Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

HOBBES: Origin of Government (Laws of Nature)

The world, as Thomas Hobbes sees it, is a grim place. All men compete for finite resources. So in a true state of nature, with no government, it’s every man for himself. Without government authority to keep us in check we do whatever we want until someone stops us. The way Hobbes sees it 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. This isn’t good. Without government to enforce laws there can be no industry or culture or navigation or building, no arts and letters, no society. People will live in continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Fortunately there’s an alternative to this continuous state of war of man against man. Hobbes believes human beings are inclined toward living peacefully for three reasons: first, they’re afraid of being killed; second, they want nice homes and good food and to be able to generally enjoy life; third, they think if they work hard enough they can obtain these things. This is perfectly natural. They should want these things. Hobbes lays down some rules of nature about how this can happen:
1. We have a right to seek peace and defend ourselves from bodily harm.
2. We must be willing to lay aside some of our rights if others do the same. However, there are some rights we can neither renounce nor transfer. In the American view these include such rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Aside from these basic rights we must be willing to agree to live peacefully with our neighbors.
3. Men must keep their agreements to live together peacefully (Hobbes calls this a “covenant”). These covenants must be more than just words on a page; they have to be enforceable by some third party.
4. We should be grateful for gifts or acts of kindness from others and not betray their goodwill or break the communal covenant.
5. We should try to fit in with our community and not incite rebellious behavior.
6. If someone does break the communal covenant and then repents, we should consider pardoning the offender. This is the granting of peace.
7. Revenge is the payment of evil for evil. Except for the correction of offenders, or to set an example for others, retribution serves no ultimate purpose and is therefore only cruelty being practiced through the power of the community.
8. No one should show contempt for others within the community. All its members should be respected as citizens of the covenant.
9. Every one should acknowledge that we’re all equal under the covenant.
10. No one should reserve rights for himself that others don’t also have.
11. The community should make sure that it judges everyone equally and fairly.
12. Property that cannot be divided should be enjoyed in common.
13. Property that can neither be divided nor enjoyed in common should be allocated either by the first possessor rule, or determined by lottery.
14. Peacemakers should be allowed safe conduct. This is the white-flag rule.
15. Controversies should be submitted to an arbitrator, or judge.
Hobbes thinks if we just follow these simple rules we’ll be ok. Good luck with that.


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