws are acknowledged and no idea of justice prevails. For Hobbes, the breakdown of social order, as occurs in civil war, was the worst possible scenario for human survival. Certainly, when Rome's empire collapsed in 476 A.D., allowing barbarians to overrun Gaul and Italy, all of western civilization was threatened. Without the protection of Roman legions, roads became impassible, pirates controlled the Mediterranean trade routes, and commerce between cities vanished,. along with any semblance of law and order.

From this state of fear and anarchy, in which no law or morality exists "because every man has a right to everything," man is forced, that is to say compelled, by a reasonable concern for his own safety, to form agreements with other men to ensure their mutual survival. These agreements form the basis for the original covenant which binds men together in a solemn, contractual relationship, in which each man agrees "to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself." Only when "a multitude of men" agree to a covenant is a commonwealth then instituted. This agreement must be unanimous because the covenant is unrevokable. Hobbes argues that the act of voting, either for or against the sovereign, authorizes all future actions and judgments of that man.

In other words, voting is a voluntary agreement to bind one's self to the outcome. Hobbes does not offer any escape clause for men who later become disenchanted with the commonwealth. Once you join, you belong for life. Otherwise, the commonwealth might later be torn asunder by the rebellion of unhappy subjects, returning everyone to a state of anarchy.

The willingness of Hobbes to invest the sovereign with unlimited powers comes directly from his original postulate "that every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it." The state of war is so miserable and threatening to his well being that man prefers to negotiate his survival. A contrived peace among men is formally proclaimed in the act of voting to elect a sovereign power to rule over them all. This election is essentially a negotiated peace, the terms of which are unrevokable and authorized, in common, by everyone.

According to Hobbes, the act of men binding themselves in a covenant makes possible the creation of a commonwealth (literally, that which serves the "common weal" or public good), each man individually renouncing his right to rule for the sake of securing for himself the advantages of peace and contentment. In other words, man goes from a condition of no security and unlimited rights (the state of nature) to a condition of provisional security with limited rights (the political state).

Hobbes believes that unlimited power is required by the sovereign to enforce the covenant ("...for nothing is more easily broken than a man's word, but from fear of some evil consequence"). He acknowledges that a sovereign might be incompetent or sometimes even corrupt, but the alternative of civil war is even worse ("...the state of man can never be without some incommodity or other; and that the greatest that in any form of government can possibly happen to the people in general, is scarce sensible in respect of the miseries, and horrible calamities, that accompany a civil war.").

Thus, to avoid the calamity of civil war, power is concentrated into the hands of a sovereign ("covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all"). But Hobbes does not award absolute power indiscriminately. It is important to recall the purpose for which the commonwealth was instituted..."the end for which this renouncing and transferring of right is introduced, is nothing else but the security of a man's person, in his life, and in the means of so preserving life, as not to be weary of it."

If an evil sovereign should take it upon himself to destroy his subjects, as Nero or Caligula of Rome, then he violates the primary law of nature by which men live, i.e. to preserve his own life. This primary right to life cannot be abrogated by the sovereign..."And therefore there be some rights which no man can be understood by an words, or other signs, to have abandoned, or transferred. As first a man cannot lay down the right of resisting them, that assault him by force, to take away his life."

This "right to life" is the one protection that men retain under the covenant which is beyond the power of any sovereign to revoke. However, even this right cannot be abused. If a subject should rebel against the authority, thereby placing himself in a state of war with his fellow men (by violating the covenant of peace), he loses any protection of his natural right to life..."if he that attempts to depose his sovereign be killed, or punished by him for such attempt, he is author of his own punishment."

Once the covenant is formed and the sovereign elected, no right of rebellion follows. Hobbes believes that men are better off with any government, regardless of how poor, than with anarchy. His fear of civil unrest lies at the heart of his work and is not without force. All governments fear anarchy, and most people will agree with Hobbes that life without law and order is unacceptable. The tenuous balance between security and liberty always fluctuates with the fear or contentment of people. When crime or violence rises, people demand more protection. When taxes are raised, people complain about government spending. Hobbes' experience in living through the English civil war certainly contributed to his own political philosophy.

Whether men prefer living under a dictator, for example, Saddam Hussein, or living with an ongoing civil rebellion is a question not easily answered. The unpleasant truth, says one observer, is that wars (and rebellions) continue until a sufficient quantity of blood is spilled. How much blood is sufficient is the real question which philosophy cannot answer.

3/03/2005 10:27 AM  

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