leviathan ch 11-17
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Leviathan, Part II: “Of Commonwealth”
Summary: Chapters 17–31
The first law of nature demands that humans seek peace, an end best met by the establishment of contracts. Yet the natural inclinations of men toward power always impel them to break contracts. Without the fear of punishment for breaking contracts, men will break them whenever it is immediately advantageous for them to do so. Thus the basic social contract of the commonwealth must vest power in one central, sovereign authority, with power to punish those who break the contract. Under the rule of the sovereign, men are impelled, by fear, to keep the commonwealth functioning smoothly.
If the state is imagined as a person, the soul of that person is the concept of sovereignty, and sovereign himself is the person’s head. Hobbes names this artificial person, representing the state in its totality, the Leviathan. Desiring to escape the state of the nature through contract, all persons erect a common power at the head of their commonwealth, whether one man or an assembly, and agree to submit to its will to escape fear of each other. The sovereign is charged with doing whatever necessary to defend the commonwealth. As all individual rights are transferred to him, all are compelled to follow the sovereign’s commands regarding defense. Although Hobbes here states that the sovereign may be either an individual or an assembly, he does not yet state his preference for the sole sovereign ruler.
Commonwealths can be formed in two ways: through institution, or agreement; and through acquisition, or force. Although the group of people taken by force under a sovereign’s rule may resist the acquisition and depose the sovereign before he takes control, if they do not do so initially, the sovereign in both acquisition and institution holds the same right of dominion over his subjects and the same responsibilities regarding the common defense. The sovereign is the foundation of all true knowledge and the embodied power underlying all civil peace. There are three possible forms of sovereign authority created by contract: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Of these, Hobbes proclaims that monarchy is the best because it offers the greatest consistency and lowest potential for conflict, limiting the decision-making body to one.
Liberty may be defined as the ability to act according to one’s own individual will without being physically hindered from acting as one wishes. From a strictly materialist perspective, only chains or imprisonment can prevent one from acting as such. Thus, under the rule of the sovereign, free subjects, unencumbered by chains, maintain their liberty. Although there may be certain laws and “artificial chains” arising from law under the sovereign, subjects have no right to complain about such chains because they have entered into a contract with the sovereign. Furthermore, since fear dominates the state of nature and hinders a person’s ability to act as he wishes, true liberty does not exist in the state of nature. Only when the subject has forsworn his own fear and power to the sovereign to be used as tools is he absolutely free. If the sovereign ever loses his authority or ability to protect the commonwealth, then the soul will have gone out of the Leviathan, and subjects will be released from their contract and returned to the fear-filled state of nature—necessitating that they form a new contract if they don’t wish to endure its horrors.
Hobbes identifies all the subunits of society as systems within that body: towns, trade organizations, and households that can be established by the sovereign or by groups of individual persons joined by some common interest. Political systems are always established by the sovereign, while systems created by independent subjects are termed private systems. Those ministers appointed by the sovereign to administer his systems are understood to be representatives of the sovereign’s will. These “public ministers” act as joints in the Leviathanic body, manipulating the movements of all its limbs. Further expanding the bodily metaphor, Hobbes states that all goods produced within the commonwealth or obtained by trade are the “nutrition” on which the Leviathan’s body subsists. Meanwhile, money, the liquidated form of commodities, is the blood of the body, circulating through all its various members to keep it functional. Last, the self- reproduction of the Leviathan is achieved by bearing versions of itself in miniature, offspring we know as plantations or colonies.
Through the last part of book 2, Hobbes elaborates on the specific functionalities of the Leviathan, particularly in relation to the creation and administration of laws. He also points out “birth defects” by which the Leviathan may be a dysfunctional body. The possible scenarios by which the Leviathan may be doomed and unhealthy include the sovereign lacking absolute power, subjects maintaining faith in the supernatural rather than submitting to the learned doctrine of the sovereign, matters of good and evil being decided by individuals rather than civil law, and civil and religious authority being divided and under different powers and imitating the governments of the Greeks and Romans. All of these problems have the potential to poison its body and dissolve the commonwealth into civil war. A healthy and stable commonwealth depends on absolute respect and abeyance of the one sovereign’s will
The point of departure for other contract theorists such as Locke and Rousseau is Hobbes' advocacy of monarchy. All three philosophers agree that man sets up a government for their own protection, but they disagree about what form of government best serves this purpose. For Hobbes a democracy is the worst of all possible options, whereas for Locke and Rousseau a democracy is not only the best option, but the most just. Although Hobbes offers logical proof to back up his claims, he was obviously shaped by his historical studies - in particularly, of the Greeks and Romans - and believed these ancient democracies' demises followed from citizens and elected officials constantly quibbling with one another.
Despite this, Hobbes' arguments in these chapters have had a profound impact on modern democracy. In particular he introduces the concept of representation, and in the modern world where states are too large to function as direct democracies, this idea is a key component of any functioning democracy. Even the Leviathan that Hobbes describes, with its absolute power over all its subjects, is a representative of all the people in the commonwealth.
Absolute monarch or not, a subject must still consent to live under the Leviathan. Yet Hobbes' description of consent may seem somewhat problematic, particularly when applied to children or the vanquished of war. With regard to children, while Hobbes does say that they are not automatically subjects of their parents just because they were born, saying they consent when their rational faculties are fully developed leaves open the question of whether they can fully consent until their physical faculties are fully developed. An eleven-year old boy may understand the consequences of leaving his family to fend for himself well enough, but if he cannot physically fend for himself there is no alternative. Hobbes might answer that the child is still "free" to opt out of his family since he is not physically shackled to his parents, and even in the original contract people agreed to form a state precisely because they could not physically defend themselves.
In these chapters Hobbes considers an objection to his argument about the necessity of a commonwealth. If one looks around at other animals, he specifically notes ants and bees, they appear to live harmoniously with one another without any sort of state or society. If they can do so, why can't men, who after all, are animals themselves? Hobbes offers several reasons why men cannot live in this way, the main one being that men, unlike animals, are rational creatures. If we lived in some pre-societal harmony with others reason would lead us to devise ways to cheat and make ourselves better off than others. Animals, furthermore, don't possess speech, and so are not able to mislead one another about their wants and desires (another form of cheating). Hobbes also claims that animals naturally agree with one another while humans do not, which is essentially begging the question of why this is so. Basically, this is because human nature is competitive, and to those who disagree with this, Hobbes suggests they look inside themselves and at civil wars for evidence.
Lastly, Hobbes argues that the only possible circumstance in which a subject is justified in disobeying the sovereign is when the commonwealth no longer protects its subjects. This seems to invite a certain degree of relativism into Hobbes argument: at what specific point in a commonwealth's life can it be said to no longer protect its subjects? If a commonwealth is no longer able to protect its subjects, that would mean that one is living without a state, and thus, being reduced to a state of nature, there is no sovereign to disobey. On the other hand, if you encourage people to disobey a sovereign "right before" it seems like the commonwealth is about to collapse, this makes the measure of a state's protection dangerously subjective.
Thomas Hobbes argued that in a State of Nature, life is a dog eat dog, world of cutthroat survival of the fittest. Hobbes argued that all rights are simply social constructions which the people or the sovereign find convenient to use. Hobbes, in this sense was a positivist. To him, rights are merely arbitrary social conventions, and are paper thin.
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