Hobbes's theory, when translated into the language of our own times, may be thus stated: Human nature is so constituted that, but for the restraints imposed upon it by law, there would be perpetual wars and disputes among men.
But laws can be laws indeed only when they are enforced by superior power, which must be vested in some man or men, for words of themselves have no power.
If more than one man, or one set of men, have the power of making laws in any given society, anarchy will come upon the society, if the different legislators do not agree; in other words, it will be a society no longer.
Therefore, in every true society there must be one supreme governor, whether in the shape of a man, or of an assembly of men. The commands of this sovereign may be equitable or inequitable—that is, they may, or may not, tend to promote the welfare of the governed; but they cannot be unlawful, for they are themselves the laws, and the only laws, of the subject society.
If the sovereign is forcibly and successfully resisted, he ceases to be sovereign, and anarchy ensues, for the essence of sovereignty is supreme force.
Hence, if any body politic be so organised that there are in it different bodies, having or claiming to have legislative power, such bodies politic are in 'a state of dormant anarchy, which will sooner or later pass through a stage of open anarchy, after which the sovereignty will be revested either in a king or in an assembly. Men cannot serve two masters when those masters disagree.
This body of doctrine, extracted from an immense mass of other matter, part of which was of merely transient interest, is Hobbes’s great contribution to systematic politics; and, with certain explanations and additions, it appears to us to be as true and as important as any of the standard doctrines of political economy, though it is at least equally liable to be misunderstood and misapplied.
We propose, first, to show what it is, and what it is not; secondly, to show historically its truth, its importance, and its interest in our own days; and thirdly, to sketch shortly certain additional considerations which must be borne in mind before it can be made of much practical use.
First, then, as to its truth, and nature. It is true, like the propositions of mathematics or political economy, in the abstract only. That is to say, the propositions which it states are propositions which are suggested to the imagination by facts, though no facts completely embody and exemplify them. As there is in nature no such thing as a perfect circle, or a completely rigid body, or a mechanical system in which there is no friction, or a state of society in which men act simply with a view to gain, so there is in nature no such thing as an absolute sovereign in Hobbes's sense of the word. But, as the non-existence of the set of things first mentioned, does not prevent both mathematics and political economy from being sciences of the greatest importance in everyday life, so the fact that sovereignty never is absolute in fact, does not diminish the value of Hobbes's speculations. On the contrary, it will be found very difficult to speak pertinently about politics, or to prove theories as to the true relations of law, morals public and private, rights, the nature and value of freedom, and the like, without continual reference to his principles, whether in the exact form in which he expressed them or in some other.
If, for instance, any one were asked to explain to some person who was altogether ignorant of the subject what in point of fact a nation is, and what in point of fact is meant by rights, liberties, laws, and so forth, would not some such statement as the following be as good a one as he could give? A nation is a collection of human beings living together under the authority of some person, who regulates their conduct in some particulars by laws—that is, by rules of conduct which forbid or command them to do or leave undone certain things under pain of punishment—and who leaves their conduct in other particulars free from any interference. So far as they are commanded to do this or that, they are said to be governed. So far as they are under no commands, they are said to be free. Thus, in general, they are forbidden to hurt each other, but they are free to do what they please so long as they do not hurt each other. When a law protects a man in doing any particular thing by preventing others from interfering with him, he is said to have a right to do it, and they are said to be; under an obligation not to interfere with him. Thus a man has a right, in most countries and in most cases, not to be hurt, and it is his duty not to hurt others.
These laws may be so arranged as to promote the general happiness of those who live under them; in which case they are generally described as good or equitable, because they favour all equally, and consequently give to each the largest possible share of advantages. They may also be so arranged as to produce a great amount of misery; in which case they are bad, and it then becomes the moral duty of the legislator to alter them for the better. But whether they are good or bad, they are still laws, and resistance to them on the part of subjects produces anarchy, and so destroys the whole fabric of government.
It follows from this that governments, as long as they last, are supreme, for only that which is supreme is the government. A legislative power which is controlled by some other power superior to itself is not the real legislator, but only a subordinate; and somewhere or other, whatever intricacy may be introduced in matters of detail, there will be found, in every political system, a person or number of persons who command, and are not commanded, and whose command is law, let that command be what it will. Intricacy and obscurity as to matters of fact may, and often do, make it very difficult to say who the sovereign is; but to imagine a society in which there is no sovereign is to imagine a society which is not a society, but an anarchy. In other words, a society without a sovereign is a phrase without meaning.
