Philosophical Rudiments concerning Government and Society, by Thomas Hobbes.
Notwithstanding the unpopularity, amounting almost to infamy, with which his name was long, and in some measure is still, surrounded, Hobbes has a right to be considered as the father of modern English philosophy, and indeed as the father of that great school of thought which at present has possession of the greater part of the intelligence of Europe. Hobbes leads straight to Locke, and in some particulars goes beyond him. Locke was the teacher of Berkeley. Berkeley was the master of Hume. In Hume are to be found the germs—and highly developed germs they are—of the most valuable part of Comte, and the leading doctrines of the school of which Bentham, Austin, and James and John Mill are the most conspicuous members. Nay, in a sense, Hume was the progenitor of Kant, for Kant's concessions in the negative direction were made to satisfy Hume's speculations, and his positive doctrines were meant to act as fortifications against them. Hobbes, again, must have taken much of the tone of his mind from his master (in the literal sense of the word), Bacon; and thus we have an unusually distinct catena of philosophy for very nearly three hundred years, from Bacon to our own days.
Hobbes, like other writers of his day, is much more often talked about than studied, and it may be doubted whether the true character of his doctrines, and their relation to some of the most vigorous forms of modern speculation, is as well understood as it deserves to be. In illustration of this subject we propose to examine shortly some of the leading propositions of one of the most characteristic of his books — his treatise on the general principles of Government. It cannot, of course, be fully understood in all its connections without reference to other parts of the author's works and theories; but it forms a connected whole in reference to one of the principal subjects of human thought, and affords one of the best specimens of its author's turn of mind.
Notwithstanding its elaborate title-page, the treatise on Government is very short. It consists only of about 360 small 8vo pages, but its brevity is the result of the sternest and most resolute compression, and the consequence is that reading it is like reading mathematics. Unless you stop to think at almost every sentence, the impression derived from it is nearly worthless. Indeed, a person must be very familiar both with the subject and the author who gets much benefit from a single reading. . The difficulty arises not only from the mathematical closeness of the thought, but from the character of the thought itself. It belongs to a past age, and proceeds upon assumptions which few understand, and with which fewer still can be expected to sympathise. Hobbes's writings are an admirable illustration of the fact that there is a slow but real progress in moral philosophy. He is half ancient and half modern. He has, as it were, cracked the shell of the old methods of inquiry, but he has not completely freed himself from the old terminology. He speaks, for instance, in the terms of Roman law, but he obviously saw and felt the fundamental problems which the Roman lawyers never even tried to solve, and of which the solution is still by no means completely ascertained.
'Suum cuique tribuere' was the end which the Roman lawyers proposed to themselves, assuming that there were some independent means of finding out what 'suum' meant. In a certain sense, they succeeded in this undertaking. They found a practical solution of the question, which was no doubt one of the greatest monuments of practical sagacity ever erected, but they did not solve the speculative difficulty. They hardly seem to have felt it.
This was Hobbes's starting-point: 'When I applied my thoughts to the investigation of natural justice I was presently advertised, from the very word justice (which signifies a steady will of giving every one his own),' [this is a translation of the first words of the Institutes], 'that my first inquiry was to be whence it proceeded that any one should call anything rather his own than another man's.' The whole of his book is meant as an answer to this and analogous questions. It naturally, and indeed inevitably, assumes the way of thinking of his own generation, and this makes it very difficult at times to follow the argument in an entirely satisfactory manner. It is indeed necessary, in order to do so, to neglect a good many forms of expression, and to try to recast the book in a modern form. When this operation has been performed, the general result is to the following effect.
The general problem, as Hobbes seems to have conceived it, was to analyse society as he saw it, by showing the relation and dependence of its various parts, and thence inferring the conditions on which its permanence depends.
One observation arises on this point which shows the difference between the old and new schools of political and moral speculation. Such an inquiry as Hobbes undertook would in these days be considered as essentially historical. The inquiry would be as to the means by which, in point of fact and history, society grew up. The book would open with speculations on cave men and kitchen middens, and would go on to the investigation of the different written records of the human race.
The advantages of this way of treating such questions have been so often pointed out that we need not discuss them; but some injustice is often done to the older method, and its value is so much underrated, and so frequently altogether denied, that it is worth while to observe, not only that in Hobbes's days the necessary materials for the historical mode of treatment did not exist, but also that the breadth and generality of the views which were derived from the other method were of the greatest value as a step in speculation.
Philosophical history would hardly have been possible without the impulse given to historical inquiry by such theories as those of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Moreover, as analogies and hypotheses, these theories have a great independent value. Society was certainly not founded on an original compact, but the theory that it was, and the effort to view it in that light, taught us a variety of things which we should not otherwise have discovered.
