HOBBES: THE ABSOLUTE STATE THEORIST
In his famous book, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes supports the absolute power of kings. His goal is to make for a powerful commonwealth or state which is capable of maintaining order. Describing how and why commonwealths come into existence, Hobbes (1985: 223-224) writes:
The final cause, end, or design of men, who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others, in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in commonwealths, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition called warre, which is necessarily consequent, as hath been shown, to the natural passions of men, when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants… and covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure, if there be no power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will and may rely on his strength and art, for caution against all other men.
This establishes the basis for the supremacy of the state over its subjects. And the end of the state is the protection of lives and property. Hobbes regards the state as a self–contained unit deciding by no one else but itself what is just and unjust. Hence, the state alone is the creator and judge of all such laws that control the actions of men (Awa, 1992).
The people agree among themselves to surrender their natural rights of equality and freedom to the state and give absolute power to the sovereign. The sovereign (government) created by the people, may be a person or group of persons. “The only way to erect such a common power…is to conferre all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one Assembly of men…. The multitude so united in one person, is called a COMMON WEALTH….And he that carryeth this person, is called SOVEREIGN, and is said to have sovereign POWER; AND EVERYONE besides, his subject” (Hobbes, 1985: 227-228).
Each individual, by consenting to a set of rules, guarantees basic equality with every other member of the commonwealth. This means that no one possesses more right than another. The sovereign must treat all the individuals equally in matters of justice and taxation. Hence, justice is found in treatment and in rights. It also involves keeping one’s promises, for non-performance will lead to an unequal status. In other words, Hobbes equates justice with fairness and doing to others what one would expect to be done by others. Once the sovereign is created, it will be given all powers. “This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of the mortal God, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence” (Hobbes, 1985:120).
The commonwealth is instituted when individuals, of their own accord, agree to transfer all their natural powers to a third party. The contract, which is irrevocable, is only among the people, and not with the sovereign. Hobbes prefers the beneficiary of the contract, the third person, to be a monarch. Commonwealths differ not due to the nature of the sovereign power, but in the number of persons that wields and exercises this power. Hence, there could be a third person of one, few or many. Among the three, monarchy is preferable to aristocracy or democracy because the self-indulgence of one will not be as devastating as those of few and many, and there will be less intrigues and plots which arise mainly due to personal ambition and envy.
Hobbes’s defends absolute state in which the power of the sovereign is unlimited, inalienable and permanent. However, absolute power is not based on the notion of divine right of kings, but on the desire for order and commodious living. The state will make and enforce laws to secure a peaceful society, making life, liberty and property possible. In fact, the government (state) decides what is necessary for peace and defence of the people. Hobbes (1985: 232) maintains that “it belongth of right, to whatsoever Man, or Assembly that hath the sovereignty, to judge both of the means of Peace and Defence”. The sovereign decides what doctrines are fit to be taught the citizens, and he performs all the judicial functions of the state.
It is also the function of the monarch to choose all the councilors, ministers, magistrates and other officers of the state. He bestows honour to deserving citizens and punishes offenders according to the law or as he may deem appropriate. Also given to the sovereign is the right of making war and peace with other nations; that is to say, of judging when it is for public good, and how great forces are to be assembled, armed and paid for that end; and to levy money on the subjects, to defray the expenses thereof (Hobbes, 1985).
It can be seen that Hobbes believes that the best state is one governed by a maximum ruler. Hence he chooses absolute monarchy and argues that placing all powers in the hands of the king will bring about more resolute and consistent exercise of political power. Once the people have given absolute power to the monarch, they have no right to revolt against him. He insists that “they that are subjects to a Monarch cannot without his leave cast off Monarchy, and return to the confusion of a disunited multitude” (Hobbes, 1985:234). Any person who tries to revolt is unjust and should therefore be punished or killed because he is responsible for his own punishment.
