Thinking the Political with Thomas Hobbes
Political thinking can begin only where the individual ends. Or, more precisely, it begins only once the individual acquires another relation to itself and to others, as a citizen among citizens, no longer as a mere human being, or even the member of a nation. But does that mean that we can only reach the political sphere if we deny the anthropological one? It seems that proponents of civil responsibility, of solidarity towards others, often argue that way: You need to abstain from your personal needs and interests and ‘try to think of others as well’. But how can we be expected to truly feel solidarity, a basic human affection, if we are to refrain from the very things that make us human? If we don’t want solidarity to remain a purely external gesture, what is nowadays called virtue signalling, we cannot understand the political as a denial of the individual, of our corporeal and anthropological needs. And yet, we cannot collapse the two domains and treat the political as a purely numeric extension of the individual — society as an aggregate of atomic individuals. To live in a civic society, its people need to perceive themselves as citizens, and this goes beyond pure self-interest. At the very least, they need to understand that, for the sake of a stable environment, they need to consider their actions within a wider context and seek to perceive how they affect others.
The question is then: How can we engage in the political without disavowing the concerns of the individual? Is there a form of political solidarity that goes beyond mere benevolence, as the latter usually reaches only the ones closest to us? Hobbes understood the political not as a denial of the individual, but rather a way for the individual to become more than it is and reach its highest potential. Hobbes’ particular conception of the political and its relation to the anthropological — neither absolute difference nor absolute indifference — is therefore of imminent interest.
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Nowadays we tend to assume that, while we have many needs, they belong to the same order, the anthropological or psychological one. Take, as one example, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which does work with distinct levels, but which only considers the relation of the individual to itself as an individual, even if the higher levels, like love, do necessitate the presence of other human beings. Here, one’s needs go beyond material satisfaction, but they form a linear path to a purely personal self-fulfilment.
However, if we look at Hobbes, his trilogy of the Elementorum Philosophiae consists of De Corpore, De Homine and De Cive — theorizing the body, the man, and the citizen, respectively. Each constitutes a fundamentally different relation of the individual to itself, and considering that Hobbes wrote separate treaties about each, it appears that even though they build on each other, they are strictly distinct. We can see this in as far as each relation responds to different kinds of needs: First of all, the corporeal need to survive that we share with all other living beings, which is treated in De Corpore, then the anthropological needs, which consist in our desire to strive for the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant, which Hobbes treats in De Homine. Both needs require security, a safe environment, which therefore becomes a desideratum on a purely physiological and anthropological level. But as a citizen, a civis, the individual acquires another kind of need that is proper to the political sphere: namely, the need for peace from which liberty can arise. From the first two to the third, there is also a shift in one’s relation to one’s peers. While in the former, they are treated as mere means for one’s personal survival and comfort— either by dominating them or by seeking shelter in someone’s dominion — the latter opens up the possibility for something altogether different. Nevertheless, at the very beginning, as Hobbes emphasises, there is the desire for survival and security:
“Bonorum autem primum est sua cuique conservatio. Natura enim comparatum est, ut cupiant omnes sibi bene esse. Cujus ut capaces esse possint, necesse est cupiant vitam, sanitatem, et untriusque, quantum fieri potest, securitatem futuri temporis.
For everyone, the first good is his own survival, for nature has arranged it that way so that everyone wishes for their own welfare. For that, they need to wish for life and health, and, wherever possible, for future security.” (De Homine [DH], ch. 11, §6)
The need to secure one’s own survival in regard to the future is anthropological, or at least relatively better developed in humans than in other animals. For that, individuals start accumulating goods and aspiring for wealth, for this prepares them for times of hardship and makes others wish for their friendship, which once again offers security (cf. DH, ch. 11, §7). But accumulated wealth also produces envy in others and can generate within others the incentive to bereave those who have worked to achieve their assets. Hobbes elaborates upon this tension through his radical and unique definition of natural equality: “Those are equals, who can do equal things one against the other” (De Cive [DC], p. 7), which refers to the fact that even the weakest individual will find means to kill or topple the strongest — be it through deceit or by uniting with others for assault. This irreducible equality thus inflicts a perpetual and universal insecurity. On the one hand, it gives both the attackers and the defenders the incentive to unite with others for the sake of protecting their collective interests — i.e. form rudimentary societies. But on the other hand, these assemblies are always unstable, for one fears betrayal or separation once the uniting interest, for whatever reason, loses its binding effect. As soon as two individuals share in their desires, conflict arises again (cf. DC, ch.1, §6); for given that everyone has the need to survive, both have the same claim, the same right, to that thing. Therefore, such rudimentary societies can offer temporary security, but cannot guarantee lasting peace.
