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Time for the Leviathan?

by Martin Jenkins

In the pages of newspapers both local and national, one can read about increasing levels of anti-social behaviour. Sink estates and parts of cities are reported as 'no go areas' existing beyond the law and are instead, ruled by gangs and organised crime. In the absence of the state authority, we have witnessed events in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and most recently Kenya, where the unattractive characteristics of human beings have predominated.

Even if those on the Political Left dismiss all this as pessimism and paranoia, the same behaviour can be observed in a different guise in those parties and organisations of the Left itself. For in those parties of fraternity and solidarity, vicious power struggles, factionalism, sectarianism and egoism between 'brother and sister' can be observed. It appears that in one form or another, human beings are continually at war with each other.

These observations would not have surprised English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He would have judged them as confirmations of his political philosophy and of the failure to adopt it. So 300 years or so after his death, what does Hobbes have to say to we moderns? Is it time for the Leviathan?

Galileo, Motion and Human Nature

According to Hobbes, appetites and aversions motivate the human being. Contrary to the writings of Aristotle it is not rest but Motion that is the natural condition of phenomena including human beings. Hobbes draws this conclusion upon observations of the society around him and the application of Galileo's Law of Inertia.

Galileo's Law states that motion is the natural condition of objects and as such, they will continue in motion until hindered by another object[s]. On this principle Hobbes, as C.B. Macpherson writes:

...had found a grand design for a new master philosophy which would explain nature, man and society in terms of motion.[1]

Objects external to the person and in motion press upon the sense organs. Sense organs transmit this motion to the heart/ brain eliciting a counter motion or Endeavour as Hobbes terms it. Endeavour is either of Appetite or Aversion, Voluntary or Involuntary. Appetite moves the person toward the said object. Aversion moves it away from the object. The success of the,

movement is aided by the amount of Power — natural or artificial — one has at one's disposal. Satisfaction of the appetite/aversion [henceforth called the desires] occasions felicity. So one can plainly see the principle of motion at play here.

Moreover, Motion is perpetual and new desires are incurred after the satisfaction of previous ones. Hence:

Felicity is a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter.[2]

As written, felicity follows upon the satisfaction of a desire. Power is instrumental in achieving this. As other human beings act in the same manner, the greater the power at one's disposal, the greater the chances of satisfaction over and against other human beings. Accordingly, Hobbes remarks that: the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restlesse desire of Power after Power that ceaseth only in death.[3]

In the absence of a stronger Power to keep them in order, the nature of human beings as described above, will lead them to compete against each other utilising whatever Power they have at their disposal. If two or more individuals desire the same object, they will come into conflict, becoming enemies intent on subduing or destroying each other — in order to acquire the said object.

The victor is then subject to others who will seek to deprive him of his acquisition. Hence an increase in Power is sought not merely to secure felicity by acquiring the object of desire; an increase in Power is sought to assure the future acquisition of other objects.

Thus the nature of human beings naturally leads them into an escalating conflict with their fellows. This natural human condition is as Hobbes famously terms it, the 'condition of warre' where it is a matter of 'every man against every man'[4]. Without secured Peace, industry, culture, civilised existence is impossible. The condition of warre is not restricted to an isolated battle but is a general disposition to settle issues by the fist, the sword or by conquest. Consequently people exist in:

...continuall fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.[5]

The Covenant

By means of a covenant made between made with each other, people elect to give one of their number the power to rule over them. Ruling through Absolute Power, this Monarch or Assembly of Men will provide Peace and Security for their subjects. Absolute Power is necessary, as partial power will allow the condition of war to re-emerge. Consequently, the condition of war will be left behind and civilised society — or the Commonwealth as Hobbes terms it — historically begins. The Sovereign Power utilises the threat of the visible Power of punishment to keep his subjects observing his Laws and utilises actual punishment to those who break his Laws. This is justified by the Covenant.

Unlike other Social Contract theories of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sovereignty does not remain with the People.[6] Government is not accountable to or revocable by the People. If it was and the people could rid themselves of a government they did not approve of — this would degenerate into the condition of War. Some would support the government while others would not. The result would be Civil War as Hobbes experienced in his own lifetime.

So according to Hobbes, absolute and authoritarian government is natural government as it follows out of human nature. Non-Authoritarian government is correspondingly wrong and would be disastrous for society. Is Hobbes convincing though?


Firstly, the conclusions drawn from the natural sciences and applied to the non-natural social world can be disputed. Non-conscious phenomena are quantitatively and qualitatively different entailing different methods of observation, experiment and 'laws' from that associated with conscious phenomenon. So Naturalistic methods may not be applicable to Non-Natural phenomena.

The mechanistic, materialist contention that human beings are merely sites of the causal 'too and fro' of appetites in motion is too crude and reductive to be an explanatory hypothesis for conscious, social beings. It ignores the significance of human consciousness, of socialisation and sublimation whereby a crude cause does not of necessity, elicit an effect. Human beings have the capacity to reflect and learn. This capacity of reflective adaption has the possibility of altering, repressing and inhibiting the expression of desires and passions. So from empirical experience, it is feasible that the unrestrained desires of greed, violence, and selfishness are valued to be destructive and are prescribed against. Human activity correspondingly changes. Perhaps Hobbes makes too strong a case for the incorrigible condition of human beings.

Secondly, Hobbes writes that humans seek felicity and the satisfaction of desires and appetites. He also writes that Humans can practice reasoning. It seems feasible therefore, that without recourse to making a Covenant with an Absolute Ruler, people could mutually create the conditions of peace themselves; in which they can mutually satisfy their individual desires and appetites through the security of a state defending the common interest. This would make Hobbes' maximalist solution superfluous.

Hobbes would contest this on the grounds that either human desires are too strong to be restrained within such an organisation or, there will always be a troublesome minority to disrupt the social peace. This is disputable. Human desires are not too strong to be restrained as can be seen by the existence of non-authoritarian societies. Troublesome minorities do indeed exist but as a minority, they don't auger a return to the condition of war.

Finally, even if the above criticisms fail to convince, Hobbes conception of an incorrigible Human nature could undermine his political philosophy. As Hobbes has proposed a definite conception of Human nature it must qua Human nature, be universal and without exception — it must be instantiated in all human beings. If there are exceptions to this 'nature' then it cannot be Human Nature. If it is the nature of human beings then it will be instantiated in the Absolute Sovereign as with everyone else. Consequently, the Absolute Ruler will perpetuate a war against his subjects, as there is no sword or covenant to stop him. So the very justification for the founding of the Commonwealth — that it prevents the condition of war — is negated.


In this all too brief overview of Hobbes' ontology and political philosophy, I have provided a few pointers as to why Hobbes fascinating philosophy is not convincing. His conclusions are too extreme and follow upon a crude ontological model of human beings. The model is inadequate to account for the complexity of the human condition. Pessimists will have to look for another Philosopher to account for their forebodings.


1. P. 19. C.B. Macpherson. Introduction. Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. Penguin. 1968

2. P. 70. Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. Ed Richard Tuck. Cambridge University Press. 2001

3. ibid. P. 70

4. ibid. P. 88

5. ibid. P. 89

6. John Locke. Two Treatises On Government. Hackett. 1980

7. Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Social Contract. Dover Publications. 2007

© Martin Jenkins 2008