In the state of nature, Thomas Hobbes argues, we will live in "continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."
The Leviathan was published in 1651, shortly after Charles I of England was decapitated by the puritans that had seized power in a civil war now known as the Puritan Revolution. Hobbes, being a royalist, lived in exile in Paris. He condemned civil war and revolution against the state, because it would plunge mankind in a war of everyone against everyone, in which life would be as stated above.
In the first part of Leviathan, Hobbes uses the methods of the new sciences (he personally was acquainted with Galileo) for a theory of what 'man' is. For Hobbes there is nothing in this world (that we can have knowledge of) but matter in motion. Hobbes is a materialist of the kind that reduces everything to matter, including the human will, reason and morality (but not God about whom we can say nothing). From this it follows that all humans want (and have a right to do) is self-preservation. This can only be established by having power (I summarize very, very quickly here) and there you have your war of everyone versus everyone. The only way to escape this horrible state of nature and attain peace, is by transferring our rights to one sovereign. This can be an assembly of men, but it would be best if this would be one man: a king.
In the rest of the Leviathan, Hobbes writes about what a common-wealth that is so formed, should look like and what rights the subjects have. The last two parts deal with the kingdom of God (of which the immortal god is sovereign) and the kingdom of darkness. These last two topics were important for Hobbes, because the civil war that raged in his home country was fundamentally one between puritans and catholics. The latter had a representative of God on earth (God's 'Lieutenant' Hobbes would say), while the former thought we could have subjective knowledge of God. Hobbes wanted to refute the latter.
Hobbes has often been described as a philosopher legitimising absolutism. This perception is deceptive because it ignores the axiom from which the English philosopher departs: there are no absolute values common for everyone. His consideration emerges both from a philosophical and a historical analysis of human behaviour and thought. Men differ in their appetite and they cannot agree among themselves on what goodness is, be it in reference to food or morality. For the impossibility of finding an agreement they covenant with a sovereign power which establishes, through laws, the standards for goodness and wickedness. The dictates of sovereign power are the only means we can use to assess the righteousness of our actions. Our subjective morality can differ from that of the sovereign, but, in foro externo, we have to accept his rules and attain to them. In this consists our justice.
Hobbes's morality is apparently clear but it also presents veiled dilemmas and internal contradictions, which can be hidden, but never completely solved. Civil laws have to face a threefold opposition: with the natural laws, with religious dogmas and also with language. Even if the outcome of these contrasts still sanctions the prominence of civil laws, it also appears how, in order to let the prominence of sovereign power to resist, a degree of irrationality, rather than reason, is needed.
In the Leviathan Hobbes is both substantiating his political theory and, simultaneously, underpinning the authority of Aristotelism. He believed the latter to be the principle cause of uncertainty and civil unrest; not only for his own time, but throughout history. Hobbes's Aristotle possessed an authority which was obnoxious for peace; it promoted discontent rather than acceptance of the establishment. Ancient moral philosophers placed goodness not in the means of peaceable, sociable and comfortable living, but "in a mediocrity of passions" instead. Paradoxically the great authority of the Greek philosopher did not help to confer weight to the state, but instead weakened it. The harm which this philosophy caused on the political level had moral roots. Hobbes was aware of the relationship between the Ethics and the Politics of Aristotle; in order to demonstrate the fallacies of the latter had to prove the wrongness of the former.
Aristotle's claimed that Goodness was a universal principle, a standard on which our actions should be judged and to which also the commonwealths should have aimed to. This teleological approach is the point where Hobbesian philosophy diverges. Men have different passions and aims, they are in continuous motion and with their change in their condition, desires also differ. According to Hobbes's observations, there is no ultimate good. On the contrary in the state of nature the only standards of goodness are subjective: self-preservation is the principle which regulates man in this condition. In this situation everyone is competing and "nothing can be Unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Unjustice have there no place". Hobbes admits, hypothetically, that in such a situation there would be justice only if a man was alone in the world. Men's subjectivity is therefore the principal cause for the impossibility of peace in the state of nature, since with the permanence of different opinions in such a condition, every single individual will be equally right (or equally wrong) in claiming his position of righteousness.
