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DOES HOBBES GIVE THE SOVEREIGN TOO MUCH POWER?

Matthew Machowski Goldsmiths, University of London, November 2008


For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body ().1

Thomas Hobbes is certainly one of the most controversial and frequently contested political philosophers of modern times. Although Hobbes is sometimes called the founder of the twentiethcentury totalitarianism, Kleinerman believes him to be a founder of liberalism2. This distinction clearly shows how disparate reactions to Hobbess theory may be found among the political philosophers. He undoubtedly left a significant mark on modern understanding of political theory and the highly debatable issues of political power, system of governance or the human nature. A large part of modern political philosophy is, to a certain degree, a response to or a critique of Hobbess works. Even the twentieth century political theorists, like Gauthier, Kleinerman, Van Mill and others3, still occupy themselves largely with readings of Thomas Hobbes. In fact, the twentieth century witnessed a distinctive and exceptional increase in scholarship on Hobbess Leviathan and his political philosophy in general. Their critique will hereby play a significant role in assessing the question of attribution of power to the sovereign in Hobbess Leviathan; be it rightly absolute and inseparable, and thus perhaps authoritarian/totalitarian or rather more liberal and deradicalised. The aim of this essay is to indicate that Hobbes rightly equips the sovereign with absolute power thus enabling him to provide the society with security essential to their liberty. Hobbess understanding of power and its undivided concentration in the hands of the sovereign seem to stem, as a somewhat logical consequence, from his notion of ever self-interested human nature that in Hobbess opinion, according to George Kateb, always drives people to self-intoxicated zeal, bigotry, and persecution4, which consequently hinder the conditions of commodious living5. This notion will be discussed in the first chapter of this essay, as it appears to be of fundamental importance to our understanding of power within Hobbess state. The conception of necessity of absolutism and its inevitability will also be discussed here, particularly with reference to various attempts to liberalise and undemonise Hobbess political theory of absolutism6. The sovereigns disposition to dominance over his people becomes Hobbess foundation of a political society, fundamentally endeavouring to achieve the common salus populi
Hobbes 1985, p. 81 Kleinerman, p. 3 3 For their scholarship on Hobbes see: Gauthier, David, Hobbess Social Contract in Christopher W. Morris, The Social Contract Theorists, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp. 59-73; Kleinerman, Benja3min A., Hobbess Liberal Absolutism (for full reference see bibliography); Gauthier, David P., The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969) 4 Kleinerman, p. 16 5 Hobbes 1985, p. 188 6 Kleinerman, p. 21
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(the welfare of the people)7. Having established the basis for Hobbess understanding of human nature and the ubiquitous need for sovereigns absolute power in order to guarantee secure living of his subjects, various forms of political power will be assessed. Hence, issues of sovereigns absolute right to censor civil education, curb the freedoms of speech, opinion, public worship, and association as well as sovereigns property rights will be discussed. Van Mill seems to rightly note that:
Perhaps the most enduring criticism of Hobbess political philosophy is that it provides for an absolute sovereign that poses a great threat to individual freedom.8

This absolutism however, quite apparently stems from Hobbess understanding of human nature. Nature that is primarily oriented towards self-satisfaction and achieving peoples egoistic and narcissistic needs. Natural man, according to Hobbes, is fundamentally preoccupied with his self and ergo, all his actions stem from realisation of his needs and the probability of achieving them. This subsequently epitomises, what Kleinerman calls, the novelty of Hobbess individualism9. In his opinion, society propagated by Hobbes, is based on an individual human being with his needs and desires, rather than a mass of people. Hobbes even states that so long as a man is in the condition of mere nature () private appetite is the measure of good and evil10, thus clearly stressing the significance of the individual. Humans naturally seek to achieve their goals by maximising their power. Their drive for power seems to be the most basic human need, or what Hobbes calls the general inclination of mankind11. He then famously states:
A perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death. () Everyone, those with moderate and those with immoderate desires, is necessary pulled into a constant competitive struggle for power over others, or at least to resist his powers being commanded by others12.

