Hobbes theorised

Hobbes nevertheless … built his whole system on deductions from a model of man and a model of society which were, … models of bourgeois man and capitalist society. “1 C. B. Macpherson was a Canadian political philosopher who searched for a better model of society than that which he believed existed in the liberal democracies of the world. These democracies, he suggested, had become removed from true democratic principles by the cogency of the temptations provided by capitalism to the individual.

“Almost everything he said was in relation to possessive individualism”2 – and his introduction to Hobbes Leviathan was clearly given over to this perspective. The purpose of this essay is briefly to give account of Hobbes’ view of the political and social nature of man, and then to evaluate the analysis of this view provided by C. B. MacPherson. In particular, one of MacPherson’s conclusions: that although Hobbes’ model of society could only be defined as a capitalist model, the bourgeoisie were not willing to embrace Hobbes and accept his theories, will be examined.

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Hobbes could, perhaps, be described as a ‘child of his time’. He lived through the social chaos of the English civil war, which gave him much opportunity to observe the conflictual side of man’s nature. His prescription for society, contained within Leviathan, was based on what he believed makes man a conflictual animal. This prescription was directed towards creating a society that allowed for this basic conflictual nature of man and yet would permit people to live in relative peace and security. Hobbes considered himself a scientific man3, and borrowed methods of reasoning from Galileo.

4 He believed that the principle of perpetual motion (another of Galileo’s influences) could be used as a basis for explaining how and why men acted as they did. 5 Hobbes’ method consisted of breaking down the actions of men to the ‘simple’ movements of the body and then postulating what he believed to be self-evident truths – such as an innate need to continue life. When his postulates were added to his basic observations a process of logical deduction led him to the final conviction that the only way ensuring a lasting peace was to have an all-powerful sovereign.

This ‘resolutive-compositive’ method of reasoning was one of the things that led MacPherson to believe that Hobbes’ model was of a bourgeois society. This is because Hobbes’ postulates were based on the newly emerging bourgeois society that Hobbes lived in. 6 Near to the starting point of Hobbes’s journey, from bodily motion to sovereign power, was the theory that men were moved by external forces which acted on their internal makeup – their ‘appetites’ and ‘aversions’.

Chapter 6 of Leviathan considered the qualities of these appetites in detail and the conclusion drawn was that man is driven to pursue his own self-interest (though the strength of this pursuit will be different in different men) to achieve a state of ‘felicity’. “There is no such thing as perpetual tranquillity of mind while we live here; because life it selfe is but Motion, and can never be without desire,”7 Another basic postulate was that all men are equal.

Equality in the Hobbesian sense would point to the basic ability of all men to be able to achieve certain things. For example the smallest child would be capable of killing the strongest giant as he slept, and several people could plot together to other throw anyone who might pose a threat. Having established how a man is motivated to act and that basically everyone is equal, Hobbes considered what allows him to actually achieve his desires and concluded that it is a man’s power that is the enabling factor. For Hobbes:

“The power of a man is his present means, to obtain some future apparent Good. “8 A man’s ‘present means’ would include both his natural abilities such as strength and intelligence and also the ability to use the power of others, perhaps through wealth. However, Hobbes theorised, the measure of a man’s power must be made in relation to that of other men and because man was always ‘in motion’ he: “… cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more”9 Thus the acquisition of power is conflictual.

MacPherson points to Hobbes’ claim that some men have an unquenchable thirst for power as the cause for conflict10 however it would surely be possible for peaceful accumulation so long as there was an unending supply of ‘power’. The more likely cause is the combination of desire for more where there is only a limited supply available. Hobbes combined his beliefs about the nature of man and used inductive reasoning to create a picture of society in a ‘state of nature’ where there was no man made law or state to protect the individual.

His imaginary picture was one where incessant conflict led to the world being devoid of security and artistic accomplishments and: “… the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short. “11 In such a situation Hobbes believed that man would use reason and see that, in order to achieve a long term goal of ‘commodious living’ and to avoid a quick death, it would be necessary to make a ‘social contract’ whereby everyone gave up some of their power to a universal sovereign who would have the responsibility of keeping the contractors safe.


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