Thomas Hobbes's conception of the sovereign State

19 mai 2010

Essay on Hobbes's conception of the sovereign state


Quentin Dittrich-Lagadec "Thomas Hobbes's conception of the sovereign state" (11/2008)

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During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man”: this quotation, extracted from the thirteenth chapter of Leviathan, remains certainly the most famous Thomas Hobbes’s sentence. It implicitly sums up the general thesis of the book: men are basically wicked and selfish; they are always in rivalry with each other to seize the power. Hence, if they want to be safe, men have to submit to the absolute authority of the State. A kind of barter is at the basis of the Hobbes’s system: liberty against safety, submission for security. At the root of this theory, there is a radical distrust towards human nature. What can be the deep reasons of this conception? And to what extent, in this particular case of the opposition of the state with war, does Hobbes contribute to Western conception of politics? I will tackle these issues through four parts: a materialist and pessimistic vision of Man; security considered as a condition for privacy and trade; the strong state, at the basis of the political community; and finally, the society without the state, another alternative to war?

     The state must be strong enough to overcome the state of nature and to dominate human liberty. Indeed, if Hobbes claims for the founding of a strong state, it is because out of civil state life is unbearable. Men are always fighting with each other. But how can Hobbes prove that out of civil society men behave with such violence? He analyses methodically human nature, but only from an empirical and materialist view. He rejects all kinds of transcendent values or virtues. Contrary to religions or ancient philosophies which taught that Man has an inborn sense of ethic, that he is naturally able to distinguish good and evil, Hobbes states that justice is only a covenant. Values do not exist out of state, and they are strictly relative to the laws and the cultural representations of each nation. Moreover, it is not the research of Good that pushes men to establish justice, it is only their self-interests. They need rules to fix property, to determinate mine and yours. Thus, Hobbes can write: “where there is no own, that is, no propriety, there is no injustice; (…) where there is no Commonwealth, there nothing is unjust1. He completely demystifies the Platonic myth of eternal values and ideal justice. In connection with that, we can notice that Nietzsche, three centuries later, in spite of his scorn towards “English psychologists2, exposed almost the same idea. Weakest men have set up moral values so as to end struggles with strong men who dominated them; values level men and compel them to give up their warlike impulses. Hobbes identifies two motives at the state of nature: self-conservation and delectation, and men are always trying to fulfill these inclinations, even by killing each other. As men dispose of an absolute right over everything in this condition, and as justice is just a vain word, nothing can prevent the war of every man against every man. The only reasonable choice for men seems to be the creation of a common authority which will impose peace: the state. The new-born state must be strong enough to deter each member from breaking the social contract they made. Each citizen calculates that it is better for him to be safe than to be free: it is not for Good, it is only for security. As there was no value in the state of nature as there is no civil virtue in the civil state. Therefore, if Hobbes assumes that the strong state is the only alternative to war, it is because human being is a pragmatic and selfish animal without any moral conscience. The government must be left to a rational mechanism deprived from any passions. This pessimistic vision of human nature has probably inspired scientist utopias of perfect societies3 or even totalitarianism. The impartial and rational state must control everything to prevent conflicts; where there is no liberty, there is no war.

       The state must be strong enough to ensure security, which is absolutely necessary for private interests and business. At the state of war, each individual cares only about his own survival, people cannot give their attention to the “economic” sphere (I mean not only things related to trade and business, but all private interests4): “In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain5. War forbids prosperity and even the fulfillment of individual’s happiness in his private life. The strong state, imposing security, provides the possibility of the material satisfaction. Even though it deprives men of their right of nature, it ensures a peaceful environment propitious to business. Moreover, the state lets to its subjects an area where it does not legislate: “The liberty of a subject lieth therefore only in those things which the sovereign hath pretermitted: such as is the liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own abode, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit6. Thus, whereas he is often considered as a support of absolute monarchism, Hobbes appears as an inspirer of liberalism. Indeed, in the condition of war, trade is impossible, because commercial roads are cuts and nations fight each other instead of exchange goods; men mistrust each other, and thus, it is impossible to make business contract. Prosperity implies civility, therefore security. That is why the state must apply laws which ensure a safe frame for economic concerns, as John Locke said: “that prince, who shall be so wise and godlike, as by established laws of liberty to secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind7. Even if liberals are suspicious against the State, they give it the essential role of ensuring security. Thus, Adam Smith considers that: “the first duty of the sovereign, that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies8. Besides, as Hobbes’s state does not legislate inside the private sphere, it allows individuals to open out in the private sphere, which is one of the main struggles of liberalism9. Obviously, Hobbes’s state appears too much authoritarian for liberal thinkers. That is why liberal authors, such as Locke or Montesquieu, insist upon the proclamation of indefeasible rights and also the separation of powers, in order to protect the individual face to the state. Therefore, our modern State of law, limited by a constitution and a judicial control, originates paradoxically from Hobbes’s absolute state.

