Thomas Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’

1.The Fool – A Definition

Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ is one of the most important books in political philosophy chiefly because it offered a view of how we should organise ourselves in order to avoid a life that was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. It famously created in the mind of the reader a vision of the World that Hobbes called a ‘state of nature’, a condition with only freedoms but no rights or responsibilities. He then shows a way out of this state of nature by indicating how humans could organise themselves in another way, into a ‘commonwealth’ that stood between the poles of unlimited freedom and servitude.

This essay looks to answer ‘The Fools’ objection to Hobbes concept of the ‘commonwealth’, an objection that whether consciously or not sets itself opposed to many of the ideas of Machiavelli. In answering ‘The Fool’ Hobbes crystallises what the structure of society should be and what constitutes legitimate government. It also develops the idea of the ‘social contract’, an idea that was taken up by Rousseau and Locke in subsequent centuries.

However first we should more clearly define the concept of ‘the fool’ and what his objections are. Firstly the fool that Hobbes talks about is not stupid in the sense that we now know the word now but rather the biblical or Hebrew translation of ‘k’ciyl’ which implies moral, not intellectual deficiency. The question posed by the fool is ‘Why should I keep promises when I can gain from breaking them?’ Why should Adam abstain from eating the apple when he could receive untold pleasures from doing so? Why should Iran not create a nuclear bomb when having it would give it an upper hand in future situations?

In asking this question the fool’s argument neither rests on the concept of covenants (promises) nor the definition of justice as the keeping of covenants. Instead the fool asserts as in Chapter XV of Leviathan that “every man’s conservation and contentment being committed to his own care, they could be no reason why every man might not do what he thought conduced thereunto, and therefore also to make or not make, keep or not keep, covenants was not against reason, when it conduced to one’s benefit”.

Also the fool, unburdened by thoughts of punishment by a god, gods or karma, is now left asking if it would not be more rational to put his own interests ahead of any promises to others even if the action is dubious morally. Surely the right thing to do is the rational thing?

2.Hobbes Argument To The Fool

In stating his position Hobbes cuts to the heart of the matter and appeals to reason. He shows that it is rational to hold up ones end of the bargain whenever there is an artificial obligation to do so, or a guarantee to be protected if we do so. He does this by the use of two arguments, namely the imprudence of acting unjustly and the self defence mechanism society creates for keeping out cheats.

The first of these arguments relates to the imprudence of acting unjustly because the risk that the fool takes may very likely lead to his harm. The fool might drive while texting on his mobile phone and because he is not paying attention to the road he is able to send that funny text or inform the recipient he is running late. He therefore might gain by doing this action but it is not prudent. There could be said to be a higher chance of him being harmed than if he acted according to the rules society has laid down.

However in this first argument there is a strong sense that Hobbes is making an assertion and not stating a fact supported by empirical evidence. Is it really the case that to take this kind of risk leads to harm to oneself? What if the fool simply took his chances not based on a Machiavellian idea of ‘fortune’ but using statistics to calculate that out of the 196,165,667 drivers in the USA in 2005 only around 2,600 died from accidents involving mobile phones and not all of those that die are the actual users of the mobile phones. If the fool makes a cost/benefit judgement it may be that using the mobile phone is statistically a prudent risk worth taking. Hobbes provides little empirical evidence to back up his first argument although the prudence or otherwise of an act may come down to statistics.

Hobbes second argument is that in the state of nature the fool who says that he believes it is reasonable to break promises will not be admitted into the society because that society will keep him out as a form of mutual defence. But if we look to the World around us we see examples of ‘brood-parasites’ such as cuckoo’s who lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. They take advantage of other bird’s natural instincts to look after any egg sitting in the nest that it built. This then allows the cuckoo to lay more eggs than the other birds and produce more of its own chicks. However do humans have a greater protection mechanism than birds?

