Victor Nuovo: Lingering problems with Hobbes

Editor’s note: This is the 16th essay by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought, focusing on the great political thinkers.
By Victor Nuovo
There are problems with Hobbes’ political theory. To begin with, the political solution that I described in the previous essay is a prescription against anarchy, but the remedy prescribed is extreme: a strong dose of absolutism. It seems that in his scheme of civil government, Hobbes has given all power to the sovereign and none to the people; the sovereign’s right is to command, the people’s duty is to hear and obey. According to his hypothetical account of the origin of civil government, the people are the creators of it and they enter into it and submit to its power and jurisdiction by an irrevocable promise, which is their free act and deed. Their reasons for submitting to this “mortal God” (Hobbes ironic name for the civil state) is to escape from a chronic state of war; peace or war are the only options. Yet, it seems that in choosing peace, the people behave like an anxious flock of chickens, who, fearing the unavoidable danger of the free range, build a henhouse for themselves and agree to make a fox their keeper.
Moreover, when Hobbes wrote about the origin of the civil state, he did not have in mind a particular moment in human history when wandering bands of human beings abandoned their uncertain nomadic existence and agreed to gather into societies, establish permanent settlements, and submit to a common rule. He was aware that what he wrote about the origin of the civil state was fiction.
On top of all this there is Hobbes’ low regard for human nature. We humans are selfish and afraid, lacking any inherent nobility, and, besides, we are not free. But if all this be true, if we are indeed so petty and self-seeking, and incapable to act except as passion drives us, how did Hobbes suppose we could ever transform ourselves into citizens who are committed to equality and the rule of law, and into brave and fair-minded political leaders, whose only concern is to protect their subjects and promote their welfare?
These problems are not reasons turn away from Hobbes, but to look deeper. Hobbes depths are not murky and mystical, they consist of clear, transparent, and albeit rigorous thoughts. He approached politics as an experimental naturalist. His fiction about how civil societies originate is a hypothesis. All scientific hypotheses originate as fictions, inventions of reason designed to make sense out of the regularities that occur in nature; keen observers of these regularities imagine forces producing them and devise experiments to test and refine their imagined hypotheses. This is the process of experimental science. Hobbes was a political scientist who employed an empirical method; he fashioned his political hypothesis by studying history, which was a source of examples and confirmations. Nor did he suppose there was a single moment in human history where mankind created civil society; history taught him that the process happened repeatedly and that there were as many if not more failures than successes.
He regarded political science as a practical science, like medicine or engineering. Civil societies do not evolve spontaneously, as perhaps birds’ nests or beehives; they must be made, and there are better or worse ways of making them. Thus politics is an art grounded in a knowledge of human nature. And, to use it well, one must be unsentimental and realistic. He was acutely aware of the anarchistic tendencies in human societies, the predatory methods of political opportunists, of well-spoken demagogues, who promised peace and prosperity but delivered only conflict and inequality, and so he prescribed strong measures to overcome them. His low opinion of the human character was repeatedly confirmed by daily events.
But in spite of his pessimism, Hobbes, more than any other modern political thinker, clearly saw the enormity of the task that faces every generation of humanity. Or, perhaps, his vision was clarified because of his pessimism, for he was under no illusions. He realized that if we are to live together in peace, then we must become citizens, and we become citizens only by remaking ourselves. He saw that this was possible because human beings, albeit corrupt or corruptible, selfish and self-aggrandizing, are also capable using reason to fashion laws whose validity is self evident to all. “Seek peace, and follow it,” requires no justification. And from this basic law of nature, others may be derived; prominent among them are the following: that promises once made must be kept; that fair value be agreed upon for goods and services; that these goods and services must be equitably distributed; that extreme poverty and extreme wealth are social evils; that sentiments of gratitude and good will are essential to peaceful social relations; that we ought not to seek revenge, but be ready to pardon others who offend us; that we must forswear all attitudes of contempt for others and all acts of cruelty; in sum, that we must do to others as we would have others do to us, and the converse, that we not do to others what we would not have done to oneself. By these means, we become sociable and mutually accommodating citizens, and if we fail to accomplish this well enough, we fear the fox who stands ready to enforce the law.
But who controls the fox? Hobbes believed that rulers are above the law, not because they are superior beings, but because it goes with the role of a monarch, who, even if bound by an oath — a promise to protect the people — there was no one above him to enforce it, except God. Laws alone are not sufficient, for to supreme rulers they are mere marks on a page, mere dictation; and in any case, since all the powers of government — executive, legislative and judicial — resided in them, monarchs were subject to no law that they could not revise. Hobbes did not recognize the principle of the separation of powers.
Hence, monarchs must be self regulated, which is to say, they must be virtuous, but the only means of accomplishing this is through persuasion and education. In this respect, Hobbes’ Leviathan falls into a class of works of advice to monarchs, and while any monarch in his day would have been well advised to read it and take it to heart, there was no means beyond sweet reason to ensure that this would happen. Hobbes had firsthand experience of the process of educating kings, having served as tutor to the Prince of Wales, who would become King Charles II, who was reputed to be an immoralist, but was no tyrant, so perhaps Hobbes taught him well.
We learn from Hobbes that our political existence is precarious, and that our institutions rest on unsteady foundations, but that if we focus on essentials — how to live in peace, what sorts of law do we need, and how to enforce them fairly and equitably — and never be satisfied that our work is ended, we may enjoy a measure of success. This is the advice of a realist. Times have changed, but not that much; what Hobbes has written still rings true.

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