Political Theory Term Paper

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Thomas Hobbes' Philosophy in the Leviathan

The subject area concerning political theories is both vast and complex. Political theories come in the form of ancient philosophies and new age rhetoric. This discussion will focus on the philosophy of The Leviathan. The Leviathan written by Thomas Hobbes, explores the matter, form, and power of a commonwealth.

In the Leviathan Hobbes discusses the responsibility of the sovereign and the subjects. Hobbes philosophy contended that men must give up their right to govern themselves to a sovereign that would in turn govern the entire commonwealth and maintain peace and order. The purpose of this discussion is to determine why Hobbes insisted that men had to surrender both their wills and their judgments to their sovereign. We will also discuss the social contract theory and the condition of men.

The Social Contract and the condition of men

Thomas Hobbes was a controversial social contract theorist who believed that people were rational beings. He was controversial because he based his political theory on social contract rather than political absolutism. He also contended that the condition of man was war; that by nature human beings were in a constant state of battle with one another. The philosopher argued that human beings would rather live in a condition of peace but that the only way to obtain this peace was through a sovereign.

Hobbes believed that human beings had a natural right to govern themselves but because they were rational and wanted to preserve their lives they would understand the need for a sovereign. Hobbes explains that,

The right of nature...is the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself. from the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life; and consequently of anything, which in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto."(Hobbes)

So then on the one hand Hobbes believed that men were caught in the perpetual state of war, each man against each man. This state of war was caused by the God given nature of men to have more power than other men or to be wiser and so on and so forth. On the other hand Hobbes contended that men were rational and could live by the right of nature which was self-government and the ability to preserve his own life by any means necessary even it meant giving his rights of self-government to a sovereign. In short he asserted that "because people are fearful and predatory they must submit to the absolute supremacy of the state, in both secular and religious matters, in order to live by reason and gain lasting preservation."("Hobbes, Thomas")

In Hobbes mind the Sovereign would protect the subjects from foreign invasion and make certain that the subjects' existence was peaceful and harmonious. According to Hobbes this right of nature also ensured that human beings would do anything to preserve their own lives even if that meant the surrender of their will. The philosopher believed that because human beings have an overwhelming need to live in peace they would give up their natural right to self-government and give their rights to the sovereign. The relinquishment of these rights then becomes a social contract. This binding social contract ensures that the subjects surrender their will and judgments to the sovereign and in turn the sovereign promises to protect the subjects and ensure that they live in peace.

Hobbes asserted that there were two ways that a sovereign could come in to power, by force or by the voluntary submission of men. He reffered to the former as commonwealth by acqusition and the latter as commonwealth by institution. In the case of commwealth by acquisition the subjects surrender to the sovereign because they are afraid and submit to the sovereign in exchange for their lives. An acquisition occurs when there is war or when a sovereign comes into power by natural force. The commonwealth by institution occurs when men voluntarily submit their wills and judgement to the sovereign.

The Leviathan contends that by giving their wills to the sovereign the subjects had to obey and respect the rules set forth by the sovereign. This is the only way that they can preserve their lives. Hobbes writes, "And when a man hath in any manner abandoned or granted away his right; then is he said to be obliged or bound, not to hinder those to whom such right is granted or abandoned..."(Hobbes) He asserted that by hindering the sovereign the subjects would return to the condition of war.

Additionally Hobbes social contract theory held that if subjects were asked to do anything unlawful they would not be held accountable. Instead Hobbes asserted that any unlawful act committed by an individual on behalf of the commonwealth would be viewed as an act of the sovereign and not the individual.

Hobbes explains this view in the leviathan by writing,

This we may say, that whatsoever a subject, as Naaman was, is compelled to [do] in obedience to his sovereign, and doth it not in order to his own mind, but in order to the laws of his country, that action is not his, but his sovereign's" (Hobbes)

Hobbes also supposed that the sovereign had a profound obligation to secure the peace of the commonwealth because the subjects had given their wills to the sovereign. In giving their wills to the sovereign the subjects were counting on that sovereign to maintain the order and keep peace in the commonwealth. Hobbes asserted that the sovereign should never abuse the power that was given to him by men. The Leviathan states,

Again, every sovereign ought to cause justice to be taught, which, consisting in taking from no man what is his, is as much as to say, to cause men to be taught not to deprive their neighbors, by violence or fraud, of anything which by the sovereign authority is theirs" (Hobbes)

The purpose of surrendering will and judgment

Some would argue that the surrender of will and judgment is the foundation of many governments throughout the world including America's. After all we elect officials to make laws that are influenced by the will and judgment of the people. In return we expect a certain level of decency within our society; in some respects this is a social contract. However the political theory that the philosopher Hobbes asserted was somewhat different than the political theory that governs the American political system and political systems throughout the world.

The philosopher Hobbes believed that the only way that the sovereign could rule effectively was if the subjects would surrender both their wills and judgment to their sovereign. In doing this the subjects would ensure that the sovereign would protect them from invasion and maintain the order of the commonwealth.

In the Leviathan Hobbes explains,

The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort, as that by their own industry, and by the fruits of the earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly; is, to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will: which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own, and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person, shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgments, to his judgment."(Hobbes)

Hobbes believed that if men could surrender their wills and judgements to a sovereign then the sovereign and the subjects could form an ideal commonwealth. The will is defined as the desire of a mans heart. Therefore when a man tranfered his will to his sovereign he was essentially transfering the desires of his heart to his sovereign. The philosopher asserted that by surrendering their wills to the sovereign the subjects would be perserving their lives which is a desire that is greater than the desire for war.

According to Hobbes the surrender of judgement was also important to the success of the sovereign and the commonwealth. In Leviathan Haobbes describes man's judgment in the following way,

For a man's conscience, and his judgment is the same thing; and as the judgment, so also the conscience may be erroneous. Therefore, though he that is subject to no civil law, sinneth in all he does against his conscience, because he has no other rule to follow but his own reason; yet it is not so with him that lives in a commonwealth; because the law is the public conscience, by which he hath already undertaken to be guided. Otherwise in such diversity,…

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