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Hobbes’s Commonwealth: A Peace that’s Not So Positive

October 27, 2010
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“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.

5 Comments
  1. Jorge Rodriguez-Larrain permalink
    October 27, 2010 5:07 PM

    The article focused on an interesting subject, but I think it is worth questioning the following:
    Is it truly possible to have a state of peace, without any political liberties? Additionally, I think that there should be more clarification with the poll, but the article shows the difference between, the “negative” peace of Hobbes’s commonwealth, and the “positive” peace. Interesting article.

  2. Nick Weeks permalink
    October 27, 2010 9:35 PM

    Interesting point, I do agree that Hobbes’ state of nature and idea of commonwealth is not very appealing. However, with the idea of “negative peace” and Hobbes’ sovereign “clinging to power” I disagree. Hobbes’ argues that the sovereign is only an actor acting upon the part of the Author which is the people. So Hobbes’ Leviathan is made up of all of the people of the commonwealth that made it, making them willing to the sovereigns will and the peace that it makes. If the commonwealth submits to this peace then Why is it negative? It seems to me that the commonwealth would see the peace as positive. Really well written article interesting and thought provoking.

  3. hadohe permalink
    October 27, 2010 11:20 PM

    This post was really interesting in that you “connected the dots” of two opposite figures in history and proved how they oppose each other on the same topic. The fact that Hobbes’ sovereign could be a “negative peace” is an extremely insightful observation, and made me almost instantly nod my head in agreement. Yet, in defense of Hobbes (even though he is frankly difficult to defend now that we have studied Locke) he contends that the sovereign is the direct, collective representation of the people, and that the people themselves subscribe him his right by covenant. What helps me think of this is the Leviathan illustration with the sovereign’s body composed of other citizens. Not alluding to instances where kings violate their power, Hobbes’ theory is to be taken in a theoretical context, in my opinion, when all of his proposed conditions are perfectly satisfied. Obviously, the world is not perfect; therefore, I think that a Sovereign can be considered “negative peace” because pluralism is swatted away or subdued in Hobbes’ commonwealth (because the sovereign is set as an “equalizer” of sorts) while there is an acceptance of varying ideas by the people in Locke’s theory. Overall, the Leviathan does seem like a rash decision or “negative peace” out of fear rather than a thought-out,complex system– which you presented nicely in your second paragraph.

  4. Cesar Ruiz permalink
    October 29, 2010 5:02 PM

    I liked the way you began your post with a quote. The good part about it was that it wasn’t one of the common authors we have been reading about. It was interesting to see how you incorporated a Benjamin Franklin quote into our understandings of governments and what other authors have to say, such as Hobbes and Dr. King.
    The Benjamin Franklin quote really resembles the idea that liberty should be linked with safety. We have the freedom to decide our actions and the liberty to do what we deem necessary, in accordance with the law. If a person gives up liberty, in order to attain some degree of safety, they are disposing their right to safety. This sort of ties in with the idea throughout the Revolutionary War: “Give me liberty, or give me death!” If we don’t have liberty, there’s no way to secure any safety. If we throw away our liberty, we throw away everything else that it entails, essentially our lives.

  5. arimark91 permalink
    November 9, 2010 7:02 PM

    This post is very interesting, and I do agree with it to an extent, but while reading it all I could think about was airport security. Sometimes giving up your liberty can save you, and I think that is the point that Hobbes is trying to make. I do agree that liberty is important, but sometimes it is wiser for people to give up some of it. I’d personally rather give up some of my rights to airport security knowing that there won’t be any “war” in the airport and on the airplane than have total liberty and wonder whether or not I’m about to get onto a dangerous plane ride.

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