Thomas Hobbes was a 17th Century philosopher who is famous for his work on absolutist governments and what life would be like if the powers of government were run in an absolutist fashion. He captured his main theories and arguments in his book Leviathan. I read a small excerpt, chapters 13-14, from this book and, combined with my RPC course lectures, found he had three main arguments on absolutism. Hobbes’ worldview was extreme. He argued that, in a state of nature, everyone is the potential murderer of everyone else, that societies would be in constant war if it were not for governments, and that the only real solution to attain peace is for people to give up their rights to one sovereign ruler.
WE ARE ALL POTENTIAL MURDERERS
Hobbes believed in human equality but not in the way that you or I might view equality, as something positive. Rather, his view was the most pessimistic way possible; that everyone is equally the potential murderer of anybody else.
In the state of nature, or a society without government, Hobbes could only imagine the worst of people. He visualized humans as irrational beings, acting only on irrational passions, not reason, to solve their problems. Anger and jealousy and other self-preserving emotions, are what truly motivate people, he said. Take, for example, the emotion of jealousy. Because all people feel it, there is an equal potential for all people to act one specific way, which is murdering the one you are jealous of. This then makes all people potential murderers, because all potential is equal. In other words, we all have the equal ability to be murderers.
In the hypothetical Hobbesian world (see points 3-4), along with excessive murder there would be a constant all-against-all war and violence. Hobbes theorized there was only one thing that would and could keep the people from never-ending violence. He believed that government was the answer.
Hobbes surmised that government was the solution because it could provide everything necessary for people to be able to live in harmony. It provides, for example, the right for people to defend themselves against those seeking to harm them. How can someone be jealous of their neighbor who has the exact same rights and items as them? Government is also necessary to punish those that disobey laws or commit crimes.
Hobbes was also of the opinion that the people were incapable of peace on their own. The government would enforce a state of peace on the people. However, it would enforce peace for a price.
GOVERNMENT PROVIDES PEACE — AT A PRICE
Hobbes proposed that “…men are commanded to endeavor peace” (Leviathan, ch. 14) and that all people and countries should attempt peace with others before recklessly rushing to war. However, Hobbes then added that the only way to achieve peace is for the people to lay down their rights, and submit to one sovereign power.
Some examples of the rights that would be most likely to be taken away from the people by one sovereign in exchange for peace are the right to bear arms for personal self-defense, and protection of life, property and liberty. Without this right to property or liberty, or even your life, there is nothing stopping the government from taking anything they want. The people would become slaves.
Giving up rights to a sovereign ruler is submitting to an empire. Hobbes’ point is that without an absolutist empire — a government controlling multiple territories all under one ruler — there can be no peace. Hobbes’ apparent belief is that you could not have your rights and be peaceful too.
CONCLUSION AND SOME OPINIONS
Thomas Hobbes developed some contradicting, even a little absurd, theories and philosophies on absolutism. He felt that people are the potential equals of each other, even those who are murderers. He believed that without government there would be constant war. Finally, he said that government could provide peace if people relinquished their rights. In short, Hobbes felt that absolutism was the only sensible way to rule a country.
Absolutism may sound like an out-dated concept studied hundreds of years ago by philosophers, but in no way is its influence gone. Countries today still battle other countries for power and control. Referring to recent events in Syria and how a particular government and world power behaves today, Michael S. Rozeff made a compelling connection to Hobbes. He wrote,
“Hobbes proposed that without a central ruler everyone would fight one another, or that taking would dominate making. People would then rationally and willingly give up rights to a sovereign in order to obtain peace and regime that allowed making, not taking, to predominate… There is therefore a powerful incentive for states to cede their “rights” to a central sovereign, which then is an empire that enforces the peace within its realm. Such an empire has the incentive to conquer or at least subdue peripheral states in one way or another.”
Hearing this statement, I do not believe absolutism has any other purpose except to create an empire where the people’s rights are taken away and they are forced to follow and obey as slaves.