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Of Sovereignty, Legislature, and the State of Nature

Though contemporaries and countrymen (“Thomas Hobbes – Wikipedia”; “John Locke – Wikipedia”), Locke and Hobbes arrived at very different opinions regarding the proper position of legislative, or sovereign, power – whether it should be bounded within the limits of the commonwealth, or left to rule from without. For Hobbes, the sovereign must be exempt from the bindings of the communal covenant, set instead above the commonwealth as its head (Hobbes 208; Frontispiece). But Locke insisted that the legislative power be subject to the conditions of the same social compact that established its authority; grounded in the state, Locke’s legislative enjoys solemn responsibility rather than unfettered liberty (Locke 322). These differences emerged from disparate assumptions as to Man’s condition in the state of nature; their prescriptions, insofar as they differ, follow from their diagnoses, dissimilar not in kind, but by significant degree.

English: Thomas Hobbes Македонски: Томас Хобс

Thomas Hobbes; Image via Wikipedia

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher (“Thomas Hobbes – Wikipedia”) whose “masterwork”, Leviathan (1651), has been credited as foundational for the subsequent development of social contract theory (Ibid.). A careful thinker and prolific writer highly controversial in his own time (Ibid.), Hobbes’s conception of Man’s natural condition outside the structure and security of a political community was one of war – every man against every man – and continual fear from the danger of a violent death, wherein life is described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes 159).

Convinced that Man’s nature renders him unsuited to society, Hobbes describes him as inevitably propelled into conflict through the pursuit of his needs, wants, and ambition to power (Ibid.). Unavoidable competition, distrust, and contempt fuel the war of all against all that defines the state of nature (Ibid.), so that the only escape from the perpetual fear of a violent death and the cold logic of preemptive attack is the creation of a common power “to keep them in awe, and to direct their actions to the common benefit” (Hobbes 175).

Thomas Hobbes Leviathan

Frontispiece of Hobbes's "Leviathan", by Abraham Bosse; Image via Wikipedia

Hobbes posits that it is only the horror of our natural state that drives a multitude of men to covenant together in the transfer of all their natural rights and powers for the creation of a commonwealth, whose head is Leviathan – “that mortal god” and sovereign – and whose purpose is “peace at home” and mutual defense from foreign enemies (Ibid.). The covenant (by which a commonwealth is created and through which a sovereign is appointed and empowered) is between “every man with every man” (those same as are otherwise at war); is contingent on mutual consent but binding thereafter; and is purposed to consolidate a power more fearful than the terror native to the state of nature (Ibid.).

Crucial for Hobbes’s logic, the sovereign created by covenant is not himself party to that covenant, and cannot, therefore, in any way breach it; he is outside it and above it (Hobbes 176, 208). Indeed, he alone remains in the state of nature, wielding his natural rights with those of his subjects, transferred and consolidated (Hobbes 176). Hobbes sees restraints on sovereign power, such as those that would exist were the sovereign party to the covenant (or like those that do exist for Locke’s Legislative), as antithetical (Ibid.). If the sovereign were party and subject to the covenant, there would then be required a power great enough to compel his keeping it, i.e., a true sovereign (Ibid.), ad infinitum. The sovereign must be lawmaker, judge, and enforcer; he must censure and admonish, declare war and negotiate peace, levy taxes and direct the military, appoint government and assign stations and honors (Hobbes 176–178). Hobbes reasonably but rhetorically asks, how can a sovereign be subject to that which he creates or commands? For Hobbes’s definition of absolute, immutable sovereignty to be actualized, it cannot be conditional or subordinate to any other; such abridgment would be tantamount to absurdity (Ibid.). The sovereign must have “untied hands”; the only legitimate limitations of his power restrict the separation, transfer, or diminishment of it (Ibid.).

Law was an ardent disciple of John Locke.

John Locke; Image via Wikipedia

Only a few decades later, another British philosopher proposed an alternate arrangement of legitimate political power, in part because he imagined Man’s natural state to be far less severe than Hobbes feared. John Locke (1632-1704), along with Hobbes, is regarded as a father of social contract theory (“John Locke – Wikipedia”). His Two Treatise of Government (1689), originally published anonymously, failed to garner the early notoriety and influence awarded Leviathan (“Two Treatises of Government” – Wikipedia), but by the mid-18th century, especially the Second Treatise wielded international influence and enjoyed high praise, particularly among American intellectuals and revolutionaries (Ibid.).

Like Hobbes, Locke sought to ground his political philosophy in the context of Man’s natural state, which he supposed to be one of “perfect freedom” limited only by “the bounds of the law of nature” (Locke 287). Though in some ways an idealized origin myth, Locke’s state of nature is far from perfect, or rather, Man is far from perfect in it. Driven into society, not by Hobbes’s great fear of violent death, but by his nature and God’s design (Locke 307), Man finds there respite from certain of nature’s inconveniences (Locke 310). By quitting “ his natural power” and resigning it unto the community, (whereby the community becomes political society – “umpire to all parties by settled standing rules, indifferent and the same to all”) (Locke 309)  Man may enjoy “comfortable, safe, and peaceable living … in a secure enjoyment of … properties and a greater security against any that are not of it” (Locke 312). The community’s first duty toward securing these common goals is to establish, by majority, legislative power (Locke 322).

