Monday, May 9, 2011

Hobbes: Leviathon

Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan to support the Royalist cause during the English Civil War.  However, the thesis of Leviathan is more complex that just the supremacy of a sovereignover his people.  There is also the agreement between individuals to sacrifice their own power and freedom to produce this overlord and the relationship between the sovereign (or assembly men) and the subjects. In many ways Leviathan is a perfect segue from my last reading, Machiavelli's The Prince.  Where Machiavelli proposed how a prince should govern, Hobbes goes into the details.  

Hobbes says that before we had government, we lived in a constant state of war where "every man is an enemy to every man". Everyone could act on their desires, depending on their own strength, taking whatever they wanted from any person.   Of course the resources and energy required to maintain this struggle meant that there was no culture, trade, art or letters and no society - not to mention continual fear at being attacked.  Of course these individuals did have interactions and were not always fighting.  However, a state of fear permeated everything and there was no common authority to establish justice or safety.

Eventually small groups of people agreed to give up some of their freedom in exchange for security.  Thus men would "lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself".  So now we have people agreeing to not kill and steal from each other.  However, who is going to enforce this covenant? What will be the "common power to keep them in awe and direct their actions to the common benefit"?   

Hobbes says that individuals in this society must "confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will".  This is the "artificial person" who unites all the people and maintains justice in that society.  The Leviathan has supreme power and all individuals must consent to the will of the "common power".  Not everyone will agree, but the will of the majority is represented and must be followed because "a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand".  If someone living in this society decides not to follow the sovereign, they have broken the covenant and they relinquish all rights.  These people have returned to a "state of war" and are no longer protected.

Charles II
Hobbes gives his sovereign almost absolute power, which reflects the monarchist spirit of the text.

For example:

- The covenant between the subjects makes the sovereign, but the subjects can never willingly change sovereigns. This is what gives the soveign his authority to rule over other men.
- The sovereign's will is absolute in civil law, war and peace and he can reward or punish subjects.

Although the soveriegn is almost omnipotent in a society, there are some limits on his power. 

-  Although the sovereign is the last word in justice he cannot force a man to testify (provide evidence) against himself - a hallmark of our Constitution (aka. "taking the Fifth")

- He cannot force a man to intentionally harm himself - sounds fair to me.

- He must protect his subjects. This is a biggie. If the sovereign cannot protect his people he has broken his agreement and the obligation of the people to this sovereign is nullified. 

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