Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Genre: essay in political theory.

Form: prose.

Characters: "God"-the-artist (1659), Hobbes' daring advance on Sidney's poet-vates thesis; the "Leviathan called a Common-Wealth or State"; "man" as an abstraction, concretely imagined by Hobbes in a variety of "typical" scenes tailored to his premises about how society must have evolved; "Nature," the supreme creation of "God-the-artist" and the ultimate arbiter of any human scheme of social organization, a force that knows no such concept as "sin" or "crime."

Summary:  Like Milton's Chaos (PL, Book II), Hobbes' version of human society arises out of an innate contention among factions seeking their own advantage, each faction being born of the aggregation of individual human beings, each of which seeks her or his own advantage and is compelled or persuaded to ally her or his efforts with the faction in question.   Factions negotiate, according to Hobbes, according to the same principles to maximize the survival of their members.  (Marx and Engels challenge that notion regarding the force of class-division, and Lenin challenges it on grounds that revolutionary parties might violate self-interest in pursuit of long term goals.)   War is the "natural" state of humanity, in Hobbes' vision, and peace arises from our "natural" propensity to seek advantage by all means available, ultimately including war.  "All other time is peace" (1664).

Having defined his version of "the natural condition" (1661), he then defines the laws he observes acting there.  First, humans (he calls them "men," important?) cannot do things which would destroy their lives (contra both the pagan ideal of self-sacrifice for a principle or the "christian" law requiring treating one's neighbor's harm as one's own).  The second law commands that humans "perform their covenants made" (1665).  From this second law, America arose.  (And the French, Vietnamese, and European Anti-Communist Revolutions, as well.)  Hobbes' daring leads him to declare that "injustice is no other than the not performance of a covenant" (1665, emphasis Hobbes).  Covenant breakers become unacceptable in any society governed according to Hobbes' rules (1667) and those who reach sovereign power by revolution must bear the consequence that their model may inspire others (1667).  So...the Parliamentary Revolution against royal absolutism in 1642-9 leads to the American colonies' revolt against Britain in 1776 (and thence, by analogy, to the French Revolution in 1789, and to Wordsworth's haunted sense of responsibility for the Revoltion's execution of all and sundry in the Terror).

Most importantly, Hobbes says that society arises from the consent of the governed, gradually concentrated in ever larger units which eventually constitute the state.  But he alleged (in a part the Norton doesn't include!) that the state's reasons could not be challenged by its people.  Add the following and stir: John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and Jean Jaques Rousseau.  Poof, personal rights to freedom!  See why this guy's in the Norton?

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. As the Norton editors remind us, Hobbes is Bacon's student (1658).  Given Hobbes' view of nature and humanity, how would you trace the influence of Bacon's attitudes toward the later philosopher's thought?
  2. Compare Milton's and Hobbes' attitudes toward rebellion.  Consider that Everyman's first response to Death's summons was, technically, rebellion against the lord's command.
    • In what other instances have we seen individuals confronted by the aristocracy's attempt to invoke their power as an absolute or contextual right?
      • Maldon?
      • The lovers in the sonnets of the C16?
      • Hotspur and Hal and Henry IV in 1 Henry IV, or Goneril to Albany in Lear?
      • Lucifer vs. Faustus?
    • How do you see the notion of "freedom" being treated by these authors?
    • Is it "evolving" in the commonly understood sense of evolution as a gradual process?
    • Or is it "evolving" in the "catastrophic evolution theory" sense of a slow process interrupted by occasional, violent, unpredictable uprisings of new ideas, dreams, genes, or schemes?
  3. Hobbes influenced many writers, but one of them clearly was Melville.
  4. Among the most important people Hobbes influenced were the framers of the American colonies' Declaration of Independence.  To see Lauren Le Vert's parallel comparison of excerpts from Leviathan and the Declaration, click here.   Hobbes' thinking about rulers covenants with the people they rule had been widely discussed by the 1770s, so his influence on the American colonists' thinking may have come from many sources.

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