Hobbes and the Nature of Power
Hobbes divides power into two categories. One is born with or has an affinity for his or her natural powers such as intelligence or strength. One’s instrumental power is acquired through such things as friends, reputation, or riches. Hobbes writes that “the greatest of human powers is that which is compounded by most men, united by consent, in one person…” (Leviathan Pt. I, Ch. 10). Well the Egyptian revolutionaries, I, and the examples of modern history might disagree. I would stop Hobbes just three words short, deleting “in one person.”
Firstly, I would argue that the arc of history has shown the weakness of vesting power in one person. It is difficult for one person to acquire the consent needed for power. To achieve this one needs incredible charisma, the capacity to use force and incite fear, and to maintain rapport with those who decide his fate. These things are both necessary to maintain consent and difficult to acquire and continue to embody throughout one’s rule. The vesting of power in one person also naturally leads to jealousy. Thus, one person with all the power compounded by most men embodied within him is found in a precarious position. The communist movement in the Soviet Union fell victim to this. The quest for a truly egalitarian state was hindered by the personal aspirations of dominant leaders such as Stalin. As history has progressed, autocracies have found themselves increasingly usurped.
Secondly, when power is vested in a sole ruler the perception of power lies within that ruler. The entire community, whether it be a state, a revolutionary movement, or a company, is subject to the impact of the reputation of one ruler. Reputation, Hobbes states, is an important form of power. But reputation is more secure when power is spread across a movement. Since reputation is a part of power, a group with power dispersed is more powerful. If Bill Clinton was the sole representative of AMerican power, his extramarital offense may have tainted a nation, not just one overly horny president.
Third, when the power, and thus the actions of a group or movement, are vested in one person, those actions may be subject to the fickle whims of that ruler. Thus the purposes and motivations of that movement or community may be muddled by the unique motivations of one person. Hobbes states that men seek power after power until the end of their live. In this way a leader’s search for power may inhibit the power of the movement. If the American revolutionaries were united completely under one single leader , the new United States of America may have very well been a monarchy in the mode of the British. The French revolution encountered this problem when it vested power in one or a few individuals such as Robespierre and Napoleon. One dominant leader does not appear to have emerged in the Egyptian Revolution, but if one does emerge the revolution may fall victim to one man’s desire for power.
I do not say that there is no place for strong leaders. I argue that “the greatest of human powers is that which is compounded by most men, united by consent” and with that power spread rather than concentrated in one leader.