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Hobbes’ Political Authority Ángel Miguel González Capizzi 114286-6 Ethics


Starting with the Greeks, followed by the Romans and through midieval times, and even today, there has always been some sort of political authority that controls society, whether it be a republic, democracy, dictatorship or any other type of governance, it has always controlled society in some way; but why should we even care about this political authority and is it even important for us to have it? Thomas Hobbes thinks that a world without political authority, human life is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.”1

This essay will address Hobbes’s explanation and justification of the

emergence of political authority among human beings, analyze some possible objections to Hobbes’s theory and how he would answer them, and conclude with my assessment of the overall plausibility of Hobbes’s argument. “Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when he is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he2” (chap. 13, par. 1, pg. 74); this starting premise that men are in a condition of equal strength of mind and body, for Hobbes, is the source of each of the three causes in which we arrive to a state of nature where we are in a constant “war of all against all” (chap. 13, par. 8, pg. 76). These three causes are “first, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory” (chap. 13, par. 6, pg. 76), but for our sake we’ll call them the paths of gain, safety, and glory. In the path of gain, men’s desires often come into mutual conflict. But aware of their equal strength, men believe they can overcome their adversaries and therefore men try to destroy or subdue one another in pursuit of their ends. Hence, men live in


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis, 1993), chap. XIII, par. 9, pg. 76. 2 John L. Campbell. "The US financial crisis: lessons for theories of institutional complementarity." Socio-Economic Review 9.2 (2011): 211-34. Print.


constant insecurity and vulnerability to attacks on their property and on their person. This way uses violence as a way of gaining what other men may need or want- “the first use violence to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle” (chap. 13, par. 7, pg. 76). In this condition of mutual distrust, the quest for safety implies pre-emptive strikes on other people and their property out of the necessity of self-preservation. Furthermore, because some men accumulate power far beyond the necessities of selfpreservation, other are compelled to do likewise, creating a sort of competition, or “arms race” between men. Hobbes has no problem with this condition because, for him, out of self-preservation, anything goes, “the second (path), to defend them (one’s property)” (chap. 13, par. 7, pg. 76). The path of glory is a cause simply because of man’s pride to be respected among his peers; everyone seeks to be valued by other as much as he values himself. And out of this pride, at the first sign of contempt, he seeks to compel the culprit to respect him, by asserting power over him, e.g. dueling- “the third (path), for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons, or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name” (chap. 13, par. 7, pg. 76). Because of these three paths, Hobbes reaches the conclusion that without a common power to overawe them, men are in a “war of all against all” (chap. 13, par. 8, pg. 76). And the consequence of this war is that society cannot flourish the way men want it to be- “in such condition there is no play for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, (…..), no society, and which is


worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (chap. 13, par. 9, pg. 76). It is in mans’ interest to leave this state of nature to try and live peacefully and Hobbes states that the solution is the surrender of rights, or more specifically the right of each man to rule himself, to a ruler or a ruling body, so that this ruler can protect them from each other, thus creating a social contract. Through this action, Hobbes states, comes the unity of all men with the will of surrendering their rights for sake of peace among themselves- “it is a real unity of them all, in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man…” (chap. 17, par. 13, pg. 109). This mutual gathering of people willing to give up their rights for peace among one another Hobbes defines as the commonwealth and once a commonwealth is established, what Hobbes calls, the Leviathan, or Sovereign, rises to power and within him is the essence of the commonwealth which Hobbes defines as “one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defense” (chap. 17, par. 13, pg. 109). In other words, this ruler is in charge of the well-being and defense of his subjects since they themselves have given up the right to govern.

Since the

commonwealth gave up their rights voluntarily, Hobbes refers to them as a commonwealth by institution, as opposed to a commonwealth by acquisition, which is when one man seizes power by force. And the legitimacy of this ruler is not challenged because Hobbes states that we owe it to God to live in peace and to help defend one another- “this is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortal God to which we owe, under the Immortal God our peace and defense” (chap. 17, par. 13, pg. 109).


