The Indispensability of Equality: Unpacking the Assumptions of Hobbes’ ‘State of Nature’

Human beings are hopelessly egoistic. War is the natural state of mankind. These are some bitter truths indeed. But by no means do they preclude the quest for peace. In fact, they form the necessary conditions for the cessation of hostilities among men. This is the fundamental insight of Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan. Central to Hobbes’ argument is the assumption that human beings struggle, not because they are unequal, but precisely because they are in fact equal. It is our underlying equality in capabilities that makes us so quarrelsome. If these fundamental assumptions were to be unstated, Hobbes’ entire argument would become hollow and disintegrate. It is the essential equality of mankind that is the animating dynamic of Leviathan, and the fount from which Hobbes’ political views are sourced.

In 2018, nearly four centuries after the publishing of Leviathan it remains an open question as to whether the ‘state of war’ has abated, even a little. Surely, leaps have been made in the march of human progress. In an age of instantaneous global communications, and unfettered international travel one may wonder if mankind has indeed outgrown Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature? This question, however, might seem absurd to some people. Holocaust survivors and veterans of the First, and Second World Wars may tend to disagree. Even still, it is probably only the survivors of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki who could reliably testify to the full scale of war which humanity is capable of unleashing upon itself. By unpacking Hobbes’ fundamental assumptions we will examine why human beings are perpetually on the verge of anarchy, and here in the 21st century, on the brink of annihilation.

First, it might be profitable to examine precisely what Hobbes means by ‘the state of nature’. He puts it thus: “Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.” To Hobbes, the state of nature is in fact the state of war. This state, however, is not necessarily one of open hostilities. It haunts a human being even when she is not engaged in battle. The ‘state of nature’ therefore is a ‘posture of war’, a ‘predisposition’. In this unenviable state of affairs, all other expressions of human activity come to a halt; industry, culture, commerce, art, architecture, pursuit of knowledge, all cease. The state of nature, therefore, to Hobbes is an endless cycle of perpetual fear with the only outlook for the future being, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

How realistic is this model of human nature? Does it accurately simulate the dynamics of human relations in the 21st century? A moment’s honest reflection, according to Hobbes, is all that is necessary to validate his worldview:

“Let him therefore consider with himself, when taking a journey, he arms himself, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be Laws, and public Officers…what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow Citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests.”

Here, Hobbes not only defends his thesis, but also cleverly anticipates the cardinal vulnerability of the ‘state of nature’, namely the critique that it is a fiction constructed to justify the need for a sovereign. But, Hobbes is not being fanciful. The human instinct for self-preservation is a powerful one, and Hobbes’ worldview is not so much pessimistic as it is prudent, especially if augmented by the insights of modern psychology. It is not that human beings are devoid of benevolence. It is just that the bearers of these ideals would find themselves at a disadvantage in politics. One is therefore quite justified in distrusting everyone else, especially if one had no guarantee of one’s goodwill being reciprocated. That doors have locks here in the 21st century, much as they once did in the 17th is a powerful vindication of Hobbes’ predictions.

This apprehension, however, is nothing new. Plato relayed the tale of Gyges’ Ring as an instructive departure point into the innermost motives of men in Republic. Indeed, from time immemorial the Thrasymachuses of the world have scoffed at pretensions to justice, whether natural, social or political, as being nothing more than shields with which the powerful have camouflaged their naked injustice. The unstated assumption that underlies these beliefs is that human beings are inherently unequal. After all, how else would it be possible for a tyrant to rise to a position of dominance over an entire populace? This had been the prevailing wisdom with respect to the status of human equality.

Hobbes, however, brings a unique point of view to this age-old political discussion. He departs radically from this traditional narrative of natural inequality writing that, “Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body, and mind…when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable.” Hobbes here emphasizes that mankind’s fundamental equality exists not in the arena of physical strength (acknowledging that this indeed varies), but rather in the universality of the ‘faculties of the mind’. When inequality arises, self interested agents overcome inherited deficiencies by banding together, and uniting in order to vanquish forces of superior strength. To this end, “The weakest”, writes Hobbes, “has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself.”

