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The State of Nature and The Hobbesian Commonwealth: An Obvious Contradiction

February 17, 2011
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Hobbes believes in both the state of nature and the need for a Hobbesian Commonwealth—but is it possible that two concepts are, in fact, contradictions?
If one truly believes in the state of nature, can they also believe that a Hobbesian Commonwealth will ultimately succeed and the ruler will be just? In reality, this is not possible.

To understand this, it is first important to understand Hobbes’ take on the state of nature. Hobbes believes that, without a Commonwealth, people in the state of nature are selfish, egotistical, vain, and constantly acquisitive for more. Hobbes seems to think that in the state of nature men are barbarians. In the words of Hobbes himself, “to this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice.” Hobbes believes man is strictly self interested, and therefore it would seem impossible that they would ever think of anyone’s interest but their own. Without a supreme power above man, they will steal, cheat, and be unjust.

On the other hand, Hobbes also strongly believes in the Hobbesian Commonwealth. He believes his Commonwealth will end injustice and the transfer of power will allow an exit out of the barbaric state of nature. In the Hobbesian Commonwealth, according to Hobbes’ Leviathan, “every man should say to every man, I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man…on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions like manner.” Hobbes believes that, in the Commonwealth, every man should give up their freedom to a sovereign (in his eyes, a single power) in order to gain security and protection. The sovereign only has one stipulation in order to be a legitimate ruler: provide protection to the people.

When taking a closer look at the Commonwealth, it appears that Hobbes could possibly be right and, with a sovereign in place, injustice among the people might come to a halt due to their tradeoff of freedom for protection. But what is to be said of the sovereign? The sovereign might provide protection, but they don’t have a supreme power exiting them out of the state of nature. Hobbes makes a clear point to say that men are barbaric, self interested, and selfish. The sovereign did not have to give up any of his freedom to become ruler, he only had to promise protection. Because of this, according to Hobbe’s belief of the state of nature, the sovereign will act selfishly and vainly because he still maintains all of his initial freedom. If the ruler is acting as he would in the state of nature, cruel and unjust, the Hobbesian Commonwealth does not believe in unjust rulers therefore he can never be impeached. If one believes in the state of nature and that men are barbaric, they cannot possibly believe the sovereign in a Hobbesian Commonwealth will be just and society will benefit from the contract. They may gain protection from the Hobbesian Commonwealth, but they could possibly lose a lot more from the barbaric, selfish sovereign.

 

2 Comments
  1. February 17, 2011 8:22 PM

    Great insight into this contradiction. I had never thought of it in these terms before, but it’s true. The sovereign is above society and its rules and is therefore still in a state of nature. By Hobbes own definition the sovereign would be fiercely self interested and would have be empowered to do whatever s/he could to secure their own well-being. To me this begs the question: If the sovereign, whose whims are the rules by which society is governed and that sovereign is in a state of nature and is acting as such, wouldn’t society then be in a de facto state of nature?

  2. February 28, 2011 4:37 PM

    This is an interesting post. Nevertheless, I would say that if you agree with Hobbes’ state of nature, the sovereign cannot commit injustice/justice because it does not exist in the state of nature. I would further agree that the sovereign is in a state of nature as he has retained all his rights. Nevertheless, those who authored the sovereign also acted in their own self-interest, as it is a law of nature to seek peace. As a result, according to Hobbes, it is their self-interest which relieves them from the state of nature. Therefore, I believe that society is not in a de facto state of nature if the sovereign is in a state of nature. This is because the sovereign has a duty to uphold the contracts between the people, and this is what they want. However, this is not a perfect society as a member of it, the sovereign, can act however he wants. Lastly, I would say that it is better than the state of nature, but not the best alternative (a better alternative I believe is deals with Locke’s views on property).

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