This short chapter marks the beginning of one of the most famous passages of political philosophy in the English language and is undoubtedly familiar to anyone who has paid attention in an introductory political theory class. (I’d like to say “anyone who has taken an introductory political theory class,” but being something of a realist I just can’t.) The contents of this chapter through the end of chapter XXXI are the fodder for most introductory discussions of social contract theory. With as much as there is to consider, we should dive in:
Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself. (XIII.1)
Given that this is where most of us first meet the idea of the social contract, it’s probably worth pointing out that Hobbes begins with the idea of equality, rather than rights. In fact, equality forms a part of the epistemological structure upon which rights (and the state) are built. And this is important; because men are equal, our passions may be understood. And so when we remember that passion lies at the bottom of all human actions, we can see that when two people desire the same thing enemies are made and war is the result. What’s more, because we are all driven by our passions this is inevitable, leading to the conclusion that our base natures exist in a state of war—”and such a war as is of every man against every man” (XIII.8). When there is no power present to hold us in check, these primal motives come to the fore and the result is a nightmarish world where
…there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (XIII.9)
This state of nature lines up quite nicely with the Christian view of original sin—though Hobbes replaces the idea of a restraining and ennobling “common grace” with “the sovereign,” as we shall see later in the text. At this point, however, the primary objections are not the question of whether Hobbes has accurately described what human beings are capable of—the most cheerful Rousseauian must admit that mankind can come to this state. The objections are
1) whether this is truly the norm for a person outside of society—which by extension becomes the question of
2) whether Hobbes has accurately described basic human nature, or is merely taking the occasional extremes and declaring them to be definitive?
In response to the first, Hobbes appeals both to regular human actions and to the very few places he thinks a state of nature might be visible. All of us act as if humans are untrustworthy in circumstances where we think there is no overreaching protection from the power of the law—we lock our doors at night and protect ourselves when we travel, and these while we know there are generally competent police and judges out there who will protect us before a robbery and avenge us after. “Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words?” (XIII.10).
Admittedly, the state of nature itself is not often visible:
It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time nor condition of war as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world. (XIII.11)
And yet, to say that the whole world has never been in a state of nature is not to say that there has never been an observable state of nature somewhere. Hobbes believes that if we look at the North American continent in his day, at nations in a state of civil war, and at the interactions between heads of state with no higher power over them, we see something of what human nature is like when the shackles of society are off. Of course in each of these examples there are still critical restraints in place, but the bonds are loose enough that we can see glimpses of raw human nature showing through—glimpses that should horrify us into embracing the protection of an all-powerful sovereign.
Engaging the second question is of course a basic function of philosophy and theology—just what is human nature at its core? Are we inherently good beings who sometimes do evil? Or are we inherently evil beings who sometimes do good? Or are we a perfect balance of the two, all other things being equal? Or are we only potentially good or evil until we exercise our will? Or any other host of variations experts in this field will know better than I do. In this case, we can either agree with Hobbes or not, but if we disagree on this point we are going lose any claim to even the good parts of the rest of the Leviathan. Of course we may give up those claims if we agree with him as well, but this is a major watershed moment: Hobbes’s declaration of man’s inherent violence is a nonnegotiable precondition for the rest of his philosophy. We see this in his dismissal of man as the standard of morality:
To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body, nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct, but only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it. And thus much for the ill condition which man by mere nature is actually placed in, though with a possibility to come out of it, consisting partly in the passions, partly in his reason. (XIII.13)
Transcendent values like “justice” are not inherent parts of human nature, whatever Plato might have claimed. We can know this, Hobbes thinks, because they cannot exist outside of society. Justice requires a relationship between more than one individual and so cannot be basic to human nature. Which once again reduces us to the passions and desires—there is no morality in the sense we are used to thinking of it; there is only what I can lay my hands upon and say “this is MINE,” and can only say even that until someone takes it away from me. To quote a great Hobbsean, “there is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it” (291).
Is all of this to say that Hobbes does not believe in justice or morality? Maybe I’m being too generous, but I don’t think we need to go that far. To say that justice is not a part of basic human nature is not to say it doesn’t exist. The same goes for morality—to say that original sin has become the definitive characteristic of fallen mankind is not to say there is nothing that is good, just that the source of that good must be sought outside of ourselves.
Even if I am being too generous to Hobbes, his point is still worth considering. Life outside of society is horrifying beyond consideration, and so even as creatures dominated by passions we can see the place and value of the state to our existence. This value is only reinforced when we look more closely at the laws that govern the state of nature that Hobbes outlines in the next chapter.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.