Victor Nuovo: Hobbes’ politics

Editor’s note: This is the 15th essay by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought, focusing on the great political thinkers.
An outstanding feature of Thomas Hobbes’ political theory is its clarity and simplicity. It is founded on two simple principles: natural right and natural law. Natural right or the right of nature is the liberty or freedom of persons to act in whatever way they choose; natural law consists of the duties that every person is obligated by nature to do. Rights and duties are conflicting warrants. If I have a natural right to do something, there can be no valid law of nature prohibiting it; if a law of nature prohibits me from an action, then I cannot claim a right to do it. 
Hobbes affirmed there is one primary or fundamental right of nature attributable to every human being, indeed to all creatures capable of voluntary action; it is a right to self defense or more generally to self preservation or “the preservation of one’s own nature” along with the right to use whatever means may be available to that end; this is not merely a right to exist, but to be free and self-determining without restriction. No law, natural or civil, can negate it or abridge it; it is an absolute and inalienable right. Hobbes remarked that even condemned criminals have for this reason the right to escape from their captors, which is why they are led bound and under guard to their execution. 
There is no doubt that, by introducing this notion, Hobbes unleashed a powerful idea into the world. Because of it, any law that in any way puts the life or limb of an individual or groups of persons under the arbitrary control or jurisdiction of another is deprived of all legitimacy. This natural right makes slavery impermissible, it negates the presumed right of husbands to be lords over their wives; a woman’s right to an abortion is grounded in it; so also the right of individuals to decide on their gender identity and whom to marry, and paradoxically, the right to die. Hobbes did not foresee all of the consequences that would flow from this principle, but I am inclined to believe that if he had the gift of historical foresight, he would not have been shocked or disappointed.
Now, Hobbes observed that a state of nature, if there ever was one, would be a state of war of all against all, for there would be no civil government to protect or prevent one individual from killing another, which everyone would have the right to do to insure their own self preservation. And, where there is no government or judicial authority, who is to decide but oneself on the need to kill another for one’s own protection or how to gain retribution for any harm that another may have caused us? Anger, fear, and paranoia are the final arbiters in a state of nature. Nor is there any way that individuals can make themselves immune to this dangerous condition or be secure from it, for it should be evident that even the strongest man can be killed by the weakest man, or by a woman. This, by the way, was, for Hobbes, proof of complete human equality, not just among men, but inclusive of women. He understood that the rights of women are equal to those of men in very respect. He was after all born during the reign Elizabeth the Great.
Because war is a constant danger and threat to one’s being, it evokes chronic fear and misery. And this unhappy state of mankind, of constant danger and the fear of it, must remain everyone’s companion, until war and the very threat of it ceases. 
Hobbes believed that human beings are rational creatures, and a major part of rational behavior is prudential, considering one’s options and choosing to act in a way that will bring about the most beneficial results to oneself. In a chronic state of war, peace must seem the most beneficial and therefore most desirable option of all, for there can be no winners. And it is out of this rational effort, that there emerges the first fundamental law of nature, “Seek peace, and follow it.” Moreover, this fundamental law does not in any way contradict the fundamental right of nature, which every human being possesses; rather it is the perfect complement of it. For if this law were duly observed by everyone everywhere, there would be no more war and everyone would be secure from violent death although still mortal.
But how does this happen? Here Hobbes’ great clarity of intellect is matched by his fertile imagination. He imagined that it is brought about by an act of creation comparable to the divine creation of the world. God created the world, but we humans have created “Leviathan,” which is the title of his great book on political theory. Leviathan is a great sea monster, described in the book of Job, chapter 41; an animal of insuperable strength and ferocity. “He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood; Darts are counted as stubble, he laugheth at the shaking of a spear; Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear; He is a king over all the children of pride.” Such is a human commonwealth, or civil state, a great person, in whom we, children of pride, are incorporated as citizens and members of one body politic, Leviathan, in whom we live and move and have our being.
But although the creation of civil society is, like the supposed creation of the world, a creation out of nothing, it is not miraculous. The act of creating a civil society is a voluntary act of persons, who covenant with each other, pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, no longer to live apart, who mutually agree to forego a portion of their natural liberty, specifically of their right to use whatever means at hand to protect their lives, and to transfer this to another, who now has the power of retribution and punishment, and who in turn pledges to protect and defend all the people, and to ensure their safety and welfare. Here is where the law of nature truly becomes a law, for in this new great society, all citizens oblige themselves to obedience without limit of duration; they also put themselves under a new fear, the fear of Leviathan, who will punish them if they fail to keep their promises, for a promise once made may be broken, but the obligation to keep it never ceases.
I believe that Hobbes was truly awed by this thing which we call the civil state; and it is truly an amazing thing, notwithstanding the dreary history corruption in governments, of civil wars, betrayals, and revolutions. What is most awesome of all is the burden that it places on us all who by virtue of being citizens are participants in the promise to seek peace and follow it. 
Postscript: It should be noted that unlike other political philosophers, Hobbes did not suppose that civil societies had any higher purpose than the peace and welfare of its citizens. He was not obsessed by visions of greatness, or manifest destiny, or cultural pride, or imperial expansion, or human exceptionalism; his only concern was for peace.
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