Peace for all time: The enduring insights of Thomas Hobbes

Originally published on 24 September 2022.

Seventeenth-century political theorist Thomas Hobbes has a paradoxical attitude to power. On the one hand, he thinks that ‘the pursuit of power, after power’ is the root and stem of ‘Warre’, of ‘every man, against every man’, leaving the ‘life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. But he also thinks that power can be wielded by the sovereign state to keep we, the citizens or subjects of the state, in check. The threat of violence by the sovereign state prevents actual violence from erupting between subjects. That’s the idea. That’s the power of the modern state, which Hobbes called the Leviathan.

Meet Thomas Hobbes.

The subtitle to the Leviathan is not always emphasised as much as it perhaps should be: ‘Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil’. Intellectual historian Annabel Brett draws attention to the Aristotelian distinction between ‘Matter’ and ‘Forme’. The ‘Power’ of a Commonwealth comes from an integration of physical and conceptual dimensions, ‘actuality’ and ‘potentiality’, to use Aristotle’s terms. Power is, as I have suggested elsewhere, a bridge between worlds.

But what worlds does Hobbesian power bridge between? Another intellectual historian, Patricia Springboard, draws attention to Hobbes’s own distinction between the Leviathan and the Behemoth, two biblical monsters. The Leviathan is the title of Hobbes’ book on the creation of a sovereign state, an ‘artificial person’, from the abyss of anarchy, the ‘state of nature’. The Behemoth is the title of Hobbes’ book on the English Civil War. The Leviathan stands for the artificial peace of the distinctively human political creation, the sovereign state. The Behemoth stands for the natural warfare that occurs without such a state, with or without Homo sapiens about.

For post-structuralist writers like Michel Foucault, such binary distinctions between matter and form, order and chaos, peace and war are somewhat arbitrary. They eventually collapse into each other in the fluid mechanics of power, as articulated by Hobbes’ predecessor Niccolò Machiavelli, Renaissance Florentine diplomat and author of the Principe and lesser-known Discorsi. After Hobbes wrote Leviathan, the lesser-known author James Harrington mounted a defence of Machiavelli, articulating the dynamics of class conflict that animated early-modern England as much as they did Renaissance Florence and ancient Rome. Hobbes’ focus on preventing a war of all against all, or bellum omnium contra omnes, neglects this sociological dimension of modern politics, as well as the economic dimension that Harrington’s successors developed into classical political economy, and eventually the discipline of modern economics.

But Hobbes’ vision is at once keen and broad-brushed, universal and specific. It is a ‘vision of politics’ — to coin a phrase from intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, who placed Hobbes at the centre of the ‘Cambridge School’ of intellectual history just as J. G. A. Pocock drew attention to Harrington in The Machiavellian Moment — that has an enduring lesson for us today. Hobbes thought that the term LIBERTAS had been overstretched, and come to mean more than the more basic meaning of freedom from chains, or physical enslavement or bondage of one person to another. Of course, this basic meaning is elastic: what is slavery, and what is freedom? Hobbes argued that liberty applies more to states than their subjects, but it is easy to jump the mythic chasm between the collective personality of the state and the individual egos we all so jealously guard (an argument animated by the eighteenth-century idea of ‘Jealousie of Trade‘, as articulated by David Hume and more recently by intellectual historian István Hont).

More fundamentally, Hobbes is concerned about the recklessness that leads to figures such as the Season 8 depiction (in HBO’s Game of Thrones) of Daenerys Targaryen, who burns a city down in the name of fighting ‘tyranny’. For Hobbes, terms like freedom are so elastic that we forget the foundation of all ‘commodious living’ and the ‘felicities’ of life: peace, pure and simple. To be secured from physical violence is the most fundamental of liberties.

This does not reflect a paranoia on Hobbes’ part. He condemns the tendency in the ‘Universities’ towards an ideological war over the meaning of words. Speech is fundamentally ambiguous, and frequently misunderstood. Hobbes does not want the state to go on the offensive, penalising subjects for heretic thoughts or words. He wants to simplify religion and deliver us from the fear of eternal punishment after death, just as he wants to simplify politics and deliver us from the fear of a deranged tyrant or populist ‘people’s champion’.

Hobbes wants peace. For all time. And he has a plausible vision of how to do that – whether a country’s constitution be a democracy, a monarchy, an aristocracy, or (though he is more sceptical of this idea as a truly unique constitutional type) a republic. The precise details of Hobbes’ vision were made elastic and developed into the myriad constitutional forms in the world today. But basically, Hobbes is a cautious philosopher, writing his magnum opus at a mature stage of his life, eager to prevent the world from becoming a worse place. The ambition of his vision stems from this fundamental caution about our ability as humans beings to fulfil our dreams. It is a dream which is modest and elegant, controversial and elemental in its logical structure. It is a dream of peace, for all time — even, perhaps, our own.

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