Submitted as a university essay in spring 2020.
‘Consent’ in Hobbes’ Leviathan plays the role of legitimating the state, primarily for the sake of securing survival. Hobbes uses consent as a legitimation story to preserve and pursue (1) the survival of the citizen, sovereign, and Commonwealth, (2) the honour of the citizen, sovereign, and Commonwealth, (3) natural and theological justice, and (4) appetitive pleasure. To use imagery adapted from Plato’s The Republic, Hobbes prioritises the (1) ‘iron’ part of the soul—concerning survival—over the (2) ‘silver’ part—concerning honour—while a version of the (3) ‘gold’ part—concerning justice—is prioritised over the vulgar (4) ‘bronze’ part of the soul—concerning pleasure. The distinction between ‘iron’ and ‘bronze’ appetites, I suggest, lies in Plato’s distinction between ‘necessary desires’ concerning ‘health and wellbeing’, which is decisive between ‘life and death’, and ‘unnecessary desires’ prized most highly by the ‘young’ and ‘oligarchic’ characters (Plato, The Republic, 558d-559b). Hobbes, like Plato, prizes (what I term) ‘iron’ above ‘bronze’ appetites—or physical survival above pleasure-seeking satisfaction. In coming to this conclusion, I ask two questions. Firstly, what role does consent play with respect to Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’—the state? Secondly, what role does consent play with respect to Hobbes’s aims in Leviathan? I consider each in turn.
Firstly, what role does consent play with respect to Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’—the state? Consent legitimates the state by allowing subjects to transfer their natural right to all things to the sovereign. Since political consent is often ‘inferred’ and not necessarily ‘express’, consent succeeds in playing this legitimatory role in both instituted and acquired Commonwealths.
Someone consents to an event (or ‘motion’) or set of events (or ‘train of motions’) (Hobbes 1996: 15-20) when they (a) do not prevent such an event taking place and also (b) give ‘expresse words, or [some] other sufficient sign’ that they do, indeed, consent (Hobbes 1996: 484). If such an event is possible and actualisable by a natural person, then, if that person has no ‘externall Impediments’, they have a liberty to carry out this motion and (Hobbes 1996: 91). Hobbes (1996: 91) uses the term ‘right’ often to mean simply ‘liberty’, and other times to mean the ‘right of nature’, which is the ‘Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature’—i.e., to stay alive, a fundamental precept I consider in the next section, which Hobbes bolsters with the ‘laws of nature’, or ‘generall Rule[s]’ for best staying alive and thereby satisfying one’s right of nature. Now, I turn to the ways of consenting and the essence of political consent.
‘Speech’, then, is one way of consenting—but the fact people live in separate bodies means that they may ‘register their thoughts wrong, by the inconstancy of the signification of their words’ (Hobbes 1996: 24-25). ‘Silence’, instead, may be sufficient produce ‘Signes by Inference’ of consent, which ‘sufficiently argues the will of the Contractor’, demonstrating that someone accepts and abides by the terms of that ‘mutuall transferring of Right’ which is ‘Contract’ (Hobbes 1996: 94-95). Consent is used here to describe one person refraining from exercising a capacity, and allowing another to exercise that capacity freely, thus ‘transferring’ the liberty to another by the first ‘renouncing’ their right—by speech, silence, or other sign—and the second then performing their part of the contract, such as laying down their right to something (Hobbes 1996: 91-96). To perform one’s part in the contract, ‘and leave the other to perform his part at some definite time after’, is to ‘Covenant’ with that person (Hobbes 1996: 94). Consent is most politically relevant in this situation, as I now show.
‘When a Multitude of men do Agree [or consent], and Covenant, every one, with every one, that to whosoever Man, or Assembly of Men, shall be given by the major part, the Right to Present the Person of them all, […] every one […] shall Authorise all the Actions and Judgements, of that Man, or Assembly of men, […] as if they were his own’ (Hobbes 1996: 121). Consent legitimates the sovereign representative, who bears the person of the Commonwealth thanks to the Covenanting of the Multitude to this effect, because the Multitude’s participation in electing the first sovereign and their subsequent submission to the sovereign mean they cannot rebel without contradicting themselves. If they refuse to participate in the first place, they are not a part of the Commonwealth. If they participate but refuse to submit, they are consenting to be ruled yet rejecting the consequences of that consent. More severely, if Multitudes refuse to submit to these ‘Soveraignes by Institution’, they are—in a sense—writing their own plays with self-cast characters they refuse to perform (Runciman 2010: 372-373). That is to say, a citizen who—after the institution of sovereign authority—withdraws consent for that authority without prior breaking of Covenant by citizens or acquisition of the territory by another sovereign (Hobbes 1996: 153) is both authorising their own obedience to the sovereign (Hobbes 1996: 112, 120) and refusing to follow this authorisation—generating a paradox where sovereignty is accepted and denied.
