Do the subjects in Hobbes’s commonwealth retain their liberty?





I intend to argue that subjects in Hobbes’s commonwealth do not retain their liberty. However I do not intend to argue that the loss of liberty is total. I will argue that the loss of liberty is gradual, partial and voluntary. Hobbes’s argument is constructed very carefully. He guides you through a series of premises, supported by rhetoric, which lead you, inexorably to his conclusion. The problem for me is that the basic ideas he is trying to get you to agree with are sometimes flawed or moulded to suit his hypothesis.



First and foremost is Hobbes’s definition of freedom:


“By liberty, is understood to the proper signification of the word, the absence of external impediments: which impediments may oft take away part of a man’s power to do what he would; but cannot hinder him from using the power left him, according as his judgement, and reason shall dictate to him.”


Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. Chapter 14 paragraph 2. Oxford University Press.1996.


Here, Hobbes sets out a purely materialistic approach to his definition. Liberty is simply the freedom from external impediments. However, I would argue that there can be no true freedom from external impediments, and therefore question to what degree are we free. We are always confined to some degree. We were confined by gravity, until we developed flight. I intend to argue that besides being already constrained in our liberty, we exasperate this by giving up, voluntarily more of our freedom. A fish is only capable of living in water; it is not equipped to live on land. Therefore it has an external impediment blocking its liberty. When faced with a difficult choice, we are free to choose, however the choices may be limited as they guide us to a, in the same way that Hobbes constructs his argument, to a conclusion that is hard to escape. Hobbes argues that all desires have a causal relationship, which eventually links back the prime mover, God. This he argues does not remove our liberty as determinists would have you believe but that it merely provides a causal chain of events which leads you to make your choice, he believes that we still have liberty even when faced with limited choices. Hobbes’s believes this is a free choice made from liberty. During the terrorist attacks of September 11th, a few people caught in the World Trade Centre attacks jumped from the windows to their deaths. They were faced with a choice of death by fire or death from jumping from the 30th floor. This does not seem to be much of a choice and liberty can only play a minor role here. Circumstance has put you in a situation where the outcome will be the same regardless of your decision; your only freedom is on deciding the route.



Hobbes argues that in nature everybody’s desire and search for liberty brings them into conflict with others as they try do the same. He argues that according to his State of Nature, everyone is essentially equal:


“Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of the body, and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of the body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others.”


Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. Chapter 13 paragraph 1. Oxford University Press.1996.


Hobbes therefore claims that because of this state humans will come into conflict and that a “condition of war of everyone against everyone”. It is through this postulation that Hobbes decides that we need a sovereign to rule over us ensuring peace for all. You would think that this would spell the end for liberty, but Hobbes still believes that we retain liberty. The way in which he does this is through the idea of authorisation. Hobbes argues that when we make the contract with the sovereign we empower or authorise the representative of the sovereign to act