Political Philosophy

Hobbes presented his political philosophy in different forms for different audiences. De Cive states his theory in what he regarded as its most scientific form. Its break from the ancient authority par excellence—Aristotle—could not have been more loudly advertised. After only a few paragraphs, Hobbes rejects one of the most famous theses of Aristotle’s politics, namely that human beings are naturally suited to life in a polis and do not fully realize their natures until they exercise the role of citizen. Hobbes turns Aristotle’s claim on its head: human beings, he insists, are by nature unsuited to political life. They naturally denigrate and compete with each other, are very easily swayed by the rhetoric of ambitious men, and think much more highly of themselves than of other people. There is no natural self-restraint, even when human beings are moderate in their appetites, for a ruthless and bloodthirsty few can make even the moderate feel forced to take violent preemptive action in order to avoid losing everything.
War comes more naturally to human beings than political order. Indeed, political order is possible only when human beings abandon their natural condition of judging and pursuing what seems best to each and delegate this judgment to someone else. This delegation is effected when the many contract together to submit to a sovereign in return for physical safety and a modicum of well-being. Although Hobbes did not assume that there was ever a real historical event in which a mutual promise was made to delegate self-government to a sovereign, he claimed that the best way to understand the state was to conceive of it as having resulted from such an agreement. The sovereign is not a party to the social contract; he receives the obedience of the many as a free gift in their hope that he will see to their safety. The sovereign makes no promises to the many in order to win their submission. Indeed, because he does not transfer his right of self-government to anyone, he retains the total liberty that his subjects trade for safety. He is not bound by law, including his own laws. Nor does he do anything unjustly if he makes decisions about his subjects’ safety and well-being that they do not like. Hobbes’s masterpiece, Leviathan (1651), does not significantly depart from the view of De Cive concerning the relation between protection and obedience, but it devotes much more attention to the civil obligations of Christian believers and the proper and improper roles of a church within a state. Hobbes argues that believers do not endanger their prospects of salvation by obeying a sovereign’s decrees to the letter, and he maintains that churches do not have any authority that is not granted by the civil sovereign.

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