Consent is therefore a legitimation mechanic for maintaining sovereign authority; through consent, sovereign authority is both established and respected. In instituted Commonwealths, consent has four qualities. Firstly, it is both active, through the original election, and passive, through silent obedience and non-resistance (Hobbes 1996: 94). Secondly, it is mutual, through the Covenant of the Multitude, every man to every man (Hobbes 1996: 121). Thirdly, it is willing—i.e., without infringement on liberty by external impediments; freedom from chains (Hobbes 1996: 146). Lastly, it is non-retractable so long as protection is secured, since ‘[t]he end of Obedience is Protection’ (Hobbes 1996: 153), and since retracting one’s consent would violate the third law of nature ‘[t]hat men performe their Covenants made’ and therefore hamper one’s chances of satisfying the right of nature (to use whatever means one judges necessary to survive) (Hobbes 1996: 100). But consent is, therefore, retractable to an extent: ‘[t]he Obligation of Subjects to the Soveraign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them’ (Hobbes 1996: 153). Perhaps the ‘Authorization’ of the sovereign’s actions by the Multitude is not a one-off event, but a continuous process, contingent on subjects’ being safe and bound in foro externo to obey the laws of nature and of the civitas (Runciman 2010).
The right of nature being what it is, Hobbes contends that a Commonwealth by acquisition is no different than a Commonwealth by institution in the fear of death subjects feel about not consenting to sovereign authority (Ryan 1996: 217). Just as possible death is the fear in the ‘posture of warre’ that is the state of nature (Hobbes 1996: 90), possible death is the fear of not capitulating to the conqueror. In neither acquired nor instituted Commonwealths is liberty really jeopardised—according to Leviathan—since Hobbes’s ‘redescription’ (Runciman 2008: 30) of liberty as freedom from ‘Impediment’ (Hobbes 1996: 146) is not violated in ‘hard choices’ between consent and possible death: if it is, then no state is legitimate in consensual terms. The only difference between acquired and instituted Commonwealths is that citizens in the latter Covenant one with one another to transfer their full right of nature to the sovereign, while the Covenant in the latter is between each subject and the conqueror. On the surface, this seems to violate Hobbes’s premises that the sovereign’s power is not limited by Covenant (Goldsmith 1996: 279), and that Covenant is a ‘mutual translation’ (Dalgarno 1976) or ‘mutual transferring of Right’ (Hobbes 1996: 94) between at least two parties. The apparent implication is that the sovereign is bound to obey a Covenant with the subject, even though the sovereign can do no ‘injury’ to subjects, and therefore break no Covenant (Hobbes 1996: 124). But, even if this is the case, the terms of the Covenant are entirely dictated by the conqueror—and are therefore likely limited to simple protection—while the sovereign can still be limited morally in foro interno (though not coercively in foro externo) by the laws of nature (Runciman 2013: 359-360; Hobbes 1996: 110). If protection is the terms of this Covenant, then when the sovereign breaks the Covenant, they cease to be sovereign—and therefore have, in their capacity as sovereign, done no injury to the subjects (thus resolving our paradox).
In both acquired and instituted Commonwealths, consent holds—or should hold—so long as protection is secured, and no longer (Hobbes 1996: 153). In an acquired Commonwealth, then, consent is both passive (simple non-resistance to conquest) and active (as some express sign, such as through speech or civic participation when the sovereign requires), though more passive than in an instituted Commonwealth (since there is no vote in the beginning). Secondly, it is a virtually ‘unilateral transfer of right’ (Dalgarno 1976: 211) from the subject to the sovereign. Thirdly, it is willing, as liberty from external intervention of executing one’s will is not violated, but focused by the fear of one particular person (the conqueror) causing one’s death rather than many people (in a state of nature). Lastly, it is even less retractable so long as protection is secured than in an instituted Commonwealth, since subjects do not elect the sovereign and so have no say in initial constitutional arrangements. While the original Commonwealth may be instituted, most are clearly acquired—such that Hobbes calls the former ‘political’, and the latter ‘natural’ (Hobbes 1998: 74), due to the analogy between acquisition and the ‘Naturall force’ of a father over his children (Hobbes 1996: 121). The difficulty of legitimating the latter makes Hobbes lean on the former to develop the theory of political consent and obedience. But, once the theory is established, it succeeds in legitimating instituted and acquired Commonwealths alike.
