PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 12

 - The Sovereign State: Hobbes, Leviathan


This is an introduction to the political views of Thomas Hobbes, which are often deemed paradoxical. On the one hand, Hobbes is a stern defender of political absolutism. The Hobbesian doctrine of sovereignty dictates complete monopoly of power within a given territory and over all institutions of civilian or ecclesiastical authority. On the other hand, Hobbes insists on the fundamental equality of human beings. He maintains that the state is a contract between individuals, that the sovereign owes his authority to the will of those he governs and is obliged to protect the interests of the governed by assuring civil peace and security. These ideas have been interpreted by some as indicative of liberal opposition to absolutism.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 12 - The Sovereign State: Hobbes, Leviathan

Chapter 1. Introduction: Thomas Hobbes [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: O.K., today, what a joy. What a joy! We start Hobbes. And he is one of the great treats. Thomas Hobbes was the author of the first and, I believe, undoubtedly the greatest, work of political theory written in the English language. He was a master of English style and prose, and his work ranks among the very greatest in this or any other language. Leviathan is to prose what Milton’s Paradise Lost is to epic poetry. Think about that. Hobbes was in many ways a perfect foil for Machiavelli. He played the part of Doctor Watson to Machiavelli’s Sherlock Holmes. Hobbes, in other words, carried out what Machiavelli had helped him make possible. Machiavelli, you remember, claimed to have discovered a new continent, new modes and orders. It was Hobbes who helped to make this new continent habitable. Machiavelli, you might say, cleared the brush. He was the Lewis and Clarke or the Columbus. Hobbes built the houses and institutions. Hobbes provided us with the definitive language in which even today we continue to speak about the modern state.

However, and this is what I want to emphasize throughout our reading of Hobbes, he has always been something of a paradox to his readers. On the one hand, you will find Hobbes the most articulate defender of political absolutism. Hobbes in the Hobbesian doctrine of sovereignty, or the Hobbesian sovereign, to have a complete monopoly of power within his given territory. In fact, the famous frontispiece of the book, which is reproduced in your edition, although it is not altogether very clear. It is not a very good reproduction, the famous frontispiece to the original 1651 edition ofLeviathan depicts the Leviathan, depicts the state, the sovereign, holding a sword in one hand and the scepter in the other, and the various institutions of the civilian and churchly ecclesiastical authority on each side. The sovereign holds total power over all the institutions of civilian and ecclesiastical life, holding sway over a kind of peaceable kingdom. Add to this, to the doctrine of indivisible sovereign power, Hobbes’s insistence that the sovereign exercise complete control over the churches, over the university curricula, and over what books and opinions can be read and taught. He seems to be the perfect model of absolutism and of absolute government.

You have to consider also the following. Hobbes insists on the fundamental equality of human beings, who he says are endowed with certain natural and inalienable rights. He maintains the state is a product of a covenant or a compact, a contract of a sort, between individuals, and that the sovereign owes his authority to the will or the consent of those he governs, and finally that the sovereign is authorized only to protect the interests of the governed by maintaining civil peace and security. From this point of view, it would seem that Hobbes helps to establish the language of what we might think of as the liberal opposition to absolutism. And this paradox was noted even in Hobbes’s own time. Was he a defender of royalism and the power of the king, or was he a defender or an opponent of royalism? I mean, in many ways, to be sure, Hobbes was a product of his time, and what else could he be? But Hobbes lived at a time when the modern system of European states, even as we understand them today, was just beginning to emerge.

Three years before the publication of Leviathan, 1651, the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, famous peace treaty, brought an end to more than a century of religious war that had been ignited by the Protestant Reformation. The Treaty of Westphalia officially put an end to the 30 Years War, but more than that it ratified two decisive features that would be given powerful expression by Hobbes. First, the Treaty declared that the individual sovereign state would henceforth become the highest level of authority; you might say, putting an end once and for all to the universalist claims of the Holy Roman Empire. Each state was to be sovereign and to have its own authority. And secondly, that the head of each state would have the right to determine the religion of the state, again thus putting an end to the claims of a single universalist church. This is what the Treaty of Westphalia put into practice and, among other things, what Hobbes attempted to express in theory in his book: the autonomy and authority of the sovereign and the sovereign’s power to establish what religious doctrine or what, even more broadly, what opinions are to be taught and held within a community, within a state.

