Forgot your password?

Freedom in a Hobbesian State

By Edited Apr 2, 2014 0 0

In the writings of Thomas Hobbes, a prevailing consistency of utilizing rational and simplistic measures to rectify the dilemmas surrounding humanity defines the fundamental tenets of Hobbes’ message. As a result, Hobbes has the ability to appeal to realists and classical liberalists alike, for realists find his pragmatism refreshingly levelheaded while classical liberalists support his advocating of necessary, but limited, governance that coincides with modern conservative principles. Furthermore, Hobbes rarely encircles points without delivering a clear consensus: for instance, he clearly denotes that humans are ruled by self-interest and self-preservation, that humanity needs an absolute power in order to escape the dangerous state of nature, and that any reasoning individual retains the rights necessary to live a fulfilling life when empowering the sovereign because the sovereign is solely created to serve the best interests of its consenting subjects. However, even if a civilized state endows humans with a better life, and Hobbes never shies away from this premise because his sentiments would be irrational if living under a sovereign was worse than living in the state of nature, the question still remains as to whether people can be free after submitting rights to an absolute power. Hobbes himself defines a ‘free-man’ as, “…he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to” (Hobbes 1651: XXI: 2). Ultimately, his conceptualization of freedom is valid, and the purpose of this piece will be to determine whether Hobbes defies his own reasonable understanding of freedom in order to provide a framework that is more beneficial for humanity—albeit at the expense of the sacrifice of aspects of innate freedom. As will be demonstrated, Hobbes creates an absolute sovereign that, if rightfully just as Hobbes and its subjects assume, will eliminate the external impediments that hinder the agent in the state of nature; however, contrary to common claims that the capabilities of the sovereign or Hobbes’ intolerant leanings restrict freedom, it is actually the agent’s internalized impediments—facilitated by the cognitively forced submission to the sovereign—that illustrate that people are not free under Hobbesian absolute power.

Prior to arguing against the concept of freedom in Hobbesian society, it is important to discredit some common claims against freedom under an absolute power that do not actually restrict freedom. One such accusation is that it is unfathomable for subjects to retain freedom because the sovereign has absolute power. This stance is baseless because, as aforementioned, the sovereign is authorized by its subjects and cannot restrict freedom through its actions because the state can only will what its subjects will. As Alan Ryan notes, “The sovereign cannot condition children as the Director in Brave New World can, and therefore should not try,” because any form of conditioning would signify a breakdown in the utilitarian rationality of the contract (Ryan 1983: 217). Hobbes tersely defeats the argument that the capabilities of the sovereign restrict freedom when writing, “…there be no restraint of natural liberty, but what is necessary for the good of the commonwealth” (Hobbes 1655: XXVIII: 4). And if the agent freely chooses to submit rights to the sovereign in order to have a better opportunity to pursue his or her goals in life, there cannot possibly be any restraint in freedom that the agent did not freely release for selfish and conveniently ‘selfless’ reasons. Morton Kaplan summarizes the existent dichotomy between subject and natural man adequately with the claim, “Thus Leviathan, as a theory of sovereignty, establishes only a sovereignty over subjects, not over natural men” (Kaplan 1956: 405). Under the premise that subjects freely consent to the sovereign, and the legitimacy of this claim will be further examined, the sovereign does not restrict freedom. And in fact, even regardless of whether man freely consents to the sovereign, the capabilities of the sovereign, as opposed to being forcefully coerced to give consent to the sovereign for example, will never be the component that restricts freedom because a Hobbesian sovereign’s legitimacy lies in its ability to allow the greatest amount of individual liberty while preserving peace.

Similar to the proven fallacious claim that the capabilities of the sovereign render agents unfree, another claim challenging Hobbesian freedom is that Hobbes does not allow for tolerance under the rule of the sovereign. As Ryan says of Hobbes, “[he was] deeply hostile to supposed rights of toleration. It is this that marks him as a non-liberal” (Ryan 1995: 291-311). And on the surface, Hobbes appears to be rather authoritarian in designating absolute judicial power to the sovereign, and dually expressing that the government has the right to censor any information that challenges the sovereign’s legitimacy. In this sense, it appears that subjects are restricted in what they can do—namely to go as far as to publicly question the actions of the sovereign. Pierre Charron, a predecessor of Hobbes, touched upon the potential dilemma for the agent who is conflicted by having to choose between public and private welfare in asserting, “For at this rate his Hand and his Opinion, his Body and his Mind will be frequently put upon contradictions to one another; and there is no avoiding it: because Prudence governs his outward Actions, and private Judgment the Sentiments of his Soul” (Charron 1597: 2.16: 23). But again, Hobbes’ subject is not forced to make this distinction because, as Dana Chabot recognizes, “It is only by attaining the detached standpoint afforded by civil law the ‘common standard of virtues and vices’ provided in a commonwealth that we acquire the competence to judge self-critically, hence to become truly moral agents” (Chabot 1995: 408). Thus, the rational agent—proven rational by consenting to the prospect of a better life—is not going to oppose a rational sovereign, and whether Hobbes is to be perceived as tolerant or intolerant is hardly relevant to an agent’s freedom. In accordance, there is a need for ‘intolerant’ censorship because man, an imperfect creature, can act irrationally, but this is not indicative of restricting freedom because it is merely created to ensure the protection of the moral and rational agents; furthermore, it is assumed that there would never be need for intolerance or censorship because all agents would consent to the sovereign for rational reasons.

