Hobbes’s Commonwealth: A Peace that’s Not So Positive
“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”-Benjamin Franklin
It was constantly with me when I read Hobbes—this nagging feeling, an occasional pang in my gut. And no, it wasn’t brought on by the bizarre syntax of a guy whose ideas were hard to grasp even back in the seventeenth century. It was a discomfort that I couldn’t put into words, but the feeling that something wasn’t quite right was glaringly obvious.
At the start, Hobbes goal seemed noble: provide structure through a commonwealth that creates peace. If one bought into the idea that all people are self-interested and therefore in competition with each other, as Hobbes argued, creating a social contract with others to authorize a sovereign to protect you appeared to be a great maneuver. Pulling people out of a state of nature in which there was a constant state of war—where one suffered from a life that is “nasty, brutish, and short”—the unfailing structure of Hobbes’s commonwealth assuaged the people’s fears of untimely death. By framing Leviathan in a historical context of the English Civil War, I understood that Hobbes was desperate for this kind of structure in order to prevent the chaos and violence he had experienced from ever happening again.
And then finally, it clicked! In examining Hobbes views further, I realized that Hobbes’s commonwealth led to what Dr. King referred to as a “negative peace.” Blinded his overwhelming desire for stability, Hobbes’s main concern deviated from protecting the people to protecting the entity of the sovereign, so as to never experience political turmoil again. The social contract between people appeared to be just a metaphor, and with no need for expressed consent from the masses, the sovereign clung to absolute power and authorization as long as he kept the peace and protected the lives of his citizens. But was Hobbes’s commonwealth acceptable for reasons of structure alone? Was anything better than the turmoil of civil war?
“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice…when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
These questions did not sit right with me. Sitting at a tiny desk with proposed theories of obedience buzzing around me, a phrase popped into my brain and sounded all the alarm bells: “dangerously structured dams.” It was from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Here he argued against what he called a “negative peace.” Structure solely for the sake of structure was not good enough. Hobbes’s commonwealth could provide stability and peace, but to what end? According to Dr. King, the structure of the government rested in the laws, not in the hands of the sovereign, and he adhered to this structure in his every action. Ironically enough, his theory of civil disobedience, in which one publicly disobeyed unjust laws and accepted the punishment for doing so, showed the greatest respect for the laws and the structure of government as a whole. By highlighting the inconsistency of unjust laws through the framework of a just system of laws, civil disobedience actually strengthened the structure of government by creating a “positive peace.” Hobbes may have grasped the “peace” concept in his commonwealth, but he was severely lacking in the “positive” part.