Thomas Hobbes and the politics of optimism

Yussef Al Tamimi, 14 October 2017

“It’s fair to say that Hobbes himself didn’t think through the problem deeply enough.” – Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature


This post reflects on Hobbes’s claims about humans in the state of nature by discussing them in light of contemporary popular reception of Hobbes. First, the post discusses Steven Pinker’s 2011 bestseller, which argues that the world is gradually becoming more peaceful. Secondly, the post revisits Hobbes’s text and examines to what extent it lends itself to such an interpretation. I conclude that it’s fair to say that Pinker did not think through Hobbes’s text deeply enough.

Are We Getting More Peaceful?

In 2011, Steven Pinker authored The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he claims that the rise of liberal states and Enlightenment humanism has gone hand in hand with a dramatic statistical decline in interhuman violence. Since then, the idea that the world has become ‘objectively’ more peaceful compared to (pre)historic times, has set root in popular thought. Pinker’s thesis has been criticized from historical, anthropological, statistical and philosophical perspectives; I will focus on Pinker’s depiction and extensive use of Hobbes’s state of nature to make his argument.

According to Pinker, Hobbes makes a testable prediction about the history of violence. If Hobbes’s theory is right, the transition from nonstate to state societies should have ushered in a major decline in violence. Pinker sets this transition period around five thousand years ago: this is when, according to archeologists, humans who previously lived in anarchy coalesced into cities and states and developed the first governments. For Hobbes, Pinker says, law is better than war. Before civilization, men lived without “a common power to keep them all in awe” and their lives were nastier, more brutish, and shorter. According to Pinker, Hobbes got it right and his empirical findings now confirm Hobbes’s hypothesis. Archeological evidence shows that interhuman violence has declined with the rise of state societies. He disagrees that this state should act as a ‘Leviathan’, this is where Hobbes “didn’t think through the problem deeply enough.” Rather, Pinker is optimistic that Enlightenment humanism and democracy has moved societies to more peace.

What Does Hobbes Say?

Equality: Hobbes begins chapter 13 of Leviathan by stating that men are naturally equal in their bodily strength and even more equal in mental abilities (188). As a consequence of this (rather strict, formal sense of) equality, men tend to become enemies over things they equally desire but cannot both have. From this comes a sort of perpetual fear or suspicion that every person wants to overcome another, which Hobbes calls diffidence (190). This suspicion would in turn lead to anticipation; this might mean that every person would want to pre-empt the strike of another by striking first, perhaps ad infinitum, leading to perpetual war. In short: equality > diffidence > WARRE.

State of Nature: As such, it is in the nature of man that they are in a war “of every man, against every man” (192). This is the situation when people live without “a common Power to keep them all in awe” – the state of nature. Man’s life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. There is no time for culture and arts or to gain knowledge, there is even no account of time, and no society. Hobbes makes the important addition that he does not mean that people in the state of nature are actually fighting all the time. Rather, there is a constant disposition to fighting and there is no assurance to the contrary (192). Hobbes draws an analogy with bad weather, where an inclination to rain for many days amounts to bad weather rather than a shower or two.

Negative view of human nature: This negative view of human nature is one that, according to Hobbes, we all hold. Why else do we lock our doors at night? And why would we lock even the safe that is inside our locked house? (194). It is only normal that we do these things, and it does not mean that we accuse human nature because of it. Man’s natural passions and desires – toward stealing or killing, Hobbes seems to mean – are no sin in themselves. This is an important point which I will get to in section 4.

Morality and law: In fact, Hobbes claims that the actions that follow from these natural passions are also not sins in themselves (194). They ‘become’ sins because of a Law that forbids them, a Law that can only be made if they have been agreed upon by the person who performed the act. This passage raises many questions that we might discuss, for instance: what kind of ‘Law’ is Hobbes referring to (in modern terms, this seems quite a positivist understanding of law and morality)? How should this ‘agreement’ be understood (considering footnote 37 in the text and p. 202 where Hobbes claims a connection between volition and the good)? This also feeds into his point on the next page where Hobbes claims – in contrast to Grotius? – that during wars (at least, in the state of nature) there is no common power, therefore there exists no law, therefore there exists no (in)justice (196, cf. 220 below). Hobbes’ views on morality and law are closely connected to his stance on truth and language, where his claims make him sound all but like a postmodern thinker of our age (“For true and false are attributes of speech, not of things. And where speech is not, there is neither truth nor falsehood.”, Chapter 4)

State of Nature in time: Back to the state of nature: was there a historical time when people lived in the state of nature? Hobbes is one theorist who believes that not only did the state of nature really exist, but it still exists. He notes that it was never generally so (194), ie never did the whole world live in the state of nature – at once, presumably –, but that there are still places in his time where people live in those circumstances because there is no government. Therefore, whenever a central authority is missing, people potentially fall back on their passions and inclinations.

Inclinations to Peace: What then, inclines people to have peace (196)? Three reasons derive from Passion: (1) fear of (violent) death, (2) to be able to live a commodious living, and (3) a “Hope by their Industry”. And one reason derives from Reason: (4) to follow the Articles of the Laws of Nature. Chapters 14 and 15 are about these Articles. Hobbes distinguishes the Laws of Nature from the Right of Nature, where the Right is the Liberty to do anything a person sees fit without external impediments – in the state of nature this Right is without limits –, while the Laws offer rules, limits, obligations that forbid people to do that which is destructive to their life and the preservation of it (198). These Laws spring from Reason as humankind would not be able to endure living in the state of nature.