So far it has been established that the Hobbesian sovereign will not restrict any freedoms that a rational actor would be unwilling to relinquish, but attention must now be turned to the actual act of consenting to the contract. Hobbes clearly acknowledges that a rational actor would submit to his Leviathan, but prior to living within such a society, it cannot be presumed that the actor is rational, and therefore it cannot be assumed that the actor would submit to the social contract. In fact, in a state of nature dominated by instinctive passions, it can arguably be assumed that the agent would not voluntarily give consent to the sovereign. This creates a massive dilemma for the proposition of Hobbesian freedom, highlighted by Patrick Riley who argues that Hobbes is not adequately accounting for, “a rather stark contrast between a moral and political theory that requires a family of voluntarist concepts as its foundation, and a theory of volition as appetite and aversion which is ill suited to account for the moral importance of consenting, promising, and agreeing” (Riley 1982: 43). Hence, if an irrational agent is to give consent to a sovereign, the agent must be coerced. Hobbes probably foresaw this problem, and that is why he emphasizes that freedom is the absence of solely external impediments and, in contrast, internal impediments do not restrict liberty because, “when the impediment of motion is in the constitution of the thing itself, we use not to say, it wants the liberty, but the power to move” (Hobbes 1962: 262). Unfortunately, his logic does not suffice; for if the agent does voluntarily consent to the contract then he is a rational actor which Hobbes claims is impossible in the state of nature. Hence, the agent would always have to consent involuntarily out of fear. As David van Mill contends, “It is now states of mind (internal properties of the agent) which affect liberty as well as external obstacles, and consequently fear is no longer compatible with freedom. Hobbes must try to conceal this change of position, otherwise the whole idea of contract through fear loses its legitimacy; as he says repeatedly, an involuntary contract is not valid” (van Mill 1995: 450). Hobbes’ model society may be one that is for the betterment of mankind, but his perception of the irrationality of mankind in the state of nature prevents natural man from ever freely consenting to the sovereign. Accordingly, man could not be free under the sovereign, because consent would be established under coerced internal impediments and consequently involuntary pretenses.

In conclusion, Hobbes provides a commendable framework for living in a society dominated by a just sovereign ruling over loyal, rational agents. In fact, the sovereign effectively removes external impediments from humanity—thus creating a safer and happier society in which agents can pursue their innate and developed goals without jeopardizing self-preservation. The sovereign’s capabilities do not limit freedom, and the sovereign is a benevolent and tolerant ruler if the people give no reason for the sovereign to act otherwise. But, according to Hobbes’ own conceptualization of man in the state of nature, this manufactured society cannot exist because an irrational man—something that all men are in the state of nature according to Hobbes—would never submit to an external entity without being involuntarily coerced. Summarily, Hobbes would need to acknowledge that man will inevitably need to be coerced, thus limiting freedom, but it would be for the better, or he must cede that man can act rationally prior to consenting to the sovereign. Since Hobbes does not appear to make either of said claims, although life under the Leviathan lies much closer to Utopia than the state of nature, the subject cannot claim to freely consent to Hobbes’ state with absolute power, and therefore cannot be deemed free.


Chabot, Dana. (1995). “Thomas Hobbes: Skeptical Moralist,” American Political Science Review. Vol. 81. 401-410.

Charron, Pierre. (1697). Of Wisdom. Vol. 1-2. Trans. G. Stanhope. London: Gillyflower.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan (ed. Pogson Smith; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 101-102.

Hobbes, Thomas. (1994) [1655]. The Elements of Law: Human Nature and De Corpore Politico. Oxford: Oxford University Press. XXVIII: 4.

Hobbes, Thomas. (1968). Leviathan. Ed. C. B. Macpherson. London: Penguin.

Kaplan, Morton. (1956). “How Sovereign is Hobbes’ Sovereign?,” The Western Political Quarterly. University of Utah. Vol. 9. 389-405.

Riley, Patrick. (1982). Will and Political Legitimacy: A Critical Exposition of Social Contract Theory in Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Hegel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ryan, Alan. (1983). "Hobbes, Toleration, and the Inner Life," In The Nature of Political Theory, ed. D. Miller and L. Seidentop. Oxford: Clarendon.

Ryan, Alan. (1995). "Liberalism," in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. (ed. Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit Oxford: Blackwell), 291-311.

van Mill, David. (1995). “Hobbes’s Theories of Freedom,” The Journal of Politics. Vol. 57. 443-459.



Add a new comment - No HTML
You must be logged in and verified to post a comment. Please log in or sign up to comment.

Explore InfoBarrel

Auto Business & Money Entertainment Environment Health History Home & Garden InfoBarrel University Lifestyle Sports Technology Travel & Places
© Copyright 2008 - 2016 by Hinzie Media Inc. Terms of Service Privacy Policy XML Sitemap

Follow IB Lifestyle