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On Politics: Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu

[This is a summary of our discussion of chapters 12-14 in Alan Ryan’s On Politics. It was written by Ulla S. Koch]

The three chapters were interesting and contained a lot of information – this is just notes on what I found interesting.

Hobbes (1588-1679) sets out with a thought experiment – what would a nation without government be like? Undoubtedly his answer was inspired by the current circumstances in England which was ravaged by civil war. He assumes that man is driven by a relentless desire for his own good and for the means of achieving it, i.e. power. Even though men are born with different degress of physical strength other abilities, such as skill and cleverness, can be gained by everybody and even out the playing field. This equality is not good, since it in turn leads to uncertainty. In the state of nature everybody fights everybody else, as he famously put it, life would be nasty, brutish and short.
In this state of nature, a basic right is to fight and do everything in your power to preserve life and limb. But it is not a right in any moral sense, it is more like an instinct. Natural laws are what serves to preserve life, and they are hypothetical not based on observation. A sense of right and wrong only exists in an ordered society. Evil and good are only meaningful in relation to laws. Hobbes’ concept of natural law is thus totally different from those we have read about earlier (e.g. the stoics) since it is not the expression man’s innate rational and moral character. However, man only has the right to what he needs to preserve his life, not violence against others. This smacks of a morality outside society, so he is not entirely consistent. Society springs from a (rational) longing for peace as a freedom from fear according to his Elements of Law. In Leviathan the driver is fear alone. In Leviathan, fear and rationality allows man to formulate laws and release some of his independence. Laws are dictates from a law-giver and are a restriction of rights. The given laws can not be measured as “just” or “unjust” – that would be meaningless since “just” and “unjust” are defined by the laws.
Hobbes thinks that language is a necessary prerequisite for any kind of society – and also for the existence of natural laws – because natural laws are rational and ratio demands language. He assumes that language is a means to understanding what goes on in the mind of another, which is impossible but a nice thought. The dependance of thought upon language is still a hot topic.
To Hobbes man is a-social, and only becomes social by reasoning (unlike Aristotle’s concept of man as a social animal). Even reason and fear is not enough to drive man to cooperate, only force can curb his appetite for power. The only way ahead is to transfer all power to a sovereign, who imposes law on his subjects who must submit – with the exeption of accepting the death penalty. If the state seeks to kill a citizen it has reverted to being a part in the state of nature. Absolute power can be divided between all (democracy), few (aristocracy) and one (monarchy) – the most efficient is monarchy, because the monarch’s and societies interests are one and the same (no competition between equals). Fear of death makes man want government rather than the state of nature. People have no right to rebellion under any circumstances.

Locke (1632-1704) Two Treatises (1679-80 published anon. 1690). According to Locke natural law dictates that man look after his own interests but not to the detriment of others. Man is born in the state of nature – in the state of nature everybody is equal and free – and reasonable. This rhymes more with the Stoics – natural law as an inate moral codex. Locke is more positive when it comes to human nature. In nature man posses things and has a right to defend them. Locke does not believe that god gave the earth to Adam but to mankind. Personal ownership rights are based on his labour, which he alone owns. If he adds his labour to a thing in a natural state, he adds considerable value and it is only reasonable that he owns it (foreshadows of Marx and Ricardo). Surplus can be stored as money.
He critizes Filmer saying that political power does not stem from the patriarchy of Adam, it is not a right but a duty to take care of your off-spring. However, the moral obligation to honour your parents is not a political obligation – it is absurd to suppose that the Bible can prove a moral obligation to obey the powers that be. To obey is a free choice, the state is created by man to serve man’s purposes.
The state has three kinds of power: the right to pass laws and sentences, the right to enforce the laws, and the right to defend society (foederal). Man seeks society and a state in order to protect his life and goods. He gives up certain rights in order to do so. This he can do silently merely by availing himself of the services society and the laws provide, e.g. the roads and other infrastructure. The powers that be have no right to take anything that is not willingly given – that is a breach of the social contract. Overtaxation for instance may lead to rebellion since it is not in the interest of society. e

Montesquieu (1689-1755) Spirit of the Laws builds on Locke’s division of power and changes them to: lawgiving, judging, and law enforcing, dividing Locke’s first group in two since this ensures impartiality better (executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government) which in turn stabilizes the state.
Harrington Glorified Cromwell in the utopia Oceana (1656). A balance between political and economic power is necessary otherwise civil war or revolution ensue. Those who own the most should also have the most power – anything else creates an imbalance.
Filmer was a proponent of absolute monarchy (Patriarchia). He argues against Hobbes’ man-made society (based on fear) and claims that society derives from Adam, whom god gave the earth and everything on it as a gift. All societies are based on that first family. As a father has universal power over his children (because he has produced them himself, hmpf) a sovereign has power over his subjects. Man is never born free but always into a society (he has a valid point there). According to the Bible, Adam owned everything, nothing was ever held in common. Only absolute monarchy serves god’s purpose and man is not free by nature. Filmer was “politically correct” at the time but was critizesed nonetheless.

We plan to meet again January 18th and do Rousseau, Founding of American & French Revolution.


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