This very struggle for power eventually leads people to many disputes, or even worse, to violent crimes, as the only way you can acquire power is to master the powers opposed to yours13. Macpherson thus claims in his introduction to Leviathan, that every mans power resists and hinders the effects of other mans power14. This incompatibility of mens desires for power and their propensity of violence against one another15; of which Kleinerman wrote in his essay on Hobbess Liberal Absolutism, and which emanates from activation of those human desires, inevitably leads to Hobbess perpetual war of every man against his neighbour16. Hence, the state of nature would become a state of war, even worse, a war of all against all17. Nonetheless, one needs to also acknowledge that this understanding of human nature is very frequently disputed. George Croom
Hobbes refers here to Ciceros rule of: Salus populi suprema lex esto. ("The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law"). For reference see: Cicero, De Legibus, book III, part III, sub. VIII 8 Van Mill, p. 21 9 Kleinerman, p. 8; Macpherson also refers to this idea in his book: The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (for reference see bibliography) 10 Hobbes 1985, p. 216 11 ibid., p. 37 12 ibid., p. 161 13 ibid., p. 266 14 Hobbes 1985, p. 35 15 Kleinerman, p. 8 16 Hobbes 1985, p. 17 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes-moral/>
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Robertson is only one of the political philosophers that argue that the picture of selfish and anarchic tendencies in man () [were] too plainly exaggerated by design which, in fact, was a simple result of Hobbess temperament, incapable of entering into the nobler sides of human nature18. Hobbess understanding of human nature is, therefore attacked as incorrect and degrading. Rousseau famously opposed Hobbess ideas by saying that he falsely degraded humans to herds of cattle, each of which has a master, who looks after it in order to devour it19. Hobbes, though, consistently strives to apply scientific rules of logic to his writings and hence claims that human nature presupposes the existence of state power without which human beings will lead miserable lives in a perpetual state of war20. However, this state being a bulwark of civil liberties, may only be realised, according to Hobbes, by total submission of peoples rights and liberties to an institution of absolute sovereign. That being the case, Hobbes does not call for tyranny or any totalitarian system of governance. Instead, some consider his absolutism to be a merely logical consequence. Van Mill indicates that his statements on absolute sovereignty are about logical consistency rather than the advocacy of tyranny21. Macpherson, on the other hand notes:
() the step immediately preceding the demonstration of the need for a sovereign able to overawe every individual is the state of nature, or natural condition of mankind22.

Consequently, we can speak of quite evident link between the magnitude of sovereigns power and the nature of the human being. In fact this very absolutism appears to guard against full realisation of that destructive nature. Given the established human nature that essentially drives us to obtain our self-interested goals through maximisation of our powers and consequently constitutes the sheer preeminent threat of social unrest and civil war, Van Mill states that all rational people will agree that a state [with its powers and restraints over citizens] is necessary for any form of decent human life23. Total and unequivocal transfer of rights and liberties of the people into the hands of the sovereign may well seem excessively authoritarian, however, we should not overlook, as John Austin notices, the [apparent] hatred of misrule, which actually should have made us rank Hobbes with the ablest and most zealous of [tyrannys] foes24. Hobbes does not call for absolute tyranny but rather government with sufficient powers to secure peaceful living of all the subjects and avert the predicament of the state of nature. According to Kleinerman,
undivided sovereign absolutism follows most logically from his argument that every state should be committed first and foremost to the perpetuation of peace25.

Concentration of powers in the hands of an absolute monarch, according to Hobbes, is then believed to be the most efficient way of securing peace within the society, and is meant to serve precisely this particular purpose. Postulating for security and peace, as the basic foundation of
18 19

Tarlton 2001, p. 595 Tarlton 2001, p. 590 20 Kleinerman, p. 8 21 Van Mill, p. 33 22 Macpherson, p. 19 23 Van Mill, p. 26 24 Tarlton 2001, p. 593 25 Kleinerman, p. 4

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society, becomes a supreme and overarching political goal of the state authorities26. The sovereign is bestowed with supreme powers having been contracted into the office to avert the miseries and horrible calamities that accompany a civil war27 and the state of nature, essentially characterised by eternal strive for power and the looming threats of violence. The notion of security as the basis of liberty seems to be inescapable here, as we are unable to enjoy any civil liberties whatsoever without first securing peace. Even Carl Schmitt, so fiercely engaged in seeking an antidote to liberal states in his attempt to legitimise his totalitarian state, fails not to allow himself to conclude: The Leviathan thus becomes none other than a huge machine, a gigantic mechanism in the service of ensuring the physical preservation of those governed28. Hence, given the purpose of attributing the sovereign with all the powers for the sake of our security and ensuring peace rather than exercising them in tyrannical ways, we may follow James Fitzjames Stephen in saying that it becomes obvious enough that absolute power and sovereign power are much less formidable than they look29. In fact, Van Mill reminds us that in his understanding of Hobbes, once the civil peace is established and the threat of war does not exist the best way to maintain a peaceful commonwealth is to leave people alone unless they are transgressing laws that preserve peace30. This idea is very closely related to Hobbess notion of civil freedom, which will be discussed now. Hobbes is often criticised for curbing our civil liberties and inalienable rights by depriving us of them in favour of the absolute sovereign. His absolute system of governance is sometimes believed to be incompatible with any liberal society whatsoever. It is also claimed: the concentration of power puts personal liberty in peril of arbitrary actions by officials31. However, I would like to join David Van Mill in his argument that the suggestion that Hobbess absolutism is incompatible with liberty is false32. The notion of states commitment to peaceful and prosperous living logically derives from Hobbess individualism33. We all wish for more than just the preservation of our life but rather its betterment. That being the case, every individual aims for progress and improvement of his condition. Yet, it is also important to realise that the body of Hobbess Leviathan, or the mortal God34 as he calls him in chapter , is built up of all of its subjects. Therefore, salus populi (the welfare or good of the people) becomes inevitably the salus regis (the good of the sovereign). Hobbes took a very clear stand on this in De Cive:
() all the duties of rulers are contained in this one sentence, the safety of the people is the supreme law (). [H]e, who being placed in authority shall use his power otherwise than to the safety of the people, will act against the reason of peace, that is to say against the laws of nature () the city was not instituted for its own, but for the subjects sake (). [But] by safety must be understood, not the sole preservation of life in what condition soever, but in order to its happiness () to furnish their


