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Thomas Hobbes and the Seeds of Liberalism

Res Publica

April 1995

by Jeff Kahl

Thomas Hobbes, an Enlightenment philosopher who lived from 1585-1679, is accused of being both a liberal (defender of liberty and limited government) and a totalitarian (supporter of total, arbitrary rule of government over individuals). This essay, by examining his understanding of liberty, political authority, and justice, attempts to make a case for those who view Hobbes as a defender of classical liberalism. To this end, let me begin by placing Hobbes within the larger context of modern political philosophy. Then, with the aid of textual evidence, I will examine specific aspects of his philosophy which support my claim, and attempt to deal with opposing arguments.

At its very core, modern political philosophy, by and large, rejects the basic tenants held by ancient and medieval philosophers. While the ancients, specifically Aristotle, hold as their standard of discourse a certain idea of what human beings ought to be, modern philosophers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes base their ideas on what humans are by nature. Rather than providing people with an ideal standard to which they should aspire, the moderns view humans in their very lowest state. Hobbes calls this lowest state of human existence the State of Nature.

Hobbes describes men as being naturally vain and selfish. He declares that "whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire that is it which he for his part calleth good; and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable. For these words of good, evil and contemptible are ever used with relation to the person that useth them…" In other words, men by nature perceive a thing as being good or evil not in terms of how it may affect the interests of others, but in terms of how it affects their own self-interest.

It follows from this that men will pursue their own self-interest in terms of their own desires, and "if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, the become enemies;…and from this indifference of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himself so reasonable as anticipation, that is, by force or wiles to master the persons of all men he can, so long till he sees no other power great enough to endanger him."

And so it is in Hobbes’ State of Nature, where men are inherently selfish, where they pursue their own interest without regard for its effects on others, and where there is no neutral third party to restrict one man from harming another. It is not so much as a state of war, but a state of anticipation of war, of living under the constant fear that you have what someone else wants and that they will go so far as to harm you in order to get what it is you have. But more fundamentally, the State of Nature is a state of competition between individuals for the finite resources available on Earth, the purpose being to sustain their own lives. It is no wonder that Hobbes would describe this every-man-for-himself world as being one of "continued fear and danger of violent death," and man’s life as being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

After describing this State of Nature, Hobbes proceeds to define the basic right of man’s liberty "to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature." Laws of nature, on the other hand, are general rules that forbid man "to do that which is destructive of his life or taketh away the means of preserving the same." Thus, finding himself naturally in a state of competition or war in which he is constantly in jeopardy of losing his life, man’s primary objective in the preservation of his own life is to seek peace with the other man. He does this by making a contract or covenant with other men, agreeing that he will "lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself." To put it another way, he extends his rights only so far as they do not conflict with the rights of another.

Unfortunately, covenants made can be broken, and from this comes the necessity to ensure Justice, that is "that men perform their covenants made." Injustice is therefore the breaking of a covenant. Because the basic reason that covenants are formed is to protect that which each man acquires through his own means to sustain his life, it follows that justice is basically "the constant will of giving to every man his own." In other words, a basic right of property.

Because men are partial to their own interests, when such injustices as described above do occur, the people involved should not be permitted to judge the situation and mete out justice. An impartial third party is necessary so that justice is given according to the provisions of the contract and not according to the interests of one party. Therefore, the purpose of this third party is to enforce the provisions of the contract. Hobbes calls this third party a commonwealth, but more specifically, a Leviathan or Mortal God, and defines it as "one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants with one another, to the end that he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defense."

Now that we have seen how this Leviathan is originally formed, let us return to the original question. By forming this monstrous Mortal God, can Hobbes be characterized as a classical liberal, a defender of individual liberty and limited government?

Hobbes is a defender of liberty, albeit a peculiar kind of liberty, and while he does not necessarily argue for limiting the monster, he also does not necessarily argue for allowing the monster’s tentacles to reach into every aspect of its subjects’ lives.

Take first his general depiction of the Leviathan he has created. In essence, his understanding of government is that it must have real and absolute power to rise above the state natural fear and conflict, that it must be the unquestioned arbiter of disputes involving the violation of the contract between individuals, and that it must be neutral, not involving itself in the "special interests" of its subjects. To this end, Hobbes does make clear that once the contract is made, it cannot be changed, the sovereign cannot forfeit his power, no one may question him or accuse him of injustice, and that the sovereign has all power to make laws and administer the government. These provisions may, to some, reek of totalitarianism. But one must remember that their purpose is not to take away the liberty of the subjects but to give the sovereign the authority and power to do the job that he or she is supposed to do.