For example, individual A is lucky to harvest very fruitful land. This attracts other individuals who intend to profit from that and offer their service in exchange for a portion of the harvest. A is crafty enough to stay in charge. The household generates wealth, which attracts bad apples. A therefore hires some people for protection in exchange for food. The protection that A offers attracts more people that are willing to serve, thereby forming a society under the rule of one. The influx of people creates further needs, so A sends their army to invade neighbouring lands. In time, A is no longer merely the head of a household or village, but becomes the monarchic ruler over a certain territory, securing the survival of their servants. We can imagine such a genealogy for what Hobbes calls the “natural government […], because it is that which is gotten by power and natural force” (DC, p. 108). The servant holds an obligation towards his master “from hence […], that he keeps him not bound or imprisoned” (ibid., p. 110), meaning that the lord trusts his servants not to stab him in the back. But this is not yet a civic society, as A rules by strength over their servants, not by law over citizens. Rulers such as A can offer security as long as they remain on top, but chaos looms as soon as the ruler can no longer guarantee security and protect the interests of their subordinates — or at least as soon as one of the subordinates feels that they’d be better off if they were on top themselves.
In this example, in what way can we say that A’s rule is legitimate? In regard to their ability to remain in charge, to control their subordinates and keep them from becoming the strongest — which essentially means that they lay claim to the right to stay in charge so long as they are able to stay in charge. A holds power because they have an army, but that army will only be loyal as long as it perceives that following A is in its best interest. According to Hobbes, the difference from the strongest to the weakest will always be only relative, and as soon as another party manages to call A’s advantage into question, their claim to power will eventually become as legitimate as A’s, given that power is the only source of legitimacy in natural governments. Our visceral need to survive endows us the right to do everything to secure it, which means that the only thing that can limit us is a stronger force. But due to our natural equality, such a stronger force can never be absolute and will always be in danger of being overcome by an even stronger one, perhaps in the form of a collective. But several parties adhering to the same objective claim to power is perhaps better known as a civil war, which is
“perpetual in its own nature; because in regard of the equality of those that strive, it cannot be ended by victory. For in this state the conqueror is subject to so much danger, as it were to be accounted a miracle, if any, even the most strong, should close up his life with many years and old age.” (DC, p. 12)
Ruling classes are aware of this perpetual instability and quickly create narratives of natural nobility, which claim that certain individuals are naturally meant to serve and others are to dominate. Such depoliticizing justifications have historically presented themselves as claims that only certain individuals are objectively meant to rule, be it because of their genealogical origins from ancient or biblical kings, or because of certain natural traits. Such a conception is, for example, explicitly formulated by Aristotle, for whom those with higher mental capacities are meant to rule over those that primarily work with their bodies (cf. Politics, b.1, ch.5). The argument for natural nobility proclaims that the chosen class was distinct from its subordinates right away (evolutionarily, genealogically), thus translating into an objective claim to rule. This also implies that as long as you assume the existence of natural nobility, you cannot have a true civil war, because there will always be an objectively legitimate side, the one that is ‘supposed’ to win in the end. If the ruling class is torn by internal difference, it is, strictly speaking, not civil war; for the overall hierarchy remains unquestioned. The existence of a natural nobility implies the existence of objective categories that distinguish the ruler and the ruled.
