Hobbes wrote on the nature of people and what kind of political life comes from such nature. Humans are inherently self centered in the choices they make along with their morality of good and evil since those things are relative to the individual’s desires. Under these conditions of human nature, people’s lives are solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short. In order to preserve oneself in such a natural world, people have congressed to form civil societies where each member gives up a certain degree of their natural rights to form a sovereign entity that has the power to enforce judgements and keep order in a chaotic world. This congress to create civil society has its difficulties that stem from individual desires of security and freedom. Since those desires require power and the more power one has the more assurance to their security and freedom it is prudent for a sovereign to obtain as much power as possible (Curtis 330).
The beginning of Hobbes’ view on human nature looks at what people desire. People desire first and foremost the preservation of their own lives. All else is secondary to this desire since without the preservation of oneself all other desires are null in void. A person cannot enjoy freedom or security without their life. Given this primary desire, people will do whatever they think is necessary to obtain it, which causes conflict between people if they believe their livelihoods are under threat by each other. Under this condition, people assert themselves as far as their power allows and can only be impeded by natural obstacles or other people (Curtis 327). This mutual animosity towards one another is a contributing factor to why lives are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. People desire livelihood but the secondary desires are important too in how a person decides to behave. They seek pleasure and avoid pain according to Hobbes and will also lead to conflict when people view each other either as pleasure, which might be at someone’s expense, or as pain, which will include conflict to avoid or get rid of that pain. No matter what passion someone pursues, whether its influence, wealth, information, or dignity, they are all for increasing power so do not believe noble passions are for their own sake (Curtis 330).
In nature, good is not objective but subjective to what the individual considers as good; an individual considers their own preservation as good, therefore, what people think will preserve their lives is what is good (Curtis 327). Nature has also made people equal in body and mind (Curtis 332). This does not mean that two people have the exact same body or mind but that when people congress there is an averaging out that occurs. Someone might be stronger than you that you can beat through whit, there could be someone smarter than you that you can beat through strength, and there could be someone stronger and smarter than you that you can beat through outnumbering them if you can form confederacies with multiple people. Essentially, no matter the differences between two individuals they are minuscule differences in the grand scheme of nature.
Hobbes points out that in the nature of man there are several reasons for conflict that relate to preservation (Curtis 333). Competition, where people fight for scarce resources; diffidence, where people fight for safety; and glory, where people fight for reputation usually against those who have a difference of opinion. These casus belli can only be subdued by a common power and once this common power is put into effect there can be flourishing. This flourishing occurs because in the state of nature there is uncertainty which provides little fruit from production while in the state of civility under a common power, there is more certainty therefore more production in goods, services, culture, trade, construction, movement (Curtis 334).
From this state of nature of people, political society is formed but with difficulty. Hobbes states that political society is a product of people, specifically a product that better preserves the well-being of the people who made it. This well-being is supposed to be better than the lack of well-being people had under natural society or anarchy. Since society is inherently better than anarchy, all societies are morally justified. This does not mean that all societies are the same, only that they are all justified since they bring people out of natural despotism (Curtis 327). Political society might be a product of people and their nature but this does not mean that political society reflects on human nature positively. Society exists to do what nature cannot, secure the preservation and liberty of the individual. Since everyone has a right to all things in nature, society has to centralize this right into one sovereign that all individuals give to in order to provide peace. The greatest power is to have the most people, with consent, concentrate their efforts into one entity, the sovereign (Curtis 339).
It is difficult, however, to reason with your natural enemies and to congress their powers into one sovereign through consent which Hobbes called a political commonwealth (Curtis 341). Once this covenant by consent and consensus is made it is unjust to be disobedient to it. The general chain of thought Hobbes is going through to describe the importance of covenants is that the preservation of life is the prime goal of everyone; peace among people is how you preserve life; peace can only be obtained by a powerful sovereign; the power of sovereigns come from the number of people who make a covenant with it; covenants are only as good as the people who keep them; which means that breaking the covenant with the sovereign removes the individual from civil society back to nature where there is anarchy and a lack of well-being. Anyone who does this forfeits their stock with the sovereign and so the sovereign, acting as another creature in nature, can legally and dutifully and rightfully execute covenant breakers.
On the other hand, the individual should only do things for the sovereign that furthers his own desires (Curtis 348). A sovereign also has to pass and enforce good laws. These are not the same as just laws, since Hobbes thinks that all laws are just according to the sovereign, instead good laws are those that are, “needful, for the good of the people, and withal perspicuous (Curtis 348). These are necessary since bad laws can cause diseases in the commonwealth which includes seditious ideas such as individualism (Curtis 347). Such an idea consists of the individual’s ability to determine good and evil which is true in nature but not so in civil society. This identity crisis in the people on whether or not they live in a good sovereign or chaotic nature whether it be a true crisis or a false one will degenerate and weaken the sovereign itself.
Despite these difficulties to overcome, the conditions of human nature can also contribute to the success of political society. People’s desire for security and liberty leads to them giving up some of both to a sovereign since a sovereign or commonwealth is more powerful than the sum of its individuals as mentioned earlier. This happens when people are able to rationally calculate whether or not giving up some of their rights now to a sovereign will provide security and more freedom from nature in the future. Hobbes views covenants with sovereigns to be rational, good, and necessary since sovereigns are the souls of commonwealths where submission through covenants and by not disobeying or breaking those vows will provide protection to what people desire most.
People in nature live terrible lives due to a lack of safety and freedom which destroys lives rather than preserve them. People desire the preservation of their lives. The only way to preserve life is to end war and anarchy and to be at peace with each other and with nature. The only entity strong enough to secure peace is a sovereign. Sovereigns are made up of the consensual covenants of the people and those subservient to a sovereign lives not in chaotic nature but in civil society called a commonwealth. A sovereign itself lives in nature and so it has a right to all things just as an individual living in nature has a right to all things. The individual, however, loses its right to all things when it contracts itself to a sovereign. This process, according to Hobbes, is how a sovereign gets its power, from having more people give the sovereign their power or right to take things.
This applies to American life today because there are political discussions on how much freedom or power individuals should have or should give up to the government. The most prevalent inquiry in the past year or so is what authority the government has to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Following the thought process of Hobbes we see that wearing a mask, quarantining when sick, maintaining decent hygiene, and getting vaccinated is the most rational thing an individual can do since all of those things increase the likelihood of preserving someone’s life. Since people have consented to a sovereign in the form of the United State’s government, the government has the power to ensure the well-being of the people. This submission includes obligations and liberties of the individuals involved (Curtis 344). As just mentioned the well-being of the people increases with the wearing of masks, quarantining, hygiene, and vaccination, then the sovereign has a right to enforce those behaviors on the people. These legal implementations from a lawful power must not be disobeyed according to Hobbes and those who disobey forfeit themselves to lawful punishment.
Curtis, Michael. The Great Political Theories: A comprehensive selection of the crucial ideas in political philosophy from the Greeks to the Enlightenment. Volume 1. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 1981. Print.