Making Sense of Hobbes

As part of my literary drinking club, which meets every couple of months, I have been assigned some chapters from the Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes. It is not only the seminal work of modern political theory in the English language, it went on to influence the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and by extension many of the ideologies of the “post-Christian” era. This is seen, for example, in such common themes as the “state of nature,” the “social contract,” and the “general will.”

Rousseau the “optimist” argued against Hobbes the “pessimist,” and quite a few people believe that the English thinker was a conservative (not only leftists, of course, but also some right-of-center theorists like Strauss and Oakeshott). He is full of enough nuances, and some genuinely valuable and pithy insights, to prevent him from being easily pigeon-holed. Nevertheless I’m inclined to think that in many of his assumptions Hobbes was fundamentally quite radical. This is evident in his discussion of morality.

In chapter 13 Hobbes states

The Desires, and other Passions of man, are in themselves no Sin. No more are the Actions, that proceed from those Passions, till they know a Law that forbids them….

And a little further is the oft quoted passage

To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be Unjust…. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of the Body, nor Mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his Senses, and Passions. They are Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude.

Assuming it can be taken at face value, Hobbes offers a nominalist and relativist view of human actions. Things are bad only because we are told that they are; nothing is intrinsically “good” or “evil.” Yet it would seem to present a conundrum. If man in his natural state – prior to the foundation of society – is without morals, then where do these ideas come from? If a man in “solitude” is inherently vicious, why is he any better in a group? Aristotle held that man was a social being, but this not quite the same as Hobbes’ view, or that of later collectivist idealists, which see individuals as destructive and selfish by inclination. That side of human nature is undoubtedly real. But it is only part of the story.

Hobbes seeks to tie up his loose ends by presenting the commonwealth as a sort of deus ex machina in which the citizens “reduce all their Wills, by plurality of voices, unto one Will” (chap. 17). This is the origin of the General Will principle and strikes me as an attempt to immanentize the Divine Will in a world without God. In other words, it seeks to turn the state, the “people” or some other social apparatus into a force that conveniently negates or transcends the “state of nature,” or what Christians referred to as Original Sin. Perhaps others see the same difficulties in Hobbes’ theory as I do.

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