Hobbes: human condition
In Leviathan, Hobbes
provides all of the necessary parts to tell a compelling story of the
human condition. Here are the main parts:
motives and actions are all based on internal bio-mechanical processes.
and evil are dependent on what the individual loves (what s/he seeks)
and hates (what s/he avoids).
the strictly natural condition (outside of society), there is no objective
value (good or bad).
the strictly natural condition (outside of society), there is no justice
or injustice - everyone has the right to seek and take whatever is good
for them and dispose of whatever is bad for them.
are naturally equal in power of mind and body, so that no individual is
capable of dominating all the others indefinitely.
Picture the story these elements
create - it is a hypothetical situation that
is not like our daily lives, it is more like the scenario created in a
post-apocalyptic movie, but even further removed from social convention.
In that world there would be no trust or fairness. You would have desires
(such as food and water) that others may also want. If they are stronger
then you, they could take away whatever you have or kill you. If you were
stronger or lucky, maybe you would take or kill.
|"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to
a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent
to the time wherein men live without other security than what their
own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal.
In such condition there is 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 man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
[Leviathan, Ch. VI]
Hobbes does not mean this as
a merely possible and scary story. He offers the state of nature as a
depiction of the reality that nature actually gives us. Take away our
law and social convention, and we will fall into the state of nature.
Even in our state of civilization, we carry with us reminders of the consequences
of natural liberty;
|"It may seem strange to some man that has
not well weighed these things that Nature should thus dissociate
and render men apt to invade and destroy one another: and he may
therefore, not trusting to this inference, made from the passions,
desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience. Let him
therefore consider with himself: when taking a journey, he arms
himself and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he
locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and
this when he knows there be laws and public officers, armed, to
revenge all injuries shall be done him; what opinion he has of his
fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow citizens, when
he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks
his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions
as I do by my words? But neither of us accuse man's nature in it.
The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin.
No more are the actions that proceed from those passions till they
know a law that forbids them; which till laws be made they cannot
know, nor can any law be made till they have agreed upon the person
that shall make it." [Leviathan, Ch. VI]
Another depiction of this story
of unrestricted human desire is found in Plato's Republic in the
of Gyges myth. Another important element in this story is general
principle of human psychology.
|"A law of nature, lex naturalis,
is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man
is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh
away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which
he thinketh it may be best preserved." [Leviathan,
This is the principle of self-preservation.
Human beings (perhaps all animals and living things) seek to preserve
themselves against harm and death. Self-preservation is a value that we
all have in common and it leads to a very important point in Hobbes' investigation:
the basis for group cooperation.
Suppose that someone is strong
enough to harm us at their pleasure. The rational thing to do is to form
an agreement with others to protect against that
person or get rid of them. There is strength in numbers. But, if we can
band together for mutual protection from an individual, then we can also
agree upon common rules that mutually protect us from each other. That
is, to make and live by a social agreement by which all of us accept limitations
on our liberty in exchange for common security.
The above is but a skeletal
summary, yet the direction of Hobbes' effort is clear: to derive from
the principles of human psychology and natural conditions the basis for
a rational commitment to social organization.
- Hobbes on the social contract