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Liberal thinker: The Leviathan

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The definition of a “liberal thinker” greatly depends on the context it is examined under. In the Leviathan, Hobbes understands liberty to simply be “the absence of external impediments” (Hobbes, 21.1). However, classically, it is often used to describe people who favor more individual liberty whilst largely rejecting the prevailing political norms of autocracy and excessive government control[1]. In this essay, the term “liberal thinker” will be associated with people who adhere to the defined characteristics presented above. I will argue against the misconception that Hobbes is a “liberal thinker”, but rather a supporter of absolutism primarily based on his clear emphasis on securing the authority of the sovereign over its subjects presented in his political doctrine, the Leviathan.

The Leviathan was written during the time of the English Civil War, a period of lawlessness where Hobbes witnessed high death tolls and the dissolution of the monarchy as a result of human passions, rather than based on rational grounds. Hobbes believed the citizens of England were led into a position of anarchy in the aftermath of the war, where “every man against every man…The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place” (Hobbes, 13.13) and thus, his view of human nature was a series of inevitable cyclical wars. In the absence of a common power, survival was key – one only looks out for oneself. This view of human nature undoubtedly gives rise to tyranny as it projects humans to be naturally brutal creatures in need of an absolutist government to keep the warped human nature in line.

However, nearly every philosopher before and since has contested this view and depict a much more benevolent picture of human nature. As Tarlton states “Hobbes’s contemporaries, however, generally recognized the despotical nature of the political theory of Leviathan. Many writers, from widely disparate political persuasions, agreed in rejecting Hobbes’s absolutist prescriptions” (Tarlton, 2002). Smith, for example, believed all humans had natural feelings of sympathy in what he termed as “fellow-feeling”[2]. Locke also disagreed with the Hobbesian view of humanity and its existence within a state of nature. “The promises and bargains for truck…and keeping of faith belong to men as men, and not as members of society” (Locke, 1983) shows how humans create peaceful relations not through a centralized body but through transaction and trade. However, because Hobbes constructs a tyrannical view of human nature and how it functions, he creates a political theory that is itself tyrannical. Hobbes writes “there can happen no breach of covenant on the part of the sovereign; and consequently, none of his subjects, by any pretense of forfeiture, can be freed from his subjection” (Hobbes, 18.2.2). By prescribing an absolutist sovereign that is above the law, based on the idea that a covenant is created by the subjects to a sovereign, is in itself a recipe for tyranny. Hobbes proposes the acceptance of a dictatorial, authoritarian government that can effectively do as it pleases because any act or law instituted by the sovereign is believed to hold the people’s implicit ratification. Given the Hobbesian view of human nature, the resulting form of sovereign prescribed to end the state of nature is undoubtedly one of tyranny and despotism, which clearly shows Hobbes to be far from being a liberal thinker.

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