Chapter 2. Who Was Hobbes? [00:07:28]

Who was Hobbes? Let me say a word about him. Hobbes was born in 1588, the year that the English naval forces drove back the invasion of the famous Spanish Armada. He grew up in the waning years, the last years, of the Elizabethan era, and he was a boy when Shakespeare’s most famous plays were first performed. Hobbes, like many of you, was a gifted student, and he went to college. His father, who was a local pastor from the southwest of England, sent him to Oxford, although he went at the age of 14. And after he graduated, he entered the service of an aristocratic family, the Cavandish family, where he became a private tutor to their son. His first book was a translation of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, which he completed in 1629; Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian War, who we mentioned before when we talked about Plato.

Hobbes was a gifted classical scholar. He spent a considerable amount of time on the European continent with his young tutee, Mr. Cavandish. And while he spent time in Europe, he met Galileo and Rene Descartes. It was during the 1640s, the period that initiated the great civil wars in England, and the execution of the king, Charles I, that Hobbes left England to live in France, while the fighting went on. He left England with many of the royal families, the aristocratic families, who were threatened by the republican armies organized by Cromwell and that had executed the King. In fact, the three justices, the three judges, who were in charge of the judicial trial of Charles I, King Charles, the one who lost his head, those three judges later found a home where? In New Haven. They came to New Haven, the three judges, Judge Whaley, Goff, and Dixwell. Does that sound familiar? Yes. New Haven was in part started by, founded by, members of the, you might say, the republican opposition to royalty and to the English king. And any way, Hobbes, however, was deeply distressed by the outbreak of war, and he spent a great deal of time reflecting on the causes of war and political disorder. His first treatise, a book called De Cive, or De Cive, depending on how you pronounce it, On the Citizen, was published in 1642, and it was a kind of draft version of Leviathan that was published almost a decade later, again in 1651. Hobbes returned to England the same year of the book’s publication, and spent most of the rest of his long life, Leviathan was written well into his 60s. He was 63 when it was published. He spent the rest of his long life working on scientific and political problems. He wrote a history of the English Civil Wars, called Behemoth, which remains a classic of the analysis of the causes of social conflict. And as if this were not enough, near the very end of his life, he returned to his classical studies translating all of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. He died in 1679 at the age of 91.

From the various portraits and descriptions of Hobbes, we can tell he was a man of considerable charm, and I wish that in the book we had had his picture, a reproduction of his portrait, on it. But I just want to read one brief passage from his biographer, a man named John Aubrey, who knew him. It was written during Hobbes’s lifetime. Aubrey wrote about Hobbes: “He had a good eye and that of hazel color, which was full of life and spirit, even to the last. When he was earnest in discourse, these shone, as it were, a bright- as if a bright live coal within it. He had two kinds of looks. When he laughed, was witty, in a merry humor, one could scarce sees his eyes, and by and by, when he was serious and positive, he opened his eyes round. He was six foot high and something better.” So that was very tall in the seventeenth century. “He was six foot high and very better. He had read much, if one considers his long life, but his contemplation was much more than his reading. He was want to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men.” So his point was he had read a lot, but what was most important was his thinking. If he had read as much, he would know as little. Gives you a little sense of Hobbes’s spirit, his humor, the wry wit that becomes apparent on almost every page of this book, but you have to be a careful reader.

Hobbes was deeply controversial, as you might suspect, during his lifetime. Leviathan was excoriated by almost every reader of the text. To the churchmen, he was a godless atheist. To the republicans, he was tainted with monarchy, or monarchism. And to the monarchists, he was a dangerous skeptic and free thinker.

