Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan: Commonwealth. (12/14/98)

Another way to evaluate Hobbes's view of the parallels between man's natural state in America and his own contemporary social experience is to recognize the fact that he was responding to the social and political upheaval of the civil war that engulfed England during the Cromwellian revolution in the seventeenth century. Hobbes, a royalist, was tutor to the Prince of Wales (Charles II) and spent much time with the king after the Restoration of the Crown when Cromwell's revolution ended with the puritan leader's death in 1658. Hobbes had spent six years in Paris (1640-46) before returning to England about the time Leviathan was written and published (1651).

Hobbes asserts in his work that the sovereign of any Commonwealth, who rules by virtue of the common assent of all men in the realm, has the right by "natural law" to take what he needs from his subjects to protect them from "the miseries and horrible calamities that accompany a civil war, or that dissolute condition of masterless men without subjection to laws and a coercive power to tie their hands from rapine and revenge." This statement, of course, embodies a major tenet of the Hobbesian view of the human condition: that men must always be coerced by major force to refrain from the natural inclination to do harm to their fellow citizens. Without "laws and a coercive power," ones which are established by a Commonwealth, the human condition is always in a state of "mere nature" and hence also in one of perpetual war.

Hobbes, perhaps drawing again from Montaigne, notes that

"where men have lived by small families, to rob and spoil one another has been a trade, and so far from being reputed against the law of nature that the greater spoils they gained, the greater was their honour; and men observed no other laws therein but the laws of honour; that is, to abstain from cruelty, leaving to men their lives and instruments of husbandry. And as small families did then; so now do cities and kingdoms, which are but greater families (for their own security), enlarge their dominions upon all pretences of danger, and fear of invasion, or assistance that may be given to invaders; endeavour as much as they can to subdue or weaken their neighbours by open force, and secret arts, for want of other caution, justly; and are remembered for it in after ages with honour."

Montaigne strongly emphasizes the honorable nature of native American warfare, notes that they never engage in it for gain, and never seize the goods or material possessions of those they conquer ("Their disputes are not for the conquest of new lands, for these they already possess are so fruitful by nature, as to supply them without labor or concern, with all things necessary, in such abundance that they have no need to enlarge their borders." Montaigne also notes that "If their neighbors pass over the mountains to assault them, and obtain a victory, all the victors gain by it is glory only, and the advantage of having proved themselves the better in valor and virtue: for they never meddle with the goods of the conquered."). Hobbes defines the nature of government among the natives of America, as noted earlier, as consisting of "small families," where they have any government at all, and therefore probably would associate the reality of the New World's political circumstances, as he understood them, with the conditions he describes above. The point one can make here is that Hobbes employed conditions in the New World as a model for his own perception of the conditions he saw in England during the Cromwellian civil war. He does, of course, paint a darker picture of European practice because his "small families" do "meddle with the goods of the conquered," and all wars fought in Europe are conducted for gain and the enlargement of one sovereign's kingdom and power at the expense of the other's.

The Hobbesian view of Commonwealth consists of a primary distinction between man's state in "mere nature," characterized as "a condition of war of every man against every man," and the creation of a system of government based on "natural law" and "covenant" where every man in the realm consents to being ruled by a single sovereign, or an assembly of men who act as one. The creation of the Commonwealth supersedes "mere nature" and obliterates, or replaces, the state of continual war with one of peace where every man respects and honors the rights and possessions of his neighbors. The sovereign's role, of course, is to coerce compliance with the "natural law" that orders society and lifts it out of its natural and perpetual state of war.

"Natural laws," as Hobbes defines them, cannot be distinguished in their substance from what other people in other times have been inclined to call social laws. Such a distinction inside the limits of Hobbes's discourse is not particularly significant as long as one resists the impulse to carry the concept without any qualification to other philosophical points of view. Hobbes notes, for instance, that

"the laws of nature, as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to, of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all."

Hobbes elevates justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and so on, to the level of natural law by connecting them in an unequivocal way to the word of God. He says that

"justice, gratitude, modesty, equity, mercy, and the rest of the laws of nature, are good; that is to say, moral virtues; and their contrary vices, evil. Now the science of virtue and vice is moral philosophy; and therefore the true doctrine of the laws of nature is the true moral philosophy."

He takes the notion of moral philosophy one necessary step beyond this level when he asserts that

"These dictates of reason men used to call by the name of laws, but improperly: for they are but conclusions or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves; whereas law, properly, is the word of him that by right hath command over others. But yet if we consider the same theorems as delivered in the word of God that by right commandeth all things, then are they properly called laws."

The point Hobbes has made here is that justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and so on, are social laws only when they are considered in the context of "mere nature." This is true because in that state man is continually at war by virtue of the fact that no covenant has been made to establish the existence of the sovereign, who by right and mutual consent of the governed, has acquired the right of "command over others." Once the covenant has been cast into place, the same laws become "natural" because they are "delivered in the word of God that by right commandeth all things." This point is essential to Hobbes's argument because it allows him to assert that natural laws are "immutable and eternal; for injustice, ingratitude, arrogance, pride, iniquity, acception of persons, and the rest can never be made lawful. For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it."

This last statement is crucial because Hobbes argues that the first natural law "lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved." In short, then, war is a condition of man in "mere nature" and is, by definition of Hobbes's first natural law, un-natural because war does nothing to preserve human life but only destroys it. The only way to avoid a perpetual condition of war is for every man to agree with every one of his fellows that the only course to follow is the creation by covenant, each with the other, of a Commonwealth ruled by a sovereign, or an assembly of men who act as one. The sovereign in turn acts as the representative of the whole and insures by whatever coercive means are necessary that every man keep the covenant with every other man in the realm. By keeping the covenant, of course, peace is assured and the first natural law, which forbids anything that is destructive of life, is maintained and fulfilled.

A point one can make here, if only briefly, is that Hobbes developed his view of natural law out of the chaos and lawlessness that accompanied the Cromwellian revolution in England during the 17th Century. Applying standards of behavior like the ones he witnessed to the conditions and circumstances that might have existed in native America at the same time, while a typical practice of Eurocentric discourse, nevertheless tells us absolutely nothing about the actual circumstance of pre-Colombian civilization in the Western hemisphere. Just because Hobbes attempts to elevate his precepts to the level of immutable law, as ones contained in and by the mind of God, does not mean that they suddenly become applicable to any civilization outside the one that gave rise to them in the first place; this is, to Cromwellian England. Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), used a similar argument to establish universal principles of morality when he said that Good was that which everyone desired by a principle of reason and Evil was that which everyone abhorred on the same ground. That idea might be said to work as long as a majority of people in a Commonwealth do not suddenly decide to murder everyone who stands in the way of what they most desire. To say such a thing can never happen, by virtue of principles of reason, is to ignore the fact that Europeans universally desired the annihilation of native Americans so that they could occupy and exploit all the land mass of the Western hemisphere. Hence, both Hobbes and Kant justify genocide as morally sound behavior.

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