But are not such categories only proven post factum, after all the fighting is over and done, by those that are still standing? Is that not a return to the law of the strongest, which is not only tautological, but also relative? After all, when can we really say that the fighting is over, and not just on pause? This is where Hobbes is truly revolutionary: He reflects true civil war in political thinking, meaning the reality that all claims to rule are purely relative and will not be able to permanently create peace. The negation of natural nobility, that the ruler and the ruled are not naturally distinguished, essentially means that from the anthropological point of view nobody is the property of anyone else. This makes Hobbes the first individualist thinker, for true individualism means that nobody belongs to anyone, and as long as they don’t belong to anyone, there is no class of people that is naturally meant to rule over them.
The historical record is on Hobbes’ side: true civil war is a real possibility (and a real experience that Hobbes went through), for the different parties can simply reject the categories on which the opponents found their seemingly objective claim. In the end, what remains is (a) our natural need to survive (b) our right to use any means possible for that aim, which means that everyone has an equally legitimate claim to power to secure their survival. In the end, even the alleged monarch is but a fighting party among parties, which is essentially what civil war entails. But how can you prevent civil war if everyone has an equal claim to power?
From what follows above, we all possess unlimited means to use for our one primary end, including a claim to rule, because it is easier to survive in wealth and protection than in poverty. But because everyone aims for the same thing, conflict arises even for the most rudimentary goods, and the security that we can hope for does not reach very far. Put differently, even though we have a right to everything, what we’re getting in the end is very limited. In short, there is an inconsistency: We have the ‘task’ to secure our survival, and for that, we can use any means necessary and we need to use any means necessary, because we rationally mistrust our peers, as we know that they desire the very same things. But as long as we use any means necessary, we necessarily fail in attaining said task, so we all have the same claim to those things.
Conflict arises automatically — what Hobbes refers to as perpetual war. Given that this ever-present social hostility renders our surroundings even more menacing than before — and nature is dangerous enough without our help — the rational thing to do is to resolve it. It is here that Hobbes recognises the first and fundamental law of nature: to seek peace wherever possible. It is a law that each individual will perceive once it has rationally understood what the universal right to everything will ultimately lead to. But by itself, this can only be a guideline, because everyone still has all means necessary at their disposal, which also includes pretending to seek peace to gain someone’s trust and stab them in the back. This is therefore insufficient for a fundamental resolution to the problem at hand. Considering that it is our right to everything that is the main cause for trouble, Hobbes derives the second law of nature to strengthen the first, namely that our natural right to everything “ought to be transferred or relinquished” (DC, p. 17). In short, everyone cedes their claim to everything and hands over their natural sovereignty that gave them the claim to rule in the first place. Under the rule of the strongest, the servant also relinquishes his rights — after all, he surrenders — but he does so in exchange for the protection of his ‘superior’, and this tenuous agreement only lasts as far as his ‘superior’ is capable of providing said protection.
This is where the difference between the apolitical state of nature and the truly political civic state emerges. In the former, everyone keeps their right to everything and reaches relative and periodic security. But in the latter, the individual gives up on their right to everything, because this is the only way to definitely dissolve the cause of conflict. In short, each individual rationally understands that only a self-limitation of rights can perpetually end perpetual war. These rights are thus transferred to an artificial institution that is thereafter the only one with an artificial claim to rule that arose from the will and rational decision of each citizen. We are therefore dealing not with a relative claim to power by everyone, as in the law of the strongest, but with an absolute difference between those that have given up on all their claim to power (the citizens) and those that still retain all their natural rights (the sovereign, be it an individual or an assembly) — considering that the difference between having a right and not having a right is binary. It is the switch from a relative to an absolute difference in the claim to power that is Hobbes’ key to overcome the problems sketched out above. Civil war can definitely be excluded, because we no longer have different parties with equal claim to power. The definite exclusion of civil war, though, is true peace. In short, the servant seeks shelter, but the citizen seeks peace; seeking shelter is instinctive, striving for peace is rational; security under the law of the strongest is temporary, peace in civil society is eternal. An individual therefore becomes a citizen through an act of self-limitation, a willing commitment to unfreedom by refraining from their right to everything.