Chapter 3. Comparing Hobbes to Machiavelli and Aristotle [00:14:12]

Hobbes, again, along with Machiavelli, was one of the great architects of the modern state. And to some degree, he even seems to speak, he seems even more characteristically modern than Machiavelli. I mean, consider just some of the following. Machiavelli speaks of the prince, while Hobbes speaks of the sovereign, that is a kind of impersonal or in Hobbes’s language, artificial power created out of a contract. Hobbes’s method seems scientific. It seems formal and analytical in contrast to Machiavelli’s combination of historical commentary and reflection drawn from personal experience. While Hobbes, excuse me, while Machiavelli often spoke of the sublime cruelty of men like Scipio and Hannibal, Hobbes speaks the more pedestrian language, the language of power-politics, where the goal is not glory and honor, but self-preservation. And Machiavelli’s emphasis upon arms is considerably attenuated by Hobbes’s emphasis on laws. Hobbes, in other words, tried to render acceptable, tried to render palatable, what Machiavelli had done by providing a more precise and more legal and institutional framework for the modern state.

So let’s think a little bit about what it was that Hobbes was attempting to accomplish. Hobbes, like Machiavelli, was an innovator, and he was self-consciously aware of his innovations. And like Machiavelli, who said in the fifteenth chapter of The Prince that he would be the first to examine the effectual truth of things, as opposed to the imaginings of them, Hobbes wrote that civil science, that is what he called political science, civil science, was no older than my book De Cive. Modern political science, he said, began with this book of 1642. What did he think of as his novelty? What was new? What was revolutionary about, or innovative, about Hobbes’ political science? Hobbes clearly saw himself, in many respects, as founding a political science modeled along that of the early founders of the scientific revolution. Galileo, I have already indicated that Hobbes had met, William Harvey, Rene Descartes; a handful of others who were part of what we think of as the modern scientific revolutionaries. And like these other revolutionaries who had overthrown, you might say, the Aristotelian paradigm in natural science, Hobbes set out to undermine the authority of Aristotle in civil science, in political and moral science. Hobbes set himself up as the great anti-Aristotle, the great opposition to Aristotle.

Consider just the following passage from Leviathan with one of my favorite titles from the book, a chapter called “Of Darkness from Vain Philosophy and Fabulous Traditions.” In that chapter, chapter 46, Hobbes writes: “There is nothing so absurd that the old philosophers have not some of them maintained. And I believe that scarce anything could be more absurdly said in natural philosophy than that which is now called Aristotle’s Metaphysics, nor more repugnant to government than much that he had said in his Politics, nor more ignorantly than a great part of his Ethics.” So there, you see Hobbes laying down a challenge. What was it that he claimed to find so absurd, repugnant and ignorant in Aristotle? Why did he–what did he–what was he trying to un-throne, dethrone in Aristotle? Hobbes is typically concerned with the foundations of this new science, getting the building blocks right from the beginning. The opening chapters of Leviathan, which I have only assigned a few, but the opening chapters present a kind of political physics where human beings are reduced to body and the body is further reduced to so much matter and motion. Human beings can be reduced to their movable parts much like a machine. “What is life?” he asks, rhetorically in the introduction. “What is life but a motion of the limbs? What is the heart but a spring, or reason but a means of calculating pleasures and pains.” He sets out to give a deliberately and thoroughly materialistic and non-teleological physics of human nature. In fact, a French disciple of Hobbes in the next century, a man named La Mettrie, wrote a treatise very much following in the lines of Hobbes calledL’Homme Machine, or literally, Man a Machine. This is the way Hobbes’s new science of politics appears to begin, and that new beginning is intended to offer in many ways a comprehensive alternative to Aristotle’s physics, or Aristotle’s politics.

Aristotle, remember, argues that all action is goal-directed, is goal-oriented. All actions aim at preservation or change, at making something better or preventing it from becoming worse. Hobbes believed, on the other hand, that the overriding human fact, the overriding motivation of human behavior, is largely negative, not the desire to do good, but the desire to avoid some evil. Aristotle, for Hobbes, had simply seen the world through the wrong end of the telescope. For Aristotle, human beings have a goal or a telos, which is to live a life in community with others for the sake of human flourishing. But for Hobbes, we enter into society not in order to fulfill or perfect our rational nature, but rather to avoid the greatest evil, namely death or fear of death, at the hands of others. Politics, for him, is less a matter of prudential decisions of better and worse, than it is, you might say, an existential decision of choosing life or death. For Hobbes, in many ways, as for Machiavelli, it is the extreme situation of life and death, of chaos and war, that come to serve as the norm for politics and political decision-making, fundamental alternative or challenge to Aristotle.

And furthermore, Hobbes not only criticized, you might say, the foundations, the motivational and psychological foundations, of Aristotle’s theory of politics and human nature, he blamed the influence of Aristotle for much of the civil conflict of his age. Aristotle, who was increasingly being embraced by civic republicans in England of his time had been brought up, according to Hobbes, on Aristotle’s teaching that man is by nature a political animal. This was, again, the thesis of the classical republicans according to which we are only fully human, or we only become fully human, when we are engaged in political life, in ruling ourselves by laws of our own making. This was a doctrine that Hobbes attributes to many of the teaching, much of the teaching at the universities of his age. And it is precisely this desire to be self-governing, you might say to rule directly, to have a direct part in political rule, that Hobbes saw as one of the great root causes of civil war. And his answer to Aristotle and to the classical republicans of his age, was his famous doctrine of what we might call “indirect government,” or what perhaps would be more familiar to us by the term “representative government.” The sovereign is not, for Hobbes, the people or some faction of the people ruling directly in their collective capacity. The sovereign is, for Hobbes, the artificially reconstructed will of the people in the person of their representative. The sovereign representative acts, you might say, like a filter for the wills and passions of the people. The sovereign is not the direct expression of my will or your will, but rather an abstraction from my natural desire to rule myself. In other words, instead of seeking to participate directly in political rule, Hobbes wants us to abstain from politics by agreeing to be ruled by this artificial man, as he calls it, this artificial person or representative that he gives the name “the sovereign.”

Chapter 4. Hobbes on Art, Science and Politics [00:25:26]

“For by art”, he says in the introduction, “For by art is created that great Leviathan called a commonwealth or a state, which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural for whose protection and defense it was intended.” The sovereign, he says, or Leviathan, this great artificial man, the sovereign is something more like what we would call today an office, rather than a person, as when we speak of the executive as an office. And it is simply the person who inhabits the office, although that might be somewhat questionable in some of our recent executive decisions. But for Hobbes, Hobbes creates this office of a political called the sovereign. Now, his language in that sentence that I just read from the introduction, “For by art”, again, “is created that great Leviathan called a commonwealth or a state.” When Hobbes uses the term “art” there, “For by art is created,” that term is deeply revealing of his purpose. Again, for Aristotle, by contrast, art presupposes nature. Or in other words, nature precedes art. Nature supplies the standards, the materials, the models, for all the later arts, the city being by nature, man by nature, nature provides the standard. Nature precedes art and human artifice or human making. But for Hobbes, think of this by contrast, art does not so much imitate nature, rather art can create a new kind of nature, an artificial nature, an artificial person, as it were. Through art, again, is created the great Leviathan. Through art properly understood and by “art,” of course, I mean something like human making, human ingenuity, human artfulness, through art we can begin not just to imitate, but we can transform nature, make it into something of our own choosing.

“Art” here is not to be understood also as the antithesis of science, as when we speak of the arts and the sciences. Rather, science is the highest form of art. Science is the highest kind of human making. Science, or what Hobbes simply calls by the name “reason,” is simply the fullest expression of human artfulness. “Reason,” he says in chapter 5, “reason is not a sense and memory born with us, reason is not born with us, nor gotten by experience only,” he says, “but is attained by industry, first in the act imposing of names and secondly, by getting a good and orderly method.” Think of those terms. “Reason,” and again, he uses this synonymously with other terms, like science or art, is not simply born with us. It is not simply a genetic endowment, nor is it simply the product of experience, which Hobbes calls by the name “prudence.” But rather reason, he says, is attained by industry, by work, and it is developed first, he says, by the imposing of names on things, the correct names on things, and second by getting a good and orderly method of study. Reason consists in the imposition of a method for the conquest of nature. By science, Hobbes tells us, he means the knowledge of consequences, and especially, he goes on to say, “when we see how anything comes about, upon what causes and by what manner, when like causes come into our power, we can see how to make it produce like effect.” We can see how to make it produce like effects. Reason, science, art is the capacity to transform nature by making it, imposing on it, a method that will produce like effects after similar consequences. There is, in other words, a kind of a radically transformative view of reason and knowledge and science, political science, civil science, running throughout Hobbes’s work. Reason is not about simple observation, but rather, it is about making, production, or as he says, “making like consequences produce the desired effects.”

We can have a science of politics, Hobbes believes. We can have a civil science, because politics is a matter of human making, of human doing, of human goings on. We can know the political world. We can create a science of politics because we make it. It is something constructed by us. Hobbes’s goal here, as it were, is to liberate knowledge, to liberate science from subservience or dependence upon nature or by chance, by fortuna, by turning science into a tool for remaking nature to fit our needs, to impose our needs or satisfy our needs through our science. Art, and especially the political art, is a matter of reordering nature, even human nature, first according to Hobbes, by resolving it into its most elementary units, and then by reconstructing it so that it will produce the desired results, much like a physicist in a laboratory might. This is Hobbes’s answer to Machiavelli’s famous call in chapter 25 to master fortuna, to master chance or luck, fortune. But you might say, Hobbes goes further than Machiavelli. Machiavelli said in that famous chapter 25, that the prince, if he is lucky, will master fortuna about half the time, only about 50% of the time. The rest of human action, the rest of statecraft, will be really left to chance, luck, contingency, circumstances. Hobbes believes that armed with the proper method, with the proper art, or scientific doctrine, that we might eventually become the masters and possessors of nature. And I use that term “masters and possessors of nature,” a term not of Hobbes’s making, but of Descartes from the sixth part of the Discourse on Method, because I think it perfectly expresses Hobbes’s aspirations, not only to create a science of politics, but to create a kind of immortal commonwealth, which is based on science and therefore based on the proper civil science, and therefore will be impervious to fluctuation, decay, and war and conflict, which all other previous societies have experienced.

You can begin to see, in other words, in Hobbes’s brief introduction to his book, as well as the opening chapters, you can really see the immensely transformative and really revolutionary spirit underlying this amazing, amazing book.

Chapter 5. Hobbes’s “Great Question”: What Makes Legitimate Authority Possible? [00:33:54]

So where do we go from here? We turn from methodology and science to politics. What is Hobbes’s great question? What was important when reading, starting out with a new book, asking yourself, what question is the author trying to answer? What is the question? And it is not always easy to answer, because sometimes they do not always make their deepest or most fundamental questions altogether clear. In the case of Leviathan, I would suggest to you, Hobbes’s central question is, what makes authority possible? What is the source of authority? And you might say, what renders it legitimate? Maybe the question is, what makes legitimate authority possible? This is still a huge question for us when we think about nation building and building new states, how to create a legitimate authority. Obviously, there is a tremendous issue with this in Iraq today. People there and here struggle with what would constitute a legitimate authority. Perhaps we should airlift copies of Leviathan to them, because that is the issue that Hobbes is fundamentally concerned with. His question goes further. How can individuals who are biologically autonomous, who judge and see matters very differently from one another, who can never be sure whether they trust one another, how can such individuals accept a common authority? And, again, that is not just what constitutes authority, but what makes authority legitimate. That remains not only the fundamental question for Hobbes, but for the entire, at least for the entire social contract tradition that he helped to establish.

You might say, of course the question, what renders authority legitimate, is only possible, or is only raised when authority is in question. That is to say, when the rules governing authority have broken down in times of crisis, and that was certainly true in Hobbes’ time, a time of civil war and crisis. What renders authority legitimate or respectable? And to answer that question, Hobbes tells a story. He tells a story about something he calls “the state of nature,” a term he did not invent, but with which his name will always and forever be associated, the idea of the state of nature. “The state of nature” is not a gift of grace or a state of grace from which we have fallen, as in the biblical account of Eden, nor is the state of nature a political condition, as maintained in some sense by Aristotle, when he says the polis is by nature. The state of nature for Hobbes is a condition of conflict and war. And by a “state of nature” he means, or by a state of war, he means a condition where there is no recognized authority in his language to keep us in awe, no authority to awe us. Such a condition, a state of war, may mean a condition of open warfare, but not necessarily. It can signify battle, but Hobbes says it can also signify the will to contend, simply the desire or the will to engage in conflict, renders something like a state of nature. A state of war can include, in other words, what we might call a “cold war,” two hostile sides looking at each other across a barrier of some type, not clear or not certain what the other will do.

