Having said that what we most desire is power, Hobbes begins a dissection of the different interpretations of power and how it relates to our passions:
The power of a man (to take it universally) is his present means to obtain some future apparent good, and is either original or instrumental. (X.1)
That is, we have powers that come inherent in our persons (intelligence, nobility, strength, etc.), powers that we acquire (wealth, fame, etc.), or a combination of both. But the ultimate power, the final and highest one achievable in this life, is the compilation of powers we call the state:
The greatest of human powers is that which is compounded of the powers of most men, united by consent in one person, natural or civil, that has the use of all their powers depending on his will, such as is the power of a commonwealth, or depending on the wills of each particular, such as is the power of a faction or of divers factions leagued. Therefore to have servants is power; to have friends is power; for they are strengths united. (X.3)
Clearly Hobbes is going in a different—but perhaps not completely contradictory—direction than Aristotle in his view of the state, slavery, and friendship. Both believe that these institutions are teleological and focused on some end beyond themselves, and both would argue that that end is a good. Hobbes would argue that Aristotle stopped a step too soon in his analysis and as a result failed to properly understand human motivations. In all of our relationships, power is our ultimate goal—not virtue. Unless we’re going to call “power” a virtue, which would undoubtedly give Aristotle some kind of aneurysm…
Hobbes emphasizes the importance of power by breaking down a number of ideas we hold as a state and suggesting that each of them is rooted in some kind of power relationship. Again, Hobbes argues that some of these are “natural” and some we acquire through the work of these natural powers, and some are found only in the state. It would be tedious for us to go through each of these in detail, so we will let one stand for the whole:
To hearken to a man’s counsel or discourse of what kind soever is to honour, as a sign we think him wise, or eloquent, or witty. To sleep, or go forth, or talk the while is to dishonour. (X.28)
A passage we professors ought to post on the walls of our classrooms! Now, this paragraph is about honor—where does power come in? Hobbes argues that we value or honor an individual in direct proportion to their perceived power (X.16–17). In this case, the more we think the speaker is capable of doing, the more we pay attention to them. The perception we have may be a result of their reputation (even if falsely earned), or personal experience, or a claim that the speaker has on the listener. For example, one of my undergraduate professors had a reputation of slamming his cane down on the desks of sleeping students and shouting at them to wake them up. Needless to say, this was a rare occurrence since his reputation and the experience of his students combined with his excellent skills as a lecturer resulted in a class that gave him the great honor of staying awake and paying attention. As another example, if my students thought I had the power to order whippings or summary execution, they would be more likely to stay awake and pay attention during class.
While we might not agree with Hobbes’s reduction of everything to power, hopefully we can see why his arguments for doing so are compelling. If you’re looking for it, you really will see power behind every word and action in the world. Which isn’t to say that Hobbes is right in holding it to be the final motivation, but nevertheless there is something here worthy of consideration.
One final note on power: Hobbes points out that an individual may have all of the aptitudes and natural inclinations that might suggest he should be an individual of great power, and yet no right to lay claim to that power. He promises to return to this issue when he takes up the question of contracts.
Hobbes had earlier suggested that the passions are different in each individual because of a combination of nature and nurture that is unique to each person. He will dive into a discussion of nature beginning in chapter XIII. Chapters XI and XII are the conclusion of his discussion of nurture, or how our passions are shaped by our upbringing first in terms of custom and tradition (“Manners,” chapter XI) and second in terms of religion (chapter XII).
Hobbes begins his discussion of tradition by suggesting that most philosophers have made a basic mistake in their assumptions about the teleological goals of individuals:
… we are to consider that the felicity of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such Finis Ultimus (utmost aim) nor Summum Bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he whose senses and imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter. The cause whereof is that the object of man’s desire is not to enjoy once only, and for one instant of time, but to assure forever the way of his future desire. And therefore the voluntary actions and inclinations of all men tend, not only to the procuring, but also to the assuring of a contented life, and differ only in the way. (XI.1)
I’m tempted to get bogged down in the theological side of this discussion and say that Hobbes is both right and wrong. There is a Summum Bonum in heaven as a world of rest and contemplation and satisfaction, in that sense Hobbes is wrong. But heaven is likewise a world of love, and as such is an active and ever developing and unfolding world where joy and delight will only increase forever. For more on that, read this or listen to this.
In terms of this world, which of course is Hobbes’s main concern, this view of man as constantly searching not just for static happiness but for continually fulfilled desires with no possibility of that fulfillment ceasing results in individuals who are never satisfied with the status quo:
So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. (XI.2)
As with power, Hobbes examines this unceasing desire through the lens of the various aspects of human life and finds it present in all of them—arts, the law, virtue, eloquence, frugality, vain-glory, etc. When we are at ease and obey the laws of the land, it is because we believe doing so will best secure the life we want both now and for the foreseeable future. When we break into open rebellion, it is because we believe that is the best route to secure the power to keep ourselves safe. That we are sometimes wrong about the course we choose does not prove that we’re not really motivated by power, it only proves that we are ignorant about consequences and the proper meaning of words.
So for example, out of habit we fall into customs and traditions that shape our passions and drive us to pursue powers in a specific way:
Ignorance of the causes and original constitution of right, equity, law, and justice disposeth a man to make custom and example the rule of his actions, in such manner as to think that unjust which it hath been the custom to punish, and that just, of the impunity and approbation whereof they can produce an example… (XI.21)
Hobbes compares such individuals to children, whose knowledge of right and wrong is limited to what their parents have taught them. And just as children ought to someday have more complex views of the world and of morality, so we ought to be able to see the usefulness of custom in its proper place, but also be able to make good moral judgments about when that custom has limited our ability to secure ourselves and our rights against others.
This is not to say we need omniscience, of course. I believe that’s why Hobbes ends chapter XI with a discussion of the limits of science and the place of natural religion. Even if we do manage to rise above custom and other ignorance in our natures and take a wider view of the world and of humanity, we are always going to run into a great wall of mystery and causation that we cannot breach. (If you don’t believe that, watch Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Cosmos for a very sad example of a man blundering around in the philosophical dark while simultaneously running repeatedly into that wall as fast as he can.) That mystery is where we find the First Cause, which Christians hold to be the true God, but which thoughtful individuals among the pagans have feared (rightly or wrongly) as the unknowable source of the uncontrollable forces that affect our world—what Machiavelli called “Fortune.” Because this is the ultimate source of danger to our lives, gods and religion were invented as a way to try to secure even this mystery by means of our own limited power. Which is where the next chapter will pick up.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.