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A classic of political philosophy, 10 Mar 2009
Though the roots of social contractarianism are in Plato's Crito (360 BC) and Hugo Grotius's De jure belli ac pacis (1625) ('On the Law of War and Peace'), it is in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) that they come together to form a cohesive and radical political theory. Leviathan is the first attempt to present politics as a science: Hobbes had been impressed with the self-evidential arguments of Euclid's geometry treatise Elements and wished to use similar didactic logic to develop his early writings on materialism and human nature to their full political conclusions. Thus in his Latin edition De Cive (1642) ('On the Citizen') he attempted to establish the foundations of political legitimacy and make sense of the political turmoil that would soon explode into the English Civil War. By the time the war had begun and ended De Cive had been translated into English and published as Leviathan.
Following from Euclid's principles, Hobbes starts from the simplest foundations of his philosophy. Leviathan begins with a discussion on materialism and how humans experience reality through 'bodies in motion' before gradually coming to discuss how men interact with one another in the now-infamous Hobbesian 'state of nature'. The state of nature is the bellum omnium contra omnes - "the war of all against all" - as men are fundamentally self-interested and wish to accumulate power and possessions even at the expense of other men. It is anarchy and, compelled by fear for their own lives and possessions, men form a social contract to protect themselves from one another. By this contract men give up their natural liberty to take and do what they want to an absolute sovereign who enforces peace. This sovereign may be a king, queen, aristocracy or parliament: for Hobbes the important thing is not that the sovereign is elected or representative but that they preserve peace by whatever means necessary. (This neat trick endeared Hobbes to both Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell during the years of the English Republic and King Charles II upon the return to monarchy).
The sovereign would be the Leviathan, named after the biblical sea monster, and would have absolute authority to enforce the peace of the social contract. Their authority is to create, establish, and enforce laws and they may censor the press, make war and peace with other nations and reward and punish citizens to secure the peace. Significantly, the sovereign cannot be held accountable for their actions as the contract means that men are complicit in everything the sovereign does and so share responsibility for the sovereign's actions. Moreover to be able to judge the sovereign you must be equal to it, and to have more than one sovereign would be a contradiction as each would undermine the authority of the other and both would become redundant.
Thus an absolute sovereign could only lose power if they failed to uphold their end of the contract by threatening the lives of contractors. This extensive power and lack of accountability was terrifying to many of Hobbes's contemporaries who attempted to rewrite the theory to include a right to rebellion against arbitrary government. Notably, John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1689) was written soon afterwards with these fears in mind.
Notoriously, Hobbes's political framework excluded religion. We suspect that he was an atheist though, probably out of expedience, he dedicates a whole section of Leviathan to Christianity and demonstrating why materialism and not theology should play the lead role in legitimising government and creating political obligations. He does this with a tidy side-step around the entire issue by declaring God to be sovereign of another realm and, until we reach that realm, men must remain sovereign on earth. Despite this effort the book was banned and burned, and Hobbes spent much of his remaining years defending himself against accusations of subversion and heresy.
It is important to note that Leviathan should not be read as a historical account of how sovereigns came to power, which is usually through conquest, usurpation or long-standing lineage. Instead, Leviathan is heuristic: a thought experiment into the consequences of removing existing sovereigns and a consideration of how we would re-establish governments with legitimacy. In this sense it is quite a conservative text. It attempts to discourage the removal of sovereigns and provides no real mechanism to do so as, by the time the Leviathan has become so despotic as to threaten your life, there is very little you can do to save yourself.
Hobbes was the first of the 'big three' social contract thinkers. He was followed by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who both tried to place much stricter limits on governments and make them more accountable to contractors. Nonetheless Hobbes's legacy lives on. His famous description of the state of nature being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" is a familiar phrase in the political lexicon, while Richard Tuck and Quentin Skinner continue the debate as to whether or not Hobbes's Leviathan is guaranteed to become an authoritarian despot or could be a benevolent autocrat. The book is significant on several counts: it dismisses the Divine Right of kings which had been the basis of monarchies for centuries; it was the first attempt to treat politics as a science which is dependent on logic and reason rather than rhetoric; and it was the wellspring of a whole tradition of political thought and counter-thought. Not only this, but Hobbes can be seen everywhere. The ruler that overextends himself to tyranny and loses sovereignty is seen in countless revolutions through history, while his state of nature is evident in lawless ghettoes around the world today.