Hobbes on Escaping the State of Nature

Hobbes advocates for nothing less than the complete cession of all rights and privileges by everyone to the sovereign for him to do with what he wishes, provided he maintains order, peace, and security. Those are the only terms of the contract by which the people may escape the sovereign’s rule, namely when the sovereign is impotent and utterly incapable of protecting those over whom he rules. A potential scenario would be in the event of foreign invasion. At that moment when the sovereign’s reign is at a near end, the people can defect and can either replace him with someone else of their own choosing, or they may opt to place themselves under the rule of the invader.

But Hobbes intends for this method of recourse to be incredibly rare, since it is far better to suffer minor injustices perpetrated by the sovereign, rather than to suffer the constant war of all against all, which renders life in general—solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In the state of nature, Hobbes holds to a peculiar notion of equality, namely that all men are virtually equivalent in mental and physical faculties, such that each man may kill any other man. No one is safe, not even groups that manage to exist for a short while. They will inevitably disintegrate when the interests of its members fail to converge. Hobbes thinks that men are unsatisfied without glory, honor, and pride, and so this will result in continual war, not necessarily always with physical combat, but this state will prevent flourishing absolutely.

Here he disagrees strongly with Locke, who held that although it was advantageous to leave the state of nature and create a social contract, the state of nature was still nevertheless livable, that is, it allowed for a certain amount of life, liberty, and property. But since the enforcement of justice would always be fraught with partiality and other problems, a civil society with public justice would solve most of these inconveniences. Not so for Hobbes. He spends a good majority of his writing based on the psychological motivations for action, using the hypothetical man as the basis for determining what life would be like in the state of nature—populated with these egoistical men. And Hobbes certainly borrowed freely from the events which went on around him. His earlier work, Behemoth, was a history of the English civil war, and there considerable clash between the divine right of kings and the supremacy of Parliament. Add to this Puritan suspicion of state authority and hierarchical Catholicism, and you have a society so filled with divergent interests that it is bound to war—perhaps endless war. Hobbes’ pessimism stems from his distrust of religion and the Greeks. He took his philosophy from Thucydides and the Sophists, rather than from Plato and Aristotle, and he especially had unkind words for the Scholastics.

For Hobbes, there existed no such thing as a natural order of law. The natural rights he speaks about as belong to agents in the state of nature have no moral content, whatsoever. Moreover, the nineteen theorems he offers, in order to present a systematic and scientific account of politics are merely meant as rational principles, which lead to the establishment of the Leviathan, the create described in the Book of Job in the Bible as King of the Children of Pride. While Hobbes disdained Christianity as it existed in his lifetime, this didn’t prevent him from appealing to the religious sentiments of his readers, in order to persuade them.

His nineteen theorems are meant to function as geometric axioms. Men in the state of nature will eventually realize that peace is the most rational move to make, and so will follow these principles as guides to establish a common power—the sovereign. This sovereign ensures order and stability and is endowed with a monopoly on coercion. If everyone submits, the division of labor will once again be possible, and as a result, human flourishing can continue unimpeded. Pride as the cause of war will be crushed, and the sovereign will ensure that defection in contracts is not an option. Self-interested action, when operating within a strict framework of property rights, will lead to beneficial outcomes for all. Absent a sovereign, the non-zero sum game transitions to a zero-sum game.