The Artificial Nature of the Concept of Sovereignty in Leviathan

March 6, 2022 by Essay Writer

Thomas Hobbes concludes his great treatise on politics, Leviathan, saying he composed the work “without partiality, without application, and without other design than to set before men’s eyes the mutual relation between protection and obedience, of which the condition of human nature and the laws divine…require an inviolable observation.” (Conclusion, 17) By considering Leviathan with a view to Hobbes’s stated mission, one can better understand why Hobbes takes certain positions, argues certain definitions and paints so pessimistic a portrait of human nature. By arguing that mankind is naturally apolitical, and that the state of nature is not a theoretical pedagogical framework but rather a condition into which man’s nature renders him continually at risk of lapse, Hobbes is able to argue that sovereignty is an artificial construction of authors and actors that simultaneously satisfies man’s inclination towards peace without restricting his liberty.

Hobbes argues that human nature is not conducive to political life, and that humans only become political by artificial means. In describing man’s motivations for creating commonwealths, Hobbes describes mankind as naturally loving liberty and dominion over others. (XVII, 1) Given that conventional conceptions of the commonwealth involve restricting some liberties of nature, and that even Hobbes’s very unconventional conception of the commonwealth involves being under the dominion of another, Hobbes appears to be suggesting that mankind’s natural inclinations are contrary to the necessities of a commonwealth. To bolster this point, Hobbes invokes Aristotle’s notion of the political animal, which is naturally social and cooperative. He agrees with Aristotle in counting bees and ants among political animals (XVII, 6), but claims that humans’ love of liberty and power prevents them from cooperating without an artificial aid: the covenant. Hobbes writes, “A commonwealth is said to be instituted, when a multitude of men do agree, and covenant, every one with every one, that to whatsoever man, or assembly of men, shall be given by the major part, the right to present the person of them all.” (XVIII, 1) Though mankind lives politically, just as bees and ants do, “the agreement of these creatures [political animals] is natural; that of men, is by covenant only, which is artificial.” (XVII, 12) Because he describes mankind’s nature as contrary to political life, Hobbes needs to introduce something new to explain why covenants and commonwealths exist at all. This missing link is people’s “foresight of their own preservation” (XVII, 1), their ability to recognize that escape from the state of nature would benefit them.

Hobbes’s argues that his “state of nature,” in addition to being a useful lens for examining the benefits of political life, is a manifest condition that exists and has existed in various human societies. Because Hobbes sees humans as naturally apolitical, it easily follows that he believes the state of nature is more than just a framework for understanding political society. He bolsters this idea both through scriptural and anthropological evidence. First, he claims that speech is essential for the commonwealth, writing, “The most noble and profitable invention of all other, was that of SPEECH… without which, there had been amongst men, neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace.” (IV, 1) The use of the word “invention” is crucial here, as it allows Hobbes to simultaneously ground his argument scripturally and secularly. Though he writes that God was the initial author of speech, which He gave to Adam, Hobbes notes that Genesis says only that God gave Adam the names of the creatures of Eden, not the complicated language needed to create a covenant. (IV, 1) However, even if God had given Adam sufficient communication skills to establish a commonwealth, He took it away to punish man for his rebellion at Babel, as Hobbes notes in IV, 2. A secular reading of the word “invention” also implies a period without the language needed to establish a commonwealth, as it suggests that language did not develop concurrently with humans, but was invented by them.

Whether Hobbes believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible is unclear, but regardless of this ambiguity, Hobbes appears to be saying that there have been times in human history when the state of nature must have existed, because the language to escape it had not been developed. However, Hobbes does not suggest that developing language precludes the state of nature. Indeed, he references both the Cain and Abel story (F, OL, XIII, 11) and the savages of America (XIII, 11) to note that linguistic societies can easily be in a state of nature. Hobbes clearly does not see the state of nature as a thought experiment, but rather as a legitimate threat to civil society.

Mankind’s apolitical nature renders human society in continual peril of deteriorating into the state of nature. Hobbes defines “INJUSTICE” as “no other than the not performance of a covenant.” (XV, 2) Hobbes uses this definition to argue that in the state of nature there is no injustice, because there are no covenants. (XIII, 13) Justice, then, is a foreign concept for mankind because it does not exist in man’s natural state. Once again, Hobbes grounds his claim of man’s incompetence in matters of justice (assuming he sees justice as something “good,” which is a reasonable assumption) in Judeo-Christian myth. He writes, “Whereupon, having both eaten, [Adam and Eve] did indeed take upon them God’s office, which is judicature of good and evil; but acquired no new ability to distinguish between them aright.” (XX, 17) To Hobbes, the consequence of the fall of mankind is humanity’s being forced to take on the responsibility of arbitrating morality, despite having little aptitude for moral thinking. He therefore sees the possibility of men committing injustice by breaching covenants in commonwealths as just as likely as Adam and Eve’s breaking of their covenant with God. He even claims that the most successful sovereign will teach his subjects the origin and necessity of his absolute, indivisible power in order to mitigate this risk. (XXX, 3)