Locke’s legislative power characterizes the commonwealth’s form of government (Locke 321–322), and while supreme (Locke 322), it is restrained within the compact through which it was established (Ibid.). Locke goes to some length to reprove absolute monarchy (and Hobbes’s arrangement of sovereign power) as “inconsistent with civil society” (Locke 310). Because his legislative power is founded to “avoid and remedy” nature’s inconveniences (one of which being that in nature, every man is his own and partial judge) (Ibid.), and is entrusted with lawmaking and the appointment of impartial judges (Locke 323), it, too, must be subject to the laws deemed (by its own judgment and authority) conducive to the peace, security, and prosperity of the commonwealth (Locke 311).

Locke insists that Man must have appeal to an impartial judgment in grievances within the commonwealth, including those with the legislative power (Locke 310). But since, in respect to his subjects, a sovereign (such as the one Hobbes prescribes) remains in the state of nature, there is no impartial authority to judge, nor binding law to judge by (Ibid.). This undermines Locke’s supposed purpose for commonwealth and subtracts from the attraction thereto. He sees no benefit to the commonwealth by granting unrestrained power and legal exemption to the legislative, and no threat in nature so compelling as to warrant it. Moreover, he sees, as Hobbes did, that the sovereign, still in the state of nature, is more dangerous to those disarmed in covenant or compact than to those without (Ibid.). To avoid this fate (and tyranny alike) (Locke 340), Locke posits the freely enjoined compact as supreme and binding, being both the author of the legislative and a stable ground for retreat should the government falter (Locke 312–313; 343–346). But by limiting, too, the commonwealth’s power to that of legislative appointment by majority rule, Locke secures a middle ground less desperate in condition than the state of nature, and therefore less disposed to accept unrestrained sovereignty, or tyranny by any other name (Locke 346).

Hobbes assumes that fear and logic, coupled with a solitary, antagonistic nature, dispose Man to war in the state of nature. But this seems more autobiography than informed universal appraisal; perhaps more revealing of Hobbes’s personal disposition than of every man’s true condition. What he and Locke suffer from most, though through no fault of their own, is the scientific ignorance of their age. Without evolutionary theory or the insights provided by modern behavioral sciences, the assumptions from which each worked to establish legitimate authority for the state – be it Hobbes’s sovereign, or Locke’s legislative power – have proven to be, in many cases, erroneous.

For example, Locke’s vision of the state of nature – where Man enjoys perfect freedom of action and property, without leave or consideration of any other (Locke 287) – is a fiction; it never existed, and is therefore of dubious value to any exercise in political philosophy. Man is, by nature, a social animal, evolved in the context of community. His moral faculties – in part, what Locke thought of as the law of nature – exist precisely because of their selective social advantage.

Hobbes assumes that the sovereign’s interests are perfectly aligned with those of the commonwealth (Hobbes 238), and further, that he (the sovereign) would behave rationally in service to those shared interests (Hobbes 161). But in practice, neither assumption is reliable. History offers several arguments against the former, while the evidence assembled against Man as a reliably rational agent is well established.

For Locke, the law of nature, knowable by all via reason, limits Man’s freedom in the state of nature (Locke 287). But Hobbes recognizes that whatever laws of nature may exist, they exist without enforcement; Man, bound by self-interest, is therefore neither liable to them, nor limited by them (Hobbes 165). He sees no authority in the state of nature to which one may petition, and so no hope of protection (Ibid.). Consequently, the commonwealth must create for itself a “mortal god” (Hobbes 175) in place of the heavenly one, who, absent in act, fails to reward, punish, or protect.

Locke builds on a religious premise, Hobbes on a secular one. Locke sees the commonwealth as an improvement on the state of nature’s few inconveniences (Locke 309), itself imperfect only because Man is. Hobbes sees the commonwealth as Man’s only hope from the ravages of a nature he cannot avoid, and for which he cannot be blamed. It is the artificial substitute for what Man needs God to be, but (appears) is not: existent, omnipotent, and beneficent (Hobbes 175). They agree on the arguments; a sovereign power unrestrained by law or covenant is a terror to all made vulnerable to it by covenant or compact. For Locke, such a prescription would be far worse than the mere inconveniences he seeks to treat, but Hobbes’s diagnosis is dire enough to warrant such an intervention.

Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. 2nd ed. Ed. David Wootton. Hackett Pub Co, 2008. Print.

“John Locke – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Web. 7 Feb. 2012.

Locke, John. “Second Treatise of Government.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. 2nd ed. Ed. David Wootton. Hackett Pub Co, 2008. Print.

“Thomas Hobbes – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Web. 7 Feb. 2012.

“Two Treatises of Government – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Web. 8 Feb. 2012.



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