Thomas Hobbes – “Leviathan”, “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery”

This is probably the most famous part of Leviathan, as it is the one that encapsulates Hobbes’ philosophy. I have to observe here that Hobbes here uses the word “men” consistently and I am afraid he does mean “men”, not people in general. He starts with the claim that all men are more or less equal physically and intellectually, aside from a rare talent for literature or scientific talent, which takes a lot of specialist training and is not available to just anyone. But except for that, we are more or less equal, and if we fancy ourselves “above average”, we just flatter ourselves – we are not in Lake Wobegon. So if we have equal strength and intellect, we have equal hopes of getting something we desire. When two or more men desire the same thing, the conflict is inevitable. And since some men are more greedy than others, even those who would be satisfied with what they have, have to be constantly prepared to fight to defend it. The company of other men is also no pleasure, because every man thinks others should value him as highly as he values himself, and when they  don’t, for obvious reasons, it leads to quarrels. (That is why I think “men” for Hobbes means indeed males, but he was never married, so I’m not sure if he had any interest in women at all. Also, is it really like that in men’s heads? Because it’s pretty grim, and I thought I had a high tolerance for grimness. I wonder if there are any feminist readings of Hobbes.) So all these factors lead to the state of constant war “every man against every man” and as a consequence “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Is it too bleak for you? asks Hobbes. Well, when you travel, don’t you make sure to travel armed and with company? Don’t you lock your door when you go to sleep? And don’t you lock your chests? And this in a society with a working policing and legal system. So this shows what opinion you have of your fellow citizens and even of your own children and servants. (I have to say, the world did improve since Hobbes’ times, although taking into account what is going on right now, we may be soon back to the 17th c. or worse. But so far, even though we do lock our houses and cars, most people I know travel unarmed, and they have no locked chests, unless we speak of some rich people who have their own safes. Although it has to be admitted, most people don’t have servants either.) Also, Hobbes admits, there may never have been such a state of nature all over the world, but when we look at the lives of American “savage people”, they are pretty much close to this picture, except when they are restrained by natural family ties. Also the whole states are still in this constant state of war or being prepared for war, and if it is not as detrimental to them as to individuals, it is because a lot of people are kept occupied by these actions, not just one man.

But, says Hobbes in a passage that probably shocked a lot of his readers, let’s keep the notion of right and wrong out of it. This is human nature and you can’t speak of right and wrong until you have laws deciding what is right or wrong. The notions of “just” and “unjust” work only in a society, not in the state of “every-man-fend-for-himself”. The same goes for property – in the Hobbesian state of nature there is no “mine” and “thine”, something belongs to you only as long as you can keep it. And significantly enough, he does not mention the word “sin” even once.

P.S. Of course there are feminist readings of Hobbes! Although judging by this review, at least in this book nobody answers my concern.


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