The main results of this analysis are embodied in the following definitions of the terms most commonly employed in political speculation. Liberty is an absence of the 'restraints and hindrances of motion.' Dominion is coercive power exercised by and through laws. A law is 'the speech of him who by right commands something to others to be done or omitted.' Right is defined somewhat obscurely, 'and Hobbes is not quite consistent in his use of the word. His definition is, 'that liberty which every man hath to make use of his natural faculties according to right reason.' 'Right reason in the state of nature' is every man's own reason; in a state of society, the reason of the sovereign. Good and Evil 'are names given to things to signify the inclination or aversion of them by whom they were given.'
These are the fundamental definitions of the book, but they are scattered about in various parts of it, and until they are extracted and brought into one view the want of them causes a good deal of obscurity. By their help it becomes easy, with a little rearrangement and alteration of language, to translate Hobbes's theories into a form in which they become intelligible to modern readers, and capable of being estimated at their true value.
The statement would be as follows: If no one or more men had the power of issuing to others such commands as appeared reasonable to themselves, there would be no such thing as society amongst men. Every one would be able to make whatever use he pleased of whatever faculties he possessed, and the only guide which he would have for the regulation of his conduct would be his own notions of what it was desirable for him to do. The existence of that kind of commands which we call laws is what stands between us and this state of things, which would be a state of general confusion. This appears to be the true interpretation of the well-known paradox that the state of nature is a state of war— a most inoffensive and perfectly true proposition which became offensive only by the way in which it was put.
The next question is, How is one man or body of men enabled to give commands to other men, when the mere natural strength of individuals differs so little that, for practical purposes, the degree of strength possessed by each may be considered as being equal? This power can be given only by the combination of numerous persons for the purpose of creating a fund of power, and investing a single person or set of persons with the possession of it. Inasmuch as no agreement on the part of others can increase the strength of any muscles or the activity of any brain, the power of the ruler will ultimately be found to be constituted by the common resolution of the bulk of the subjects to maintain it.
When the grounds of this resolution are searched into, it will be found to rest on the ground of consistency. If the power transferred were resumed, its resumption would, of course, be resisted, and that resistance would produce a return to the state of confusion for the purpose of avoiding which the power itself was originally set up. 'A person so acting,' says Hobbes, 'falls into no less contradiction than he who in the schools is reduced to an absurdity.' The powers of the ruler are thus supreme and irrevocable, and their possession and exercise constitute dominion.
Now dominion and liberty are mutually exclusive, and, as rights are no more than ascertained and definite branches of liberty, it follows that they are constituted by law, which is the will of the ruler; that as against the ruler no one can have any rights, inasmuch as the existence of rights is dependent on the ruler's will; and that the ruler lies under no duties towards his subjects, for duties are the correlatives of rights; nor towards other rulers, for, as regards them, he is absolute and independent.
It would be a great injustice to Hobbes to suppose that he denied the existence or obligation of morality. On the contrary, he strongly urges it on rulers as well as on their subjects. Morality is, according to his view, the law of God. He draws out at length a scheme of morality, or the laws of nature, of which he enumerates twenty; but these, he observes, are not properly laws, because they are not commands, except in so far as and inasmuch as 'they are delivered by God in holy Scriptures' . . . 'for the sacred Scripture is the speech of God commanding over all things by greatest right.'
This is the foundation of Hobbes's theory of government. In his own language it takes a form which is open to some objection, and looks highly paradoxical. The commonest objection to it is in his use of the words 'right' and 'contract,' which we have intentionally avoided as much as possible in the summary of his views given above. His use of these terms no doubt lays him open to the charge, which has been frequently brought against him, of making contract the foundation of law, and law the foundation of contract; but we think that those who will take the pains to try to understand his real meaning, will feel that the awkwardness, though undoubtedly real, lies rather in expression than in thought.
Hobbes appears to have understood by a contract, not merely an agreement, but a positive alteration, by two parties of their respective positions, with a view to their common advantage. I have a loaded pistol, and you have a dagger. If, in consideration of your throwing the dagger into a river, I fire the pistol in the air, it is obvious that our positions are altered, however much we may both wish afterwards for the status quo ante.
In this sense it is perfectly true that all society rests on compact, and also that the compact on which it rests is irrevocable except under extraordinary circumstances—as, for instance, if a great majority of the persons affected agreed to revoke it; and even then they might be unable to do so. The truth is, that Hobbes expressed in the language of his own time the doctrines of a later age, and tried to discuss in that language problems which in his time were very indistinctly conceived.
If his book were written in our days, it might well be entitled 'An Essay on Political Statics.' Its fundamental assumption is the continuous existence of an established government in a state of stable equilibrium; and this, we think, is the true explanation of its author's absolutism. The existence of a stable government is his postulate throughout, and, assuming the existence of such an institution, he inquires what positions right, liberty, law, and rulers would occupy in it—what facts would correspond to those names; and it is very hard to deny that the result at which he arrives upon that supposition is entirely true.