The role of consent, then, is to legitimate the sovereign through both (a) a demonstration of the legitimacy of obedience from the right and laws of nature and the principle of non-contradiction and (b) a series of analogies (such as the body politic and the theatrical nature of political authorship and acting) that persuade the reader of the intuitive plausibility of Hobbes’s argument (Smith 2017; Skinner 2001; Malcolm 2002: 203-231; Runciman 2008). Hobbes is therefore, epistemically, relying on both a sound foundation in natural right (epistemic foundationalism) and a holistic, non-contradicting set of propositions and complementary images (epistemic coherentism). But the question remains as to what motivates the foundation—why ought people follow natural right and natural law and thus consent to sovereign authority? I now turn to this question of fundamental morals (moral foundationalism), which Hobbes frames in a curiously anti-moralistic (i.e., expedient) way.
Secondly, what role does consent play with respect to Hobbes’s aims in Leviathan? Consent, by legitimating the state, means subjects can stay alive so long as they obey the sovereign. It also means that honour can be pursued so long as consent is obtained. Consent itself, thirdly, derives from natural law—while the possibility of pleasure within a Commonwealth is also only made possible by the legitimating role consent plays. The role of consent is not just to legitimate the state but also to satisfy its fundamental aims—namely: survival, honour, justice, and satisfaction. Of these four needs, the first—namely: staying alive—is the most important. I consider each need in turn, in order of the significance Hobbes affords to them.
Staying alive is the primary aim of Hobbes’s theory of consent. As the right of nature entails not doing whatever is contrary to self-preservation (Hobbes 1996: 91), as the laws of nature are precepts for fulfilling this right (Hobbes 1996: 91), and as one such law is fulfilling of Covenant (Hobbes 1996: 100), in withdrawing consent arbitrarily to sovereign authority the subject is disobeying the laws of nature and hampering their self-preservation. Subjects should follow the laws of nature in order to satisfy the full right of nature—and/or, when that is forfeited in part in favour of the sovereign’s right upon sovereign institution or acquisition, survival itself. The need to survive is imperative for Hobbes, and is prioritised over other values, for two reasons. Firstly, survival is a precondition for other values: without having reasonable confidence in one’s chances of survival, there can be no time for pursuing honour, justice, or pleasure, since all these things can only be maintained under conditions of civil order.
In civil disorder (the state of nature), individuals are concerned for their own wellbeing above all else, since there is no coercive power to maintain Covenants, and there is no way of guaranteeing that people will stay by their word (keep promises), meaning that all speech is potential (or even likely) deception and individuals are thoroughly uncertain of one another’s intentions (Hobbes 1998: 25). The natural equality of physical and mental capacities among natural persons therefore produces diffidence, and—from diffidence—competition over scarce resources (Hobbes 1996: 86-87). This competition results in a war of ‘every man, against every man’, since there is no coercive power to regulate interaction (Hobbes 1996: 88-89). As survival is a precondition for other values, individuals will expend all their time on producing their means of subsistence and competing over these means, meaning they can pursue no other goals. Only ‘that selfish moderation of selfishness [through transferring one’s full right of nature in favour of the sovereign] introduces the political order’ (Orwin 1975: 30). This emotion towards self-preservation can be rational in a state: ‘dictate[s] of right reason’ condone disobedience when sovereign protection fails (Lloyd 1992: 159) to preserve oneself (Sommerville 1992: 33)—but not otherwise.
