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The political theory of Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) was the first among the great modern philosophers who tried to put political doctrine in close relationship with a modern system of thought and who strove to make this system so vast as to explain all natural facts scientifically. Including human” conduct in its individual as well as social aspects. He formulated a true science of politics, which was an integral: part of his overall conception of the natural world and which was carried out with extraordinary clarity. For this, he was also useful to those thinkers who tried to refute him.

The political doctrine was only a part of that universal system a - which he intended to build on scientific principles and which today would be defined as a materialistic system. He devoted himself late to the study of mathematics and physics, not acquitting perfect mastery, but Hobbes understood the aim towards which the new science of nature aimed. The system in which everything that happens can be demonstrated with geometric precision by the reciprocal movement of the bodies. The triumph of science-based on this principle - constituted by Newton's theory of planetary motion must have been much later. But Hobbes sensed the principle and made it the center of his system. Every event is nothing but a movement, and every form of the natural process must be explained by analyzing the complex appearances of the fundamental motions of which they consist. He thus conceived a philosophical system in three parts. The first of which was to deal with the body and understand what we will now call geometry and mechanics: the second. Of the physiology and psychology of individuals: the third. The “artificial” body is called society or state. 

Hobbes’ philosophy is intended to assimilate psychology and politics to the exact physical sciences. All knowledge as a whole is one thing. Of which mechanics gives the model. The proof was by no means empirical, and he did not think that his conclusions should come from systematic observation. No doubt, he considered them true and consequently often illustrated them by referring to facts, but these references were more illustrations than inductions. Good method meant for him to carry to other subjects that form of thought, which had led to such brilliant results in geometry. The secret of geometry consists of the fact that it starts from the simplest things, and when it comes to the most complex problems, it uses only what it has previously demonstrated. 

The instinct of self-preservation

From simple considerations, Hobbes elaborated on a philosophical system that we will not discuss here to explain the psychology of men and the functioning of society in concert. Thus he said in Leviathan: 

We maintain that it is the general inclination of all humanity. And this not always because a man hopes for more intense joy than he has already achieved or because he cannot be satisfied with a more modest power: but because he cannot secure the power and means for life as good as the one he leads. If not buying more. 

The apparently modest need for security equates to an infinite need for the power of every sort, wealth, or position or reputation or honor: in short, everything that can reverse the inevitable destruction that must eventually reach all men. From these considerations on human motives comes the definition of the state of a man outside society. Each human being is moved only by considerations that affect his safety, and his power and other human beings are consequently valid for him only in this sense. Since individuals are equal in power and knowledge, no one can ever be sure, and men's condition is as long as there is no civil. Power to regulate their conduct, is “war of all against all." 

In human nature, he says, there are two principles: desire and reason. The first pushes men to take for themselves what other men need and thus pits them against each other, while reason teaches them to “flee from unnatural destruction.” What reason adds is not a new motive, but a regulatory power, whereby the search for security becomes more effective, without ceasing to follow the general norm of self-preservation. There is a desire for violent possession that causes antagonism, and there is instead more calculated selfishness that brings man to society. 

Before the establishment of society, the natural man is an almost non-rational being: in establishing and conducting the state, he shows preternatural capacities of reasoning instead. To be social, he must be the perfect egoist. And egoists of this sort are rare. Suppose men were as wild and anti-social as they are represented in their pre-social stage. They would never be able to form a government. If they were reasonable enough to set up a government, they would never be without one. The paradox is due to the fact that the representation of the origin of society is derived from the fusion of the two parts of analytical psychology. For a psychological convention, Hobbes regards motive as being radically irrational. The raw material of human nature, which must lead to society, thus consists of two contrasting elements. The law of nature is a precept, or a general rule, found by reason, which prevents a man from doing that, destroys his life or deprives him of the means to preserve it, and neglects what it thinks will best preserve it.

Basically, all of Hobbes’ laws are summed up in this: peace and cooperation serve self-preservation more than violence and general competition. And peace requires mutual trust. By the law of his nature, man must try to achieve security if he has to make this effort himself. It can be said that he has the “right” to take or do what he supposes leads to his purpose. This use of the word right, as Hobbes recognizes. It really represents, in this case, a total absence of law in any legal or moral sense: but an intelligent consideration of the means and ends demonstrates that everyone should seek peace as far as he hopes to get it. It follows that a man should be “willing when others are equally so as long as it is a question of peace, and as long as he believes it necessary for his defense. To give up this right to all things, and to be content with so much freedom for other men, as much as it would allow other men concerning itself”. Virtually all the importance of this law is given by the clause “when others are also” since it would be very harmful to grant freedom to others if they did not grant it equal to you. 

The first condition of society consists in mutual trust and in the maintenance of agreements, which cannot be maintained if you do not start from the rational assumption that other people want to unite with you on the same level. Since all human conduct is determined by individual selfishness, society is to be regarded only as a means to this end. Hobbes was both the radical utilitarian and the perfect radical individualist. The power of the state and the law's authority is justified only because they contribute to the safety of human individuals, and obedience and respect for authority are not reasonable unless they promise to provide an individual advantage greater than their own.  

