Thomas Hobbes and the State of Nature

Back in the 17th Century, an English philosopher called Thomas Hobbes penned a tome called ‘Leviathan.’ A Leviathan is a mythical creature, made up of many smaller, less powerful creatures which, when combined, become this mighty ‘Leviathan’.

Hobbes thought that, when man first dropped out of the trees, he would have been living in what Hobbes called the ‘State of Nature.’  Hobbes had a pretty pessimistic view about what the State of Nature would be like. It would be ‘each man for himself.’

Every other man would have been your enemy, in a world where violence was rife, and commodities were scarce.  It was a ‘zero sum game’ – there was only so much ‘stuff’ to go ‘around, and either you got it, or the next man did…’  In this State of Nature, Hobbes thought that the life of a man would have been ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

The Solution 

Eventually, what would happen is that you would find a really big guy, with all the stuff.  He would have weapons, and would have recruited an army.  This ‘guy’ need not have been an actual individual, but may have been a collection of individuals which, combined, would constitute a ‘Leviathan’ – what we might think about now as the ‘State’ – it could be a sovereign, an overlord, an elected government, it really doesn’t matter.

So – we make a deal with this ‘Leviathan.’  The deal is that we will do what the Leviathan tells us, and be good citizens.  In return, the Leviathan would protect us and look out for our interests.  Our end of the bargain would mean, in the modern world, voting every few years, obeying the law, getting and keeping a job, and being productive members of society.

This ‘deal’ would be called ‘The Social Contract’.

Breach of Contract

But what happens when the Leviathan reneges on the contract?

Let’s suppose that, for example, the Leviathan fails to deliver justice.

We have agreed to obey the law, but what if the law is unjust?  What if, as in South Africa, the law says that black people are inferior and are to be treated differently and enslaved and abused?  Should we still obey these laws?  What if the law says that women are inferior beings that do not deserve to vote?  What if the law says that poor people do not get the vote?  What if the Leviathan introduces the Poll Tax?  There are many possible ways for the Leviathan to renege on the deal…

Let’s stick with just one example, to keep it simple.  Let’s stick with South Africa.

Now, the white regime in South Africa was subjected to all kinds of international ‘pressure’, including sanctions and so forth.  And yes, we told them off, good and proper!  They ignored all of that.

Then, Nelson Mandela and the ANC came along and just started blowing stuff up and killing people. So, Mandela was sent to prison. After a (long) while, the authorities made him an offer. They said “look, Mandela, just renounce violence, and we’ll let you go.” He would not do this. He chose to stay in prison.

Eventually he was released of course, and we all know what happened next.

The authorities were forced to negotiate with this man who, it surely cannot be argued, was a terrorist.  Just like the British were forced to negotiate with the IRA. And just as many governments were forced to grant universal suffrage, following violent (and sadly suicidal) protests.  And this response from the authorities was, we know now, correct.  We have had peace, truth and reconciliation, in all these scenarios.  One of the most stupid reactions to violence is more violence.

Ultimately, you have to sit down with the ‘terrorists’ (or ‘freedom-fighters’, depending on how you look at it).  If you don’t, all you get is an escalation of the violence, as we have seen, for example, in the Middle East.

If you take a hard line with terrorists, the violence will continue.  Beware the man who says ‘we do not negotiate with terrorists’.  Such a man is a fool, or a warmonger – he is probably a major shareholder in an arms manufacturing company.  Or, to be charitable, maybe he’s just really principled.

Must we always negotiate with terrorists?  Well, here, we have to differentiate between cases where the oppressed, violent terrorists (freedom-fighters?) are fighting for a just cause, and those where they are not.  That can be difficult.  But nobody would argue, presumably, that fighting for race or gender-equality, for example, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.  These are undeniably just causes.

The point is that sometimes it is right to fight – especially if your group is oppressed, fighting for a just cause, in the weaker position, and the other side is just not listening.

And, when the oppressed fight, the ‘Leviathan’, must negotiate.  If it does not, the fight must continue.

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