Thomas Hobbes and Modern Civil Society

I. Historical Context

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) designed a new relationship between citizens and their state in the face of the intense conflicts that permeated his society. Before explaining the particular dimensions of these conflicts and of the new citizenstate relationship, it is well worth discussing why Hobbes can be properly called a major architect of modern liberalism.

Hobbes’s political thinking emanates from the demands of some people for the opportunity to chart a course in life previously denied expression. Traditional medieval order was predicated upon a way of life that gave prominence to certain classes, including the nobility, the landed, church officials, and, of course, the king. Those left without power were people who worked the land as peasants and serfs, as well as people drafted into the king's and noblemen-led army. Also left without power was a new bourgeoisie or middle class of tradesmen, merchants, and small farmers who owned their own land. The middle class made demands on the political system for inclusion. In effect, this new middle class sought opportunities for a space in which a person could pursue activities previously denied in the old order.

In practical political terms, the provision of rights provided opportunities for the new middle class to express as well as to pursue its own interests. What did these rights guarantee? Rights in Hobbes’s political thinking provided people with the chance to make decisions about what they wanted to do with their own lives, within certain limits that the culture of the times established. This means that people would be permitted more leeway than in the past but not so much leeway that they would violate all the norms of the society. Thus, whereas individuals should be given the freedom to become merchants, if that is what they want to be, they could not expect to be admitted to the nobility if that is what they hoped for.

The political system fashioned from this vision is the basis for liberalism. Liberalism makes possible individual freedom by enabling people to have rights, which provide both opportunities and protections, but at the same time, liberalism requires individuals to observe those obligations linked with the new opportunities and protections. There are several important implications of this view. In the first place, the history of liberalism will always be associated in public memory with the need for critiquing in the name of freedom existing traditional ways of life, as was the case in Hobbes’s time, while accepting the need for certain culturally established limits on that freedom. And this questioning will always create conflict in society, which will often be resolved in the name of freedom, and less so in the name of retaining restrictions on freedom for the sake of protecting tradition.

For conservatives, as we see in the chapter on that subject, liberalism is criticized for always seeking to make people justify tradition in the name of freedom. And doing so for conservatives can lead to the betrayal of important value - such as religious or longstanding cultural ones - needed to maintain social order and community. For liberals, however, freedom is not corrosive of society because, for them, freedom is always associated with necessaty and reasonable constraints needed to secure freedom. Hobbes discusses the constraints of natural law, Spinoza emphasizes the limits on authority by the majority in a democratic society, and John Locke describes what we refer to as the constrained majority. Each writer understands these constraints as necessary for securing freedom. As we shall see, John Stuart Mill argues that people should be free to do what they wish as long as they do not harm others. Immanuel Kant maintains the presence of coercive laws that are formed in keeping with universal moral standards that secure individual freedom. G.W.F. Hegel gives the state the job of enforcing the law for the sake of freedom. John Rawls discusses the place of an overlapping consensus as the basis for necessary constraints on freedom. In short, what liberals suggest is that if tradition denies the freedom that takes place within reasonable constraints, then tradition should be reformed, as, for example, was the case with traditions of segregation that denied freedom to African Americans.

Thus, the view of liberalism provided here explains why liberalism is both a history of the expansion of the number of rights made available to protect people’s freedom as well as a history of the need to extend the coverage of rights to those heretofore not protected by them. In Hobbes, there is to be a basic right to personal freedom, and this right is to permit one to choose one’s own occupation and core beliefs. To these ends, the right to own property will be a central concern. Later, as we move beyond Hobbes, we see that the number of rights is expanded to include political rights, such as freedom of conscience, speech, association, thought, and so on. Further, those covered under those rights are expanded to include more and more groups not previously accorded rights. Indeed, the history of our own society follows the pattern of liberalism. We have seen the list of rights grow to include, in addition to basic rights in the first ten amendments of the US Constitution and the Supreme Court-endorsed right to privacy, the evolving presumption of a right to health care and to an education. And we have seen the scope of rights expand to include previously excluded groups, such as women, African Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ+ people, and so on.

