Alice C. Linsley
The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) wrote Leviathan, a book which influenced John Locke and the Founding Fathers of the United States. His idea of a social contract between citizens whereby each agrees to surrender rights to the state is considered one of the best ideas of the Enlightenment. Rarely do people consider how Hobbes' contractarian philosophy departs from and has little in common with the wisdom of antiquity.
In the ancient world, the citizens' well-being depended on the virtue or righteousness of the ruler. That is why the ancient Afro-Asiatic rulers tried to deal with their sin by having priests who offered sacrifice for them. They believed that how they lived before the Creator would affect their entire kingdom. In other words, there could be no real justice in the king's realm unless the king were just in his actions. Justice and righteousness are the same word in the Hebrew Bible. Are there any politicians, rulers, or presidents thinking like this today?
Hobbes changed the idea of justice. No longer did it have to do with the virtue or righteousness of the ruler, but it had to do with a contract that citizens worked out among themsleves to give up certain rights to a ruler. Hobbes argued also that the ruler's power makes the citizen's comply with the contract. This being the case, justice is a product of coercive power, and contracts are validated by the ruler's power, not by the ruler's virtue or righteousness.
In developing his contractarian idea Hobbes often quotes Genesis, the first book of the Bible. It is strange that he should do this since Genesis speaks of a fixed binary order in creation. God is the supreme ruler over all and isn't interested in artificial agreements such as the social contract. Hobbes himself recognized that the social contract, as an artificial entity, does not find its basis in the natural order of creation. It does find a basis in the individual's desire for security in the face of human cruelty and brutishness.
Let us consider some of Hobbes' ideas and their implications.
Children’s Consent to Parental Governance
Hobbes wrote: “Dominion is acquired two ways: by generation and by conquest. The right of dominion by generation is that which the parent hath over his children, and is called paternal. And is not so derived from the generation, as if therefore the parent had dominion over his child because he begat him, but from the child’s consent, either express or by other sufficient arguments declared.”
By this argument, we may conclude that the child’s consent to be governed by his parents is essential to the proper exercise of parental authority. By consenting to parental authority the child receives protection, material provision, training, guidance, nurture and perhaps sufficient bounty to make a marriage. In Hobbes’ view, children who are abused by their parents do not owe them consent to governance, as none can be compelled to obey an authority that commands self-injury or endangers without just cause.
We find in Hobbes’ view the beginnings of children’s rights. Later Bentham would adapt this principle in his promotion of animal rights.
On the Supremacy of Fathers
Hobbes wrote that the dominion “over the child should belong to both [mother and father], and he be equally subject to both, which is impossible; for no man can obey two masters… In Commonwealths this controversy is decided by the civil law: and for the most part, but not always, the sentence is in favour of the father, because for the most part Commonwealths have been erected by the fathers.”
By this argument, we may conclude that the child must obey as his first authority the governance that is established for him by civil law. But doesn’t this overthrow the child’s “right” to consent to be governed by the parent? Do we have here an inherent contradiction in Hobbes' thought?
By this argument, we also may conclude that patriarchy is not a natural order but the artifice of male law makers. This is not supported by anthropological research, as no true matriarchy has ever been found to exist. It is no small point that order of creation reflects a fixed reality while artifices, even those endowed with authority, reflect malleable realities.
Justification for Absolute Monarchy
For Hobbes, the ideal government is a monarchy perpetuated by rules of succession that keep control within the royal family. He quotes I Samuel 8:11-17 as an authority for his view of monarch’s power over lands, harvests, flocks, populace, militia and all judicature, “in which is contained as absolute power as one man can possibly transfer to another.”
By this argument, we may conclude that not even a prophet of God has authority to question the ruler’s will. The ruler is the supreme authority on earth, usurping even God’s authority. While Hobbes argues that the power of the ruler is established by God on earth, he does not recognize the equally authoritative offices of the prophet and the priest. This being so, he justifies civil authority as superior to ecclesial authority and develops a comprehensive Erastianism.
The young Charles II, Hobbes's former pupil, granted him a pension of £100. The king’s protection was important to Hobbes, especially when he was accused of heresy. Terrified of being labeled a “heretic”, Hobbes burned some of his papers and set about to examine the law of heresy. He presented the results of his investigation in three short Dialogues added as an Appendix to his Latin translation of Leviathan. In this appendix, Hobbes argued that, since the Restoration had put down the High Court of Commission, there remained no court of heresy and nothing could be heresy except opposing the Nicene Creed, which, he maintained, Leviathan did not do. This definition of heresy served Hobbes well, but it ignores the question of whether Hobbes’ political views contradict the orders of creation.
Hobbes’ fear of societal chaos convinced him of the necessity of absolute regal powers. He wrote, “And though of so unlimited a power, men may fancy many evil consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetual war of every man against his neighbour, are much worse.”
It is Natural for Man to Honor Valid Contracts
In Leviathan, Hobbes develops his third law of nature: that men must honor valid contracts. Were this reality, the only occasion for war and turmoil would be a vaccum of power. Hitler's Third Reich refutes this principle. After concentrating both executive and legislative power in his person, Hitler exercised his coercise power to destroy millions of people and to wage war on two fronts. He regarded coercive power as a necessity in renewing German nationalism.
On Judging Good from Evil
Hobbes wrote, “For the cognizance or judicature of good and evil, being forbidden by the name of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, as a trial of Adam’s obedience, the devil to inflame the ambition of the woman... told her that by tasting it they should be as gods, knowing good and evil. Whereupon having both eaten, they 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.”
Hobbes concludes that humans take God's role as judge upon themselves without having God's ability to judge good from evil. Since this is the case, free will must be determined by material, not metaphysical or theological concerns. He wrote, "The universe is corporeal; all that is real is material, and what is not material is not real." Here he tosses out the final piece of Christian Tradition and prepares the ground for the materialist philosophies of later centuries. He treats freedom as being able to do what one desires and he treats the Creation as matter in motion. There is nothing except what we can see, taste, touch, hear and smell. Since we can't perceive of God, heaven or the soul by these senses, they can't be said to exist.
Thomas Hobbes was born prematurely on Good Friday in 1588. It is said that his birth was precipitated by his mother's fear of the invasion of the Spanish Armada. He lived through the most tumultuous and bloody times in English history and this shaped his worldview. Unfortunately, his misconceptions also shaped western political ideas and have moved us with tidal force to the brink of a new totalitarianism. For if justice is a product of coercive power and contracts are validated only by the ruler's power to enforce them, then we are speaking about a very different kind of justice than that found in the Bible. The Hebrew word for justice is tsedhaqah or tsedheq; and the Greek word is dikaiosune. The Hebrew and Greek words are also translated "righteousness."
Related reading: The Corporeal Universe Needs Metaphysics