Thomas Hobbes – “Leviathan”,”Of the Causes, Generation, and Definition of a Commonwealth”

So, people, selfish and mean as they are, are willing to give up some of their liberty to the sovereign so as to avoid killing one another. Without the civil power which keeps all the nasty instincts in check, we descend into chaos. Hobbes proves it by giving as the example the sparsely populated lands where only small families live – there robbery is considered no dishonour, but on the contrary, the more you rob your neighbours, the more famous you are and the only thing that keeps people in check is the code of honour which makes them let the robbed men live and leave them the tools they need for their survival. (I think Hobbes contradicts himself here – the code of honour is apparently something people follow out of their own volition, otherwise why shouldn’t they murder and plunder?) Joining together in confederacies is not an answer because, first, the enemy can always muster a bigger force, and secondly, once the danger is past and people are not united against the common enemy, they are bound to fight with one another, because as Hobbes has already made abundantly clear, people ain’t no good.

But why can ants and bees live in complex societies without a sovereign? (I’m not sure how aware Hobbes was of it, but of course the so-called queens are in these societies just breeding machines.) Hobbes answers this in points, and I think with a note of dry humour. 1. men compete with one another, while insects don’t. 2. there is no difference for these creatures between the common good and the private one. 3. they have no reason and so they don’t find fault with their administration, like men do. 4. they can communicate by some sounds but they can’t speak, and thus they can’t lie to one another, presenting bad things as good and the other way round. 5. it is enough for their happiness to be physically comfortable, while “man is then most troublesome when he is most at ease”, because when they have it too good, they love to show off their wisdom and find fault with others. 6. the agreement of these creatures is in their nature, while any covenant, or social contract, is an artificial construct imposed on human nature.

Summing up, people in order to move past the eternal state of war, agree to give a part of their liberty to a man or an assembly of men who represent them politically. Thus the Leviathan is formed, the beast consisting of multiple people who subject all their individual wills to the will of one man or one government, and he who carries the power is called the sovereign. This ends my readings of Thomas Hobbes, not the most optimistic of philosophers, but a very clear-sighted man.


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