Secondly, the importance and continuing interest of the doctrine appear from the whole both of ancient and modern history. In ancient history the matter is comparatively simple, whether we look at the internal or external affairs of the States whose transactions it records. In every State of which we read, whether Greek, Phoenician, Italian, or Asiatic, there was a sovereign of some sort whose authority was absolute while it lasted. Religions were for the most part local, and no other means of producing a change were available than violent revolutions implying a period of anarchy. As between State and State, the whole history of the Western world is nothing but one continual series of wars, produced by the necessity which was universally felt of arriving at some sort of equilibrium, and ending only when the whole civilised world had fallen under the unquestioned supremacy of Rome.
If Hobbes had had to write an imaginary history of mankind to illustrate his principles, he could not have constructed one better fitted for that purpose, than the history of the foundation and establishment of the Roman Empire. That 'great Leviathan,' that mortal God,' the State, was never more unmistakably incarnated than in the Rome of the Caesars.
It may appear as if the growth of Christianity refuted Hobbes; but, on the contrary, it affords the strongest confirmation of his theory when fully understood. His great Leviathan, or body politic, is essentially mortal. The strong man armed is always liable to be overthrown by a stronger than he, and the struggle may last for an indefinite time. The Christian Church, when its organisation was complete, was simply an illegal society which by degrees became strong enough to dispossess the society which then existed and to found a different one in its place. The very existence of such a body as the Church proved that the Empire was not sovereign, that a state of anarchy existed, and that the problem who was sovereign was as yet far from being settled.
How, after destroying the Roman Empire, the Church and the lay kingdoms which came into existence effected a sort of compromise as to their respective provinces; how that compromise broke down altogether in some countries, and was modified in others; how the right of the Church to a monopoly of the prerogative of giving advice in religion was invaded by individuals; how the questions, Who is the State? and Who are the clergy? were discussed by arguments and by arms in different countries, and what were the results of the discussion —all these are the great subjects of modern history down to our own days. They have all one great feature in common. All are struggles for power; and in every case the struggle continues, under various shapes and with different turns of fortune, until at last the fact that one party really is stronger than the other, and has got and will be able to keep the upper hand, has been proved by direct experiment.
This truth is universal. It reaches over every department of human affairs, and displays itself in every fact of human history. It may perhaps be doubted whether in any age of the world it has been more apparent than in our own. Wherever we look, whether at internal or external politics, or at the sphere of opinion, we find that the question of questions is, Who is sovereign? and that compromises and attempts to effect a division of powers can never be permanent.
One or two illustrations of this will be sufficient. It was long supposed that the English Constitution afforded an instance of a balance of powers; but would any intelligent student of our history make such an assertion now? Is it not perfectly clear, and does not all our history prove it, that the theory is, and always has been, completely subordinate to the fact? Our present Government is a democracy in which wealth and social rank have exceptional advantages; and every one concerned not only knows this, but is kept in a continual state of uncertainty and inefficiency by being afraid either to avow it or to act in opposition to it.
The American Constitution, again, was framed most carefully with a view to a scientific distribution of powers between the Confederacy and the States, and between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the Government. The whole document carefully evades the question of sovereignty; yet this question had to be, and was, decided at the expense of one of the most obstinate and bloody civil wars upon record.
The question between the temporal and the spiritual powers broke out in a variety of forms, and at different times and places, and still occupies a considerable share of attention; but it would not be hard to show, if this were the proper place, that it is susceptible of only two complete solutions, one or the other of which it will most assuredly receive all over the world. Either the whole of human life ought to be regulated by a priesthood, or no priesthood is, as such, more than a body of advisers to whom people can listen or not as they please.
Such is Hobbes's theory, and such the sort of evidence on which it rests. His mistakes arise from the manner in which he applies it to concrete facts. He continually tries, as we have shown elsewhere, to pass from the abstract proposition that sovereigns, as such, are absolute, to the concrete proposition that the King of England is sovereign.
Most assuredly the King of England was not sovereign in the abstract sense, for, if he had been, Charles I. would never have had his head cut off for the way in which he governed the country. The civil wars showed conclusively that the English people did not intend to submit, and were not prepared to submit, to the King, except to a certain very limited extent, and that, if those limits were exceeded, they would soon find ways to repress such excesses. In other words, whatever his title might be, and whatever phrases might be used upon the subject, the King of England was only a magistrate with a limited authority, and not a sovereign in the metaphysical sense of the word.
