20 June 2008
The Big Idea We Mistook: The Leviathan
Thomas Hobbes is known by many as one of the greatest philosophers to date. His work on the topic of political philosophy is both well known and much contested. One of his most famous works, the Leviathan, is referred to in the following arguments as challenging to connect to today. Although relevant in a broad sense, by relating his ideas to their applicability in modern society, we will find that they do not meet the requirements of a big idea.
To accurately establish the following arguments, we must first understand what makes a good big idea. For the purposes of this paper, a good big idea will be defined as that which has the ability to stand the test of time. In saying that, the idea must not only meet that criteria but also maintain a level of applicability in today’s society. We must be able to relate the ideas theories to modern day life and the practices we are accustomed to.
Hobbes’ Leviathan is multi-dimensional. First, he concedes that all men are equal in both mental and physical strength and the only thing that differentiates them from one another is their previous experience. He asserts that, naturally, as a result of this equality we have the same common goals in mind. In life, we want for similar things; above all else, peace, followed by security, shelter and food. In order for us to coexist peacefully,
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according to Hobbes, there must be a single authority in place and that “sovereign must be unchallengeable” (Williams 221).
Without this, we run the risk of other individuals resorting to violence whenever they feel necessary to attain their means of survival. In joining the commonwealth one consents to giving up their natural rights and obeying the contractual laws put in place by the sovereign. This is what Hobbes refers to as the law of nature. In complying with these laws, survival is achieved assuming that all others are willing and inclined to give up an equal number of rights. Secondly, in addition to giving up those rights individuals accept that the sovereign runs the government therefore the sovereign rules the law. Although, in theory, they act on behalf of the people, the people cannot oppose the sovereign for they are always right.
Today, women play an integral role in our society. They not only have responsibilities in the home but also in the workplace. They are involved in business, law, politics, teaching and much more. In Hobbes’ Leviathan, women are, for the most part, left out of the equation. The only purpose they serve is that of a mother or caretaker. Although Hobbes claims equality, this statement is made clearly for men exclusively. At a time when decisions were being made to ensure peace, protection and equal representation politically, women had no voice. Therefore, in a world where the sovereign was ultimately to act for and as the people, women couldn’t possibly be properly represented. Society wouldn’t have been constructed with their ideas, rights, or needs in mind. This part of Hobbes theory does not apply to the modern day treating of women and does not accurately reflect their roles in society. Although it has not always been the case, today women’s choices and decisions are taken seriously and heard by all.
We recognize women as equals, and extend to them the same rights as men. If Hobbes’ theory were to account for the value of women even in a general sense, his idea would meet part of the definition, however, he neglects to do even that.
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In the Leviathan, Hobbes makes the assumption that all those living in the state of nature want to get out, and given the opportunity to be part of a commonwealth they would surrender their rights and join. Making this assumption creates many problems for both those that want to be part of this group as well as for those that do not. Individuals who see a benefit of being part of a commonwealth ruled by the sovereign, relinquish their rights and surrender their trust to the state with the expectation that they will be protected and by virtue of the laws of nature, have the freedom to live a peaceful life. Although in a broad, optimistic sense this could be true, today we know that the state/sovereign cannot ensure this. Regardless of size and or strength, in an age of nuclear weapons and suicide bombers, the functions Hobbes assigned the commonwealth would not stand. In fact, the likelihood is that, as in the case of the United States on 9/11, the ruling powers “weakness, whether actual or perceived increases the dissident’s subjective probability” (Ferrara 308) to question why they supported said collective in the first place. As Williams states, we must have the understanding that “by themselves, the laws of nature are not enough, not because rational actors cannot trust each other to enter into a social contract but because in the condition of epistemological indeterminacy that Hobbes portrays as natural, this universality is at best a partial step.” He goes on to add, “for even if all were to agree on the right to self-preservation, all need not necessarily agree on what comprised threats to that preservation, how to react to them or how best to
secure themselves against them” (Williams 220).
It is not logical to assume that all people value the same things and that they all have the same moral standards. It is this as well as the expectation that all humans want and or need to live in a society controlled by a single ruling power, offering no flexibility for individual thought and input that makes this second part of Hobbes’ theory inapplicable in today’s modern society.