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Mankind and Perpetual War (Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan circa 1651)

One of Thomas Hobbes’ central arguments presented in Leviathan is: within the state of nature, man lives in a perpetual war.  This is to say that man- living in a state lacking an effective commonwealth to serve as a common power- faces an existence of constant war….

This argument is taken from chapter 13 (pg 74) and begins with the premise that within this so-called state of nature all men are equal in body and mind.  Hobbes’ declares that strength of body is of no advantage when the weaker can kill the strongest using secret machination or by confederacy with others facing the same danger.  Equality of the mind is then declared to be of greater equality for in a state of nature there is no guarantee of speech or science so there is only man’s vain conceit of his own wisdom.  Every man can see only his own wit at hand, but other men’s wit can only be seen at a distance.  Here in lies the equality aspect.

A vital premise to this argument is presented through the use of an earlier Leviathan argument that there can be no greatest good (Summum Bonum) able to bring ultimate end to the desires of man (chapter 11).  From this argument we may ascertain that life is in constant motion, and it is through this motion that desire is created.  A rudimentary example of this is the motion of the human body and the hunger that continually reoccurs making man desire food, and so life is in constant motion with some desire always present.

Desire leads to competition for in this state of nature since all men are equal in body and mind and there is no commonwealth to instill laws, there would be nothing that one man was not entitled to in which he fancied thus there would arise an equal hope within every man of attaining the ends to their desires.  This equality of hope would bring two or more men to desire the same ends.  When multiple men desire that which they can nevertheless all enjoy, they become enemies and thus endeavor to destroy the other in order to gain that which they desire.  This is competition.

Out of this competition would come a victor and a corpse.  (If all men are equal what determines which one you are?  Luck? Chance?)  The corpse is left to rot and the victor must ready himself for competition to come if he hopes to retain that which one just killed for.  The victor in order to reasonably secure his power (rather than relaxing and enjoying the end of his desire) would have to anticipate opposition by eradicating any chance of future competition.  This would be based on the diffidence, or self-doubt, in his own ability to continually dispel competitors in order to retain that which he desires.  In turn through this eradication of possible competition this victor would gain reputation, and this reputation amongst other men spawns that which is one of man’s greatest desires: glory, for any sign of one man undervaluing another man is a spark towards the fire of quarrel.  And so it is without a common power as Hobbes states to keep the masses in awe there can never be an end to competition, diffidence, and glory and thus man would find himself in a perpetual war – every man against every man.

Criticism:

Could mankind continue its existence in a state of nature such as Hobbes proposes in Leviathan?  Or, would we last only as long as it took to destroy each other?  The picture Hobbes paints is dismal, but what about the concept of love?  In Leviathan Hobbes defines love as merely the act of desiring as written in chapter 6 [3] which leads one to consider that love only pertains to man’s hedonism within the state of nature.  I believe that this definition is gross underestimation of the concept of love, and I have to believe that unconditional love is possible in the state of nature.  Love that a mother pours upon her child is perhaps the strongest of loves, and I have to argue this love is not based upon desire or perpetual power, but rather compassion.  Could it be woman’s compassion that first triggered rational thinking in Homo sapiens as the ancient story of Adam & Eve can be interpreted to represent?  In this case woman lifted man and his hedonistic existence up to rational thinking, which then means Hobbes’ perpetual war to bring end to desire is simply based on man’s boredom in the light of rational thinking.

Furthermore, what becomes of the family unit in Hobbes’ state of nature?  Does the family unit provide strength and security or do the black widow and the praying mantis illustrate the way nature would play out?  I have to argue that love and trust within the human family unit would become paramount in such a reality. 

Also within the perpetual war argument Hobbes declares that desires and the competition to bring end to those desires is the first formula for quarrel.  In a reality absent of wealth and a monetary system such as this state of nature, what happens to a large proportion of man’s worldly desires?  I criticize that these hedonistic desires diminish and focus is brought down to survival.  Can man not exist peacefully in a reality where his immediate needs are met by the abundance of the natural resources of the earth?  (That is to say in a world where population is regulated like the animal kingdom- survival of the strongest, not necessarily the most powerful.)  I like to think this is possible.  I further entertain this notion by considering the existence Native Americans lived in the time before Columbus proved the world was round.  Granted there was warring between tribes, but there was relative peace within the tribes.  Can Native American tribes be considered a form of commonwealth?  I suppose this is a possibility to where life might turn if capitalism is ever wiped out, which next to nuclear holocaust might be the best chance for the state of nature to exist in mainstream reality here on earth.  

At the other end of the spectrum lies the force known as fear.  Doesn’t it follow the original argument of this paper that anything in the form of a commonwealth that comes out of Hobbes’ state of perpetual war has at its root- fear?  Fear is the cornerstone of reality in the state of nature- fear of retaining anything you might desire, fear of trusting anyone, fear of losing everything.  How mighty can a civilization ever become when at the very foundation is the destroying force of all that is good?  In this way then it may be seen that man has nothing to blame for his diffidence and his subsequent fears contained in his existence but his own desires.  

Finally, without atleast the hope of peace (in any reality) I seriously have to question my own desire to even attempt to hash out an existence within perpetual war.  Hobbes would argue that suicide is not a consideration in a state of nature in which a commonwealth was not previously known.  This leads me to consider that if one never knew the benefits of a commonwealth and suicide is not a consideration in a state of perpetual war then is fear not the common power that ultimately keeps man in awe?  I argue the choice between love and fear is indeed a rational decision that every human being makes daily whether in a commonwealth or within a state of nature.

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