It is the very same result which, expressed in different words and limited by the systematic introduction of the great principle of utility (which Hobbes rather apprehended than comprehended), was reached and inculcated with irresistible weight by Bentham and Austin. The aversion which is felt to these results, the dislike which people feel to the use of the words right, law, and liberty, in simple and definite senses, is precisely analogous to the dislike and indignation which many persons feel, and testify, against political economists, for studying the effects of the desire of gain abstractedly from the moral topics, from which, as they maintain, it ought never, even in thought and for a limited purpose, to be disjoined. The notion that a man who uses the word justice in the definite sense of adherence to a fixed rule, must necessarily be indifferent to the goodness or badness of the law which creates that rule, is exactly parallel to the notion that a political economist must, as such, be cruel and selfish.
The real weakness of Hobbes's views on government would seem to lie in his apparent unconsciousness of the fact that they are very limited, and leave entirely out of account what in our days would be called the dynamics of government. He analyses with accuracy the component parts of government, assuming it to be in a state of stable equilibrium, but he not only makes no provision for changes, but appears to regard their occurrence as the great evil of all which is to be avoided per fas et nefas, and under all conceivable contingencies. He seems to have been so thoroughly overcome by the confusions of the civil war, of which he had been a horrified observer, as to have thought, that all other imaginable evils were as mere dust in the balance, when weighed against the one evil of strife and confusion.
There are few more curious instances in literary history of the prodigious effect of contemporary events and personal prejudices, even on the most powerful mind, than the effect which the civil wars produced on Hobbes, and the horror which he felt of disturbance and danger, as the greatest of all evils. In these days it is altogether unnecessary to protest against this weakness. The answer to the greater part of his book is contained in the assertion, that the natural aversion of men to exertion and danger is so great, that there is much more reason to fear that they will endure oppression too long, than that they will fight for what is not worth having. The centripetal tendency has, since Hobbes's days, fairly got the better of the centrifugal forces.
One part of his speculations on what we have called political statics is especially interesting and important at the present day. He saw clearly, what very few people see even now, that liberty is a negative idea, and that what is usually claimed under that name is not liberty, but dominion. That part of our life as to which the law issues no commands is the province of liberty. The possession of control over others is not liberty at all, but power. Hobbes well observes that the distinction between monarchy and democracy lies, not in the amount of liberty which the subjects enjoy— which is an accidental matter dependent on the quantity of ground (so to speak) covered by the laws at a given time— but in the distribution of power. 'Subjects,' he says, 'have no greater liberty in a popular than in a monarchical state. That which deceives them is the equal participation of command.' It would tend considerably to clear up various matters connected with the question of extension of the suffrage, if we bore in mind the fact that the question is one, not of liberty, but of the distribution of political power.
Two-thirds of Hobbes's book are occupied with the subjects of Liberty and Dominion, which he discusses in the systematic fashion of the day, duly adducing Scriptural proofs of most of his doctrines, sometimes at great length. Every article of his version of the laws of nature, for instance, is authenticated in this manner by abundant texts.
The third part of the book is on Religion, and in some ways is the most curious part of the whole. Its principles, which indeed are the principles of the whole work, are surprisingly similar to those of a great writer of our own times, De Maistre, whose work on the Pope has much in common with Hobbes's work on Government. Starting, however, from the same principles, the two authors arrive at the most opposite conclusions.
Hobbes puts the civil power in the position in which De Maistre puts the Pope, and insists on what in practice amounts to the subordination of the spiritual to the temporal, on grounds very like those on which some of De Maistre's successors have inferred the Pope's right to an indirect authority over all temporal affairs.
In religion, as in all other subjects, Hobbes goes straight to first principles, and examines all his fundamental terms. God's government over men, he says, is founded on the simple fact that God is omnipotent and men weak. God's word is threefold —consisting of reason, revelation, and prophecy, which is a kind of revelation. Reason is the foundation on which government rests. Therefore government rests on God's word. The civil power, therefore, is a kind of middle term between God and man; and, subject to express commands from God, it rests with the civil power to determine the manner in which God shall be worshipped. It also falls to the civil power to regulate and reduce to explicit forms everything which reason teaches in general. Religion is and can be only a supplement to this. What, then, is the nature of that supplement? In answer to this question, Hobbes enters into one of those obscure and half-scholastic biblical inquiries which he probably introduced for the sake of making his speculations look more orthodox than they really were, and which certainly have the effect of making it exceedingly difficult for a modern reader to understand precisely what he means to say.
There, is, for instance, a strange inquiry into the terms of the contract between God and Abraham, and about the limits of the provinces of Moses and Aaron. To a modern reader all this is by no means edifying. The general drift of the argument, however, is that, under the old dispensation, there was always a positive institution, a definite form of government in the strict sense of the word, which represented God to men.
