What Hobbes Really Said

What Hobbes Really Said

Mini Teaser: Life in the state of nature may be "nasty, brutish and short," but states are not people, and Hobbes is not the ultra-realist he is made out to be.

by Author(s): Noel Malcolm

Thomas Hobbes had the ability to shock. The most famous statement in his Leviathan (1651) was that human life in the natural state would or could become "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"; this was a deeply disturbing claim to make at a time when most people believed in a God-given natural order of things. According to Hobbes, there was a natural disorder of things, and the only way to keep disorder at bay was to set up an artificial institution, the state, endowed with enough power to deter violence and promise-breaking among its subjects. As for the relationship between one state and another, this was similar in some ways to the relationship between individuals in the "state of nature": Order could not be guaranteed, because there was no overarching authority to maintain it.

Today, Hobbes's theory of the state is intensively studied and is found to be not so shocking after all. His analysis of the basis of political authority--of the implicit engagements that bind human beings in a political community--is complex and intriguing and has been studied sympathetically by conservatives, liberals, Oakeshottians, Kantians, game theorists and historians of natural law. But there is one area of his theorizing that is still regarded as somehow crude and extreme: his account of international relations. Here is an aspect of Hobbes's thought that has been constantly referred to or exclaimed against but hardly studied at all.

The people doing the referring and the exclaiming have been general writers on international relations theory. Open almost any standard international relations textbook, and you will find Hobbes described as an archetypal ultra-realist. This is a tradition of interpretation to which both realists and anti-realists have contributed. E. H. Carr called Hobbes the second great realist, after Machiavelli; Michael Walzer located realism "at its source and in its most compelling form" in the works of Thucydides and Hobbes. Yet the theory attributed to Hobbes by modern writers on international relations is so crude and simplistic as to make one wonder why anyone should regard it as great or compelling--or worth bothering about at all.

According to Hans Morgenthau, it is "Hobbes's extreme dictum" that "the state creates morality as well as law" and that there is no morality outside the state; according to Stanley Hoffmann, therefore, relationships between states can only be a matter of "simple amorality." The influential theorist Martin Wight claimed that Hobbes, like Machiavelli, regarded politics as nothing more than the art of "obtaining and preserving state power as an end in itself"; both Carr and Morgenthau saw Hobbes as an advocate of a kind of international power politics that must necessarily involve wars of expansion and aggression; Hannah Arendt even identified him as a forerunner of imperialism and racism.

One common ploy--not confined to the international relations textbooks--is to pair Hobbes off against Kant in a Manichaean contrast between darkness and light. Thus Robert Kagan observes, on the first page of his Paradise and Power (2003): "Europe is moving beyond power . . . [into] a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Immanuel Kant's 'perpetual peace'. Meanwhile the U.S. remains mired in a Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable." Kagan is unusual, of course, in defending the Hobbesian side of the argument. But in making his defense (on the grounds that "Europe's new Kantian order could flourish only under the umbrella of American power exercised according to the rules of the old Hobbesian order"), he does not challenge the assumption that these are two fundamentally different approaches to international relations--or that the Kantian system would, of course, be morally preferable if only it could be made to work. It seems that we are just stuck with Hobbesianism as a description of the world--and that if descriptive realism is true, then some sort of prescriptive realism must follow.

But is the simplistic Hobbesian view, as set out in the international relations textbooks, convincing either as a description of reality or as a set of prescriptions? The answer has to be "no"--and this should not surprise us, given the assumptions of most of those textbooks' authors. Hobbes the ultra-realist has long served as a theoretical straw man, designed to demonstrate the inadequacy of realism as such. Those who, like Kagan, defend the "Hobbesian" view are thus riding into battle on a horse that has already been declared broken-backed by most of the leading experts in the field.

The disproof of textbook Hobbesianism goes like this. Hobbes's argument depends on an analogy between individual human beings in the state of nature on the one hand and sovereign states in the international arena on the other. But this analogy fails in three important ways. First, Hobbes argues that all individuals are equal, because even a strong person can, in some circumstances, be killed by a weak one. This cannot apply in the case of states. Second, Hobbes's whole argument about individuals is based on self-preservation--in other words, the avoidance of death, the summum malum (greatest of all ills). But there is no such clear-cut summum malum in the case of a state: Terrible destruction can take place while the state formally survives as an entity, while on the other hand a state can cease to exist (thus failing the self-preservation test) when its members peacefully and cheerfully vote to be merged with another state.

And third, if the Hobbesian parallelism between individuals and states really held, Hobbes's own argument would require sovereign states to do what his individuals do when they extricate themselves from the disordered state of nature--gather together and subject themselves, collectively, to a higher authority. Hobbesianism would thus require the creation of a world state, something Hobbes never recommended and from which all "Hobbesian" realists instinctively recoil.

These objections, like almost everything else to do with the straw man version of Hobbes, fall apart on closer inspection. When Hobbes says that a strong person can be killed by a weak person, he refers, among other things, to scenarios in which the weak person acts in an alliance with other people--a situation that clearly also applies in the case of states. But there is a larger point here. When Hobbes argues for the equality of individuals in his state of nature, he does so because he wishes to prove that this "equality of ability" will lead automatically to such a degree of competitiveness and conflict as to turn the state of nature into a constant existential threat against the people who are in it. Once a civil state has been formed, the level of existential threat drops away, and the people in that state have much less motivation to threaten the existence of people who live in other states. The famous analogy between individuals in the state of nature and states in the international arena is never a strict parallelism in Hobbes's argument; those disproofs of Hobbes that assume that it is are therefore bogus.

Other aspects of the standard view of Hobbes are equally mistaken. Take, for example, the claim that he regards morality as the mere creation of the state and that relations between states must exist in a realm of "simple amorality." Hobbes does in fact devote many pages in the first part of Leviathan to demonstrating that the rules of morality are "laws of nature": These laws, he says, are "immutable and eternal", and "the science of them is the true and only moral philosophy." In the state of nature these laws exist and are knowable. The only problem is that circumstances may often make it impossible to act on them, because doing so would incur risks to the actor's own life. But even in the state of nature such circumstances do not always apply. Hobbes describes scenarios--for example, a contractual arrangement in which the other side has performed his part of the bargain first--in which there is a duty to obey the natural laws. And on this point, at least, there is a rough parallelism between the state of nature and the international arena. There can be no doubt that Hobbes envisages natural-law duties applying to international affairs, since the various formulations he gives of the natural laws include "that all men that mediate peace be allowed safe conduct" and "that men allow commerce and traffic indifferently to one another." At one point Hobbes even summarizes his argument with the simple formulation "the Law of Nations, and the Law of Nature, is the same thing."

What about Hobbes as the proponent of power politics, wars of aggression and imperial expansion? It is true that he comments that "force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues"; but that observation flows from his argument that the state of war is the worst possible state for mankind. It is also true that he declares: "I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power." Yet, as the rest of his argument shows, his notion of "power" here is abstract and strictly instrumental. (He defines it as "the present means to some future apparent good.") He is simply pointing out that whatever aims a person may have--for example, a peaceful and beneficent life--that person will necessarily desire, at any given moment, the means towards those ends.

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