On Hobbes’ Leviathan

In the July 14 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Professor Jeffrey Collins of Queen’s University, Ontario, claimed Thomas Hobbes’ seventeenth-century political treatise Leviathan, which laid the ideological foundation for the omnipotent state, is popular reading these days.

“Today,” the professor wrote “Leviathan is considered one of the greatest works of political theory ever written. . . . The very title of Hobbes’ masterpiece [which is standard reading in most colleges] has become a byword for the modern state.” And he agreed with introductory comments in the new Yale edition of Leviathan that Hobbes comes across as “our philosophical contemporary” and has made “very deep inroads” into our thinking.

If Collins is right, America is in deep trouble. That’s because Hobbes, the father of modern statism and the first advocate of totalitarianism, rejected the insights of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas that man by his nature is a social animal who forms society by the demands and impulses of his rational nature working through free will. Hobbes also dismissed the notion that human reason possesses the power to discover the natural law.

Instead, Hobbes postulated that the state is founded on man’s right of self-preservation. He assumed that man is naturally in a state of complete liberty and is driven only by his passions and desires. “Every man for his part, calleth that which pleaseth and is delightful to himself, good; and that evil which displeaseth him. . . . And as we call good and evil the things that please and displease; so we call goodness and badness the qualities or powers whereby they do it.” Since each person is completely free to do as he wishes, each person is free to violate the freedom of other people. Hobbesian man is vain, contentious, revengeful, and self-seeking; his primitive anti-social “state of nature” leads to a condition of constant warfare and hostility. Man becomes “a wolf to man.” There is a “war of all against all” with “no justice because there is no law.” The natural origin of the state discovered by the great ancients and medievals is replaced with the contractual theory of the state invented by Hobbes.

Due to their impulse for self-preservation and the realization of the incompatibility of competing interests, Hobbes holds men come together by compact (the general will) and cede their natural freedom to a sovereign who makes and enforces law. According to Hobbes:

The only way to erect such a common power . . . is to confer all their power and strength on one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills by plurality of voices, unto one will. . . . This is more than consent, or concord: it is a real unity of them all, in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man. I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up the right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person, is called a commonwealth. . . . For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is enabled to perform the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad. [Italics added.] 

The populace irrevocably conveys its liberties to the state; its private judgments to an absolute sovereign. To control the passions and judgments of the populace the sovereign has terrifying power, since, in Hobbes’ words, “covenants without the sword are but words and of no strength to secure a man.” The head of state is absolutely, indivisible, and inalienable, and he defines the “natural law” as he sees fit, which means natural law is ignored.

In Hobbes’ doctrines there is no room for the concept of subsidiarity or the family as a necessary institution in society. In effect, Hobbes knew only the harsh antagonism of individual against state, a conflict he believed the state must win. The noted Catholic philosopher Heinrich Rommen argued that Hobbes also “lacked an understanding of the particular nature of the Church as a ‘perfect’ society: it became either a department of the state or a spiritual free fellowship, not an institution.”

Hobbes’ Leviathan may be currently popular in Barack Obama’s Washington where, in broad daylight, people whom historian Richard Hofstadter called “totalitarian liberals” employ illiberal means to achieve so-called liberal reforms. These authoritarians of the left, according to Hofstadter, often embrace “hatred as a form of creed” in the pursuit of their goals.

Professor Collins hit on this in his Journal article: “When pundits such as Thomas Friedman decry ‘broken government’ and fawn over China’s ‘enlightened’ response to global warming or are puzzled by Americans’ widespread resistance to Obamacare, one wonders if the Hobbesian within the liberal breast is stirring.”

Proponents of a Hobbesian state should be feared because they are determined to transform American culture according to their current view of its best interests, and the means for the changes they would effect is raw power. To them liberty means obedience to the uncertain will of the elite, even in matters of life and death. To them, the modern liberal state, not God, is absolute.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.