Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

HOBBES: Origin of Government (Commonwealths)

Hobbes believes living in a true state of nature would be a dreadful experience.  Our lives would be miserable and short.  It would be every man for himself because as Hobbes puts it   …if there be no power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will, and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men…  We would have to use whatever means at our disposal just for mere survival.  That’s why we band together for mutual protection and security.  How many people does it take for us to feel safe and secure?  That depends.  Hobbes says the multitude sufficient to confide in for our security is not determined by any certain number, but by comparison with the enemy we fear…  If there’s only one bad guy out there then three or four people would be enough to fend him off.  If it’s a whole band of bad guys then we’ll need more people.  If it’s a whole tribe or nation we’re afraid of then we’re going to need lots and lots of citizens to unite into one covenant with one another offering mutual aid and protection.  How do we accomplish that?  Hobbes calls lots of citizens united into one covenant a Commonwealth (or as he says in the title of his book: Leviathan).  In order to become a member of a Commonwealth we have to give up certain of our natural rights in order to obtain the security offered by civil government.  The citizen says, in effect: “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner.” This done, the multitude so united in one person, is called a COMMONWEALTH…  To repeat what Hobbes says about being in a state of nature …if there be no power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will, and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men…  But now there IS a power erected great enough for our security.  That power is the Commonwealth (or the State).  And when we enter into a covenant with this Commonwealth we may NOT use our own strength and art for caution against all other men.  The State takes on the role of protecting us once we become citizens.  The State agrees to protect us not only from outside enemies but also from our neighbors, other members of the same Commonwealth.  Once we grant the State these powers our mutual strength is pledged to the same governing power.  And this becomes the source of an awesome power indeed.  In fact, Hobbes says this is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.  In Hobbes’ view this makes the power of the State so awesome that it becomes in effect a “mortal god” to its citizens and also to its enemies.  This may sound overblown and quaint to modern ears.  But consider our own United States government.  Ours is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” but its powers are vast.  Compare it with Hobbes’ view of government.  Hobbes believes that once the covenant is made the sovereign must be obeyed by all citizens.  Do all U.S. citizens have to obey the law?  Hobbes believes the minority party must also obey the sovereign who has been declared by the majority.  Does that hold true in the U.S.?  Hobbes believes all legal powers (i.e. the court system) belong to the sovereign.  Are there any private courts in the U.S.?  Hobbes believes only the sovereign has authority to wage war and grant peace.  Can Tennessee or Nashville (or me or you) go to war or make peace on our own?  Hobbes believes the sovereign will make all decisions regarding property laws and many activities of citizens.  The list could go on.  We don’t usually call our federal government a “sovereign” as Hobbes does but the effect is the same: an awesome power wielded by a small group of people over the rest of the citizens.  This may sound too oppressive.  But Hobbes also says the covenant is between the citizens themselves; the sovereign does not receive its power from the covenant but from the united force of its citizens.  This sounds much more like the American version of “We the People…”


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