Throughout my schooling, I have encountered numerous times Thomas Hobbes’s claim that life in the state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This has been casually thrown around both by
– teachers giving a cursory justification for the existence of government
– students offhandedly waving away libertarianism by remarking wryly that they, too, want to live in the Hobbesian Jungle (maybe it’s not as bad as we thought?).
Given that I am fairly outspoken in my arguments on economics and political theory, I decided I should pay due respect to Hobbes and his work, so I’m reading Leviathan.
The book is organized into four sections. If I understand correctly, the last two sections are exclusively on religion and the church, so I will not be reading them – plus, my Missner edition doesn’t have them.
The first section explains Hobbes’s views on the nature of human experience – including what is sense, imagination, science, reasoning, understanding, etc. The second is more specifically focused on government.
I’ve made notes to myself in the margin, which I will share here if they are of interest. They will be as coherent as possible without spending too much time making sure they flow perfectly. I will then combine them all into one post to give my response to Hobbes.
Quotes and analysis that are actually related to economics or political theory will be navy blue.
Notes and Thoughts
So far, I find Hobbes to be much more agreeable than expected – perhaps because I have not yet gotten very far into his discussion of government.
“great ‘Leviathan’ called a ‘Commonwealth’ or ‘State,’ in Latin civitas, […] is but an artificial man”
I am unsure whether Hobbes is only making a grand introduction or really believes it, but he sets the stage by equating the state to an artificial man. To say that the state is a being of its own is not only frightening, but also misleading – since only individuals can act, and the actions of the state are determined endogenously by the sum of the actions of the individuals over whom it rules.
“To describe the nature of this artificial man, I will consider: First, the ‘matter’ thereof, and the ‘artificer,’ both which is ‘man.’”
Hobbes appears to redeem himself by noting that the state is both made up of people and is created by people.
“there is [a] saying that is not lately understood, […] nosce teipsum – ‘read thyself’ [… it serves to] teach us that for the similarity of the thoughts and passions of one man to the thoughts and passions of another, whoever looks into himself and considers what he does, when he ‘thinks,’ ‘opines,’ ‘reasons,’ ‘hopes,’ ‘fears,’ etc., and upon what grounds, he shall thereby read and know what are the thoughts and passions of all other men upon like occasions.”
It appears that this is a call for introspection – an argument made by many economists in justifying their theoretical foundations. We’ll see whether Hobbes consistently employs introspection when discussing the ruled and the rulers.
“Individually, every thought is a representation or appearance of some quality or other accident of a body outside of us, which is commonly called an object.”
Just a bit of background for Hobbes’s understanding of how people work. Thoughts are representations of outside objects. The origin of thoughts is sense, which is caused by outside objects pressing on sensory organs, which propagate the pressure inwards and cause various motions inside the body. Hobbes often talks of motions in the body causing much of human experience.
“No man doubts that it is a truth that when a thing lies still, unless somewhat else stirs it, it will lie still forever. But when a thing is in motion it will eternally be in motion, unless somewhat else stays it.”
This sounds a lot like Newton’s first law of motion! – and it essentially is (if we add “with constant velocity” to the second sentence). But wasn’t Leviathan published in 1951, when Newton was just about 9 years old and hadn’t come up with his laws of motion? It turns out that Galileo had also described the law of inertia before Newton, and Wikipedia says that “[p]hilosophical ideas relating to inertia had been proposed by John Philoponus centuries earlier, as had Jean Buridan, and according to Joseph Needham, Mo Tzu had proposed it centuries before either of them.” And now we know!
“Imagination […] is decaying sense.”
Just a quote.
“When I am awake I often observe the absurdity of dreams, but never dream of the absurdity of my waking thoughts. Thus, I am well satisfied, that being awake, I know I do not dream, even though when I dream I think myself awake.”
This made me laugh. The logic isn’t necessarily sound, but it certainly is intuitive!
“Some say the senses receive the species of things and deliver them to the common sense, and the common sense delivers them to the fancy, and the fancy to the memory, and the memory to the judgment, like handing of things from one to another, and with many words they make nothing understood.”
Hobbes misses no chance to poke fun at other thinkers. It keeps Leviathan a nice and pleasant read.
“In a discourse about our present civil war, what could seem more unrelated than to ask, as one did, what was the value of a Roman penny? Yet the coherence was manifest enough to me. For the thought of the war introduced the thought of delivering up the king to his enemies; the thought of that brought in the thought of delivering up of Christ; and that again brought the thought of the thirty pence, which was the price of that treason.”
This is interesting. It appears in the section where Hobbes discusses trains of unguided thought and uses this as an example to point out that even in the wild world of the wandering mind explanation for a train of thought could be found. The other type of trains of thoughts is regulated ones.
“in all of your actions consider what you are aiming at as the thing that directs all of your thoughts in the way to attain it.”
This is the essence of human action and using means to achieve ends.
“Sometimes a man desires to know the [effect] of an action. He thinks of some similar past action and the effects that followed it, supposing that like effects will follow like actions. […] Because of the difficulty of observing all of the circumstances, this kind of thinking can be very fallacious. […] The future is but a fiction of the mind, which applies the sequels of past actions to the actions that are present.”
I think this is a good description of empiricism and the scientific method. In predicting the future, we look at the past when the conditions of the object in question were the same as the current ones (controlling variables – ceteris paribus) and we say that the same consequences will follow. Of course, as Hobbes notes, not making sure to look at past circumstances that were the same as the current ones in all regards can lead one to make false conclusions (since there could be other, unobserved factors causing the result we saw in the past).
“Sometimes a man desires to know the [effect] of an action. […] This train of thoughts is called […] prudence.”
“it is not prudence that distinguishes man from beast”
“imagining any thing whatever, we seek all the possible effects that it can produce. […] This second only seems to occur in man”
Hobbes appears to contradict himself. He claims that it is not imagining the consequences of an action that separates man from animal. Yet earlier, he had said that precisely this is what is the difference between the two. Is the difference that his earlier claim included “all possible effects?” I doubt that the “all” is what makes the difference – or what should make the difference. It appears Hobbes is merely contradicting himself.
“Without speech among men there would be no more commonwealth, society, contract or peace than there is among lions, bears, and wolves.”
I’m happy that Hobbes agrees with part of my assessment in my first post on the possibility of cooperation in the Hobbesian Jungle. I note that
“Going back to the importance of a shared language, we can see why cooperation among 1) animals and other animals, and 2) humans and animals is difficult. They have no way to make the case to each other for why they shouldn’t kill each other. Animals cannot make pacts for mutual protection unless it is genetically instilled in them. Humans also cannot face a bear reared on its hind legs and argue for why no, Mr. Bear, you shouldn’t kill me because then you will lose the benefits I can offer you.”
In the post, I propose that cooperation can arise even without the division of labor when there is uncertainty about the future structure of society and when people can mitigate such uncertainty by discussing the future and making the case for cooperative defense. However, without the capacity for discussion, there is no way for people to establish cooperative agreements.