Hobbes now turns his attention to the issue of succession, and has this to say:
And for the question (which may arise sometimes) who it is that the Monarch in possession, hath designed to the succession and inheritance of his power, it is determined by his express words, and testament, when it is declared by him in his lifetime, viva voce, or by writing as the first emperors of Rome declared who should be their Heiress. For the word Heire does not of itself imply the children, or nearest kindred of a man, but whomsoever a man shall any way declare, he would have to succeed him in his Estate” (Hobbes, 1985: 249).
The implication of this is that the people in Hobbes’s state do not participate in the selection of their rulers and, by extension in the formulation of public policy. Since power is not diffused, political activities and participation are limited, if not absent. What this leads to will be political apathy – that which the state imposes. Really, the centralised and closed nature of the state in Hobbes shrinks the political space, alienates the people and allows for the control of power by an individual or very few of them.
Hobbes warns against the church meddling in politics. He fears that religion can become a source of civil war. Hence, he advises that the church should be a department in the king’s government, which will monitor religious affairs. In any conflict between divine law and royal law, the individual should obey the king or choose death. Obviously, then, Hobbes’s ideal state is also secular. He is quite sympathetic towards customs, traditions and other moralities that exist outside the purview of the sovereign law. On this basis, he asserts that law is not derived from the social institution of the people; it is a command of the sovereign. The Leviathan is the sole source and interpreter of laws, both divine and natural. Thus, laws are those commands of the sovereign that guide human actions. Hobbes rules out private beliefs, which he considers to be the source of all seditions and dissensions. He also rules out division and multiplicity of authority for that is an anathema to a stable political order. Authority is either unitary or nothing. He places the sovereign above the law. Since law is the command of the sovereign, the ruler cannot be wrong, unjust or immoral. The sovereign not only administers the law, but also enforces it. Hobbes feels that a strong, centralized monarchy will ensure a good, just and progressive society.
It can be clearly seen that Hobbes wants his state to possess sovereign power represented in the monarch. This is indeed a precursor to modem theory of sovereignty, that is, the absolute power of a state to exercise supreme legal authority over its own affairs. But, unlike Hobbes, many modern power theorists insist that sovereignty lies with the people.
The state in Hobbes’s theory is the dominant institution of political and social life. The state changes the miserable, poor and nasty lives that individuals live prior to its establishment, and enables them to pursue their interests. It is the ruthlessness of individuals that makes the indivisible power of the state an absolute necessity. Hence, Hobbes could be said to have originated what may be called the theory of political absolutism which reconciles legitimate political authority with conflicting yet justified human need. The subjects have a duty and an obligation to obey the sovereign, since the sovereign is the result of their contract.
Hobbes maintains that to ensure peace, lesser associations can only exist with the permission of the state. Hobbes does not trust the motives of private associations and factions, for he sees in them a seed-bed for subversion. He subordinates the church to the sovereign, and the church, being a corporation, will have a head who has to be a secular sovereign. The teachings of the church are lawful only when authorized by the state. Though a materialist, Hobbes professes faith in God and believes in the essential teachings of Christianity.
The cause of disorder, according to Hobbes, is general desirousness of individuals who are equal. The problem gets compounded in a situation of scarcity. Social peace is only possible when individuals abandon or restrict their passions and appetite, or if the available pool of resources is increased. Since the second option is not feasible, he prefers the first. There is no possibility of a metamorphosis of human nature; instead, the political is devised to accept human egoism and self-interest. The state is no longer visualized as a moral institution that will transform the individual. It is to restrain individuals through the overwhelming power of the sovereign, without preventing the pursuit of their desires. Since the state exists for individuals to fulfil their aspiration and ensure their well-being, it is an individualistic and a utilitarian one. Again, since his all-powerful absolute sovereign is a self-perpetuating one, the state is also illiberal. There is no procedure to periodically renew the individual’s consent to the sovereign power. The subject does not actively participate in the political process, nor is there is mechanism to secure his active support.
Although, largely illiberal, we see one important feature of liberalism in Hobbes. The state is liberal because it is constituted by free and equal individuals who are egoistic, self-interested and selfish. What we can, therefore, deduce is that his premise is individualistic and liberal, but his conclusion absolutist and illiberal.