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At least sometimes
During the English civil war of the 1640s and 1650s, Thomas Hobbes took refuge in Paris. The royalists—the side he favored in the war—were losing, and Hobbes feared for his head. About the time Charles I lost his head to the executioner in London, Hobbes was completing a book that tried to explain how human societies got into such predicaments. The book was published in 1651 as Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil.
Until this point in history, few governments made much effort to justify their existence rationally. Kings claimed dynastic or divine sanction, but the former begged the question of the right of the original dynast to power, and the latter had to be taken on faith. Philosophers and theologians bolstered the status quo by toeing the party line. But in practice most rulers relied on force and left it at that.
The Renaissance and then the Reformation changed things, prompting the inquisitive to probe more deeply into matters once taken for granted. Thomas Hobbes attempted to put human authority—of one man over others, essentially—on a reasoned footing. As steeped in Christian religion as nearly everyone in Europe in the seventeenth century, he employed the Bible, specifically the Book of Genesis, as his model. Arriving after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, Hobbes placed humanity in a state of nature decidedly un-Edenic.
Hobbes’s state of nature had one feature that would appeal to his heirs decades and centuries later: it was characterized by a thorough equality of one person to the next. “Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he,” Hobbes wrote.
To be sure, some were stronger than others. Yet not decisively so. “The weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others,” Hobbes said. And some were smarter than others. But again, not decisively so. In Hobbes’s state of nature—before the rise of science and the arts—the clever won style points over the vulgar, but style didn’t equate to dominion.
Hobbes’s asserted equality was crucial to what came next. “From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends,” he said. “And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies.”
This dynamic applied throughout the population in the state of nature. “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man,” Hobbes said. Actual fighting wasn’t unceasing; just as in any war, there were intermissions in the combat. But the potential for violence was ever present. “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, continual fear and danger of violent death. And the life of man: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
To escape the state of nature and the war of every man against every man, people looked to a common power—“to keep them in awe and to direct their actions to the common benefit,” Hobbes said. This common power might be directed by a single person or an assembly, but it acted as one on behalf of the people collectively, who submitted themselves to its authority. “This is more than consent or concord,” Hobbes explained. “It is a real unity of them all, in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man, ‘I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition that thou give up thy right to him and authorise all his actions in like manner.’”
Thus was created government. “The multitude so united in one person is called a COMMON-WEALTH, in Latin CIVITAS,” Hobbes wrote. “This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortal God to which we owe under the Immortal God our peace and defence. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the Common-Wealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all to peace at home and mutual aid against their enemies abroad.”
The covenant, or social contract, of which Hobbes spoke, was a theoretical construct. He didn’t suppose that every government could trace its origins to a gathering of people in which they inscribed their names to a founding charter. Indeed, in 1651, Hobbes would have been hard pressed to identify any government so founded. Hence his phrasing about the authorization of power being “as if” such a covenant had been signed.
A century later, Americans devised social contracts in batches. The Declaration of Independence created thirteen states, each needing a new covenant. And the United States required one of its own—or two, rather, when the insufficiencies of the Articles of Confederation prompted a do-over, producing the Constitution of 1787.
Hobbes’s writings were part of the intellectual framework of the drafters of the state and national charters. Not all accepted his interpretation of the state of nature as a war of every man against every man; some preferred the cheerier views of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Yet Alexander Hamilton and other conservatives sought a powerful central government from fear that without it, the United States would revert in a Hobbesian direction toward, if not a war of every man against every man, then every state against every state.
In his own way, Abraham Lincoln was a Hobbesian. Lincoln believed that the success of American democracy depended on the preservation of the Union. Failing that, government “of the people, by the people, for the people” would “perish from the earth.”
Hobbes lives on in every person who wants to bolster government against forces of disorder, whether those forces be criminal gangs or nationalist militias. Few would call themselves Hobbesians, and next to none invoke the Leviathan of Hobbes’s imagery. But as long as evil lurks in human hearts, or as long as people think it does, Hobbes will have an audience.