The political, enacted through citizenship, begins where the individual ends, but as a fulfilment of anthropological needs. But there is more happening here. Not only is the political a fulfilment of security through establishing a safe environment, but once civil war is definitely excluded, security itself becomes a means to an end, and is no longer an end in itself. Apolitical societies founded upon the law of the strongest consider security as an end in itself. But peace, which is only established in civic society, is more than that. Here, we need to analyse Hobbes’ anthropology a bit more closely.
A central passage in De Homine is the following one:
“Bonorum autem maximum est, ad fines semper ulteriores minime impedia progressio. Ipsa cupiti fruitio, tunc cum fruimur, appetitus est, nimirum motus animi fruentis per partes rei qua fruitur. Nam vita motus est perpetuus, qui, cum recta progredi non potest, convertitur in motum circularem.
The highest good is the progression to higher and higher ends/goals with the least obstacles possible. The indulgence of desire is, while we indulge, a desire, i.e. the spirit moves through the parts of the thing that it indulges. For life is perpetual movement that moves in circles if it cannot move forward” (DH, ch. 11, §15, my emphasis).
On the one hand, we see here the classical definition of negative liberty at work, and Hobbes defines it in another text precisely that way: “the absence of all the impediments to action” (Of Liberty and Necessity, §29). But we also can see in the passage above that the negativity of liberty is inherently connected to a positivity of desire — life moves on its own. In contrast, nowadays it is more common to connect such a conception of liberty — which, following Hobbes and Locke, has become part of classical liberal tradition — with a more pessimistic anthropology wherein individuals are instead motivated by lack and scarcity. While the latter has developed into capitalist and consumerist societies premised upon the individual’s desire to possess things that it lacks in a state of scarcity, Hobbes takes a different path.
We saw that in the state of nature, there is the impetus to survive, but this movement is perpetually hindered because all people are ‘in each other’s way’. Hence, the self-limitation of rights is not a throttling of movement, but quite the opposite: it is the liberation of the perpetual movement of life. Basically, desire in the state of nature can be imagined like the movement of gaseous particles, permanently colliding and changing each others’ paths. But what happens in the civic state is more like a stream of water, where all desire moves into the same direction in a self-generated movement. In short, a limitation of the means (the right to everything) for a de-limitation of the ends (the perpetual striving for higher goals), while in the state of nature, one’s means were unbound by norms, but what could be attained with them was very meagre. It is the very same movement of life that urged us to survive and has caused our primary conflict, but as soon as we have rationally detected its cause, and have found, just as rationally, the way to resolve and to fulfil it, the movement doesn’t halt in self-satisfaction. Rather, it becomes a means to a higher end and, while remaining inherently anthropological, it attains the possibility to develop interests that simply couldn’t develop previously in the state of war: “Nova, jucunda: appertuntur enim ut animi pabulum. / The new gratifies: it is sought as nourishment for the intellect” (DH, ch. 11, §12). That which keeps humans moving is therefore not merely the material need for security, but something that goes beyond food, shelter and comfort, a need for growth and a desire for the new. The safe environment is a means, so that our natural affinity towards growth can prosper; only the citizen achieves perpetual movement, i.e. liberty. Nowadays, there’s a tendency to reduce said liberty to movement within the market, but while Hobbesian liberty does include trade, he’s also referring to art and science — culture in general.
But what is “science” — and here we need to use it in its broad sense, not only for natural sciences, but also for philosophy? “Nam scientiae omnes incipient a definitionibus, nec aliter scientiae dicendae sunt, sed sermones meri. /All sciences begin with definitions, or they are not worthy of being called sciences, but empty chatter.” (DH, ch. 13, §8). Considering that definitions are something that everyone needs to agree on, and that in the state of nature everyone can do as they please, the condition of possibility of definitions is the civic state: “nam eorum, qui extra civitatem sunt, alter alterius sententiam sequi non obligatur; in civitate vero pactis obligantur. / For those who live outside the state aren’t required to follow someone else’s notion/definition; in civil society, they are bound by contracts.” (DH ch. 13, §8). It is therefore not only the task of civic society to establish a safe environment, but
“it belongs to the same chief power to make some common rules for all men, and to declare them publicly, by which every man may know what may be called his, what another’s, what just, what unjust, what honest, what dishonest, what good, what evil; that is summarily, what is to be done, what to be avoided in our common course of life.” (DC, p. 77).
