Thomas Hobbes is a British philosopher who is widely known with his masterpiece “Leviathan”. Hobbes is often considered as one of the most important power analysts as well as social contractor political philosophers (Leviathan, pg 9). Hobbes’ theory can be considered as very pessimistic and dark but we cannot underestimate the role of political problems that he witnesses during his lifetime in shaping his theory. Hobbes saw Spanish Armada, 30 Years War, First & Second Bishops’ War, Scottish invasion of England, Irish Rebellion and English Civil War. Thomas Hobbes is also very important because he is one of the founders of political science as an academic discipline by using his “resolutive compositive” method (Leviathan, pg 25-26). In this assignment, I will try to reconstruct Hobbes’ account of the relationship between the state of nature and civil society. In order to arrive at that point, I am going to first try to construct Hobbesian concept of civil society by profiting from his ideas on the state of nature and war. I am going to try to support my ideas from quotations. Secondly, I will construct my own ideal conception of civil society. Thirdly, I am going to compare and contrast these two concepts and try to criticize Hobbes’ ideas.
According to Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature does not refer to a peaceful, harmonious social life but instead it is a hellish life with chaos and violence. Hobbes believes that the state of nature in history was a “state of warre” during which all individuals struggled against all other individuals and finally ended this chaotic life by making some kind of social contract. The central point of Thomas Hobbes’ theory is human nature and especially the selfishness and the greed of human beings. Hobbes believes that human beings are naturally selfish and they can do all kinds of bad acts when they can gain from these bad acts. He even claims “For it is a voluntary act: and of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself” (Leviathan, pg 192). This understanding of the enormous selfishness of human beings directs Hobbes to a very dark theory, which does not trust in human beings and thus creates a regime of absolute monarchy with strict, severe rules and little space for freedoms. Hobbes considers human beings as rational egoists that always look for the maximization of their self-profits, and he tries to explain the transition from the state of nature or in other words the state of war in which all individuals are against all individuals, to the organized state by humans’ realization that it is more profitable to live in an organized state.
Hobbes thinks that humans are naturally somehow equal and there is not too much difference between their mental and physical abilities. “Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body, and mind, as that though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may pretend, as well as he” (Leviathan, pg 183). According to him, this equality of ability increases the competition for limited resources between people, especially in a world without a central binding power in which even the weakest can beat the strongest by taking help from others or by using weapons, etc. And thus “from equality proceeds diffidence” (Leviathan, pg 184). So, in a stateless stage individuals have the motive to compete with others in a very hostile sense; in addition, they live with the fear of being killed or loosing what they have. Hobbes calls this fear “diffidence” and explains it as the lack of confidence people have in the state of war due to their inevitably unsafe lives. This fear forces individuals to look for power after power not only to gain more profit, but also to protect what they have in their hands. After competition and diffidence, the third motive that orients people in the state of war according to Hobbes’ theory is the desire to have glory. People want to have reputation and power but what they really want is to prevent potential threats by frightening or threatening other people who could attack and kill them in this unsafe world. Hobbes concludes his theory by the realization that rational egoist human beings will profit more in an organized state, and thus, to make a social contract among them and give their power to a sole person who would be like a mortal God called “Leviathan” who would provide peace and order in society by making laws deriving from laws of nature and by punishing guilty people.
In the light of Hobbes’ theory we can construct a civil society conception in Hobbesian thinking. As Hobbes made it clear, the only aim for human beings to come together is to protect themselves from the state of warre and protect their safety as well as the security of other things (their property etc.). This kind of an unrealistic dark approach to human beings will obviously decrease the meaning of civil society. Civil society as a dictionary definition means “the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens; individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government”. By civil societal organizations also called as NGO’s, people try to reflect their views on the decisions of the government and solve their problems in a democratic way. People by NGO’s not only try to find a solution to their problems but also to the problems of the nature, other people and social groups as well as other countries. However, Hobbesian civil society must be based strictly on personal benefit and people can only form and work for civil society organizations for their own benefit. People having same interests by this way can come together and form a NGO but they can also pursue their own interest if they have chance. Thus, the success of the NGO will come later for people than their own interests. Thus, people would never trust in each other and civil society would be weak. Moreover, by using NGO’s people will no doubt try to harm other groups within constitutional limits, in order to increase their profit. Another important problem in Hobbesian civil society is that the state ruled by Leviathan must be very disciplinary and severe in order to suppress egoist people who always follow their own interests. In this case, state will be very strong and thus, civil society’s role in the politics will be very little. Civil societal organizations can only be supporting actors which are in the service of the leading actor that is the state.
However, an ideal civil society can only be built by people having freedom and can think and act not only for their self-profit. I think there are some problems related to Hobbes’ understanding of the human nature. First of all, Hobbes’ theory has some presumptions about the nature of human beings and the resources of the world. Hobbes thinks that humans are more or less equal and this equality leads to the conflict between them for obtaining things they all desire but could not have at the same time. “From this equality of ability, arises equality of hope in attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies” (Leviathan, pg 184). Then, there must be a scarcity of resources for the start of the state of warre according to Hobbes. Likewise, Hobbes asserts that humans are rational egoist creatures that always look for their benefit. We can find many examples for showing that even intelligent, well-educated humans do not always act rationally and in favor of themselves. Secondly, Hobbes completely ignores the social needs of human beings. Human beings are social creatures and they have emotions like love, hatred, pity etc. Moreover, humans need communicating with each other and Hobbes’ idea of the state of warre seems very unrealistic. I wonder how Hobbes can explain a mother educates, raises her children by making many sacrifices. From a Hobbesian perspective, it is not very absurd to think that people do not make love and raise children in the state of warre. Also, Hobbes’ thesis about the reason of human acts may not be true in all cases. I believe that we can sometimes think of the benefit of another person more than our own benefit; and it is not our own profit that always orients us to do something. Human beings are complex creatures and their behaviors cannot be calculated easily like a mathematical equation. Thirdly, according to Hobbes humans are by nature egoists and power seeking livings but Hobbes gives the power of ruling the nation to another human being called Leviathan. Although Leviathan may have many qualities like Plato’s “philosopher king”, how he/she could create order and keep the duties of the contract. It is clear that Hobbes does not care about just governance but still a human being thinking of his self-profit may act in favor of himself and break the rules of the contract. Hobbes definitely believes that human beings are selfish and not good at all, but he gives the executive power of society not to a machine or a God but only to an ordinary, rational egoist man. This creates many questions such as why this sovereign who would play the role of the God should behave in a good way and think of the profit of the society? Like all other individuals he would probably think of his profit and absolute monarchy would soon become a tyranny.
In the light of all these views, we can claim that Hobbesian pessimist views about the human nature force him to ignore the important role of civil society. Civil society especially in developed democratic countries plays a major role in the decision-making process. People come together and work for unified aims by suppressing their own benefit in order to do something positive for their country and their world. Greenpeace for instance is a good example for the importance of civil society. Members of Greenpeace do crazy things and even risk their lives in order to solve problems related to nature especially pollution. These people do not follow their own benefit and they try to do something meaningful. In the end, if they are successful and prevent pollution they will do something good not only for themselves but also for other people and for the world. However, in a Leviathan state where people are egoist and the state is authoritarian, there would never be organizations like Greenpeace.
Finally, I conclude that Hobbes is not right about the human nature and undermines the role of civil society in modern world. This is probably because he lived in the 16th and 17th centuries and did not see a real democratic regime. However, his dark ideas about the human nature do not seem rational and realistic to me at all.
· Hobbes, Thomas, 1968, “Leviathan”, London: Penguin Groups
· Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com