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Hobbes and Sovereignty

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Hobbes and Sovereignty


All throughout history, man has struggled to try to understand society, and looked for a way in which to improve it. This has invoked many philosophers to contemplate the formation and legitimacy of government. One such philosopher was Thomas Hobbes, who went into great depth and detail on this subject of politics, in his incredible works The Leviathan. In this piece of literature, Hobbes describes a natural world that is void of any form of government or society, and explains how everyone in this world lives in constant fear and war. The awful imagery that Hobbes projects of this world of anarchy, which he calls a state of nature, is not left without an explanation of how its people may escape into a lawful society. Thomas Hobbes argues that in order for this escape to occur there must exist an absolute monarch.

In order to understand why Hobbes feels that an absolute monarch is necessary we must first take a closer look at exactly what the state of nature is. According to Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), the state of nature was a world,

"where there was no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of people, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

In a state of nature, everyone would be equal but although equal, everyone would want to dominate everyone else. In turn, this generates a feeling of constant fear for survival making people violent and threatening on a continual basis. In other words, survival, or self-preservation, is the main driving force of all human beings. When two men met, they would either, have to fight or flee, in a state of nature. In conjunction with the wanting of dominance over others or the fear of others domination of oneself, men will also fight in a state of nature for glory, honour and reputation. Although at first glance the battle for glory, honour and reputation that occurs in a state of nature may appear to be contradictory with self-preservation, it is actually helping to achieve self-preservation. It achieves this by putting fear in others so that they will be less likely to attack. Unfortunately, when man gains power he will continually need more and more of it, in order to maintain his previous power levels. This creates a world of warmongers!

Obviously the state of nature is not a very desirable place to live and so a way out of the anarchy and chaos must be discovered if humans are ever to become civilized. Hobbes also believed this and stated that man may leave the state of nature and enter society if everyone entered, into social contracts. These contracts meant that all people gave up their rights and liberties to an absolute sovereign either freely or by force. In exchange, the sovereign was to safeguard their lives by use of his sovereign power. Hobbes defines this absolute sovereign, as a ruler totally unbound by any rule or restriction, possesses unlimited power over all matters, and essentially remains in a state of nature. This method of leaving the state of nature into society is the regress argument. In other words, every man gives up his or her powers completely and unconditionally for the sovereign to use with the assumption that the sovereign will use it for the benefit of everyone. According to Hobbes, having an absolute sovereignty is the only way for war to end. He also believes that the sovereign's actions should not be subject to the legal control of anyone, therefore giving him complete unrestricted power that has no limits or constraints. Another point that Hobbes makes for having a sovereign is that all people are incapable of agreeing on a common set of rule and regulations. A sovereign eliminates this problem as he decides what is right or wrong about everything. The sovereign literally decides on what is good and bad, just and unjust and therefore gives his people their morality.

This view of Hobbes to end the state of nature and generate peace sounds quite reasonable, and if it were to work as Hobbes describes it, it would probably do just that. However when truly thought about, it is very unfeasible and contradictory in many ways. The main problem is that of getting the society started. Assuming first that everyone is in a state of nature. Then by the definition of what the state of nature is, it is impossible for anyone to trust someone with his or her rights and powers and have a sovereign govern over them. Hobbes tries to explain this by saying that if everyone gave up their rights, then they would all still be on an equal level and society would be born and working. This is not very realistic. In the state of nature, everyone is absolutely, terrified and has been at war their entire lives. It is ridiculous to believe that these people are going to suddenly and simultaneously give up all their rights and powers to a single person, who is planning to dominate over all of them. The very idea of this contradicts the characteristics of the people found in a state of nature. Hobbes argues that it is better to fear only one person rather than everyone, which would be true if that one person was equal with everyone else, but that is not the case when talking about a sovereign/subject relationship. Here the sovereign has all the power and the subject has none. Therefore, no one in a state of nature would willingly, default all rights to one person. They would simply be too worried that not everyone else would follow suit, which would result in having to still fear everyone, and have total fear of the sovereign that they just gave all their power to. It is more reasonable to assume that the only form of leadership or society that could possibly arise out of a state of nature would be one of master and slave. Even this situation is not very realistic, as the master would constantly be afraid that his slaves would attempt to kill him and each other.