Another important implication of liberalism is the liberty interest that is central to the liberal project, which no doubt Hobbes bequeathed. By this, we mean that in demanding a space for persons to pursue conduct or to hold beliefs previously denied to them, individuals are said to have a prime interest in liberty. This means that other values - such as autonomy, privacy, equality, and community are important insofar as they aid that interest. Let us briefly discuss each in turn.

Autonomy suggests that individuals should have the freedom to make major decisions about their lives, including such matters as choice of career, religion, or friendships. Without liberty, there can be no autonomy of choice with respect to major issues such as these. Privacy refers to a sphere outside the reach of others or the state, a sphere in which individuals can live as they choose. Privacy in the context used here suggests that the state or others must allow individuals to think their own thoughts, have their own feelings, and partake in relationships of their own choice - without interference. Equality is a value of high importance in this setting, too. Equality is seen as providing all citizens with like rights and, in consequence thereof, with equal liberty.

Finally, what liberalism emphasizes is that freedom for the individual is more important than community. This does not mean that community is incompatible with liberalism. It means only that the common good of community must be defined so as not to smother liberty. Indeed, communities are acceptable to the extent they practice norms conducive to a broader liberty.

In taking this view, Hobbes, as one of the founders of liberalism, is advocating the interests of a new class, the bourgeoisie, or what is the new middle class. This class has been both celebrated and scorned. Those who celebrate it are writers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Kant, each of whom sees it as the phalanx of freedom. Those who attack the bourgeoisie see the new middle class as mostly interested in material self-gratification and greed, rejecting in the process respect for all that is sacred. The bourgeoisie is viewed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the source of the undermining of community. In Karl Marx, it is the basis for a cruel form of capitalism, and in Friedrich Nietzsche, it is the foundation of herd-like, conformist thinking.

All in all, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and Kant as leading forerunners of liberalism represent the quest of the Enlightenment to further the interests of a society based on the teachings of reason. Reason is how individuals can best determine the basis for a good life. And in taking this position, reason emphasizes theimportance of liberty as it defends the latter against all that may stand in its way, including well-worn traditions.

In this chapter, we wish to emphasize the liberty interest dimension and ask how well Hobbes makes this interest compatible with civil society in the separate sphere sense of the term. To that end, we describe now the historical context of liberalism in Hobbes.

On the one hand, there are those who believe that the monarch should remain the pivotal political force, not subject to challenge. But, on the other hand, there are those arguing for greater autonomy and independence from the king's power. The English civil wars of Hobbes’s lifetime are in part fought over the issue of who should have greater authority, the king or the parliament. Hobbes supports the idea of an absolute monarchy.1 In doing so, however, he predicates the king’s power upon the idea of a social contract to which the people in society consent. A chief condition of this contract is that the government exists to protect the freedom of individuals. This freedom is used ultimately by the evolving merchant or new commercial class seeking independence to pursue its own interests in a society where a medieval structure historically dominated.

In Hobbes’s new social contract, then, people would consent to a powerful monarch ruling them, in exchange for the personal freedom that the monarch would guarantee and protect. This new social contract symbolizes that the medieval order in society is no longer the basis for establishing social obligations. Instead, obligations grow out of the desire for individual freedom. Central to this objective is the need to maintain a respect for civic virtue. What role does civic virtue play in the setting that Hobbes describes hi his writings? When people have the freedom to determine the way of life that is best for them, they are bound to face conflicts and disagreements. Still, different people holding conflicting interests can live in peace if there are common ground rules or civic virtues all can accept and abide by while promoting their interests. Hobbes’s effort to provide rules that secure rights and freedom is the basis for the liberal view of civil society that we discuss throughout this part of the book.

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