26 27

ibid., p. 6 Hobbes 1985, p. 238 28 ibid., p. 9 29 Tarlton, p. 594 30 Van Mill, p. 32 31 Kleinerman quotes after Anthony Kennedy, p. 2 32 Van Mill, p. 23 33 Kleinerman, p. 4 34 Hobbes 1985, p. 227

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subjects abundantly, not only with the good things belonging to life, but also with those which advance delectation.35

Therefore, quite apparently the subject is not bound by any law that does not act in the interest of his safety and the civil law may only limit natural liberty of people if the unrestrained condition of liberty poses a threat of harm to others36. Yet again, we can note a direct correlation between the way power is bestowed on the state and the nature of mankind. Hence, having realised human desire for commodious living, the state exists for the sake of individual self-preservation and further to create the conditions in which human beings might flourish and live contentedly37. Therefore, I would again stress after Van Mill, that it is incorrect to imply that Hobbess sovereign is a great threat to liberty38 as the sovereign is issued with so much powers as solely necessary for peoples welfare. Perhaps the fiercest debate arises whilst discussing Hobbess attitude towards censorship, as a way of enforcing sovereigns dominance over the subjects. Given the experience of modern liberal societies, it seems even inconceivable to defend of Hobbess authoritarianism in the face of his postulates for censorship of speech, opinion, public worship etc. Hobbes certainly gained a lot of enemies that would definitely agree with Victoria Kahns opinion:
() the ideal Hobbesian subject is the docile, effeminised political subject of an absolute sovereign () that leads to appropriate subordination and reverence rather than insubordination and emulation39.

However, indicating the imperative significance of the notion of peace and subjects welfare as the basis for civil liberty may shed a slightly different light on this debate. Van Mill strongly states that such powers are provided, and are to be used, for a specific purpose, namely to preserve peace40. Following the earlier deliberations on Hobbesian use of power, it becomes explicit to me that he attempts to strike a balance between allowing the subjects to thrive in his industry and the preservation of necessary conditions of peace. Accordingly, he advances towards an interventionist state that at the same time refrains from being repressive41. Moreover, he strongly denies the use of force as the efficient mean of enforcing peace. Hobbes advocates education as the most effective method of promoting commodious living and civil security:
It is therefore the duty of those who have the chief authority, to root those [ideas such as regicide] out of the minds of men, not by commanding, but by teaching; not by terror of penalties, but the perspicuity of reasons42.

Political power in Hobbesian state is necessarily concentrated in the institution of the sovereign. This notion is fundamentally related to the nature of mankind always striving for meeting his egoistic ends and maximisation of personal power. Peoples realisation of futility of the state of nature leads them inevitably to organise a society in which the state or the sovereign claims absolute powers in order to secure peace and safe commodious living. It has been frequently claimed that the fact of propensity of violence and preeminent existence of threat necessitates the shift of personal
35 36

Hobbes 1972, pp. 258-9 Van Mill, p. 32 37 Kleinerman, p. 8 38 Van Mill, p.21 39 Van Mill, p. 24 40 ibid., p. 23 41 ibid., p. 25 42 Hobbes 1972, pp. 262-3

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powers onto the sovereign. The welfare of people and their security sometimes requires various restrictions of our civil liberties. However, without having secured a safe and prosperous living the subjects would not have the chance of experiencing those liberties at all. Here the need for absolute power emerges to be quite apparent. Nonetheless, as Van Mill stated in his article frequently cited in this essay: political power is necessary but because of this it is also necessarily dangerous43.


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Van Mill, p. 36

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BIBLIOGRAPHY: Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. C.B. Macpherson, (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1985) Hobbes, Thomas, Men and Citizen, ed. B. Gert, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1972) Kleinerman, Benjamin A., Hobbess Liberal Absolutism paper presented at the American Political Science Assosiation, Philadelphia, Pensylvania, September 2006, <http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/1/5/0/6/6/p150660_index.html> [accessed December 2, 2008] Macpherson, C. B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 1-100 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hobbess Moral and Political Philosophy, (February 12, 2002), <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes-moral/> [accessed December 1, 2008] Tarlton, Charles D., The Despotical Doctrine Of Hobbes, Part I: The Liberalization Of Leviathan, in History of Political Thought, Volume 22, Number 4, 2001, pp. 587-618(32) Tarlton, Charles D., The Despotical Doctrine Of Hobbes, Part II: Aspects Of The Textual Substructure Of Tyranny In Leviathan, in History of Political Thought, Volume 23, Number 1, 2002, pp. 62-89(28) Van Mill, David, Civil Liberty in Hobbess Commonwealth, in Australian Journal of Political Science, Volume 37, Number 1, 1 March 2002, pp. 21-38