So the state of nature is not necessarily a condition of actual fighting, but what he calls a “known disposition to fight.” If you are known or believed to be willing to fight, you are in a state of war. It is a condition for Hobbes of maximum insecurity where in his famous formula “life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Perhaps he should have said fortunately short. This is the natural condition, the state of nature, the state of war that Hobbes attributes to, again, the fundamental fact of human nature. Now, his claim that the state of nature is the condition that we are naturally–the state of war, rather, is a condition that we are naturally in, is to say, among other things, that nature does not unite us in peace, in harmony, in friendship, or in solidarity. If nature is a norm, it does not, again, mandate or incline us to peace, friendship and solidarity with others. Only human art or science or art, human contrivance, can bring about peace. Conflict and war are primary. Peace is derivative. In other words, for Hobbes, authority and relations of authority do not arise naturally among us, but are rather, again, like civil science itself, the product of contrivance or art.

Chapter 6. What Makes Hobbes’s Story a Plausible Account of “The State of Nature”? [00:40:32]

So the question for us remains, which deeply challenged readers in Hobbes’s own time, what makes Hobbes’ story, as I am calling it, his story about the state of nature being a condition of war, what makes it plausible? What makes it believable as an account of, again, the condition we are naturally in? Why should we believe Hobbes’s story and not some other story? I just want to say a word about that before closing.

From one point of view, reading Hobbes, his account of the state of nature seems to derive from his physics of motion and rest, in the opening chapters of Leviathan. He begins the work, you remember, with an account of human nature, account of human psychology, as a product of sense and experience. We are bodies in motion, and who cannot help but obey the law or the physics of attraction and repulsion. We are bodies in constant motion. He seems, in other words, to have a kind of materialistic psychology in which human behavior exhibits the same, as it were, mechanical tendencies as billiard balls that can be understood as obeying, again, geometric or causal processes of cause and effect. Right? The state of nature is not seen by him as an actual historical condition in some ways, although he occasionally will refer to what we might think of as anthropological evidence to support his views on the state of nature. But the state of nature, for him, is rather a kind of thought experiment after the manner of experimental science. It is a kind of thought experiment. It consists of taking human beings who are members of families, of estates, of kingdoms, and so on, dissolving these social relations into their fundamental units, namely the abstract individuals, and then imagining, again, in the manner of a chemist or a physicist, how these basic units would hypothetically interact with one another, again almost like the properties of chemical substances in some ways. How would we behave in this kind of thought experiment? That would be one way of reading that Hobbes seems to, wants us to think about the state of nature as akin to a scientific experiment. Hobbes is the, again, the great founder of what we might call, among others, is the experimental method in social and political science. And there is a reason, perhaps a reason for this, too. And I will end just on this note.

When Hobbes was a young man, he worked as a private secretary for a short time, a private secretary to another very famous Englishman by the name of Francis Bacon, the great founder of what we think of as the experimental method, the method of trial and error, of experience and experiment, and arguably Hobbes was influenced in many ways by Bacon’s own philosophy of experience and experiment. And Hobbes took Bacon’s method in some ways applying it to politics, tried to imagine, again, the natural condition of human beings, and what we are by nature, by a process of abstraction, and abstracting all of the relations and properties that we have acquired over history, through custom, through experience, stripping those away like the layers of an onion, and putting us almost, as it were, in an experimental test tube or under a microscope, seeing how we would under those conditions react and behave with one another. I will leave it at that, although I will start next week by showing how that view of Hobbes is only at best partially correct. So anyway, have a wonderful weekend with your parents here, and I will see you next week.

[end of transcript]

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