The state of war, caused by differing opinions, can end only with the establishment, through the use of reason, of a sovereign power. The sovereign, whose power cannot be but absolute, is the direct expression of men's submission to the laws of nature. Being willing to achieve peace, men lay down their rights to a higher power. By doing this they recognise their obligation to fulfil the covenant made with the sovereign power. Hobbes's conception of Justice lays on this simple and clear principle: "that men performe their Covenants made". Under this perspective Justice must be seen as obedience to the sovereign power and to the Civill Laws subsequently created. By setting these, the sovereign is establishing the standard of behaviour that was previously missing. With the founding of the Civill Laws, the absolute authority is giving significance to the words justice and injustice, since it is only with laws that the behaviour of men can be defined: "Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice". Hobbes therefore judges actions according to the extent they follow the rule of law. In all the others actions not regulated and left to the freedom and discretion of the individual the notion of right and wrong does not apply.
Law is in the end the ultimate term which categorises the behaviour of men. It is the ultimate expression of the principle of self-preservation; the individual is always right in submitting to it, apart in the case when such obedience would conflict with his own survival. When this happens the two concepts of justice - that of the subject and that of the state - conflict, and the struggle between themselves is justified. Hobbes, however, supports the state in this struggle, since even the death of one individual could be accepted if beneficial to the majority. Therefore the justice of the commonwealth for Hobbes still preserves its primacy. The stability of the state and with it of the community is the primary source of peace and self-preservation. The standards set by the civitas, must therefore be the standards of the individual. These are the laws set by the sovereign authority. The English philosopher reiterates this point in many occasions not just in the Leviathan, but also in his previous books concerned with political theory: Elements of Law and De Cive. The notions of right and wrong emerge with the laws of the state. Morality and justice are one and the same thing.
Nonetheless Hobbes's peculiar judgement of human behaviour is not unproblematic. The first and most evident issue which emerges with his theory of justice is the conflict between natural laws and civil laws. At the end of Chapter XV Hobbes claims that the Laws of Nature he has described constitute the "true and only Moral Philosophy. For Morall Philosophy is nothing else but the Science of what is Good, and Evill, in the conversation, and Society of man-kind". Nonetheless civil law is not inextricably bound to the laws of nature. Once sovereignty has been established and has set the rules to follow, men is forced, for his own safety, to behave according to them and not to the rule of natures. For example sovereign power can easily dismiss the fourteenth law of nature which establishes the right of primogeniture. The sovereign can change this arbitrarily and still be in a position of justice. J.W.N. Watkins underlines how: "although the importance of natural laws diminishes once a system of civil law has come into existence, they continue to play a by no means insignificant role". He claims that it is because of our commitment to the laws of nature that we follow the civil laws. However as mentioned before in the case of primogeniture this is not always true. This conflict emerges because of the attempt of taking the laws of nature as a whole and try, unsuccessfully, to conciliate all of them with any possible system of civil laws. A distinction among the laws of nature may be more helpful to conciliate the two systems. Only the laws of nature which sanction the primacy of the sovereign power, and not the totality of them, are those which must be taken into account to solve the conflict. Civil laws could be iniquitous and allow men to be arrogant and proud but in pursuing them, men will always be following the first three precepts of the laws of nature, which are those which sanction the necessity of a sovereign. Only distinguishing between the first three laws of nature and the others it is possible to reconcile and accept our obedience to the ruling of the state.