This stark individualism made Hobbes’ philosophy the most revolutionary doctrine of his time. It constitutes, in fact, a perfect solvent of all the loyalty, reverence, and sentiment on which the monarchy was founded. With Hobbes, the power of tradition is, for the first time, sharply broken by clear and cold rationalism. The state is a Leviathan, but no one loves and honors a Leviathan. It has only a utilitarian purpose and is good for what it does, but only in so far as it serves private security. In this argument, Hobbes summarized a conception of human nature that resulted from two centuries of the decadence of the economy and of social institutions. Moreover, he already grasped the spirit that would animate social thought for at least another two centuries, that of letting it be. 

Sovereignty and the fictitious corporation

Hobbes’ theory of sovereignty derives from this consideration: since society is founded on mutual trust, the next first step must obviously explain how it is reasonably possible. Men do not spontaneously agree enough to respect each other's rights, and unless everyone does. It is unreasonable for anyone to give up helping each other as best they can. Respect for the covenants can only reasonably be hoped for when there is an effective government that punishes offenders. Pacts without force are just words, and cannot give a man any security. Hobbes justifies force with the ancient expedient of the contract whereby everyone renounces to help themselves and submits to a sovereign: / grant and entrust my right of self-government to this man.

The most certain postulates of human nature

In the state of Nature, everyone is at war with everyone. In a pre-social and natural condition, natural craving is what drives men to ensure survival by acting selfishly, each doing everything to ensure the goods necessary for survival. 

Man fears violent death. For this reason, according to him, he never lived outside a civil organization. However, the insufficiency of these goods leads to fierce competition between men that make the state of nature a situation of the continuous war of all against all. For Hobbes, however, this extreme situation exists only on the level of a mere rational hypothesis, for the simple fact that, otherwise, it would lose its primary good, that is, life. According to the second Hobbesian postulate, men try in every way to escape the risk of violent death. This is why the English philosopher believes that since the time of his creation, man has never lived outside a civil organization, that is, a structure capable of regulating the relationships between the various members. 

Leviathan: Reason and natural law

The laws of nature and reason as an instinct for survival, Human beings can get out of this war of all against all by relying on some instincts such as, precisely, that of obtaining what is necessary for subsistence while avoiding continuous war and the risk of life, and reason. Reason forbids each individual to do what can destroy life, advising him instead of acting in such a way that it is preserved at best: this rational principle is based on all-natural laws that aim to remove a man from ' influence of instincts. In the “ Leviathan” Hobbes lists nineteen Laws of nature, but it is customary to remember the first three: the first imposes an effort to seek peace but, if this is unattainable, to use all the instruments of war; the second requires the individual to renounce their claims on common goods only if the other subjects are also willing to do the same (thus recalling the Gospel passage which says: " Anything you want men to do to you, you too to them "Mt 7:12); the third law provides that, once all individuals have renounced their claims by mutual agreement, each of them respects the agreements made: in fact, from their observance, or from their transgression, justice or injustice is born.  

The reason for men depends on the context in which they find themselves operating. For Thomas Hobbes, natural law is something absolutely different from the divine and universal order in which it was born by the Stoics, the Romans, and the medieval tradition: as the natural lawyers, he considers it a result of human reason. But if for the natural lawyer Grotius reason is something autonomous, for the English Hobbes, it is instead an activity that acts conditioned by the context in which it operates and not as a value in itself.    

The state and absolutism

Respect for the laws of nature is guaranteed by the state. However, the laws of nature dictated by reason are in no way absolute or binding, but simply “prudential, "and their validity is conditioned by the aim to be achieved. But, in fact, there is nothing that ensures that these rules are actually respected. The only way to make these rules effectively-respected is to build power so strong that any contrary action is absolutely inadvisable: the State. 

We pass from the state of nature to civil society thanks to a contract. The passage from the state of nature to the civil state is, therefore, the transfer of the unlimited power that every human being enjoys in the state of nature to a single person, understood both in a physical and juridical sense, capable of obliging all men to respect the laws. The transformation of the state of nature into civil society, therefore, takes place in compliance with the second law of nature already stated above, that is, through a contract in which all men consensually renounce their unlimited right to transfer it to a single subject. The transfer is essential for the contract to be an advantage for everyone, without fear that any of the contracting parties may be damaged: in this sense, civil society, or the State, can also be called a "civil person" because, precisely, by incorporating the will to all can be considered the manifestation of the will of one person.  

Absolutism is a pact between subjects. However, Hobbes does not think that the right can or should be transferred exclusively to a monarch, but also to an assembly. In any case, this social pact is not made between the subjects and a sovereign (or assembly), but only between the subjects who transfer their rights to an external subject. The power of this subject (be it a sovereign or an assembly) it remains absolute and indivisible. Who represents the state is the sovereign, or Leviathan, who has power over all the others who are only subjects. 

The judgment on good and evil belong to the state. Other characteristics of this pact are its irreversibility and one-sidedness since it is not a pact between the subjects and the State, but between the individual subjects, who cannot fail to fulfill their commitment and who consciously and freely choose to submit to an external authority, that of Leviathan. The power of the sovereign is indivisible; that is, it cannot be distributed among different powers that limit each other. The judgment on good and evil belong to the State and not to the citizens: being extraneous to the pact, the Sovereign is released from any bondPolitical theory, including the will of the citizens. 

Author: Vicki Lezama


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