According to Ryan, in the history of political ideas we have now reached the modern era. Thomas Hobbes was born in late 16th Century England, and claimed to have invented political science. Hobbes believed that his contemporary England represented progress compared to the Medieval world. Machiavelli in contrast looked backward to the glory of the Roman Republic, and was often cynical of new technology and inventions. Before Hobbes, political thinkers generally gave advice based on historical evidence. Hobbes claimed to put the understanding of politics on a scientific basis. He looked for the mechanisms and rules that explain why things are as they are. For Hobbes, just as geometry provides rules for constructing perfect shapes, so politics provides rules for constructing perfect states. Hobbes was certainly not the best loved political thinker, but he wrote better than anyone. To quote Ryan directly, “it was neither the first nor the last time the devil had the best tunes.”
A State of Nature
Without government we are in a state of nature, which Hobbes defined as an environment with no rules, and no one to tell us what to do. This for Hobbes is a state of misery. Aristotle had a very different view, insisting that people have a natural impulsion towards ‘good’ outcomes. Hobbes said that each person is naturally driven by their own desires or aversions. Every individual considers the things they desire to be good, and the things they are averse to evil. This is a materialist view; happiness consists in getting what we want. Aristotle believed in the concept of an ultimate good, which once achieved would leave us with no further longings. This is dismissed by Hobbes. The human body is in incessant motion like a machine, and our desires are constantly changing. People generally desire to establish political community not from a social impulse to pursue the good life, but from an aversion to the greatest evil, which is death.
Hobbes explains why the natural state of nature leads to misery. He insists we all naturally desire power. This is not power for the sake of it, but power to keep ourselves safe. Power is defined by Hobbes as the ability to control future events. One might have access to an orchard, but can only rely on the orchard for fruit in future if they control the orchard. In the same way that we need to control things to survive, we need to control other people. As other people have the same need, this inevitably leads to an arms race. Unfortunately, what is good for one person is often bad for another, so without a common judge of what is good and bad the individual pursuit of desire leads to conflict. Hobbes explains the sources of conflict in a state of nature, and how government is the solution. Competition for limited resource is the first source of conflict, and is resolved by clear rules of ownership. The second is mutual fear. All humans have the capacity to kill other humans, and a potential motive due to competition for resources. The only way to guarantee safety is to kill your competitor first. However a state cannot be killed in one strike, but can retaliate, thereby removing the incentive of the aggressor to attack in the first place. The final source of conflict is pride; the natural desire of people to be better than others. This is cured by the existence of the sovereign, who is top of the pile, and from whom all social status is derived.
The Political Covenant
To avoid a state of nature and achieve the benefits of government we must all enter into a covenant with one another to follow the laws of nature. These are rules of morality, which our conscience will naturally urge us to follow. The rules can only be broken to avoid death. The basis of the laws is the preservation of mankind, and the first law is to always seek peace. The second law is to give up our rights and freedoms and hand these rights over to the sovereign. Individuals must consent to handing over this freedom and cannot be forced to, but once that consent is given we are obliged to do as commanded by our sovereign – their word is law. An unjust act is one that breaks the covenant to follow natural law. A sovereign that exists through the consent of the people cannot by definition act unjustly. Individuals can only enter this covenant freely, but once they have done so their obligations to the sovereign may be upheld by force. The sovereign may also justly use force to acquire new subjects, such as through war. The new subject can choose to enter the covenant or die. This may appear like an unreasonable choice, but not to Hobbes. The subject is being offered the protection of the sovereign from the misery of the state of nature. However, the covenant (and therefore government itself) only works if everyone agrees to it. It only takes one person to reject it for the whole system to unzip, thereby subjecting everyone to the state of nature. Better for one person to die, rather than for everyone to suffer.
The consequence of this view is that citizens have no right to hold their sovereign to account once they have consented to the existence of their sovereign. Hobbes held views on mixed government in contempt. Government can only work when the authority of the sovereign is unlimited and comes from a single place. The only role of a democratically elected parliament would be to makes recommendations to a sovereign, not to pass laws. Hobbes defined a law as anything the sovereign commands. This is contrary to many classical and medieval thinkers who believed a command must be ‘good’ in order to qualify as a law. Whiles Hobbes’ citizens have few freedoms, they do have the form of freedom that comes from libertarianism and the small state. The role of government should be limited to the laws of nature; fundamentally to keep us safe. Beyond that, he believed that citizens would generally be happiest when left alone.
On the subject of religion, Hobbes represents a departure from medieval thinking on several counts. Firstly, he does not take it as assumed that God exists. Rather, the rational basis for religion is our inability to fully explain the world around us without a belief in God. Those who do not believe in God are fools, because of the risk of rejecting an omnipotent being. There is no question for Hobbes that the church is subservient to the state, and the sovereign has the final say on matters of religion. There is no circumstance where a Christian could disobey their sovereign. As a libertarian Hobbes believes that religious toleration is desirable, as long as this doesn’t lead to conflict between religious groups.
Later thinkers would criticise Hobbes’ system on the basis that it relies on Absolute Monarchs who could too easily become tyrants and inflict suffering on their people. Hobbes believed that the misery of the state of nature outweighs any misery that a tyrant can inflict. In addition, if a sovereign does not act to keep their people safe, they have broken the covenant, returning society to a state of nature and ceasing to be sovereign. However, Hobbes provides no basis for people to decide when this has occurred.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: