Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy > Theory of human nature and of sovereignty
  Leviathan Imaginary commonwealths: More’s Utopia and Harrington’s Oceana  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XII. Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy.

§ 11. Theory of human nature and of sovereignty.

Out of this contention of selfish units, Hobbes, in some way, has to derive morality and the social order. Yet, in the state of nature there are no rules for the race of life—not even the rule of the strongest, for Hobbes thinks that there is little difference between men’s faculties, and, at any rate, “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” Thus, for gain, for safety and for reputation (which is a sign of power), each man desires whatever may preserve or enrich his own life, and, indeed, by nature, “every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.” Thus, the natural state of man is a state of war, in which “every man is enemy to every man.” In this condition, as he points out, there is no place for industry, or knowledge, or arts, or society, but only “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Nor, in this state, is there any difference of right and wrong, mine and thine; “force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”   28
  Hobbes betrays some hesitation in speaking of the historical reality of this state of universal war. But the point, perhaps, is not fundamental. What is essential is the view of human nature as so constituted as to make every man his neighbour’s enemy. The view was not entirely new; he was not the first satirist of the “golden age.” His originality lies in the consistency of his picture of its anarchy, and in the amazing skill with which he makes the very misery of this state lead on to social order: the freedom of anarchy yields at once and forever to the fetters of power. The transition is effected by the social contract—an instrument familiar to medieval philosophers and jurists. So long as the state of nature endures, life is insecure and wretched. Man cannot improve this state, but he can get out of it; therefore, the fundamental law of nature is to seek peace and follow it; and, from this, emerges the second law, that, for the sake of peace, a man should be willing to lay down his right to all things, when other men are, also, willing to do so. From these two are derived all the laws of nature of the moralists. The laws of nature are immutable and eternal, says Hobbes, and, in so saying, conforms to the traditional view—but with one great difference. Hooker, who followed the older theory, had said that the laws of nature “bind men absolutely, even as they are men, although they have never any settled fellowship, never any solemn agreement amongst themselves.” But Hobbes holds that their authority, for any man, is not absolute; it is strictly conditional on other men being willing to obey them; and this requires an agreement of wills—a contract. Contracts, again, require a power to enforce them: “covenants of mutual trust where there is a fear of not performance on either part are invalid”; and the only way to obtain such a common power is for all men to give up their rights to one man, or one assembly of men, and to acknowledge his acts as their own “in those things which concern the common peace and safety.” This man, or assembly, will thus bear the “person” of the whole multitude. They have contracted with one another to be his subjects. But the sovereign himself is under no contract: he has rights but no duties.   29
  From this, it follows, logically, that sovereignty cannot be limited, divided, or forfeited. The conduct of the commonwealth in peace and war, and the rights of subjects against one another, are decided by the sovereign. He is sole legislator, supreme ruler and supreme judge. And this holds, whether the sovereignty lies in one man or in an assembly. Hobbes always maintained the superiority of monarchy to other forms of government; but he never thought that this superiority was capable of the demonstrative proof that he claimed for his general theory. There is a story that, before leaving Paris, Hobbes told Edward Hyde (afterwards earl of Clarendon) that he was publishing Leviathan because he “had a mind to go home.” If he was serious in making the remark reported by Clarendon, he must have been referring to the “Review and Conclusion,” with which the work closes, and in which he speaks of the time at which submission to a conqueror may lawfully be made. The book in no way modifies his earlier views on the merits of monarchy.   30
  A man cannot serve two masters: “mixed government” is no government; nor can the spiritual power be independent of the temporal. The doctrines “that every private man is judge of good and evil actions,” and “that whatsoever a man does against his conscience is a sin,” are seditious and repugnant to civil society. By living in a commonwealth, a man takes the law for his conscience. These positions may seem to complete the political theory, and few readers now care to pursue the matter further. But Hobbes’s commonwealth professes to be a Christian commonwealth. He must show the place which religion occupies in it, and also expose the errors which have led to nations being overshadowed by the spiritual power. His theory is Erastianism pushed to its extremest limits. The inner life—the true home of religion for the religious man—shrinks to a point; while its external expression in doctrine and observance is described as part of the order that depends on the will of the sovereign. Hobbes can cite Scripture for his purpose; he anticipates some of the results of modern Biblical criticism; and he has theories about God, the Trinity, the atonement and the last judgment—all of them in harmony with his general principles. His doctrine of God is, in modern phrase, agnostic. The attributes we ascribe to Him only signify our desire to honour Him: “we understand nothing of what he is, but only that he is.” In this, Hobbes follows the doctrine of negative attributes, worked out by some medieval theologians. But his doctrine of the Trinity is, surely, original. It is
in substance this: that God who is always one and the same was the person represented by Moses, the person represented by his Son incarnate, and the person represented by the apostles.
Again, the kingdom of God is a real kingdom, instituted by covenant or contract: which contract was made by Moses, broken by the election of Saul to the kingship, restored by Christ and proclaimed by the apostles. But the kingdom of Christ “is not of this world”; it is of the world to come after the general resurrection; “therefore neither can his ministers (unless they be kings) require obedience in his name.”
  There are two things specially opposed to this theory. On the one hand, there is the enthusiasm which results from the claim either to personal illumination by the spirit of God or to private interpretation of Scripture. On the other hand, there is the claim to dominion on the part of the organised spiritual power. Both claims were rampant in Hobbes’s day, and he seeks to undermine them both by criticism. There is no argument, he says, by which a man can be convinced that God has spoken immediately to some other man, “who (being a man) may err, and (which is more) may lie.” And, as regards Scripture, it is for sovereigns as the sole legislators to say which books are canonical, and, therefore, to them, also, must belong the authority for their interpretation. Of all the abuses that constitute what Hobbes calls the Kingdom of Darkness, the greatest arise from the erroneous tenet “that the present church now militant on earth is the kingdom of God.” Through this error, not only the Roman, but, also, the presbyterian, clergy have been the authors of darkness in religion, and encroached upon the civil power. The Roman church alone has been thorough in its work. The pope, in claiming dominion over all Christendom, has forsaken the true kingdom of God, and he has built up his power out of the ruins of heathen Rome. For “the papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”   32
  Taken as a whole, Hobbes’s Leviathan has two characteristics which stamp it with the mark of genius. In the first place, it is a work of great imaginative power, which shows how the whole fabric of human life and society is built up out of simple elements. And, in the second place, it is distinguished by a remarkable logical consecutiveness, so that there are very few places in which any lack of coherence can be detected in the thought. It is true that the social order, as Hobbes presents it, produces an impression of artificiality; but this is hardly an objection, for it was his deliberate aim to show the artifice by which it had been constructed and the danger which lay in any interference with the mechanism. It is true, also, that the state of nature and the social contract are fictions passed off as facts; but, even to this objection, an answer might be made from within the bounds of his theory. It is in his premises, not in his reasoning, that the error lies. If human nature were as selfish and anarchical as he represents it, then morality and the political order could arise and flourish only by its restraint, and the alternative would be, as he describes it, between complete insecurity and absolute power. But, if his view of man be mistaken, then the whole fabric of his thought crumbles. When we recognise that the individual is neither real nor intelligible apart from his social origin and traditions, and that the social factor influences his thought and motives, the opposition between self and others becomes less fundamental, the abrupt alternatives of Hobbism lose their validity and it is possible to regard morality and the state as expressing the ideal and sphere of human activity, and not as simply the chains by which man’s unruly passions are kept in check.   33

  Leviathan Imaginary commonwealths: More’s Utopia and Harrington’s Oceana  
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors