Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: Review and Conclusion

Sidney Godolphin

Review and Conclusion

I firmly believe that the truly noble philosophers are the ones who are willing to review their own writings and publicly repent of areas where they were mistaken. So Augustine in his Retractions looks back through his works and revises or openly decries several earlier positions he had taken (most notably his youthful defense of free will). Rousseau, on the other hand, goes to the other extreme and argues that everything he had ever done was right—except the things he was forced to do by external compulsion. Hobbes falls somewhere in between these two in this review and conclusion—perhaps not explicitly repudiating his work, but neither fully endorsing every word.

To start with, Hobbes responds to the charge that his view of the state seems to require a citizen body (or at least a sovereign) that is reasonable, eloquent, an appropriate balance of courageous and restrained, and in general agreement about political issues. The reality is that we’re lucky to find any one of those traits in a single person, let alone all of them in the person in power or in the citizen body as a whole (RC.1–3). Even when they are present, they are often set in conflict with each other rather than in cooperation. Yet Hobbes has an answer:

To which I answer that these are indeed great difficulties, but not impossibilities. For by education and discipline they [these characteristics] may be, and are sometimes, reconciled….
There is, therefore, no such inconsistence of human nature with civil duties as some think. I have known clearness of judgment and largeness of fancy, strength of reason and graceful elocution, a courage for the war and a fear for the laws, and all eminently in one man, and that was my most noble and honoured friend, Mr. Sidney Godolphin. (RC.4)

So it is not only theoretically possible, but Hobbes believes he has actually known the sort of individual who would fit well in his state.


A second clarification Hobbes makes is the addition to his list of natural laws that

every man is bound by nature, as much as in him lieth, to protect in war the authority by which he is himself protected in time of peace. For he that pretendeth a right of nature to preserve his own body cannot pretend a right of nature to destroy him by whose strength he is preserved. (RC.5)

Which I suspect we’ll all find reasonable enough. If we are at war, we are obligated to fight for the side that we are on when we are at peace. The difficulty comes when we see the setting for the discussion: how does this principle apply in times of civil war? In such circumstances we might very well have two competing authorities which have both at various times protected us—say the military versus the government in the context of the English Civil War, or Southern state governments versus the federal government during the American Civil War. This leads to the question of when sovereignty may be transferred:

I say the point of time where a man becomes subject to a conqueror is that point wherein, having liberty to submit to him, he consenteth, either by express words or by other sufficient sign, to be his subject. (RC.6)

We’ve seen this already—free consent is necessary, even if coerced and or tacit rather than explicitly given. But at what point is it okay to do this under wartime conditions? If we have absolute responsibility to our sovereign at the beginning of the war, is there any point at which we can transfer that obligation to a new one? At what point are we so “conquered” that we are not wrong to transfer our sovereignty? Hobbes reiterates that we are never compelled to do so—we always have the option of continuing the resistance, going to jail, or even being put to death. But as soon as we begin to actively enjoy the fruits of safety and justice that come from the new government, we have given our consent and have agreed to the new social covenant. The resistance fighter hiding in the woods and carrying on guerrilla warfare in the name of the old government is well within his rights to continue doing so. The suburbanite who hates the new government but goes to the courthouse to get his driver’s license renewed has joined the new social covenant, even if his hatred is infinitely deeper than that of the freedom fighter’s (RC.7).


Hobbes also clarifies his thoughts on why states collapse. People remember old states and the injustices that occurred during the creation of new states—”there is scarce a commonwealth in the world whose beginnings can in conscience be justified” (RC.8). This hatred sticks around, even after the reason for it has been forgotten or lost. Those who carry this hatred are quick to label those in power “tyrants” and attach themselves to the cause of whatever competing sovereignty the state may happen to have (RC.9). Hobbes holds to his idea that separation of powers breeds civil war, he just works out a bit here the psychology behind why that is the case.


Hobbes thinks that he should have spent more time in book three talking about the Old Testament Kingdom of God and what sovereignty looked like in its practical application for Israel. His main point here is to draw a line between “private zeal” and “public justice.” The latter was what defined the legal actions of the Kingdom of God, not the former (RC.10–12).

Through all of this, Hobbes argues that his teaching was both reasonable and firmly rooted in scripture. That it is contrary to the mainstream thought of the day is reflective of their divergence from the Bible and from rationality, not his own (RC.13–14). If there is a problem with the Leviathan—and Hobbes clearly admits it may be the case—it is one of rhetoric and clarity, not content:

There is nothing I distrust more than my elocution, which nevertheless I am confident (excepting the mischances of the press) is not obscure. (RC.15)

That he hasn’t bogged his work down with quotes from ancient sources and poets, contrary to the practice of the time, should be seen as a strength rather than a weakness. After all, doesn’t the lack of supporting quotations show how firmly his ideas rest on reason and scripture alone? Besides, thought gets better as time goes on, not the other way around. From our perspective, we are the truly “old” writers because of how much more has been done when we write than was the case for the ancients (RC.15).

For what it’s worth, Hobbes is absolutely correct here—though not for the reasons he thinks. We should all be glad he excluded long quotes and defenses from ancient sources, because the Leviathan is already five hundred pages long…


Finally, Hobbes tells us that his book is excellent and ought to be read:

To conclude, there is nothing in this whole discourse… as far as I can perceive, contrary either to the Word of God, or to good manners, or tending to the disturbance of the public tranquillity. Therefore, I think it may be profitably printed, and more profitably taught in the universities. (RC.16)

For the universities are the fountainheads of ideas and of leaders, so we want to be sure that what is being taught there is as pure and virtuous as possible.

By that means the most men, knowing their duties, will be the less subject to serve the ambition of a few discontented persons in their purposes against the state, and be the less grieved with the contributions necessary for their peace and defence. (RC.16)

And with that Hobbes drops the mic and walks off the stage.


For what it’s worth, I don’t know that I disagree with his conclusion about his own book. Oh, I’m not saying I agree with the premises or teachings of the Leviathan—and I disagree vehemently with some of the conclusions he draws. But the idea that there is nothing in it contrary to scripture (politically), good manners, or disruptive of public peace is probably true. At least in terms of scripture it is certainly true (the Bible really doesn’t have much to say about government anyway). And it appears to be true in terms of public peace—someone who reads this book and decides to live by its principles is pretty unlikely to go on a killing spree or start a revolution. And we really should give Hobbes the benefit of the doubt about “good manners,” because he is English and most of us are not.

 

Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

2 Responses to “Leviathan: Review and Conclusion”

  1. gabe

    “To start with, Hobbes responds to the charge that his view of the state seems to require a citizen body (or at least a sovereign) that is reasonable, eloquent, an appropriate balance of courageous and restrained, and in general agreement about political issues. The reality is that we’re lucky to find any one of those traits in a single person, let alone all of them in the person in power or in the citizen body as a whole (RC.1–3). Even when they are present, they are often set in conflict with each other rather than in cooperation.” – and thus the need for a “strong man” to inhibit these rather nasty, albeit all-too-human, impulses.

    Of course, the same critique may be levied against Madison and his requirement that both the citizenry and the Republic’s aristocracy be virtuous. Yet Madison chose to not only recognize the difficulty of Republican virtue, he chose to use its impermanence as a tool to *balance* the various intemperances one against the other – a somewhat different take on “separation of powers.
    Who is right? saddam Hussein employed Hobbes formula – it was somewhat more strife free in Iraq under Hussein, if not very pleasant, prior to his fall.

    And where are in contemporary USA?

    Which leads us to this:

    “Besides, thought gets better as time goes on, not the other way around. From our perspective, we are the truly “old” writers because of how much more has been done when we write than was the case for the ancients”

    Here Hobbes seems to be anticipating the “end-of-history types. Little did he realize how right he was. After all, it has taken humanity several millennia to finally recognize “micro-aggressions.”
    Sorry, Hobbes, neither thought nor emotions necessarily get better with age / time. Like a poorly crafted wine, they often sour or get *corked.”

    In any event, Coyle, thank you for the work and effort putting this series together. I rather enjoyed it.

    take care
    gabe

    Reply
    • Coyle Neal

      Thanks gabe! And as always, I too prefer Madison to Hobbes–though I don’t know that the latter would have been possible without the former. 🙂

      Reply

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