Secondly, Hobbes sees Good and Evil as denoting mere appetites and aversions (Hobbes 1996: 39). Since the pursuit of appetites is dependent on survival, all that is good is only possible through firstly guaranteeing survival. Hobbes is here making a deep moral claim that the good is, in some sense, reducible to extant motion in natural persons (survival). This fetish for the body corporeal derives in part from Hobbes’s empiricism, and thus his rejection of any non-corporeal ‘forms’ in the absence of sensory evidence (Sommerville 1992: 105; Hobbes 1996: 13-14; Malcolm 2002: 29). It is primarily to protect one’s ‘security’ that one ought to relinquish the ‘right of doing whatsoever seemeth good in his own eyes’ (Hobbes 1969: 110)—i.e., the full right of nature. Whether or not this is justified, it is a move that motivates his theory of consent, and one that may emerge from his fear of a repetition of the English Civil War (Skinner 2001: 20-21) and his opposition to Levellers’ interest in extending liberty arbitrarily (Skinner 2001: 248; Kaplan 1956: 403). Hobbes did, however, value the ‘silver’, ‘gold’ and ‘bronze’ parts of the soul—just to lesser extents—though these values also motivated his theory of consent.
Pursuing honour—which Hobbes identifies with ‘the acknowledgement of power’ (Tuck 1996b: 184)—is another motivator of Hobbes’s theory of consent, since consenting to sovereign authority makes possible the distribution of symbols of status recognition by the sovereign, who is therefore called ‘the King of all the children of pride’ (Hobbes 1996: 221). In the condition of mere nature, the inadequacy of speech means that symbols of status recognition are always elusive and insecure, or non-existent (given the universal fear of the death and pre-occupation with securing basic survival). This seems to be Hobbes’s next most-important value given his argument that the state of nature is severe for three reasons: competition, diffidence, and glory. Competition and diffidence concern security and gain, while glory concerns honour and recognition. Since gain in the condition of mere nature is primarily beneficial in maximising survival chances (Tuck 1989: 107), meaning that the first two factors are ‘iron’ factors concerning survival, the second most-important factor must be the ‘silver’ factory of glory. By treating Hobbes not just as a theorist of survival but also, secondarily, as a ‘theorist of recognition’ (Brooke 2017), we can see why Hobbes desires a theory of consent that legitimates the state. Without consenting to the sovereign, there is no possibility of secure honour distributions, preventing a fundamental human need from being met. Another need is justice, to which I now turn.
Realising justice is, superficially, Hobbes’s central concern, given his justification of consenting to the sovereign in terms of natural right and natural law. Injustice is the ‘break[ing]’ of ‘Covenant’ already made—and justice is keeping of Covenant (Hobbes 1996: 100). While natural law does consist of ‘prescriptions which tell us how to exercise our right to self-preservation’ (Tuck 1989: 107), it also has sources not pertaining solely to our rational passion for survival, but also to our intellect and to divine inspiration. Even when a ‘Foole hath sayd in his heart, there is no […] God’, they fall into contradiction by saying the same about Justice—as ‘Reason […] dictateth to every man his own good’, the fool is pursuing what is bad for them by denying justice (Hobbes 1996: 101), running against the geometrical precision of the intellect which Hobbes, perhaps in his only Platonist moment, prizes highly (Hobbes 1998: 59). But laws of nature also reflect ‘divine law’, as indicated by scriptural evidence such as Psalm 118.34 (in the Vulgate version)—‘Give me understanding and I will explore your law’ (Hobbes 1998: 58-59).
While the sovereign must decide on theological matters ultimately in order to maintain public order and prevent dangerous disagreements from jeopardising the peace (Springborg 1996: 363; Dunn 1996: 71), the limit to this is commitment to Christ and scripture (Hobbes 1998: 64-65; Sommerville 1992). Since Hobbes compares the Covenant with one another to the Sovereign with the Israelites’ Covenant with Moses (and Moses’ equivalent of a Covenant with God through ‘Revelation supernaturall’) (Hobbes 1996: 97; Hobbes 1998: 37), he clearly wishes to communicate with his reader a desire to maintain the theological legitimacy of his political philosophy. The reference to scripture may be part of the ‘theological lying’ close atheistic philosophers needed at the time (Millican 2008). But the requirement for the Sovereign to remain committed, on some level, to a ‘Christian Commonwealth’ (Hobbes 1996: )—not merely a Commonwealth—suggests that Hobbes views reason- and God-given justice as, at the very least, the third most-important motivator for a theory of consent and obedience, ahead of base appetites, but behind ‘the strongest motivating passion’—the iron ‘fear of death’ (Lloyd 1992: 101).