The nuances of the importance of Hobbes’ presuppositions with regard to mankind’s natural equality are all too easily overlooked, especially when confronted with the far more intimidating specter of ‘war of every man against every man’. The reflex is to jump at once to the next logical step which would be towards alleviating the miserable condition by any means necessary. But, if one lingers here a moment one can glean the critical insight: “From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends.” This inalienable equality, to Hobbes, is the reason men fight, and why they are so hard to subdue.

Likewise, the same counterintuitive logic applies to liberty. Within the remarkable human imagination churns, “The Right of Nature…the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature…of his own Life.” Like Gyges, men must be assessed with a view to their ambitions. Even the lowliest sheepherder is plotting in his mind to overthrow the king. Chanced a fortuitous encounter, he will deploy his master plan. Hobbes, therefore, views human beings as having achieved parity with regard to worldly claims many ages ago. From this combination of equality in ability and ambition arises the stalemate: the war of every man against every man. If men were by nature unequal, this stalemate would not result.

It is this mutually sobering realization that compels men to fathom the benefits of peace, and ultimately brings them to the negotiating table. It is Hobbes’ belief that all men can make this leap.

“From this Fundamental Law of Nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour Peace, is derived this second Law; That a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth, as for Peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things.”

However, though human beings are not without reason, they are not entirely devoid of passionate emotions either. This is the very reason for the recurring state of war. It stems not from any inability to process the specter of perpetual human normlessness. Rather, it is the universal tendency of human beings to act out of emotion that is the cause. “If Nature therefore have made men equal, that equality is to be acknowledged…The breach of this Precept is Pride.” Political decisions should be taken dispassionately. But, as already noted, there is no guarantee of this equanimity being reciprocated. This is precisely why, to Hobbes, a Sovereign is always needed.

Is the opposite position workable? Could the recurring theme of war be attributable to a fundamental inequality among human beings? In its baldest expression what is being proposed here is that humankind is not one, but essentially two different species of creature, namely: one endowed with the qualities of command and another with qualities of obedience. When stated thus, the statement does indeed appear ridiculous. Even when considered in full view of the bewildering diversity of humanity, the statement strains credulity. What about situations where the majority are being subjected to the rule of an unjust sovereign? Is this not unequivocal proof of the inability of subject populations to overcome their rulers? The Hobbesian point of view here is rather enlightening. To Hobbes, the vast majority of agents in this scenario are actively participating in their subjugation simply because they perceive some benefit from doing so. The state of peace, imperfect as it is, is still preferable to one of war, at least for the time being.

Civilization then, to Hobbes, is best understood as an experiment. The initial contract between its founding members forms the core of its existence. This is what holds it together. History is here enormously instructive for it does not appear to support the conclusion that men are inherently unequal. If they were, we would be approaching an anthropological ‘end of history’ with well-defined political strata precipitating out of millennia of self-generated natural divisions among men. This has not happened. Thousands of years of human history has not settled this issue. Quite the contrary, volatile political divisions are ubiquitous, and serve as virile indications of humanity’s fundamental equality. Furthermore, here in the modern era the American, French, and Russian Revolutions all serve as examples of weaker political factions overthrowing more powerful ones, thus strengthening the equality argument. Truly then, a ruler’s grip on power throughout time has at best always been tenuous, and history reveals itself to be littered with the wreckage of political aspirants to global hegemony.

In conclusion, Thomas Hobbes paints a portrait of human beings as political creatures that are ever-vigilant and extraordinarily sensitive to changes in political currents. Seeing that it explains many of the dynamics of political behaviour, Hobbes’ expectation that human beings will always behave with a view to their own political self-interest seems a reasonable one. While there are multiple variables in the Hobbesian political model, the universal capacity for political imagination is not one of them. Human equality and liberty are fixed constants in Hobbes’ political philosophy, and remain the indomitable realities confronting any aspirants to political ambition.

© Felix Inparajah, 2018. All rights reserved.


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