Not only the sciences are in need of commonly accepted definitions, but also art, which for Hobbes is needed for moral education, which cannot exist until a common understanding of morality is reached. This also concerns trade that not only necessitates currency but also an agreement on which goods are valuable and which are not. Only once the common ground is established, can the perpetual movement of liberty be realized and human desire can move without hindrance. While the state of nature was indeed determined by a logic of lack, where the individuals need to fight each other for a limited amount of things, a change occurs once they enter the civic state. But this is not a change in the nature of desire from negative (lack) to positive (perpetual strive), but rather that scarcity has hindered the individual from fulfilling its true nature. As Hobbes says, if desire cannot move forward, it will move in circles, and moving in circles is all it does in the belligerent state of nature.
The entrance into the political sphere is therefore essentially the creation of a common ground: first for the movement of individuals, so that nobody is ‘in the way’ of anyone else, and second for the common agreement on values, definitions and norms, against the absolute plurality of perspectives in the state of nature. Altogether, the sovereign controls the (metaphorical and literal) ‘pathways’ and guarantees safety and a smooth procedure of things. The individuals hence give up their right to do what they want and to call things the way they want, and in exchange they gain the possibility to relinquish their universal mistrust and truly cooperate with each other, because from now on, after the common ground has been established, the interests are also no longer antagonistic, but can strive for a common good, i.e. the flourishing of culture.
Considering that all this is only possible once one’s survival has been secured and thereafter becomes a means to an end, we can see in what way Hobbes stands apart from the liberal tradition of which he is so often considered to be the father. If the highest political goal is to create an environment that minimizes the obstacles that hinder people to realize their higher potential, and if the political sphere exists only as soon as everyone’s basic anthropological needs are satisfied, then does that not imply an emancipation from ‘material’ worries? Does an adherence to Hobbesian negative liberty demand the eradication of poverty, protecting a universal quality of life? Because Hobbes considers human desire to be infinite, permanent movement, it will create wealth all by itself through an anthropological strive for the new — as long as said desire can reach its ‘higher sphere’, where it’s no longer ‘everyone for himself’, but a collective march towards prosperity. The highest political responsibility would therefore be to ensure that everyone is able to reach the standard where security becomes a means to an end. Therefore, while Hobbes denies any limit to the sovereigns power in civic society, we cannot disregard that what the whole conception amounts to is not just a universal submission to authority.
Only once we truly understand the difference between the apolitical and the political in Hobbes’ thinking can we truly appreciate his most famous passage, of which only a part is commonly quoted — a reduction that leads to a tragic distortion:
“To speak impartially, both sayings are very true: that man to man is a kind of God; and that man to man is an arrant wolf. The first is true, if we compare citizens amongst themselves; and the second, if we compare cities [that are still in the state of nature among each other]. In the one, there is some analogy of similitude with the Deity; to wit, justice and charity, the twin sisters of peace. But in the other, good men must defend themselves by taking to them for a sanctuary [i.e. security] the two daughters of war, deceit and violence: that is, in plain terms, a mere brutal rapacity.” (DC, p. ii; my annotations and emphasis in bold)
Hobbes, Thomas: Philosophical Elements of a True Citizen [translation of De Cive], in: The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, vol. II. London: 1841 [link]. The translations from latin are my own.
Hobbes, Thomas: Elementorum Philosophiae II: De Homine, in: Opera Philosophica, vol. II, London: 1839 [link].
Hobbes, Thomas: Of Liberty and Necessity [online source, link]