The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What Was Hobbes' Idea of the State?

Preface: I feel as though this essay got away from while I was writing it. The idea of the state that Hobbes posits is an extensive one, and I had but 2000 words to summize his thoughts. So I suppose what I am trying to say is that you should take the following essay as an incomplete, a scratch on the surface of the beliefs of Hobbes.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries marked a tumultuous period in the history of Europe. There were wars of conquest, with the expansion of the proto-imperialist states of the time. There were wars of religion, both between different religious groups, as with the Hasburgs and the Ottomans, and within Christendom, with the Protestant Reformation. Then, there were the wars of a state against itself—both for religious reasons, as in France with the Wars of Religion fought between the Huguenots and the Catholics, and for the resistance of “tyrannical” regimes, as was the case with the mid-Seventeenth Century English Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. These internal struggles, both in France and across the Channel in England, served as a point of interest for political theorists of the time. Of particular interest to these theorists was the idea of the state, sovereignty, the role of subjects to the sovereign authority, and then whether or not resistance to a sovereign authority was justified in a legal and philosophical sense. Now, this is not the first time that political philosophers had contemplated these thoughts, as both Aristotle and Cicero wrote extensively on the subject. With Cicero, there was a focus on the duty of people to the commonwealth, and then the duty of citizens to remove a tyrant from power. This was then taken by Jean Bodin, who for the first time defined the concept of sovereignty. More famous than the Frenchman, though, was the British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. It is the aim of this essay to explore the idea of the state as set out by Hobbes in Leviathan.

According to Hobbes, there is a Leviathan in this world, and it is called the Commonwealth. It would be easy for one to think, upon reading that in the introduction to the book that its subject is then the commonwealth. This is only partially true. To Hobbes, because the commonwealth is a grouping of all of the people of the state together, one must first understand the inner-workings of men to understand the inner-workings of the state. In particular, one must understand what drives men to do what they do; the nature of men in the world as set out by God; and the different kinds of persons that exist in the world. To begin, let us examine that which compels men to act. In this, Hobbes has a simple explanation. According to him, man is controlled by his passions. We as a species seek to fulfill whatever passions that we have, given that they are obtainable with our strength and position in the world, with our lives being just a long string of passions, linked together with ever success or failure in the completion of them. Ultimately though, while we strive to fulfill the passions that are presently held, it is more important for us to ensure that there will be future desires that can be fulfilled. This, to Hobbes, is the object of man. It is both a Christian, and a determinist way of looking at the world, as the vision that Hobbes paints is one in which everything only happens because of a cause, except the one thing that does not have a cause—that one thing being God (an line of thought in-line with Aquinas)6. At the same time though, while agreeing in part with the thinking of classic Christian philosophers, he disagrees with the thinking of classical philosophers, with him believing that there is no such thing as a “greatest good.”7. It is through the desire for ease in life, and the fear of pain and death, then, that compel Man to civil obedience.

Now understanding that man is driven by passion, and how that relates the commonwealth (through the civil obedience that is required for a society to operate effectively), we can examine the state of nature that man has been put in by God. According to Hobbes, all of man is created by God as equal in both body and mind. Even though when comparing individuals there will be those who are stronger and wiser than others, on the aggregate, people are equal. This equality of conditions then creates a scenario where, due to the scarce resources that exist in this world, conflict arises when two or more people with the same desire compete for the same scarce resource, and since they both are equal in conditions, they both have equal claim to this scarce resource. This creates a pattern of violence and distrust in others, which ultimately creates a state of war—a state in which everyone is pitted against everyone else, ultimately trying to assert their dominion over everyone else, in order to ensure their security. Thus, war is not battle between parties, but rather a state in which battle between parties is likely to occur. This state of war degrades the greatness of Humanity, doing away with the culture and knowledge that is gained through peace, or the time without war. When in this state of war, there is not sovereign authority—there is no commonwealth, no state. Because of this, Hobbes posits, there can be no injustice in the state of war, as injustice comes from the violation of civil law, and during a state of war, there is no civil law that people are subject to. Through the fear of death and the love of ease, man is then also compelled to seek out an end to the state of war. This is the completely reasonable and inevitable conclusion for man to come to, according to Hobbes, both due to the passions that bind men, but then also do to the laws of nature that rule over all things.