The chapter on the Christian dispensation is more interesting, though it too is expressed in such a crabbed and unfamiliar way that it is hard to understand it fully. The most remarkable point of it appears to be that, though God is a King, Christ was not sent to govern mankind in the full sense of the word. His main function was advice or counsel, which, as Hobbes with profound truth observes, is continually confounded with law, though the two are radically distinct.
'The government whereby Christ rules the faithful ones in this life is not properly a kingdom or dominion, but a pastoral charge or the right of teaching. That is to say, God the Father gave him not a power to judge of meum and tuum as he doth to the kings of the earth; nor a coercive power nor legislative; but of showing to the world, and teaching them the way and knowledge of salvation—that is to say, of preaching and declaring what they were to do who would enter into the kingdom of heaven.'
The kingdom of God, under the new dispensation, in the full sense of the word kingdom, 'is heavenly and begins from the day of judgment.' The Christian revelation, he adds, affected not the laws of God, but the sanction of those laws. In instituting the sacraments, Christ gave a law in the strict sense of the word, but it was the only law which he gave. As to moral duties, in general he gave none. He only showed that morality was a law, and not a mere theory, by revealing the fact that punishments would be inflicted after death for breaches of morality. Besides this, he forgave sins, and entrusted others with the power of doing so. There is another strange chapter on this point, discussing the powers of absolution vested in the clergy in the same singular way in which the rights of Abraham and Moses are discussed.
From this general view of the character of the Christian revelation, and of the divine origin of government, Hobbes proceeds to investigate the relations between the Church and the State. He arrives at much the same conclusion as that of Hooker. The Church and the State are identical. Church unity consists, he says, in unity of government, not in unity of doctrine.
On the other hand, the fact that the civil power has coercive jurisdiction excludes all other coercion, for coercion by its nature must be exclusive. 'A church' (he says) 'is not one except there be a certain and known, that is to say, a lawful power, by means whereof every man may be obliged to be present in the congregation, either himself in person or by proxy, and that becomes one, and is capable of personal functions by the union of a lawful power of convocating synods and assemblies of Christians, not by uniformity of doctrine. ... It follows that a city of Christian men and a church is altogether the same thing, of the same men, termed by two names for two causes, for the matter of a city and a church is one, to wit the same Christian men. And the form which consists in a lawful power of assembling them is the same too, for 'tis manifest that every subject is obliged to come thither, whither he is summoned by his city. Now that which is called a city as it is made up of men, the same, as it is made up of Christians, is styled a church.'
In some ways this kind of speculation has gone out of fashion, but it is not the less important, for it is perfectly certain that Hobbes was right in the opinion that government must be in one hand. Somewhere or other there must be a supreme power in politics, just as somewhere or other, in every mechanical system, there must be a centre of gravity. Nor do the words spiritual and temporal make any real difference. The question is, Who, by any threats, whether of punishment here or damnation hereafter, can secure obedience? Whoever can do this is the supreme ruler, whether he be called Pope or King.
It is very difficult to make out how far Hobbes believed in his own teaching about religion. To go into the matter fully would require an examination of his other works, and a comparison of the different lines of thought by which his mind travelled on different subjects. The work under consideration is full of professions of religious belief, and is very severe upon atheists. It contains, however, passages which, to some persons, suggest an atheistical interpretation, though they closely resemble much that is to be found in the most orthodox of modern defenders of the faith.
Such a passage as the following, for instance, might stand as a summary of much that has of late years been preached with great applause in University pulpits. 'When we say that a thing is infinite, we signify nothing really but the impotency in our own mind, as if we should say that we know not whether or where it is limited. Neither speak they honourably enough of God who say we have an idea of him in our mind, for an idea is our conception, but conception we have none except of a finite thing; nor they who say that he hath parts, or that he is some certain entire thing, which are also attributes of finite things. . . . He, therefore, who would not ascribe any other titles to God than what reason commands must use such as are either negative, as infinite, eternal, incomprehensible, etc.; or superlative, as most good, most great, most powerful; or indefinite, as good, just, strong, Creator, King, and the like—in such sense as not desiring to declare what he is (which were to circumscribe him within the narrow limits of our phantasy), but to confess his own admiration and obedience, which is the property of humility and of a mind yielding all the honour it possibly can do. For reason dictates one name which doth signify the nature of God (i.e.) existent, or simply that he is, and one in order to, and in relation to, us—namely, God, under which is contained both King, and Lord, and Father.'
We should not be disposed to consider Hobbes's religion as mere pretence. The irreligious impression made by his books is rather the consequence of a cold, melancholy, timorous disposition than of disbelief of the doctrines of religion.
Saturday Review, August 26, 1865.