One may say, however, that the authority of the Leviathan does not end there. The Leviathan has the authority to make all Civil laws, and he is not himself subject to those laws. He has authority of interpretation in such matters as education and religion. He may, in fact, order a subject to do anything except that which may inflict injury on that subject’s own person. With these facts in mind, how could one argue that Hobbes is a totalitarian?

Notice, however, the revolutionary premise with which he creates his Leviathan: The government is fundamentally a creation of all the people who willingly transfer to it their authority for self-government for the explicit purpose of maintaining the peace and securing the validity of their covenants. This is a radical departure from the medieval notion that governments exist to serve their own purpose or the whims of the Church, and it is a basic premise of classical liberalism.

In addition, let us look specifically at the provision that a sovereign can order a subject to do anything except kill or injure himself. This may seem like a minor point when one considers what this entitles a sovereign to do, but one must nonetheless speculate on what this entails: If the Leviathan cannot order a subject to kill himself, then a subject has the right to disobey a Leviathan who makes such an order. Thus, Hobbes is admitting that there is some basic sphere of morality to which even the government is subject, and while this sphere is very narrow in Hobbes, it nonetheless exists and will obviously grow wider in its Lockean interpretation.

The other aspect of liberalism is individual liberty. To understand how Hobbes is a defender of liberty, one must understand his concept of liberty.

Hobbes’ right of nature is defined as "the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature." He understands liberty as being simply "the absence of external impediments.quot; Thus, liberty is not seen as freedom from anything that might be an obstacle in the pursuit of one’s desire. Since man’s basic desire is the preservation of his body, the object of government would be to free man from any situation in which his body would be put in jeopardy.

In short, the liberty that Hobbes’ Leviathan provides is a freedom from the State of Nature, that chaotic situation in which man’s very person is in constant threat of being invaded and harmed by others who have every opportunity to do so. The government removes this opportunity and thus provides its citizens with the freedom from each other.

But one could obviously make the argument that in this situation, there is a potential for a subject to lose every other liberty that he had by nature. Indeed, beyond the basic rights to not harm himself and to not be forced to serve in war, every other liberty of the subject depends "on the silence of the laws. In cases where the sovereign has prescribed no rule, there the subject hath the liberty to do or forbear, according to his discretion." Does not this very potential to strip freedoms away from subjects force us to conclude that Hobbes is arguing for an authoritarian-style government?

Not when we remember that this is still a revolutionary development in comparison with medieval philosophy—that governments are fundamentally instituted to protect the liberty of their subjects. What is more, Hobbes admits that there are certain liberties that even the government cannot deny. Therefore, in a small way, Hobbes admits that there are certain liberties that even the government cannot deny. Therefore, in a small way, Hobbes has planted the seeds of limited government into the garden of political philosophy.

Also, Hobbes argues that "the obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, that the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them from the State of Nature." This is basic common sense, for when a sovereign does not have the power, he obviously is no longer in control. This argument may also remind us of yet another of the basic principles of classical liberalism, the idea that when a government is not doing its, job, the people do not have to obey it.

Hobbes clearly has had a major impact on modern political philosophy; yet, because scholars frequently depict him as an advocate for a government with unlimited powers, he is frequently overlooked in the light of his contemporaries, namely Locke and Montesquieu, whose theoretical regimes can be characterized as more "democratic" and therefore more "just."

However, judging him as a product of his own time, he clearly offers a framework which would allow human beings to rise above their natural state of chaos and fear to form a productive society. Considering the political climate in which he lived — English society involved in political climate and religious conflicts, a civil war, and the continual questioning of governmental authority — one might deduce that his real objective is to provide real stability. In a final analysis, perhaps the best way to summarize Hobbes is to say that if given the choice between the State of Nature and any form of government, clearly government is the better choice to allow individuals to pursue their own happiness and to prosper.

Jeff Kahl is a senior from Farrell, Pennsylvania, majoring in History and minoring in Political Science and Religion.


Bibliographical Note:


Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Edwin Curley. (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co. 1994).

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