       The state must be strong enough to pull out men from their trivial quarrels. The strong state is actually the cradle of the nations, the catcher of their particular identities. It must be strong enough to face to a wider war than the one of every man against every man: the war of nations. Out of the state, and even if they are gathered, men only represent a “multitude10, without any conscience of their unity. Moreover, men are not only divided, but also weak: if another community attacks them, they may be destroyed. They have to constitute a body politics to be stronger. In the state, the “multitude” becomes a “people”. The state, because it is composed of each member of the community, embodies its own identity and its own will11. In this sense, we can go as far as saying that Hobbes is the father of the modern Nation-State. Two centuries before Hegel, he had already seen that the state gives its shape and its will to the “Volksgeist 12, the spirit of the People. However, even if the civil war is over inside the state, the war goes on outside. Indeed, the state itself remains in the state of nature, and it fights with the other states for domination13. The state must be strong enough to win the war of nations. The German jurist Carl Schmitt revived these radical ideas. Actually, he considers that the main role of politics is “to distinguish the friend from the enemy”. Thus the state must ensure the unity of the political community by eliminating intruders. Besides, it is always involved in a war against other political communities14. The absolute strength of the state is the condition of the community’s survival. Out of the state, war wipes out the community.

         Hobbes thinks that there is only one alternative to war: the state, based on submission and hierarchy. But this conviction related to his incapacity to imagine any other political organization.  Hobbes keeps an ethnocentric vision of society. In fact, the state is a European creation: its administrative and judicial structure is inherited from both the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. The modern state was built by European kings between the 13th and the 17th centuries in order to impose their authorities and to unify their territories against the divisions of feudalism and religious wars15. Besides, the structure of the state is related to the western monotheist legacy. The state relies on the principle of hierarchy; it reproduces actually the relationship between God and men: the pastoral scheme of the chief, the leader above his subjects. Actually, Hobbes secularized this representation through his “body politics”. The head of the state (as well a king as an assembly) is for its subject like Moses for the Hebrew. There is a clear separation and a fundamental inequality between the governments and the governed. Then, we are able to understand Rousseau’s criticism on representation: inequalities remain inside the so-called democracy, because of the gap between the head and the body of the nation. But, could there be another efficient political organization which ensures peace? In Society against the State, Pierre Clastres describes the organization of Amerindian societies. He shows that these societies are built without division of classes or any structure of domination: individuals remain in a strict equally, guaranteed by various rituals. The figure of the chief does not appear as a leader, he does not set rules. He ensures peace, not through domination of the rest (he does not have the monopoly of violence), but through the use of language:  he solves conflicts by consensus, invoking the tradition to ease troubles16. Hobbes‘s monolithic representation of the state has several roots. First, in 1650, he could not know the political organization of Amerindian societies. Second, this type of organization relies on religious beliefs and strict obedience to rituals; it cannot be applied to our modern societies. And finally, Hobbes was writing in a period of great troubles, just after the Thirty years war and the British Civil war; he had to find a peaceful solution.

         Replacing Hobbes in his historical context, we can conclude that he provided an efficient alternative to war, laying the basis of the modern state. After one century of religious wars, Hobbes, excluding moral considerations, elaborated a political system which was able to restrain human nature to be peaceful. His theory is also at the basis of the Nation-State, the most spread political system today. Certainly, he influenced absolute monarchism or totalitarianism with his ultra-powerful state, but he also set the foundations of the liberal conception of the state, currently efficient through the model of the State of law.


1 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter XV

2 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, I, §1

3 For instance, Auguste Comte or Saint Simon imagined the ideal society: it would be ruled only by science and men would be completely deprived of their freedom; thus they would be equal and there will not be any struggle. (Friedrich A. Hayek, the road to serfdom, chapter II the great Utopia)

4 In the ancient Greece, the word oikos (οκος) pointed out the sphere of the house, including the family and the slaves. It was the sphere of manual work, of private interest, contrary to the public sphere, where the citizen took part in the political life (Hannah Arendt, the Human Condition, part 2 the Public and the Private realm)

5 Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter XIII

6 Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter XXI

7 Locke, the Second Treatise of Government, part V Of Property

8 Smith, an inquiry into the nature and causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter 1

9 Benjamin Constant: “our freedom must consist in the peaceful enjoyment of private independence”   The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns, 1816, in Ecrits politiques p.602

10 Hobbes, De Cive, chapter VI §1

11 Hobbes: The People is somewhat that is one, having one will, and to whom one action may be attributed; none of these can properly be said of a Multitude.De Cive, chapter XII §8

12 Hegel, the reason in History

13 Hobbes: “Every Commonwealth has an absolute liberty to do what it shall judge, that is to say (…). But withal, they live in the condition of a perpetual war against their neighbours”, Leviathan, chapter XXI

14 Schmitt, the notion of politics, chapter IV and V

15 Jean Picq, Histoire et droit des Etats, Presses de Sciences po (2005)

16 Dominique Colas, Sociologue politique, chapter XI, PUF (2006)

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