Chaos & the Crown: The State of Nature and Role of the Sovereign in The Leviathan

Chaos & the Crown: The State of Nature and Role of the Sovereign in The Leviathan

Hobbes posits that in the so-called “State of Nature,” there exist three primary appetites that compel man to war: competition, diffidence and glory (592). This tripartite is fundamental to the understanding that without a social contract, society is itself a cipher. In this loosely defined amalgamation of individuals such as Hobbes describes, uncertainty drives fear, which prohibits the establishment of a legitimate society.

In the State of Nature, the individual’s potential for success is in perpetual peril. Competition, deceitfulness and manipulation – exemplified by the lack of culture, industry and fraternity – put into jeopardy the conservation of humanity beyond survival at the most rudimentary of levels. The Leviathan therefore outlines a means by which mankind can capitalize on the common yearning for a “commodious life” of peace. Because the absence of war guarantees the preservation of life against one’s enemies, it is a general rule of reason that “every man ought to endeavor peace […] and follow it” (594).

The pursuit of peace, in contrast to the fundamental (dis)order of nature, is the lynchpin of Hobbes’ definition of society (601). Entering into a social contract is an essential precursor for the establishment of a functional state or commonwealth. Defined as the “mutual transferring of right,” this contract serves to “gain the secure and perpetual felicity of heaven […] being but one way imaginable; and that is not breaking, but keeping of covenant” (599). This covenant nonetheless requires that men restrain themselves, which is evidenced in the denial of the aforementioned appetites in excess. Although indeed contrived, this mutual agreement – be it implied or imposed – functions to resolve the crux as an imperative for security.

A social contract alone however does not a commonwealth create. Hobbes’ main assertion is that while the state as an entity – a collective of “mutual covenants one with another […] for their peace an common defense” – there remains a need for an adjudicator (608). This arbiter, carried by the legitimacy of the state construct, is known as the sovereign, to whom power over the subjects (everyone else) is given. In many ways, what is imagined in Chapter 18 (Of the Rights of Sovereigns by Institutions) is comparable to what we may associate with benevolent dictatorship. Particular privileges are awarded to the sovereign and sovereign alone, with the expectation that he will satisfy certain responsibilities.

The conformity and adherence to the social contract is of crucial importance, and there may be “no breach of covenant on the part of the sovereign” (609). The sovereign must act in the best interest of his subjects, in accordance to what is conducive to peace. To maintain order, the sovereign is ascribed certain powers and rights: those to prescribe rules, to act as final arbiter in cases of aversion, to make war and peace with other nations, and to punish and reward his subjects (611).

Man, in comparison to his fellow man, is not so unlike the other. While nature may create within humanity a hierarchy or stratification of abilities and ambitions, there exists a universal appetite for peace and relative security, and an aversion to war and chaos.

While our competitive inclinations may satisfy a primordial urge, over the course of history it has been made evident that by leaving the State of Nature, collective security has become an attainable, rational and desirable end. The establishment of a state and acceptance of a sovereign by no means simplifies every complexity of social interaction, but the pervasive uncertainties and fears that impede success are greatly reduced. In so doing, it undoubtedly proves worthwhile to adhere to the social contract, laying aside primeval urges for the sake of peace.

© NaturAdvocate, written December 2010

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