The second issue which emerges from the Hobbesian view of morality is the relationship with religion. The word 'morality' in the seventeenth century could not be understood but in a religious perspective. The notion of good and evil, of right and wrong, just and unjust was inextricably related to the religious sphere. Aristotle himself, through Scholastic, was reinterpreted and reconciled with the word of God. In the midst of the seventeenth century a morality based on atheistic premises appeared highly controversial and for some even heretic. Hobbes's laws of nature are a dictate of reason; but what is the relationship between the laws of nature and religion? At the beginning of the twentieth century a view of Hobbes's morality, promoted by Howard Warrender, claimed that the justice of the Leviathan should have been assessed in a dualistic perspective: the laws of God (or laws of nature) and the civil laws set by the sovereign. The position of Hobbes is in fact in many points controversial. The closing statements of chapter XV seems to confirm the presence of God in the structuring of the laws of nature. By claiming that these are nothing but dictate of reason and that we should consider them as "Theorems, as delivered in the word of God, that by right commandeth all things", the possibility of seeing Hobbes's morality in a religious perspective assumes greater validity. How is it possible then to conciliate the conflicts between laws of nature, that, by deriving from God should be supreme, with the civil laws dictated by the sovereign? Watkins rightly claims that Hobbes's aim is not to create a dual system. There are no dichotomies in Hobbesian justice. If men could choose between different system of justice, he would certainly choose the one which is most beneficial to his own; and this would inevitably lead once more to a state of war. Hobbes's himself claims that it is for us impossible to know the will of God. Hobbes's relationship with religion must be conceived in a deterministic perspective. God's is the first cause of our actions; but this does not help us to understand how our actions should be, because we will never be able to know what is the desire of God. Hobbes's moral system is therefore unitary in the sense that it reconciles religiosity and rationality in a causal relationship. The division between right and wrong is artificially created by men with the construction of the commonwealth, but man is naturally caused by God. In this sense Hobbes's morality is also a religious one.
The third issue encapsulates the two preceding ones and it is related not to the content of the Hobbesian system, but to its expression. One of the greatest problem for Hobbes consisted in explaining a completely revolutionary theory with an old language. Starting with different premises, words assumed meanings radically different from the established one. The notion of goodness itself becomes highly problematic. In the state of nature "Good and Evill, are names that signifie our Appetites, and Aversions; which in different tempers, customes, and doctrines of men, are different". While in a commonwealth the notion of good and evil lies in the following of the civil law. The word good is contextual, and to make it sure that its meaning does not change, we have to secure that the context in which it operates does not change. In the state of nature it is not just the notion of good to be controversial, but the name of all the things. Language itself in this primordial situation becomes impossible. For this reason morality cannot be based on metaphysical premises with change continuously, it must be a science. Only on science men can agree. This coupling of the terms morality and science is certainly revolutionary and to a certain extent even ironic. With his new premises Hobbes changes de facto the meaning of all moral values: conscience, complacence, pardon, gratitude, good and evil; they all differ from the preceding tradition. An emblematic example of how this difference in meaning operates is expressed by the conception of wisdom. Hobbes's wise man, is not the one who achieves greatest moral standards or intellectual peaks. The wise man is the one which recognises the equality of the value of his thoughts compared to those of the others; by acknowledging their lack of higher value he submits himself to the sovereign. Paradoxically wisdom consists in understanding our own lack of it, the wise men is wiser than the others because he understands he is not. In this controversial example is hidden the core of Hobbes's scepticism and to a certain extent, we could hazard, irony.
Hobbes's judgement of actions should then be based on civil laws, because it could not be founded on anything else. We have agreed on the impossibility of reaching a standard of judgement in the state of nature and we have therefore created an Artificiall Man who is in charge of creating this standard. Hobbes's picture nonetheless is bleak. The laws promulgated by the sovereign do not possess an intrinsic value higher than our subjective one. The approach of Hobbes in this sense is quantitative and not qualitative. The goodness of a law consists in the number of people backing it, not in intrinsic principle. Hobbes's goodness is revolutionary. It departs both from the Scholastic tradition of Aristotelian philosophers and also from the religious dictates expressed by Christian authorities. Morality is a concept functional to our survival, not to our self-realisation, not to life after death. In this respect a certain irony emerges from the framework. In the most basic dictate of reason: "Do not to another, which thou wouldest not have done thy selfe" Hobbes is not indicating a rule for good behaviour towards the others, as the bible meant; it is instead the golden rule for self-preservation. With this shift in the meaning, Hobbes reaches an ironical climax....Continua
Thought provoking classic essay by Thomas Hobbes regarding the relationship of government to the society which upholds it. Just a note on this particular edition - Norton did not include a good 1/3 of the original text (mostly concerning the Christian Commonwealth), but did include excellent notes and a collection of critical essays at the end (some more useful than others)....Continua