Conjuncted: Hobbes’ Authoritarianism (2)


Hobbes built up a theory of most thorough going collectivism but a rationale of such a collectivism was the peace and the security of the person and property of the individual, which gives a tinge of individualism to the theory of Hobbes. He even allowed his individual the right to resist his Sovereign if the latter attacked the individual’s life for whose preservation the contract was entered into. In certain contingencies the individual could withdraw the allegiance to the Sovereign who was not supporting the individual’s life. “The obligation of the subjects to the Sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them.” A man has a right to disobey his Sovereign if the latter commands to “kill, wound or maim himself; or not to resist those that assault him; or to abstain from the use of food, medicine or any other thing without which he cannot live.” An individual has the right to refuse allegiance to a deposed Sovereign. Hobbes is an individualist, since his entire system is based on the individual psychology of fear and self-defence. In so far as Hobbes equates the right of resistance of an individual to his capacity to resist, the right equally vanishes against the strength of the Sovereign. The right of the individual to resist the Sovereign if the individual’s life is endangered implies that the individual is the judge as to when his life is endangered. On the Hobbesian view of human nature, the individual will misuse this right and resist the Sovereign as often as he can. This will destroy what Hobbes wanted to create i.e. unlimited absolutism of the Sovereign.


Hobbes always considered hereditary absolute monarchy as the best form of the State. He does consider the possibility of elected monarchy, under which the ‘people is sovereign in property’, but not ‘in use’. Hobbes always maintained the distinction between the natural and the artificial State. He distinguished between the ‘commonwealth by acquisition’ and the ‘commonwealth by institution’; the former being based on natural force and the latter on voluntary subjection to an elected Government. Hobbes stresses on the fact that the law of nature is obligatory not only on the basis of Sovereign command but also as delivered in the ‘word of God’. Hobbes mentions solicitude for the eternal salvation of the subjects. With dual intentions, Hobbes becomes an interpreter; of the Bible in the first place to make use of the authority of the scriptures themselves. He does criticize religion in his most important three discourses. We have seen how he answers the question, “on what authority does one believe that scriptures are the word of God?”


Hobbes turning to history is filled with philosophic intentions. Hobbes reiterated the fact that it is history and not philosophy that gives man, prudence. The study is concerned with the historicity of its material; that the clear knowledge of application of the norms which obtain for human actions is the knowledge of actions, which have taken place in the past. Philosophy seeks general precepts, while the study seeks the application and realization of the precepts, the conditions and results of those precepts.

Through history a reader is to be taught which kinds of aims are salutary or destructive. History is often taken up to remedy man’s disobedience. It can be stated that the development, at least in the 16th century, justifies the assertion that the reason why philosophy turned to history is the repression of the morality of obedience.

Contribution to political philosophy:

The cardinal contribution made by Hobbes in the field of political philosophy was his doctrine of sovereignty. The concept of sovereignty had begun to develop in the hands of Machiavelli, Bodin and Grotius, but Hobbes was facile princeps to give it the shape and content, which sovereignty holds today. He was one of the first to see that the idea of sovereignty lay at the root of any State. His Leviathan aroused the indignation of almost all-important interests in England. His Erastianism (adherence of the supposed doctrine of Erastus. Subordinating ecclesiastical to secular power), was distasteful to the Church. Devoted churchmen found it absolutely intolerable that the Church was a mere department of the State. The monarchists, who adhered to the belief in the Divine Right of Kings, did not appreciate his secular theory based on a social contract. The Royalists on the other hand did not like the Hobbesian view of sovereignty because it justified the de facto Government of a successful dictator as much as that of a legitimate monarchy, and justified the absolutism of a Parliament as much as that of a King. Hobbes thought of the Divine Right of the State as compared to the Divine Right of the King. The parliamentarians viewed with scorn the opposition of Hobbes to mixed Government and constitutional checks. Although his political philosophy was little noticed in England, it created a stir on the continent. While Machiavelli had separated politics from religion and morals, Hobbes not only kept them separate but subordinated religion and morals to politics. Hobbes scored over Machiavelli in his exaltation of the State; for Machiavelli was never so absolutist as to declare that the laws of nature and the laws of God were to find their expression only through the interpretation and the will of the sovereign. The sovereignty of Hobbes was indivisible and unlimited. Hobbes knew that the basis of moral and legal right was reason, but to Hobbes, this reason was the reason of the sovereign expressed through his will only. Hobbes was an individualist in so far as he believed in the natural equality of men. His cardinality as a political philosopher lies in his deriving logically from a mass of free and equal individuals the concept of an omnipotent State. The brilliance of Hobbes was that he turned the theory of early liberalism to the defence of unlimited absolutism at a time when absolutism, born of Divine Right of Kings, was quickly losing its theoretical applications and practical implications.


The Hobbesian theory of social contract implies that man brings with him to the social contract ‘rights’ of the State of nature, which are devoid of social function, social recognition and hence they could only be powers. Hobbes proceeds to evolve his civil society on the basis of social contract, which suddenly transforms the chaos of the State of nature into the ordered civil society. Social contract is itself made in the State of nature. The Hobbesian sovereign is the representative of the people. But what guarantee is there that this ‘representative’ of the people will ‘represent’ the people by following public opinion and looking after the public welfare. John Locke attacked Hobbesian social contract according to which, when men quitting the State of nature entered into society, they agreed that all of them but one should be under the restraint of laws; but that he should still retain all the liberty of the State of nature, increased with power and made licentious by impunity. This is to think that men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischief polecats and foxes, may do them, but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions. Hobbes builds up his theory on the basis of pleasure-pain theory and evolves a master slave relationship. Hobbes regards matter and motion alone as real. His dogmatic materialism lives him little scope for freedom of human will. He is neither fully utilitarian, nor fully an idealist.

The unsoundness of Hobbes’ State of nature was a State of war of all against all in which the cardinal virtues are force and fraud. So, its clear that Hobbes’ man is anti-social. How could such a man go against his own  nature and suddenly enter a State not of war, but of peace, a State in which force and fraud are deliberately set aside, a State which is founded upon the ideas of right and justice, and in which acts of wrong and injustice are put under the double ban of public disapproval and of positive prohibition? With Hobbes, the self-interest of an individual before the contract is suddenly changed into his duties towards the sovereign after the contract. If men are not all force and fraud, they do not need an absolute sovereign; if they are; they cannot render passive obedience to him for all time after the contract. With Hobbes, it was Absolutism or Anarchy. The only remedy for the good behaviour of men was the coercive power of the sovereign. Hobbes failed to realize that there were other characteristics besides the fear of law and punishment, which kept men from relapsing into anarchy, viz., reason, religion and public opinion based on the faculty of reason. The Leviathan of Hobbes essentially states, ‘This State is a necessary evil, an instrument to defend men against their savage instincts, not to achieve a free and a progressive civilization’. Hobbesian position is that in the case of sovereign, might is right. 

Hobbes was a materialist and a rationalist. His philosophy vindicated the absolute sovereignty of whatever Government happened to be in power. Hobbes believed that human nature was bad but he held that it could be rendered moral by the State, which must be preserved at all costs. It must be realized that Hobbesian State is authoritarian and not totalitarian.

Unlike the totalitarian system, it is based on contractual obligations. In his State, there is equality of all before law and there is no privileged ruling class. Unlike the totalitarian State, it insists on the outward conformity of the subjects to law and not inner conformity to opinions and beliefs. His State, unlike the totalitarian, does not swallow the individual. 


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