Satisfying appetites is the least important motivator of Hobbes’s theory of consent and political legitimacy. In the state of nature, appetites cannot be fully satisfied beyond the basic appetite for survival, which itself is in jeopardy. Under a Commonwealth, public safety makes possible public and private luxury, as people are freed from the time occupation of preservation to pursue other needs, of which there are an ‘almost infinite’ range that are ‘not prohibited’ by the average state’s legislation (Skinner 2008: 119). But Hobbes, as a consequence, views survival as an appetite far superior to other appetite’s in importance—and sees honour as a nobler pursuit than mere pleasure seeking. Unlike Spinosa, Hobbes subordinated reason to emotion—and, in turn, to the passion to survive above other passions (Malcolm 2002: 52). This is because unlimited pursuit of appetites jeopardises the other interests, as one loses the capacity for self-restraint in pursuit of base pleasure, damaging the unity of the ‘person of the commonwealth’ through lack of regulation of private and corporate pursuits in societas (Runciman 1997: 18-19, 26). The Covenant establishing sovereign authority itself is a ‘firm compact’ to ‘restrain’ the appetitive ‘passions’ of individuals by transferring their ‘natural powers’ in favour of a ‘sovereign ruler’ (Gough 1957: 114). Survival is clearly prioritised over satisfaction, therefore, lending Hobbes’s Leviathan not a ‘bronze’ soul but an ‘iron’ one.
Subjects ought to consent to sovereign authority primarily for the sake of staying alive—and secondarily for the sake of pursuing honour, realising justice, and satisfying appetites. Hobbes devises his theory of consent not out of a desire to satisfy subjects’ preferences, but above all out of a desire to free people from permanent fear of death (and damnation by obeying sovereign over ‘conscience’ (Tuck 1996a)) by erecting a sovereign authority capable of bearing the person of the state and protecting its subjects from the scourges of fear, lack of honour, and theologico-natural injustice.
To conclude, consent plays the role of legitimating the state by describing and motivating subjects’ forfeiture of their right to ‘all things’ (Hobbes 1998: 28) in favour of sovereign authority, in order to pursue the primary goal of staying alive and pursue secondary goals like honour, justice, and satisfaction. Hobbes frames consent as not just passive obedience but also (at least initially) an activity, where ‘expresse words’ or ‘sufficient sign[s]’ are needed to secure the social contract (Hobbes 1996: 484). Hobbes does not frame consent as mere lack of resistance—but he comes close by framing it as mere acceptance. Consent is therefore able to play the role of legitimating the state due to the minimal conditions required for it, politically—namely: life, natural faculties, liberty (construed narrowly as freedom from external intervention in executing one’s will), and the absence or elimination of prior conflicting obligations (such as when a conqueror acquires a Commonwealth from its prior sovereign). Consent can therefore play the central role in Hobbes’s Covenant of the Multitude in favour of creating a sovereign authority, due to how he has defined the term.
Staying alive may be the primary goal of Hobbes’s legitimation story, predicated on political consent, but the other goals show that the script off which political role-players read has diverse authorship—albeit primarily natural authorship, given the concern for material survival above all. Human nature does not allow for goals beyond survival to be met if survival itself is not met. As with other concepts, the role consent plays in legitimating the ‘Leviathan’ is primarily one of expediency, and only secondarily of other branches of morality, since Hobbes subordinates the ‘silver’, ‘bronze’ and even ‘gold’ parts of the soul to the ‘iron’ concern with staying alive. This ‘iron morality’ contrast with the ‘gold morality’ of Plato and Aristotle—as well as the ‘silver morality’ of ‘virtù’ (skill and gloria)-loving Machiavelli—but, like these other moralities, has deeper layers of (albeit less significant for Hobbes) values, towards which the concept of consent is directed and channelled with remarkable effectivity.
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 Plato at one point hints ‘iron’ is indeed separate from ‘bronze’ among the producer class, but does not precisely distinguish their nature as I do—though I expect Plato may have intended these meanings, all along (The Republic, 547a), given that the ‘city of pigs’ involved survival and virtue, sans either pleasure-seeking or political community of any thick kind (The Republic 369a-372e)—i.e., gold and iron, without silver or bronze.