It is singular that Hobbes, who of all men of his age was most alive to the importance of treating all questions as questions of fact, and of not being led away by phrases, should not have seen that the question of sovereignty is emphatically a question of fact. He is the sovereign who actually is supreme, and by whose consent the laws actually are enforced; not he whom some one or other, at some time or other, has agreed to consider supreme.
The democrats of the eighteenth century appear to have appreciated this truth better than Hobbes, and they embodied it in the famous proposition that the people is sovereign; but this is as much an abstraction, and as far from the real truth, as Hobbes's propositions about the King of England. 'The people' generally means roughly a numerical majority of the adult males for the time being; but suppose that they have no common views, no confidence in each other, no means of communication—suppose, in short, that they are in the position of the native populations of British India—it is surely altogether absurd to say either that they have any will, or that that will, whatever it may be, is sovereign.
The sovereign of India for the time being is the sovereign of England; and who is sovereign of England, in the metaphysical sense of the word, it is impossible to say. There is no such person, and many cases might occur in which the amount of dormant anarchy which exists amongst us would be made manifest to all the world. The divergence between the state of facts which exists amongst us at the present day, and the abstract notion of a State, is probably greater than it ever was before in any great 'country, and it is possible that it may one day have to be considerably reduced, by methods, which may not be pleasant to our feelings, or flattering to our national vanity.
It is of the essence of an abstract doctrine, upon whatever subject, to be partial, and to neglect, for the sake of clearness, a number of subordinate considerations, which are necessary to connect it with existing facts.
We will refer to a few of those which bear upon the subject of sovereignty, and which show, incidentally, in what particulars Hobbes fell into the error of drawing false inferences from a theory which, though true as far as it went and surprisingly shrewd, was very incomplete, and stood in need of all sorts of supplementary considerations.
In the first place, Hobbes permits himself to be deceived by what Bentham would have called a dyslogistic phrase, in the horror which he always expresses at anarchy. Anarchy, properly speaking, is not only not necessarily a bad thing, but it may be very good; for anarchy is only the absence of restraint—in other words, it is another name for liberty; and it may be well worth while to leave particular ques. undecided, so as to produce what we have called dormant anarchy, for the purpose of procuring a given result.
So long as the question whether the King or the Parliament was sovereign, was allowed to sleep, their joint power, though no doubt it concealed a potential civil war which at last arrived, was highly beneficent. The American Union would never have been formed at all if the right of the States to secede had not been allowed to remain undecided until the time arrived for its decision by way of direct experiment. The division between the spiritual and temporal powers was a case of anarchy, and was the source of endless contention; but the pretensions of each party, and the violence of their conflicts, have at length brought them in some parts of the world, and will, it is to be hoped, bring them in every part of the world, into their true relation.
In short, the existence of a great deal of anarchy is a necessary condition towards getting an answer to the question, Who is the sovereign, and how is it wise for him to comport himself towards his subjects? The struggle between the Church and the State is slowly teaching people throughout the world, that the coercive sanction ought to be exclusively in the hands of the civil power, but that it ought not to be used to prevent the clergy from freely tendering their counsel to all who are disposed to accept it.
In the next place, sovereignty means nothing but supremacy. There are various powers to which men are subject—that is, different persons are able to influence their conduct by the application of a great variety of motives, and, as these differ in force, there will always be one which is stronger than, and is thus supreme over, the rest. The schoolmaster can flog the pupil, the judge can sentence the schoolmaster, the King and Parliament can punish the judge, and the Pope (we will suppose) can cause them all to be damned. Consequently, the Pope is sovereign. But remove the Pope, and the King and Parliament are sovereign. Apart from them, the judge is sovereign; and apart from him, the schoolmaster is sovereign over the little boy's desire to lie in bed in the morning. He can, that is, apply the fear of the birch, which is a stronger motive, to overcome the pleasure of lying in bed, which is a weaker.
Hence it is obvious that sovereignty itself is limited by human nature. At its highest estate it represents nothing more than the power of fear raised to the greatest extent to which the particular person acting as a ruler can apply it. In practice, this limitation is of immense importance, as it imposes upon sovereign power limits which are very soon reached in every part of the world, and which, it is the constant tendency of the increase of knowledge and civilisation to make narrower and narrower.
