Hobbes Against Aristotle’s Republicanism

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

I’ve been looking at Hobbes’ direct and indirect criticisms of Aristotle in De Cive and Leviathan. For Hobbes, Aristotle belongs to a class of antique figures whose attachment to notions of law outside the commands of the sovereign of a state provide a justification for rebellion against sovereignty, leading to collapse into a natural state of war. Five anarchic villains are mentioned by Hobbes: Plato, Arisototle, Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch. The inclusion of Plato would surprise some, but the problem for Hobbes is that the sovereign in Plato’s political thought serves law. For Hobbes, living under law is necessary for the benefits of civilisation to exist, and law can only have real existence as the laws of a sovereign which that sovereign enforces. No higher laws can be used to challenge the sovereign.

This should be distinguished from arguments about democracy and liberty, which should further be distinguished from each other. Hobbes argues that in a democracy, the assembled people are sovereign and there is no higher law. He also suggests that such an assembly is likely to be less tolerant of criticism than a monarchy, since any single voice challenging sovereignty is much more worrying for the sovereign when the sovereign is all citizens assembled trying to reach agreement.

Hobbes’ criticisms of antique thinkers flows from the necessities of establishing his system of political thought, but also from the way that his contemporaries made reference to ancient thinkers and republics. This continued to be a major theme of republican and democratic movements up to the late 18th Century, and two great revolutions of that time: the American and the French.

I identify Aristotle’s thought as republican, along with those other ancient thinkers, because Hobbes does and because of their continuing contribution, though mostly Aristotle’s contribution now, to ideas of a stare based on the participation of citizens in decision making, and the assumption going beyond minimal definitions of democracy, that democracy flourishes where citizens are politically informed, concerned and active.

Hobbes’ criticisms of Aristotle are quite systematic and go beyond the obvious political differences.

According to Hobbes, there is liberty where there is the possibility for physically unconstrained action. He rejects Aristotle’s view of different levels of voluntary and involuntary actions, according to a a variety of constraining circumstances by pointing to the possibility of unconstrained physical actions in all these circumstances. In particular he rejects Aristotle’s famous claim that throwing goods off a ship during a storm is a largely involuntary action because it is done to preserve life. This has a political point, which is that physical liberty exists however many laws the sovereign passes constraining actions, so we should not criticise any government for constraining liberty.

Hobbes criticises any idea that a political community can be based on voluntary agreements, contracts and customs. A polis, political community, only exists where a sovereign can enforce obedience to laws. Hobbes believes that Aristotle regarded a polis as a purely voluntary arrangement between free citizens unconstrained by any sovereign.

Hobbes implicitly rejects Aristotle’s account of the importance of friendship in a polity. For Aristotle, friendship is necessary to a happy life and while friendship can involve self-interest it can also rest on shared virtues and desire for the good. Friendship connects citizens into a polity and is the correct attitude of the ruler to citizens. Hobbes defines friendship as mutual self-interest only. Even if we think this is too strong, we could produce the more moderate statement that most friendship includes some shared self-interest. This would be enough to undermine any claim that a polis can be unified by virtuous friendship, or that the ruler could be god ruler by regarding everyone in the polis as friends. What Hobbes is moving towards is the idea that a community is unified by commerce and economic activity, which does not exclude virtue but certainly requires self-interest, as Hume and Smith will discuss in the following century.

Democracy does not guarantee more liberty despite Aristotle’s claim that democracy is based on liberty. A point Hobbs supports with reference to the Ancient Athenian practice of exiling unpopular personalities purely on the basis of a vote, not because they were convicted of a crime.


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