This idea is a sort of dictatorship but not one that we see today in countries like Cuba and Venezuela. Though the Sovereign is the one with the most power, he has limits beginning with the fact that a man is free to disobey the sovereign if he is ordered to directly endanger or terminate his own life; to refuse to incriminate himself in a trial; to refuse to kill other people for the sovereign; to violently resist arrest if he has committed an offense worthy of execution, but only if his life is under threat; to sue the sovereign if the sovereign has taken an action against him pursuant to the law; and the obligation of a subject to the sovereign lasts only as long as the sovereign can protect him (the right to protect oneself cannot be relinquished) (chap. 21 pg. 142-145). But the sovereign’s rights include the right to do whatever he deems necessary to preserve the peace of the commonwealth; to censor speech and education based on what he deems conduces to peace and averts war; to regulate property rights and make and enforce laws; to judge disputes among citizens; to make war and peace; and to bestow honors (chap. 17, pg. 110-118). But with this view of absolute power of the sovereign, there are some objections to Hobbes’s idea of political authority. One objection is that life under the sovereign can be very harsh, cruel, and unjust because they are under the control of the sovereign. Men cannot truly be free and have the liberty to live they way they would like; they are victims of another man’s passions. But Hobbes understands this objection but concludes that even though the commonwealth may suffer, it still isn’t as bad as the state of nature where chaos and violence are the rulers and not man- “… not considering that the estate of man can never be without some incommodity or other, and that the greatest that in any form of government can possibly happen to the people in general is scarce sensible, in respect of the miseries and horrible calamities that accompany a civil war…” (chap. 17, par. 20, pg. 117). He also prefers that people suffer under the passions of one man rather than


with the passions of all. But personally, I think that Hobbes may be over-exaggerating the state of nature because historically, people have always lived in tribes because they don’t want to fight among themselves, that people are naturally want to live with each other rather than then fight among themselves and so they are quick to give up they rights just so that they can have peace. I don’t think that for people, according to Hobbes, it is very hard live together in a group and have a political authority leading them, whether it be a dictator or a democracy; people seek peace, not war between themselves. Another objection of mine that arises is that since a social contract is only applicable to the persons with that society, those outside of it the social contract does not apply to. So this would mean that we have no duty to those outside of our society, unless out of self-interest. It is in the society’s interest to form a contract with those societies that can help the previous one, but with those who neither help nor harm the society, there is no interest in contracting with them. This can be seen as a good thing because those who the society contracts with means that they help the society in a positive way. But this can also be a very negative thing because it supposes that we have no obligations to those outside of our society at all. I think that Hobbes would agree with the previous because he states that the sovereign has “the right of making war and peace with other nations and commonwealths” (chap. 17, par. 12, pg. 114). For Hobbes the sovereign has the right do what he sees fit for his nation, whether it means forming a contract with another nation or fight against others- “…of judging when it is for the public good, and how great forces are to be assembled, armed, and paid for that end, and to levy money upon the subjects to defray the expenses thereof” (chap. 17, par. 12, pg. 114).


My overall assessment of the Hobbes is argument is that it is a bit extremist. I think that he assumes too much that the human being is a cruel, animalistic creature that will do whatever he needs to do in order to get what he wants, or better said, needs. Although, he does make a very convincing argument about his theory and I found the Leviathan to be a very convincing book that opened my mind to challenge my own political standards and to truly think about whether or not it is better to have an oppressed society where there is peace, like Iraq with Saddam Hussein, or an anarchistic society like present-day Iraq. I have still arrived at the conclusion that even though there is peace among the people, the fact that they are still oppressed is wrong. I think that every person deserves the freedom to live their lives according to how they like, but within the limits of a justice system. I believe that Hobbes’s argument is false in the sense that it exaggerates the state of nature and the human condition but true in the sense that with a dictator there is peace. Whether the peace is just or not, I believe that it isn’t because the society is oppressed under one man’s will when we all should have the liberty to be free and make our own decisions accordingly. In conclusion, this essay has addressed Hobbes’s political authority theory beginning with the explanations of the three paths of how humans arrive at the state of nature and how we create a social contract so that a sovereign may rise into power to lead and protect us, some objections about the exaggeration of the state of nature and the potential problem with a social contract like Hobbes’s, and concluded with my on views on the strength and validity of Hobbes’s argument. I thought that this book was very interesting and brought up very convincing points which made me think whether or not we have do have a duty to those societies, who may not harm ours but don’t help either, that have an oppressive government in power and may seem peaceful. Though it


may no be convient for our countries, do we still have the obligation of helping those who are less free than us?


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis, 1993), chap. XIII, par. 9, pg. 76.

Works Cited Campbell, John L. "The US Financial Crisis: Lessons for Theories of Institutional Complementarity." Socio-Economic Review 9.2 (2011): 211-34. Print.