Who is worthy of governing? When should authority be questioned and obeyed? Is concentrated power destined to be corrupted? This article utilizes Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) to explore these questions and more.
Renounced British philosopher Thomas Hobbes deeply reflected on a time without government; an era which he called “the State of Nature.” He believed that a “dissolute condition of masterless men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands from rapine, and revenge” would make impossible all of the underlying security upon which comfortable, sociable, civilized life depends. He famously asserted in Leviathan (1651), that there would be “no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth … and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes’ quintessential work, Leviathan (1651), asserted that humankind requires a large government (or Leviathan) to organize a civilized society. He claimed that this government must be powerful and absolutist to be useful in guiding the population. Without such coercive powers, he believed, humanity would be doomed to eternal warfare in the State of Nature.
Thomas Hobbes is also known for championing the social contract theory, which asserts that codes of social morality ascend from a free, self-interested, and rational population. He believed that such a population would quickly realize the benefits of cooperating rather than competing; prompting them to create social contracts which ultimately benefit those involved. An individual’s morality, Hobbes asserted, is determined by their adherence to the social contract which they agreed to by benefitting from the system. Hobbes believed that, beyond these criteria, morality is subjective and varies across cultures and societies. In this sense, Hobbes’ social contract theory is more than a social and political philosophy – it is a moral one as well. Such beliefs hold many dire implications, primarily of human nature and authority.
Firstly, it implies that humans are unable to naturally cooperate and behave rationally in a social context without a coercive force such as government, or rather without the enlightened crafting such an institution for convenience. However, perhaps Hobbes’ notion of contractarianism could also lead one to the opposite conclusion; that humanity is capable of rational social organization based on social responsibility rather than governmental force. Perhaps, if there were a population who truly embraced rationality and cooperation, they could craft a social contract so powerful that individuals no longer need a government (in the traditional sense) to force the organization of society. If such is the case, and humankind is indeed capable of sophisticated self-governing, then the existence of coercive powers is not only unnecessary but destructive. Unfortunately, there have been few modern societies unaffected by global capitalism to study what an advanced society would look like without influence from coercive powers. Either way, Hobbes’ pessimistic perception of human nature is the foundation of his theories, and a differing position on this one issue could quickly turn his theories against the authoritarian government.
Secondly, Hobbes’ theories assume that governments will structure society in a way which is beneficial to those who sign the social contract. However, when a centralized authority makes decisions, the outcome often reflects the interests of whoever is in power – interests which usually contradict that of the public. Although Hobbes does note that individuals are only obligated to contracts which benefit them, the ability to reject or sign contracts is usually near impossible due to the powers of authority. For example, although Hobbes would likely agree that slaves should reject a social contract which dehumanizes them, slaves ultimately lack a choice because of the force implemented by an authority to keep them in their subhuman social position. Although a less extreme example, the same philosophy could be applied to average birthright citizens as well; those who were never given a choice as to whose contract to follow and yet are physically forced by the government and the markets to follow a particular contract. The Contractarian’s rebuttal would likely mention the benefits which citizens receive for sacrificing their freedom to state-capitalism; we may be forced to sacrifice taxes and labor, but that is what enables our collective ability to drive on roads and purchase goods. There is certainly validity in this argument, although only if 1.) powerful authority is indeed necessary and 2.) the public is consistently assessing if their requirements are reasonable for the benefits they receive. When a population is forced to devote a majority of their time and labor for basic survival, the structures of power are not in the public favor. Everyday situations such as these exemplify the problems with assuming that structures of power will remain serving the people, especially when authority is consolidated amongst such a small group.
Ultimately, Hobbes would likely agree that no forms of authority, governmental or economic, are self-justified; those holding power must continuously prove themselves to be in the interests of the public to maintain legitimately. Unfortunately, by the time powers become tyrannical, the people are often already too powerless to revolt. Keeping these lessons in mind, we must consistently question whether contemporary power structures current meet these criteria for legitimacy; do we devote a reasonable amount of labor to corporations and the government to justify the rewards which we currently yield? Such a question is often met with either revolutionary rhetoric or passionate disregard; both distract our ability to purely and logically question these concepts. If Hobbes’ philosophy is to positively endure the future of Western ideology, we must remain vigilant of the contracts we adhere to, as well as the structures of power which dictate our lives and behavior. Social contracts are the undeniable foundation of a cooperative society; whether they necessitate powerful institutions to enforce is a question which will undoubtedly continue to be pondered, debated, and tested for the rest of foreseeable human civilization.