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Hobbes and the Nature of Power

February 15, 2011

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.

  1. John D'Adamo permalink
    February 15, 2011 11:15 AM

    Hobbes’ solution of preventing the laws of nature being a sovereign ruler is an issue most have, myself included. I would go even one step further- Hobbes takes a lot of things for granted and assumes quite a bit about human nature in his work. To begin, his entire law of nature in general assumes people will do whatever they wish to get ahead if there is no system of codified law, completely disregarding centuries/millenia of morality, both religious and secular. Then, he believes a social contract should take place (I’m with him so far…) then an all-powerful king should enforce this contract with the law of the sword (WHAT???).
    Hobbes’ idea didn’t exactly work out, either. I liked your examples in the post of Stalin, Napoleon, and Mubarak, as they pretty much completely disprove his theory- the king is not infallible, and in fact succumbs to personal ambition and makes poor decisions that are not the best for the public good as a result. You then mentioned Bill Clinton and what would’ve occurred had he been an autocratic leader, the sole representative of power in this country… I’m not sure this is as valid an example, because under a system where he is the only leader, he would’ve been able to have as much extramarital fun as he wanted without a Congress and judiciary to impeach and possibly convict him. Monicagate would’ve been a non-issue, I think. But that’s just my guess.
    Great post!

    • AlexKasnetz... permalink
      February 15, 2011 1:22 PM

      I appreciate the comment. Honestly, you’re right about Bill Clinton. I wanted to throw out a bit more of light-hearted example, perhaps wishing for some comedy (but rethinking in what taste a political blog ought to be). It may be informal to say but…lol. I really like what you added and I think you enhance the point I was trying to make. Thanks!

      • John D'Adamo permalink
        February 15, 2011 4:32 PM

        I hear you. I think poor Bill is going to be hearing jokes about Monica and the cigar for the rest of his days…

  2. Ravi Shah permalink
    February 16, 2011 11:04 AM

    I agree with your post and think that bringing up the point about Egyptian revolutionaries is a great modern day example to illustate some of the flaws in Hobbes argument. According to Hobbes, Mubarak was fulfilling his one goal of protecting his people. The people should not have been upset than, at all the injustices because they were being “protected.” Clearly this is no how it worked and Egypt,which, at least was for a couple days, was pretty close to being in a state of war. This is a complete contrast with what Hobbes said would happen… Anyway insightful thinking!

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