Laws of Nature: Hobbes distinguishes nineteen Articles of the Laws of Nature:

  • First and fundamental Law of Nature: “That every man, ought to endeavour Peace, as farre as he can hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps and advantages of Warre.” (200).

This law contains two parts: seeking peace (the fundamental Law of Nature) and self-defense (the “Summe of the Right of Nature”). In this way, Law and Right are coupled and intertwined in the first Law of Nature. Perhaps this is so because seeking peace for Hobbes is in itself primarily a mechanism of (long term and more sustainable) self-defense.

  • Second Law of Nature: “That a man be willing, when others are so too, as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defence of himselfe he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himselfe.” (200).

Hobbes derives this article from the religious Golden Rule that one should do unto others as one would like others to do unto him. Hobbes goes on to a lengthy discussion about the different forms, parties and conditions of the mutual transferring of rights, ie contracts. I will highlight one of these, namely that not all rights are alienable by contract (202 & 214). Here Hobbes says that a contract cannot contain a provision where a person e.g. allows another to hurt or kill him. His justification for this is contentious. Hobbes states that there is a link between human will and the good; since a contract is entered as a voluntary act, its object must be a good to the person. This trust in human will, or rather the limited scope Hobbes attributes to human will by excluding nefarious ends, is simply not realistic but seems part of elevating rational will which is characteristic of Enlightenment thinkers.

  • Third Law of Nature: “That men performe their Covenants made.” (220).

Performing an agreement, or “the constant Will of giving to every man his own”, is what Hobbes calls Justice. Here Hobbes reiterates that justice and injustice, “the names of Just, and Unjust”, can have no place until there is an authority that compels people to perform their agreements equally (220). However, when there is such an authority, Justice is in accordance with Reason for two reasons which I find quite vague (224): (i) because it is imprudent not to fulfill an agreement, and (ii) because one who breaks his covenants should be banished from society and thus loses his means of safety.

  • Fourth: Being grateful for received gifts.
  • Fifth: Behave in an apt way as to accommodate others and sustain society.

Something interesting happens here: up till now Hobbes has been speaking in a very general manner about people’s nature and passions. Here for the first time he speaks of a “diversity of Nature” and “diversity of affections” (232), which people have to take into account in the way they accommodate each other.

  • Sixth: Pardon those who have repented past offenses.
  • Seventh: Punishment is used only for correction of the offender or direction of others.
  • Eighth: Hatred or contempt toward each other is not allowed.
  • Ninth: “That every man acknowledge other for his Equall by Nature.” (234).

The defiance against Aristotle that we saw with Grotius continues here with Hobbes. Aristotle’s idea that some people are born with greater intelligence and mastery than others, for Hobbes not only goes against reason but also against experience. He reiterates his idea that human nature is equal.

  • Tenth: Being modest by not reserving rights which one would not want others to reserve for themselves.
  • Eleventh: Equity in judging between people.
  • Twelfth: Things that cannot be divided should be used in common.
  • Thirteenth: Things that cannot be divided nor used in common should be divided by Lot.
  • Fourteenth: There are two sort of lots: natural and arbitrary.
  • Fifteenth: Those who work for peace, should be left in peace (ambassadors?).
  • Sixteenth: Disputes must be settled by a judge.
  • Seventeenth: Nobody can judge over disputes concerning himself.
  • Eighteenth: A partial judge should not judge anymore.
  • Nineteenth: Every witness must be given equal weight.

To summarize these Laws of Nature, Hobbes turns again to the Golden Rule: “Do not that to another, which thou wouldst not have done to thy selfe.” (240). The Laws of Nature are immutable and eternal, but also easy because they only require sincere endeavor. Hobbes reiterates that one should not follow the Laws of Nature if it means he falls prey to others, in accordance with the clause of self-defense of the First Law.

Finally, on p. 552, Hobbes states that the Law of Nature and the Law of Nations is the same. With regard to Right, every sovereign has the same right to its people as an individual has to his body.

Conclusion: Does Hobbes Think We Become More Peaceful Human Beings?

I believe Hobbes and Pinker differ on an important point: Hobbes has a fundamentally negative view of human nature, while Pinker thinks people developed into more peaceful human beings with the rise of liberalism, democracy and humanist ideals. Rather than making a testable prediction about the history of violence, Hobbes makes a fundamental point about human nature. Why does this matter? Because it seems that even under the rule of the Leviathan Hobbes thinks people have the inclinations, passions, desires towards stealing and killing – it’s just that there is a punishing overlord who prevents us from doing so. We close our doors at night (194) even in civilized societies, because Hobbes claims we intuitively share this negative view with him. On the other hand, in Pinker’s interpretation, the rise of civilized society has changed something in people which makes them more peaceful, more good. The difference is subtle but the implications are big: our negative inclinations are still there for Hobbes, he does not excuse them nor does he even consider them sinful in themselves (194). Pinker thinks we have progressed into better human beings in modernity. This difference raises a major question about the nature of violence: is violence something inherent in human beings, or is it a sign of backwardness that has no place in modernity? This sheds light on another way Hobbes differs from Pinker’s interpretation: Pinker pinpoints the transition to state societies around five thousand years ago, while Hobbes argues that some people still live in the state of nature in his time (194). For Hobbes, the state of nature always looms around the corner if there is no state authority that instills fear. Using Hobbes’s hypothesis about human nature to make an optimistic point about modern development is misplaced, as this optimism does not seem to be shared by Hobbes.

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