Maynard Smith’s developed the idea of an ‘evolutionary stable strategy’ (ESS) first discussed by W.D.Hamilton and R.H. MacArthur which lends some weight to Hobbes second argument. An evolutionary stable strategy is defined as a strategy which, if most members of a population adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy. Another way of putting it is that the best strategy for the fool depends on what the majority of the population are doing. Smith supported his argument using evidence in his book ‘Evolution and the Theory of Games’ but later ideas such as Professor Anatol Rapaport ‘tit for tat’ strategy or the reciprocal altruism of Robert Axelrod or Richard Dawkins echoed Smith’s work.

Together they have built up a great body of work that would support Hobbes second argument. The deciding factor however is that the majority of the population of commonwealth must sign up to the covenant in order for it to be rational for the fool to follow.

3.Implications for the Theory of the State

So if we argue that Hobbes reply to the fool is robust based not on his first argument/assertion but on his second, namely that it is not rational to break covenants because the fool would not be admitted to society, then what are implications of this stance?

The first implication that Hobbes theory shares with Machiavelli is that, as I alluded to earlier, both appeal to the rational and not the spiritual or theological, both thought of politics as a secular pursuit. So in Hobbes’ materialist eyes it is prudent not to break a covenant not because of the threat of eternal damnation but because it is simply the most rational course of action either for the individual.

A second implication that arises is what makes us different from cuckoos is that we possess free will and are not slaves of our genes, desires or fortune. To be free is not to be constrained in following one’s desires and aversions. We naturally have certain desires and aversions that move us in certain directions and away from others, and the last one in the chain before an action is what we will – insofar as we are able to carry out those movements, we are free. Freedom is not a matter of somehow choosing in some none deterministic and non-causal way our desires and aversions. Hobbes held a compatabilist position that held that both free action and determinism are possible. So a river is free to run down a hillside, in the sense that it is not constrained – it is not damned, for example – but its flow is none the less determined by physical laws. By holding this view Hobbes looked to show that determinism is no threat to freedom.

A further implication is the idea of absolutism. The best strategy for the fool depends on what the majority of the population are doing and in order to make the majority do anything Hobbes argued that the authoritarian state was the one that provided the most security for the commonwealth. A modern example against this might be that only months before the start of the last Iraq war 68% of the UK population were against invading. The fool could be excused for thinking that it was more prudent for the UK not to enter the war and indeed his view would have been in the majority. However the case for the Iraq war was that it would make us safer and the government’s democratic majority in the House of Commons allowed the war to happen. Although our current form of democracy is not absolutism, the first past the post system allowed the sovereign (in this case the Prime Minister) to overcome the majority view. Only time will tell if this action will make the commonwealth safer.

A final implication of ‘The Fool’ and Hobbes’ Theory of the State more widely, is the breaking down of the idea that there is a natural hierarchy among human beings. The weakest is at least as strong to be able to kill the strongest. So the ‘fool’ is strong enough to break the strongest of those in the commonwealth and even the sovereign. An example of this might be with the case of North Korea. Whilst the majority of the World and the nuclear nations in particular agree to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Authority in being transparent as to their stocks of plutonium etc, the small nation of North Korea is rejecting the majority and going its own way. In the process of doing this two things are happening. Firstly it is being shown that the actions of a ‘fool’ is putting the safety of many others in dangers by breaking of a covenant and secondly we are seeing an example of Hobbes second response to the ‘fool’, where the majority, as a form of mutual defence, are ostracising North Korea.


So Hobbes has provided a forceful repost to the fool which with the invention of game theory and ideas such as ESS have only been strengthened in recent years. It is his second argument therefore that appears the strongest as society looks to keep out cheats. Since Hobbes’ ‘Theory of the State’ we know what man is capable of but since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.

Hobbes’ greatest legacy is perhaps his contribution to the ‘social contract’ that was taken up later by Rousseau and Locke. His idea of absolutism of the sovereign sits uncomfortably in this more liberal age because we have seen the results with the likes of Hitler and Stalin. However the safety and security of the individual was of great concern to Hobbes to the point that it was legitimate to overthrow a sovereign if they were not providing it.

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