Being a man, or a body of men, the sovereign is always more or less ignorant, weak, and irresolute. He may be deceived, or avoided, or dissuaded from his purpose. Hence his threats are always more or less uncertain. There is always a great chance of impunity, and this diminishes their effect to an incalculable degree. In the last resort, he may even be successfully resisted by open force or by passive disobedience, and this again puts a limit to his power, not the less real because it is tacit, and because its extent cannot be precisely ascertained.
When all this is put together, it becomes obvious enough that absolute power and sovereign power are much less formidable than they look. For purposes of persuasion sovereign power is no doubt extremely potent. On some subjects, as, for instance, on all that pertains to the relation of the sexes, it sets up its own standard, and is indefinitely influential over vast masses of human beings; but for purposes of threatening it is less powerful than the terms in which it is described might at first lead us to suppose. Indeed, the extent to which people are capable of being affected by threats is by no means indefinitely great. There is a point beyond which you cannot terrify; for, whatever Hobbes might say upon the subject, the mass of mankind are not of opinion that death is the greatest of evils, and they are moreover actuated by a singular propensity to disbelieve in the reality of that which is exceedingly disagreeable. Threaten men beyond a certain point, and they will not believe that the threats will be executed in fact.
This last consideration introduces two others which Hobbes continually overlooks, but which are most necessary to connect his principles with practice. The first is, that the exertion of sovereign power cannot alter human nature, and has no sort of tendency to do so. Let laws be as complicated and punishments as severe as you please, nothing will ever make that useful to mankind which in point of fact is injurious, or that injurious which in point of fact is useful. To try to do so is like making laws to forbid rain in harvest time. It follows that, if the sovereign makes bad laws, no amount of punishment for breaking them will ever make the laws good, or teach people to regard them as good; and nothing in the long run will keep people from discussing the question whether continued submission to them is, after all, a greater evil than a period of anarchy, with its chances of a change for the better.
This limitation on sovereign power is the really efficient one, and it is remarkable that, seeming as it does so simple to us, it should not have occurred to one of the greatest thinkers and most perspicuous writers of his age. Probably Hobbes was so much frightened and disgusted by the excesses of the civil wars that he could not bear to admit the possibility that any disease could be worse than such a remedy. It is certain that he greatly underrated the evils which tyranny may inflict on a people. He says, for instance, that the power of arbitrary taxation assumed by Charles I. was, after all, a small matter, as it had never been used except to enrich some favourite, which was of little importance to the nation at large. The evils which the folly and wickedness of Louis XIV. and Louis XV. inflicted upon France and Europe, and the intolerable grievances which bad financial legislation may inflict upon millions, in regard to the comfort of their daily existence, are matters about which, in the present day, there cannot be two opinions.
The second of the considerations in question is that, as Paine observed, society and government are totally different things. Even if all laws were to be abolished together, society would not cease to exist. Men would then live together in a much less comfortable manner, it is true, than at present, but still they would carry on the main affairs of life. The number of actions in which any particular individual is in any degree restrained by law is almost infinitesimally small. The social desires are, after all, much stronger and much commoner than those which are anti-social. In a great majority of cases contracts would be kept, truth would be spoken, people would abstain from hurting each other, even if there were no laws at all, and if the exercise of private vengeance were the only coercive sanction which men had to dread. Society is the work of law in some proportion, but in a much greater proportion it is the work of very different agents—love of companionship, curiosity, the desire of all sorts of advantages which are to be derived from mutual assistance founded on mutual goodwill. If such qualities did not exist, and were not exceedingly powerful elements in human nature, it is difficult to see how societies could ever I have been formed in the world at all.
The general result is, that Hobbes's doctrine of sovereignty is true if its abstract character is carefully remembered, if it is separated from the concrete consequences which he connected with it, and if it is explained by, and connected with, other principles of which he appears to have been almost entirely ignorant. These qualifications may appear to go far to destroy the degree of credit to which he is entitled for his speculations; but the great misfortune of premature system-making is that the qualifications necessary to apply particular principles to facts are generally omitted, and little more can be expected of those who attempt a work so gigantic as that of Hobbes, than that they should get a strong and clear hold of important truths which others had overlooked. To this praise Hobbes is certainly entitled, though he is at least equally exposed to the corresponding censure.
Saturday Review, November 10, 1866.