July 2, 2018

Hooker, Hobbes, and Locke on Absolute Monarchy

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man ... in such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
- Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ch. 13
And here we have the plain difference between the state of nature and the state of war, which however some men have confounded, are as far distant, as a state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation, and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction, are one from another. Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature. But force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war: and it is the want of such an appeal gives a man the right of war even against an aggressor, tho' he be in society and a fellow subject.
- Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1689), §19

In response to Friday's post about Hooker and Locke, I was reminded that a few months ago Eric Schliesser offered a similar comparison of Suarez and Hobbes. On the issue I discussed yesterday, regarding individualistic versus communalist notions of the social contract, Schliesser puts Suarez with Hooker and Hobbes with Locke. This seems to me to be correct. However, this got me thinking about another issue on which Locke sides with Hooker against Hobbes, and this is the view that laws exist in large part to constrain the sovereign. Hobbes (in)famously argues that it is contradictory to think of the sovereign as bound by laws and, indeed, that to accuse a sovereign of injustice against a subject is to commit a conceptual confusion (see ch. 18). Hooker suggests, on the contrary, that laws were invented precisely because, after trying out absolute monarchy as a solution to the problems inherent in the state of nature, people "saw that to live by one man's will, became the cause of all men's misery" (Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity [1593], McGrade, vol. 1, p. 73). So, according to Hooker, the explicit promulgation of laws was introduced precisely in order to constrain the sovereign. Locke similarly argues at length that absolute monarchy does not actually remove us from the state of nature because the monarch is still a judge in his or her own case. (In a similar way, and for similar reasons, Locke argues that enslaving one's enemies is a way of continuing the state of war, not a way of ending it.)

This difference, it seems to me, derives directly from a difference in the conception of the state of nature shared by Locke and Hooker, as against the very different conception held by Hobbes. For Locke and Hooker, the state of nature is characterized by fragile peace, and the peace is fragile because in the state of nature "men may be judges in their own cases" (Locke, Second Treatise, §13). As Hooker explains:

Men always knew that when force and injury was offered, they might be defenders of themselves; they knew that howsoever men may seek their own commodity, yet if this were done with injury to others, it was not to be suffered, but by all men and by all good means withstood; finally they knew that no man might in reason take upon him to determine his own right, and according to his own determination proceed in maintenance thereof, inasmuch as every man is toward himself and them whom he greatly affects partial; and therefore that all strifes and troubles would be endless, except they gave their common consent to be ordered by some whom they should agree upon (McGrade, 1:72).

The explanation Locke gives in §13 is almost identical, except that Locke is more explicit in admitting that in the state of nature people are indeed judges in their own cases, with all the problems that this causes.

The problem of the state of nature, for Hooker and Locke, is that even very well-meaning people will fail in their attempts to judge fairly when they have severe conflicts of interest. Thus since, as Locke puts it, "in the state of nature every one has the executive power of the law of nature" (§13), the state of nature can result in violent conflict even when both sides are doing their level best to follow the laws of nature, simply because of the inability of the human being to judge fairly in his or her own case.

On Hooker's account, the natural response to this is simply to appoint some one judge (or judicial body) over all the cases, and this is not too dissimilar from a Hobbesian sovereign. However, according to Hooker, this fails to solve the problem because that judge will then inevitably be a judge in his or her own case. Because of the concentration of power in the hands of this judge (or judicial body) not only does this not solve the problem of the state of nature, it exacerbates it. This, of course, is precisely the issue Locke has in mind in the famous remark that the proponents of absolute monarchy "think, that men are so foolish, that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by pole-cats, or foxes; but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions" (§93).

Hobbes sees the problem of the state of nature quite differently. Hobbes famously claims that the state of nature is "a warre ... of every man against every man" in which "the life of man, [is] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." In Hobbes's view, in the state of nature, the law of nature permits—and in fact requires—human beings to do whatever is necessary for their survival, and this puts them in direct conflict and competition with other human beings. The point of entering the civil state is simply to stop the killing. The way to do this is to institute "a common Power to keep them all in awe." As long as the sovereign's power is, and is believed to be, overwhelming, there will be no violence except at the sovereign's command.

But of course this last bit is really the crux of the issue, since Hobbes admits essentially no restrictions on the sorts of violence the sovereign may command:


it belongeth of Right, to whatsoever Man, or Assembly that hath the Soveraignty, to be Judge both of the meanes of Peace and Defence; and also of the hindrances, and disturbances of the same; and to do whatsoever he shall think necessary to be done, both beforehand, for the preserving of Peace and Security, by prevention of discord at home and Hostility from abroad; and, when Peace and Security are lost, for the recovery of the same (ch. 18).

This means that there is simply no recourse for a person whom the sovereign has judged an enemy of the state. In this way, submission to a Hobbesian sovereign does indeed put one at risk of being "devoured by lions." Hobbes, however, would respond that to introduce any mechanism of holding the sovereign accountable for obeying the laws is to introduce a competing sovereign, which inevitably leads back to the state of nature, i.e., the war of all against all.

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad.)

Posted by Kenny at July 2, 2018 1:04 PM
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