Hobbes' Leviathan and Views on the Origins of Civil Government: Conservatism by Covenant

By Katherine J. Wolfenden
2010, Vol. 2 No. 12 | pg. 1/2 |

In his seminal text, Leviathan, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes offers what was then a radically novel conception of the origins of civil government. Hobbes’ ideas of the commonwealth are predicated upon his views of human nature and the state of mankind without government, and so he establishes his position on these concepts before addressing the commonwealth’s creation.

First Hobbes writes of the natural condition of human beings, which he believes is inherently troublesome; the state of nature that exists without a government, which to Hobbes is terrifyingly chaotic; and then the laws of nature that he says can, but do not always guide human behavior towards self-preservation.

Once these presuppositions are established, then Hobbes writes of the formation and design of the commonwealth. The Leviathan’s creation through a covenant is voluntary, rational and necessary, Hobbes believes, because is it the only way to guarantee man’s peace and security and the only way to escape the dreaded state of nature. Continuing along this line of thought, Hobbes decides that the most powerful government is best, and so he concludes that a monarch with unlimited rights should rule.

Hobbes’ ideas are mostly well reasoned, but there are a few problems with his arguments. First his theoretical conception of the covenant ignores practical considerations; the idea of a citizenry coming together to agree to a covenant has never before been realized. Second, Hobbes places an inordinate amount of faith in his all-powerful sovereign, making several assumptions that are likely implausible; and lastly, his ideas regarding the sovereign’s rights conflict with some of the other ideas he expresses.

Hobbes Leviathan

The first idea Hobbes articulates that is fundamental to his conception of the commonwealth is that the natural condition of human beings, which is antagonistic, definitively condemns men to lives of violence and misery without a strong government. In contrast to animals, which are able to live together in society without a coercive power, Hobbes says that men are unable to coexist peacefully without a greater authority because they are quarrelsome by nature.

Hobbes says that “in the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel: first, competition; secondly, diffidence, thirdly, glory,” and then list’s man’s primary aims to be gain, safety and reputation (13, 6, 76).

Unlike animals, for men the common good is not the private; men can only be happy if they are better off in comparison to others, men feel the need to change their government, men “[trouble] their peace at the pleasure” and “men are continually in competition for honour and dignity . . . and consequently, amongst men there ariseth, on that ground, envy and hatred, and finally war” (13 6-10 108).

Because of these instinctive desires and consistent behavioral patterns, Hobbes believes that the natural condition of human beings is troublesome, and leads only to a state of chaos and conflict.

This state, the natural condition of mankind, or the state of nature, is decidedly undesirable and should be avoided at all costs. Hobbes says that while “men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war is of every man against every man” (13 8 76). In this state of war, all men are each other’s enemies, and the ideas of right and wrong, justice and injustice do not apply, because there is no governing body (15 5 91).

Without a common power, each man is his own lawmaker and judge; Hobbes says, “everyone is governed by his own reason and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies” (14 4 80). In fact, the right of nature allows each man to seek self-preservation and to do what he believes is necessary to achieve that end (14 1 79). Each man will turn against the others, and in this state, “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (13 9 76).

Without society, no laws exist, but Hobbes lists several “[laws] of nature” that could improve the lives of man if they were consistently followed (14 3 79). These natural laws, Hobbes says, are general rules discerned through reason that prohibit man from self-destructive behavior or behavior that would work against his self-preservation (14 3 79).

The first and fundamental law is “to seek peace, and follow it,” and the second is “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself” (80 14 5).

Put more simply, in the interests of self-preservation, man should seek peace and make covenants. However, these laws are unenforceable constraints, and man will only keep them “when he has the will to keep them, when he can do it safely” (17 2 106). Unfortunately, the laws of nature run contrary to man’s nature, and without a strong power men will not reliably choose to follow them (17 2 106).

Given the troublesome nature of mankind, the “miserable condition” of the state of nature and the limited likelihood that men will adhere to the laws of nature, Hobbes believes that the creation of a commonwealth is both logical and necessary (17 2 106). Hobbes says that the only way to erect the common power needed to maintain peace and security is through a covenant, in which men give their power to one man and submit their wills to his will and their judgment to his judgment (17 13 109).

The state of nature is so bleak, Hobbes believes, that men will willingly cede their right of self-governance (17 13 109). The covenant is “more than consent, or concord,” but a “real unity” of the multitude into one person, the Leviathan, which is ruled by a man who is called the Sovereign (17 13 109). With the authority given to the commonwealth by every man ruled by it, the Sovereign can use terror to coerce his people into a state of peace (17 13 109). And so out, of reason and necessity, the commonwealth is created, as

“one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defence” (17 13 109).

Of course, men do not consciously make these covenants when governments are formed, and Hobbes supplements this theoretical explanation of the formation of government with a practical conception of how the commonwealth is created. He gives two ways in which sovereign power can be attained: one, by force, creates a commonwealth by acquisition, and the other, when men voluntarily agree to submit to his authority, a commonwealth by institution (17, 15, 109-110).

However, in both instances, the commonwealth is thought to be created through a covenant, and even if the subjects are forced to submit to the sovereign’s authority they are bound to the covenant’s demanding terms.

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