It can hardly be denied that in the past sixty years our view of freedom in the West, especially in America, has undergone a radical shift. We may debate whether this shift is because we are rejecting our liberal heritage in favor of a more postmodern (or worse) approach or because we are fully embracing our liberal heritage at the expense of the remnants of a Christian worldview, in either case “liberty” no longer has the same societal implications it once possessed. And so this chapter defining the nature and implications “of the Liberty of Subjects” under the rule of Leviathan is a particularly important one to us:
Liberty, or Freedom, signifieth (properly) the absence of opposition (by opposition, I mean external impediments of motion) and may be applied no less to irrational and inanimate creatures than to rational…. And according to this proper and generally received meaning of the word, a Free-man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he has a will to. (XXI.1–2)
“Freedom” properly considered then means “your ability to do what you want when you want to do it.” Of course we need to remember that this freedom is still grounded in reality—that I cannot flap my arms and fly whenever the urge takes me does not make me a slave, for “when the impediment of motion is in the constitution of the thing itself, we use not to say it wants the liberty, but the power to move” (XXI.1). The fact that I cannot fly is not a hindrance to my freedom but rather a power I do not possess.
With this definition, Hobbes is stepping into a philosophical debate that takes off in full with the polemics between Augustine and Pelagius. (Though the earlier pagan philosophers were to some extent aware of the discussion, they seem not to have been terribly interested in the theoretical underpinnings of the free will/determinism argument and instead focused on practical implications for the real world. See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics book 3 and Seneca Epistle 16.) Hobbes, for better or worse, pretty clearly comes down on the side of Augustine in his approach to freedom of the will, if not so much in his theology otherwise. We see this when Hobbes asks exactly where freedom may be found:
But when the words free and liberty are applied to anything but bodies, they are abused; for that which is not subject to motion is not subject to impediment; and therefore, when it is said (for example) the way is free, no liberty of the way is signified, but of those that walk in it without stop…. From the use of the word free-will no liberty can be inferred of the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man, which consisteth in this: that he finds no stop in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to do. (XXI.2)
Hobbes is surely correct. I’ve given an extended treatment of the topic here as a review of Jonathan Edwards’s work Freedom of the Will—which book anyone who wants to reflect responsibly on the subject is obligated to read. The short version is that if by “freedom” all you mean is “you are able to do what you want,” there is no debate. If by “freedom” you mean “you are able to choose what you want to want,” there is no freedom because we do not determine the structure and content of our own natures.
I know this is getting us away from what Hobbes was interested in, but I still think it’s worthwhile to share what Edwards himself had to say when it was suggested to him that his doctrine of the will is too much like Hobbes’s views of “necessity”:
As to Mr. Hobbes’ maintaining the same doctrine concerning necessity; I confess, it happens I never read Mr. Hobbes. Let his opinion be what it will, we need not reject all truth which is demonstrated by clear evidence, merely because it was once held by some bad man. This great truth, that Jesus is the Son of God, was not spoiled because it was once and again proclaimed with a loud voice by the devil. If truth is so defiled because it is spoken by the mouth, or written by the pen of some ill-minded mischievous man, that it must never be received, we shall never know when we hold any of the most precious and evident truths by a sure tenure. And if Mr. Hobbes has made a bad use of this truth, that is to be lamented: but the truth is not to be thought worthy of rejection on that account. ‘Tis common for the corruptions of the hearts of evil men, to abuse the best things to vile purposes. (Freedom of the Will, pg 374 Yale Edition)
I highly recommend stealing Edwards’s line “we need not reject all truth which is demonstrated by clear evidence, merely because it was once held by some bad man.”
Back to Hobbes! Hobbes’s concern is not ultimately to defend or attack free will, it is rather to articulate the role of freedom in the state and the place of the will in consenting to the establishment of the commonwealth. Specifically, he wants to argue that “fear” and “freedom” are not mutually exclusive:
Fear and liberty are consistent, as when a man throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink, he doth it nevertheless very willingly, and may refuse to do it if he will; it is therefore the action of one that was free. (XXI.3)
So when we enter into a covenant with the state, that we enter out of fear does not negate the covenant that any more than the fact that God is sovereign over the course of world history (and human nature) negates our moral responsibility for our own sin. “And this shall suffice… of that natural liberty, which only is properly called liberty” (XXI.4).
Again, Hobbes’s main interest (unlike mine, as the length of my treatment of the first four paragraphs of this chapter suggests) is not so much in human liberty proper as it is the concerns that readers of the Leviathan up to this point must surely be having about the state of society under an all-powerful sovereign. Whatever natural limitations on our liberty there may be, we have certainly created artificial limitations when we submit to rule by a sovereign—limitations which Hobbes has said we may not justly exceed. Which brings him to the question of what he calls “liberty of subjects;” what kind of freedoms can we realistically expect to have under a sovereign?
For seeing there is no commonwealth in the world wherein there be rules enough set down for the regulating of all the actions and words of men (as being a thing impossible), it followeth necessarily that in all kinds of actions by the laws pretermitted men have the liberty of doing what their own reasons shall suggest for the most profitable to themselves. (XXI.6)
However oppressive and powerful the state, the total regulation of all human actions simply is not possible in Hobbes’s estimation, and so we will always have a generally free condition “in all kinds of actions.” The law is usually going to be silent in most areas, so that “where the sovereign has prescribed no rule, there the subject hath the liberty to do or forbear, according to his discretion” (XXI.18). This will vary from state to state and time to time, but the general condition will be one of freedom.
What’s more, our liberty in those actions is actually the result of the existence of a powerful and able sovereign. If everyone were always free to do whatever they wanted in all things, as some people irrationally demand, we would be putting ourselves back in the state of nature and always in fear for our lives. But because we have established a sovereign to protect us from each other, we are free from fear of others and so more free in those pursuits which we actually care about. If I demand from the government the total absence of all restraining laws because I want to be free to run my business as I like, what I will quickly find is that my freedom extends only so far as my vigilance and individual physical power. But when I submit to the government I find that I am far more free to pursue my business than I would ever have been when I was the highest authority around. Which is why, Hobbes thinks, it is so critical that we submit absolutely to the sovereign even the power of life and death—however much danger there is that this power may be abused (XXI.7).
If we want to see the proof of this, Hobbes encourages us to look at the state of international relations. Whatever happens to be the status of one state or the other, isn’t the way we think about our military preparedness, the intentions of rival nations, and our own desires for prosperous expansion proof that this “liberty” is really slavery of the worst sort? We are not “free states” on the international level despite the fact that we are all equal; the nation as a whole in fact lacks the very freedom that you and I exercise as citizens under the laws of the sovereign.
And if this all seems strange or jarring to us, Hobbes argues that our problem might be that we are too much under the influence of the classical writers like Aristotle and Cicero who took their own customs and traditions and universalized them. This for us would be the equivalent of learning about poetry only from Homer and Virgil. Both of these poets of course have their place—and it should be a place of high honor, one of Hobbes’s last publications was his own translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. But this is still at best a parochial approach, what we need instead is a view of freedom derived “from the principles of nature” rather than from “the practice of their own commonwealths” (XXI.9).
What then does such a view of liberty as derived from nature look like on the ground in a state? In one sense we might say there is no liberty at all under the sovereign:
we are to consider what rights we pass away, when we make a commonwealth, or… what liberty we deny ourselves by owning all the actions… of the man or assembly we make our sovereign. (XXI.10)
We have by the act of covenanting together given up any claim to freedom or any exemption from laws passed or obligations laid down by the sovereign, however offensive to our own tastes or preferences. If we have political freedom, it is only because the sovereign has chosen to give it back to us. It is no longer a freedom derived from nature, it is a freedom “from those words… or else from the end of the institution of sovereignty, namely, the peace of the subjects within themselves, and their defense against a common enemy” (XXI.10). We have traded our freedom in the state of nature that existed naturally within us for a freedom externally granted either explicitly or implicitly by the sovereign.
The exception to this is the exception of self-destruction. While we might be legitimately executed by the state, we cannot be legitimately ordered to kill or otherwise harm ourselves as that would undermine the very thing we sought to receive in entering the covenant. Hobbes interestingly even extends this to military service, not excusing those who have volunteered as soldiers hoping for pay but encouraging the state to excuse those who wish not to volunteer in the first place because of a “natural timorousness” (XXI.16). We may even to some limited extend protect others who are threatened with destruction when it is the case that such threats are widespread and continuous—occasional injustices we have no right to resist, because this “takes away from the sovereign the means of protecting us, and is therefore destructive of the very essence of government” (XXI.17). Once pardon is offered, however, we lose this right of resistance.
There may even be some limited freedom to sue or petition the sovereign for redress, if the action we believe to be unjust was an action taken by the sovereign within the bounds the law. In this case, the judges established by the sovereign may judge within the law between the subject and the sovereign. However, if the action was taken not legally but rather by virtue of the sovereign’s power to defend the state, “there lieth in that case no action of law” (XXI.19). We might think of it like this: according to Hobbes, if the IRS overtaxes us we may legitimately sue to get at least a portion of our money back. If the government is fighting off an invasion and confiscates our homes to use as barracks, we have no right to complain since that is the fundamental reason government exists in the first place. What follows from this point is that, as Hobbes has repeatedly said, the sovereign may not give up any right or power that enables him to perform this fundamental function (XXI.20).
So is there, at the end of the day, any way to escape the rule of a rightful sovereign? Only if that sovereign loses or gives up the ability to perform its basic function:
The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no covenant be relinquished. The sovereignty is the soul of the commonwealth, which, once departed from the body, the members do no more receive their motion from it. (XXI.21)
Whether this happens through the subject’s leaving the nation or the sovereign himself laying down his authority is irrelevant. As soon as the government is no longer able to protect the lives of its citizens it is no longer the government and need no longer be obeyed.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.