The laws of nature that Hobbes prescribes govern the world, and through it, the interactions that men have with it and each other, are quite extensive. For the sake of brevity, this essay will not cover all of the laws of nature that he posits. Now, according to Hobbes, the Laws of Nature (Lex Naturalis), are general rules that are found by the use of reason of what man is forbidden or bound to do. This idea that there are laws of nature divined by man through reason is by no means unique to Hobbes, and it is routed in previous Christian thinkers, such as Aquinas and Augustine. The first law of nature, what Hobbes refers to as the “fundamentall [sic]” law of nature, is that man, by nature, will seek peace. The reasoning for this can be seen in the paragraph preceding this one. It is the belief of Hobbes that the best way to set out on this path to peace is through the use of contracts (and covenants, which are the parts of a contract that one of the parties is bound to). A contract is, in this case, the “mutuall transferring of Right [sic].”. The transferring of right, is done to create bonds between men, and to ensure peace through fear of repercussion for the breaking of ones covenant, both from some greater temporal power (here being the commonwealth) and from the ultimate judge—God. Now, transferring of ones rights is a voluntary action, and since it is a voluntary action, it is only done if it is in the interests of the individual, as we are inherently self-interested. Hobbes posits that it is in the interest of individuals to give up some rights in order to secure their safety, and thus, greater rights in the end. These rights are then given to the commonwealth.

At last, we have reached the point in which the commonwealth enters into the fold of Hobbes' political thought. As previously stated, the commonwealth is created by the transferring of the rights of individuals within a state to the state for their mutual benefit. This, the common good, is what the commonwealth seeks to protect and increase, through the establishment of laws, and the upholding of contracts. Now, commonwealths can be implemented through two main ways—either through institution or though acquisition. Both are quite simple, although there has been contention on his explanation of the commonwealth by acquisition, and in particular, by conquest. First though, there is the commonwealth by institution. In this, the commonwealth is created simply by the consent of the major part of the persons who are present to transfer their rights, and the rights of all who are under the dominion of the commonwealth, thus bestowing upon the commonwealth sovereign power, which then lies in the hands of the sovereign (more on this later). There is also then the commonwealth by acquisition. In this, the commonwealth is acquired through the use of force—most often, conquest. This, to Hobbes, is a legitimate government, and is due the same obedience as the commonwealth that is instituted. This is an important point, as the English Civil War was based, in a large part, off of the idea that the rule of the English monarchs was illegitimate, as it was achieved through force. They used this to justify resistance to the crown. Hobbes thinks this is unjustified, as, to him, the implementation of a commonwealth also implements a covenant on the part of the subjects to not resist the commonwealth, as any contract does. In addition, Hobbes believed that a commonwealth by acquisition was created through the voluntary transfer of the rights of a people to the conqueror. This is because, in Hobbes' mind, when a commonwealth is conquered, it ceases to be, and thus, with no obligations, people have the ability to do as they will. They could very well not submit to a conqueror, but they would have to face the consequences of non-submission. To Hobbes, the threat of violence, or fear of violence does not make an action involuntary. Hobbes also believed in the idea that there are actors and authors for all of the things that are done by man. In this, actors perform acts, but authors are the ones who come up with them, and then authorize actors (being their representatives) to perform them. Because the sovereign authority is a representative of the people, it is but an actor, with the people of the commonwealth being the authors. To resist the sovereign authority then would be to fight against oneself. This is the other reason that Hobbes is against the resistance of people against the state—taking an even more extreme stance on the issue than Jean Bodin.

In regards to liberty, I will say but a few short words. First, to Hobbes, liberty was not a thing that one possessed—but rather, it was the absence of external forces that stopped one's movement in the world (or, if you will, inhibit their rights)31. The liberties that a person has within a state, according to Hobbes, are those things that the law is silent on. However, there are certain liberties (rights) that cannot be transferred away, which are the right to defend oneself, the right to not accuse oneself, and then the right not to injure oneself.

When discussing the grim philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, there is a great deal to discuss. In Leviathan, Hobbes lays out his idea of the state, or as he so affectionately refers to it, the Leviathan. This commonwealth that he lays out is formed by the transferring of the rights of individuals who exist under its domain in order to avoid the state of war that otherwise exists in the absence of the commonwealth. This transfer of rights is a rational one, based off of the desires that men have—specifically the love of ease, and the fear of pain and death. By transferring these rights and creating a commonwealth, people bestow upon it sovereign power, that is then used by the Sovereign to rule over and for the people—hopefully in the interest of the common good. By linking this creation of the commonwealth to the establishment of a covenant, and then further by positing that the people are the authors of the Sovereign's actions, Hobbes uses his Leviathan to argue against the belief in just resistance that was held by Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. While there is certainly much more to say in regards to Hobbes' idea of the state, this is, in brief, the idea of the state that Hobbes lays out in his Leviathan.


Aquinas. Edited by R.W. Dyson. Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002. Print.

Bodin, Jean. On Sovereignty. Edited and translated by Julian H. Franklin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1992. Print.

Cicero. Edited by M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins. On Duties. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1991. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan. Edited by Richard Tuck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996. Print.

Skinner, Quentin. Visions of Politics: Volume III: Hobbes and Civil Service. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002. Print.