Assuming for a moment that a sovereign could be somehow chosen that the people would follow all problems of government and society would not be eliminated. Hobbes addresses the fact that there would have to be more than one sovereign in the world in order to cover all the regions and the people in them. This presents some additional problems. For instance, by Hobbes definition, an absolute sovereign remains in a state of nature. This means that there will be a group of people, possessing tremendous power, living in the constant fear, associated with a state of nature. This fear will come not so much from the sovereign's subjects, but from other sovereigns and the people that they control. In other words, nothing has really changed a lot from the state of nature, other than the relative peace within individual kingdoms. War, fear, and the desperate desire for self-preservation still exists, except now it is between organized armies and not between every man. As the sovereign's fears grow, he will command continually more people to go and fight until everyone is killed but himself and the other sovereign, and then they will try to kill each other as well. This is not, entirely unrealistic, as throughout history this very situation has arose between kings and their kingdoms, (although not to the same extent), and many wars have happened consequently. It is however not the ideal solution to the problems of government and society that Hobbes implies.

He also does not reject the idea of having a group rather than just one person in power but he does prefer the latter. This has some good points and some bad points as well. Hobbes argues that monarchy is best for several reasons. Monarch's interests are the same as the people. He will receive better counsel since he can select experts and get advice in private. His policies will be more consistent. Finally, there is less chance of a civil war since the monarch has no one to disagree with. The first problem with these arguments is that the monarch would probably not have the same interests as the people at all. He has supreme power, and still being in a state of nature, will be glory seeking and wanting to dominate everyone. This looks towards tyranny, which Hobbes states would not occur in a monarch system. The only interest that a sovereign would share with his people would be self-preservation. However, in order for a sovereign to protect himself he must send his subjects into battle against other sovereigns and punish by death any whom disagree with him. Therefore, although the interest may be the same, the method of fulfilling it would generate much conflict between subjects and sovereign.

Hobbes belief that a monarch would receive better council than a group head of state is also not entirely accurate. It is true that within a party government, such as a democracy, each member would continually try to dominate the group, but the same competition would remain in a monarchy. The only difference being, that instead of trying to get to the top, the advisors, would be trying to get as close to the top as possible. Therefore, in both circumstances people in power would let their own goals misguide their judgments. In fact, it is even more likely that this would occur in a monarchy, as the sovereign's advisors would have to continually, "suck up", in order to maintain their positions or to move up. This being the case, instead of having unbiased advisors capable of giving useful, accurate, (and sometimes hard), advice, the government gets, "yes men", who will only please the sovereign and deny the people decisions for solely their behalf.

It is true however, when Hobbes says that the sovereign's policies will be more consistent, but this is not necessarily a good thing. Simply because the policies will be consistent, in no way means that they will not be consistently bad. Again, Hobbes argument for this is that a monarch would not be a tyrant, and so on that assumption his point is valid. However, saying that absolute power would not corrupt any man is extremely unrealistic. Hobbes other argument for the preference of a single sovereign, compared to that of a group, is the lesser chance of civil war due to little, or no conflict between the monarch and anyone. Again, Hobbes is accurate only due to the assumption, that a monarch is incapable of being a tyrant. Without this assumption, civil war would be imminent. The power lust and warmongering of a tyrannical sovereign would most assuredly result in the rebellion against the government, who would defend themselves by use of the royal army.

Another criticism that Hobbes receives on the debate of whether or not a single monarch should be the preference to a party government, is how valid the legitimacy of the right to govern is in a monarch system. Hobbes believes that an absolute sovereign is perfectly legitimate in governing his people on the basis that the people chose him, did so freely. However according to Hobbes, acquiring sovereignty through force was also possible, which is contradictory to both this argument of legitimacy of power and to the question of whether a sovereign could be a tyrant. If the acquisition of sovereignty were due to the free selection of the people then the right to govern is legitimate, so long as the people continue to choose new sovereigns.

There is some validity to the preference of a single monarch however in that although Hobbes theory may technically work with a group or party in power, it would most definitely have major ...

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Keywords: hobbes sovereignty and social contract, hobbes sovereignty theory, hobbes and locke on sovereignty, bodin and hobbes sovereignty, thomas hobbes state and sovereignty, rights of the sovereign hobbes, hobbes definition of sovereignty, hobbes vs rousseau sovereignty

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