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The Hobbesian View On Today’s Politics

October 30, 2010

Since I injured myself, I have been watching a lot of television and noticed that as Election Day, Tuesday, November 2nd draws near; there has been an exponential increase in political advertisements depicting candidates as foolish, stuck up, self righteous, and unjust individuals. These mudslinging techniques have been marquis ways to dash an opponent’s chance of winning, and provide great publicity for the candidate sponsoring the message. Even more recently, I have been seeing advertisements from Michigan residents claiming that congressmen or representatives have been abusing their power and not doing what is in the best interest of the people. Others believe that they have a representative that does not care about what they view as important. This seems to be the state of play in the political realm of late, however, people being upset and bickering about their representative or as Hobbes refers to “Sovereign” has been of discussion for hundreds and thousands of years.

In Leviathan, Hobbes speaks about the state of nature. Hobbes believes that within the state of nature there is no injustice, since there is no law. In this state, any person has a natural right to the liberty to do anything he wills to preserve his own life, and due to this, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to escape this dreadful way of life, Hobbes believed that individuals needed organized governments with a sovereign or absolute leader. This leader will provide peace and protection for his subjects. This protection comes in the forms of covenants made between individuals to establish sovereigns. One instance of establishing a sovereign is by institution, which makes individuals make covenants between each other to agree on the sovereign for the benefit of social order and public welfare. Another individual freedom that Hobbes discusses is sovereignty by acquisition, which are covenants made by the vanquished to the victors. These covenants between individuals are the building blocks of a governmental society and allow for absolute liberty.

Hobbes believed that liberty was the ability to act according to one’s will without being physically hindered from performing that act, thus all subjects have absolute liberty under sovereignty. Nevertheless, the contract and the civil laws mandated by the sovereign are “artificial chains” preventing certain actions; absolute freedom and liberty still exist because the subjects themselves created the chains and agreed upon these circumstances in order to live within the first of law of nature: peace. According to Hobbes, subjects write the social contract and are the authors of the sovereign’s power. Due to this undeniable fact, the subject is responsible for all hindrances to his actions and therefore cannot complain about the harsh actions of a sovereign. While it may seem out of the subject’s control to manage a sovereign’s power, the subject must know that it was his/her covenant, his/her risk/reward analysis between state of nature and peace that put the sovereign in command.

This brings me back to the complaints of the people in the state of Michigan with regards to the actions of their congressmen, representatives, and governor. The people of Michigan believe that their political representatives are taking advantage of their powers and not doing an adequate job of providing a sufficient government. Nevertheless, Hobbes would proclaim that these people have no right to be upset with their leader as long as they are protected and living in peace without their lives being threatened or in grave danger. To Hobbes, these Sovereigns are doing their jobs in maintaining the status quo of society. Not everything can or will be perfect, but to Hobbes, if individuals can live in a society of peace without war, then it is successful and people should be content. Of course, this is just a theory and a difficult one at that, yet it does help give an interesting counterargument of our liberties and freedoms that we take for granted and a look into the openness of our current society.

  1. gustavusarborus permalink
    October 31, 2010 6:25 PM

    While indeed society may seem stable, the economic situation in Michigan could be seen as a pressure on society closer towards a state of war. While outright violence is unlikely at worst and unthinkable in general, there are people in this state living far beyond their means, driven into foreclosure, poverty, and general hardship. In short, while we have not yet reached a point where the Hobbesian definition of peace is broken, it does not take much to see society moving towards that point, even if one does not realize it at the time.

    On the flip side of the coin, many public officials are being attacked for NOT maintaining the status quo. On the national scale, organizations like the Tea Party have spoken out against what they view as radical changes in government. On state levels, support for plans that may be seen as necessary to help the state is used as a negative issue, as pushing too far from the status quo. It may be debated whether this is because of party loyalty, fear of the unknown or considered intellectual opinion, but the inability to maintain the status quo is precisely the accusation that some political elements are using against those in government.

  2. greguff permalink
    November 2, 2010 8:08 PM

    I agree with the above comment that when the sovereign protects, it does not necessarily mean war. In the times that Hobbes is referring to in the state of nature, war and conflict is inevitable thus they needed the sovereign to protect everyones health and well being. In our society and in Michigan, the crushing economy is just as big a threat and is causing depression and tough obstacles for people to overcome. Hobbes would not agree that the sovereign is doing its job because the people are not content, and there is no economical security or safety, even though there not in a current state of physical danger. The people do have a right to act out and not listen to the sovereign therefore because the sovereign is not doing a sufficient job.

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