Teaching Hobbes

by Philippe Lagassé

After a month of lectures on Plato and Machiavelli, today I’m starting to teach Hobbes in my second-year undergraduate course on philosophical perspectives on conflict and rights. Personally, I find that this is the most interesting part of the course, except maybe for the two lectures on Foucault at the end. Based on my Twitter feed, it’s clear that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Hobbes—at least not the one who isn’t gallivanting around with Calvin. So why do I like teaching his best-known work, Leviathan?

Hobbes offers us vital perspectives on politics. While he’s sometimes read in a rather one-dimensional way, especially by those in the field of International Relations, he’s actually quite a complex thinker. Most importantly, it should be appreciated that there’s more to him than his infamous comments about the state of nature being ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. In fact, we need to bear in mind that Hobbes’s political philosophy is largely concerned with keeping us out of that state of war. He certainly wasn’t celebrating it or presenting it as inevitable.

“To my mind, this is still the stuff of great political discussions and debate.”

Hobbes is convinced that human are self-interested creatures. But he also notes that we’re largely driven by our passions and desires, which leads us to put short-term gains ahead of our long-term interests. Part of his political project deals with this problem. Hobbes wants to convince us to put our primary long-term interests (such as survival, security and felicity) ahead of counter-productive but immediately attractive short-term gains (such as ones associated with vanity or those obtained through treachery and violence).

Yet Hobbes further recognizes that short-term considerations will usually win out in the absence of a rule-based order, since humans will be locked in collective action dilemmas. The path toward the state of nature is precisely one of these dilemmas. When there is no central authority to guarantee everyone’s safety and security, and to punish those who harm others, individuals will be locked in an environment of self-reliance, distrust, dishonesty and violence. Even the best-intentioned individuals will find themselves compelled to cheat, lie and use force in order to survive.

However, Hobbes further appreciates that this is a miserable situation, one that most individuals will desperately want to get out of. This is why he thinks that the desire for peace is a law of nature; most humans don’t want to live in a state perpetual insecurity. To get out of such a state, individuals must voluntarily agree to live by a set of rules that apply to everyone. But to make sure that these rules are respected—to ensure that everyone in society recognizes that these rules are in their own interest whether they appreciate it at a given moment or not—there must be a sovereign power whose authority cannot be questioned. Only this sovereign can ensure that the rules are respected and that the collective action dilemma of the state of nature is avoided.

The absolute authority of the sovereign is arguably the most controversial part of Hobbes’ political thought. Why should people have to obey political authority without question? Doesn’t this imply an acceptance of tyranny and dictatorship? There is no doubt that this is a risk. But we need to look at what Hobbes might be saying with a bit of nuance.

When Hobbes says that we must obey the authority of the sovereign, he ultimately means that we have to respect the law. For Hobbes, the law is not some abstract concept; it is merely the rules that a political community chooses to live by, as laid out by the sovereign authority that they’ve constituted. In fact, Hobbes was particularly worried about those who think that abstract notions of justice can be used to undermine the law or call its authority into question. That kind of thinking can lead us back to the state of war, since individuals can use their subjective understandings of justice to undermine the law and disregard the rule-based order that underpins a secure society.

But what about the sovereign power? Why should we obey the laws it sets? We can find two answers in Hobbes’ work. At the most basic level, Hobbes suggests that we should obey the sovereign because it’s better to live in a secure state than the state of nature. No matter how much we might dislike the laws, respecting them beats living in constant fear of violent death.

The second argument is the more interesting one, though: we respect and obey the sovereign because this authority represents us and our long-term interests. The laws, punishments and rewards that flow from the sovereign power are meant to keep us committed to the peace, security and collective projects that we benefit from. The sovereign, in this sense, is there to remind us of our fundamental self-interest.

All this is very theoretical, of course. But it’s interesting to teach this material for a number of reasons. It highlights how the early liberal tradition understood the role that political authority had to play in bringing individual and collective interests into line. It offers a rationale for why we should obey the law and be wary of living without an effective government or state.  It also stresses the tensions that exist between our immediate passions and our future satisfaction, and what those tensions means in a political context.

To my mind, this is still the stuff of great political discussions and debate.

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