Hobbes goes to such great lengths to demonstrate that political society is not only un-human, but so un-human that its perpetuation is tenuous and contingent on the success of the sovereign, in order to argue that political society is something entirely artificial: a composition of authors and actors. Having given an account of humanity that precludes natural cooperation, Hobbes uses the author-actor construction to establish the commonwealth not as a collection of people that must cooperate contrary to their natures, but as a single, artificial person called “the LEVIATHAN.” He writes, “That great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin CIVITAS), is but an Artificial Man…in which, the Sovereignty is an Artificial Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body.” (Introduction, 1) The conception of the commonwealth as a person is permitted by Hobbes’s definition of personhood. He explains, “A person is he whose words or actions are considered either as his own, or as representing the words or actions of another man, or of any other thing to whom they are attributed.” (XVI, 1) It is this conception of personhood that allows the author-actor conception of the commonwealth. On an individual scale, citizens of commonwealths still experience some of the residual paranoia of the state of nature, which Hobbes observes in the locking of doors at night or the carrying of arms for protection, and this is unavoidable. (XIII, 10) As a society, though, people enter a civil state by forming a covenant wherein they authorize a sovereign to act on their behalf, (XVI, 4) and this is the author-actor distinction. The authors are the people of the commonwealth, and the actor that represents their actions is the commonwealth itself, which is controlled by the sovereign. Importantly, this arrangement never involves the sovereign entering into a covenant himself, but instead involves the subjects collectively authorizing him to serve as their actor. (XVIII, 4)

The author-actor view of society is so crucial to Hobbes’ mission because it allows him to argue that society, though it is built upon the mutual transferring of rights (XIV, 7), does not restrict man’s liberty. Defending the author-actor composition of society not only requires Hobbes to refute claims that humans could naturally coexist, but also requires him to totally redefine personhood. However, his motivation for doing so is so compelling that Hobbes comfortably makes the necessary philosophical leaps. Hobbes’s conception of liberty is mechanistic and not specific to humans. (XXI, 1) In his discussion of liberty and freedom (terms he uses interchangeably (XXI, 1)), he gives a definition of liberty as applied to man. He writes, “A FREE-MAN is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he has a will to do.” (XXI, 2)

There are two important cases for considering how a citizen of a commonwealth might exercise his liberty: the case where the law is silent, and the case where it is not. First, and more intuitively, Hobbes argues that in areas where the sovereign has not proscribed any rule, the subject has absolute liberty to do what he wishes. (XXI, 18) Where there is no law, or no ability to enforce it, subjects are in a quasi-state of nature and have just as much liberty as those in nature, which is why they lock their doors and carry arms.

In cases where the law is not silent, Hobbes employs the author-actor construction to argue that the liberty of the subject is still not restricted. Explaining why a subject cannot rightfully punish the sovereign, Hobbes writes, “Whatsoever [the sovereign] doth, it can be no injury to any of his subjects…because to do injury to one’s self is impossible…For seeing every subject is the author of the actions of his sovereign, he punisheth another for the actions committed by himself.” (XVIII, 6-7)

Hobbes makes multiple important points here. Because he sees humans as loving liberty, Hobbes believes that humans would consider a restriction of liberty injurious. Because Hobbes also believes that humans cannot injure themselves, they cannot restrict their own liberty, nor can their sovereign, for “every subject is the author of the actions of his sovereign.” The end of this quote in particular highlights why the author-actor construction is so profitable for Hobbes’s mission. It allows Hobbes to claim that a subject’s liberty is similar to that of the sovereign, whose liberty is nearly infinite, as he is not bound by any covenant. If for example, a law requiring hats be worn were enacted by the sovereign, Hobbes would say that the subjects under this law would still be “free-men,” because they placed this restriction on themselves. If a particular subject ever changed his mind about hats, he could still choose not to wear one, because “all actions which men do in Commonwealths for fear of the law are actions which the doers had liberty to omit.” (XXI, 3) So in both cases, where the law is silent and where it is not, subjects are not forced to give up their liberty to enter into a commonwealth.

Indeed, to Hobbes, the commonwealth even enhances its subjects’ abilities to carry out their own wills. Liberty, being the absence of a hindrance to the will, can be thought of as existing less in the state of nature than in the commonwealth if one considers the consequences of war of all against all. Describing such a war, Hobbes writes, “There is no place for industry…no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death.” (XIII, 9) If one’s will is to engage with arts or letters, then it is more hindered by the war of the state of nature than any law that could exist in a commonwealth. Even if a positive law were to ban arts and letters altogether, the will to do so would arise from the people and be made manifest by the sovereign, which would be no different from an individual subject deciding to avoid arts and letters by pure choice. Furthermore, a subject could always break this law, while one in the state of nature could not engage with arts and letters even if she wished to. For these reasons, the commonwealth not only does not restrict liberty, it enhances it!

If Leviathan is truly a text meant to lay out the benefits of obedience, as Hobbes writes, through the claim that consenting to live in a commonwealth under the rule of an absolute, irreproachable sovereign does not diminish liberty, Hobbes makes a compelling argument that total obedience is not so bad. The state of nature, the author-actor distinction, the Leviathan as an artificial man, all of these are necessary to Hobbes’s claim that liberty can exist under a sovereign. This is not to say that these ideas are disingenuous on Hobbes’s part, or that they only serve a very narrow purpose, but rather that they are all inextricably linked to Hobbes’s belief in total, unwavering obedience.

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