Monarchy Is Best
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 7 - Social and Political Philosophy
Thomas Hobbes, from the Leviathan
Kem Stone - 7 April 2008
No argument that a particular type of government is best can possibly be conclusive, as there are too many criteria
to consider, and which criteria are the most important is a completely subjective matter.  Thomas Hobbes, in his
classic work, the
Leviathan, argues that monarchy is the best type of government, first by attempting to show that
man’s natural state is war, and using that premise to justify monarchy, which he claims is most effective at
maintaining peace both domestically and with foreign nations.  While Hobbes’s argument that war is man’s true
state of nature is persuasive and he makes many valid points, I disagree with nearly all of his conclusions.  I reject
the idea that anarchy is akin to universal war, and completely disagree that monarchy is by its essence the best
form of government.

Hobbes begins by examining the concept of power, and distinguishes first between natural and instrumental
power.  “
Natural power is the eminence of the faculties of body or mind, as extraordinary strength, form,
prudence, arts, eloquence, liberality, nobility.  
Instrumental are those powers which, acquired by these or by
fortune, are means and instruments to acquire more, as riches, reputation, friends, and the secret working of God,
which men call good luck” (462).  Hobbes lists nearly every conceivable type of instrumental power, the greatest
of which arises when men unite their power into one collective will, as is the case in a commonwealth.  Other
instrumental powers are riches joined with liberality because through them a man gains friends and servants, the
reputation of power because it draws loyalty, the reputation of love for one’s country because it makes a man
popular, good success because it makes men either fear or rely on him, affability of men who are already in power
because it gains love, as well as nobility where nobility has privileges, eloquence in speaking, and knowledge of
science and engineering.  Hobbes characterises all of life as a continuous struggle to acquire power after power
until death.

What makes the distinction between natural and instrumental power so important is the near equality among all
men in terms of their endowment of natural power.  “Nature has 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” (463).  When
it comes to strength, even the weakest is capable of doing harm to the strongest either by attacking secretly or
joining with others.  When it comes to the mental faculties, Hobbes believes men are more or less equal because
while some may be more intelligent than others, most knowledge comes through experience and an equal amount
of time bestows an equal amount of experience on everybody.  It is natural for a man to believe himself possessed
of greater wit than most, but Hobbes believes this is only because he experiences his own wit close at hand and
other men’s at a distance.  This state of affairs, by which all men begin on the same footing by nature, forces them
to seek to acquire more instrumental powers in order to compete with others.

According to Hobbes, there are three major causes of quarrel among men: competition, diffidence, and glory.  
Competition arises from the equality of natural ability, which gives men equal hope of attaining his ends.  “And
therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies;
and in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation, and something their delectation only,
endeavour to destroy or subdue one another” (464).  Diffidence can be a source of quarrel because there are
those who take pleasure in conquest, and will seek to acquire more than what is required.  Should those who
would otherwise be content with a smaller share of power find themselves the target of such ambitions, they would
fail to defend themselves, and are therefore justified in acquiring more power than would otherwise be necessary.  
Finally, because all men want others to value them at the same rate they set upon themselves, they attempt to
glorify themselves through conquest or by example.

Thus men or nations of men will attack or invade each other for gain, for safety, or for reputation.  This is why war
is the natural state of affairs for humanity.  At any time in which the natural ambitions of men are not held in check
by a common authority, they are in a condition of war—a war of every man against every man.  War does not
necessarily consist in battle or the act of fighting, but is the condition of any time during which men are disposed to
compete for power with one another.   War is the opposite of the condition known as peace, when men are able
to cooperate with one another.  But in man’s natural state, where competition is necessary and cooperation
impossible, the quality of life is poor.  “In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is
uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be
imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much
force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and, which is
worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”
(465).

Hobbes recognises that many will not accept this inference from the passions, and asks us to consider our own
experience of human nature.  Even a man who refuses to believe that humanity is brutish and warlike in his natural
state will take precautions against the ambitions of his fellow man.  He will ride armed while travelling long
distances to defend against robbers, and lock his chests when he leaves home to protect his property from
thieves.  Hobbes believes that these kinds of actions contain within them an implicit accusation of man’s sinful
nature.

Yet Hobbes also insists that there is no such thing as sin in the state of nature, as man’s desires and passions are
not sinful in themselves, nor are his actions sinful until there is a law that explicitly forbids them.  The same is true
for the concepts of right and wrong, justice or injustice, as these are qualities of men in society rather than
solitude.  Finally, there can be no such thing as property, but everything belongs to each man if he can take it and
for as long as he can hold on to it.  Without a society of laws, these important concepts have no meaning, and a
man has no rights or legal defence against other men.

The only solution to this dilemma, according to Hobbes, is the creation of an institution to create and enforce the
rules that will keep men in check.  “The final cause, end, or design of men, who naturally love liberty and dominion
over others, in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves in which we see them live in commonwealths is
the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby—that is to say, of getting themselves
out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent…to the natural passions of men when
there is no visible power to keep them in awe and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their
covenants” (466).  The only way to create this power is to confer all of the power that men hold individually into
one man or assembly of man with the authority to make decisions for and on behalf of everyone.  This is the
sovereign, and everyone else is a subject.  Every subject gives up his natural right of self-government to the
sovereign, who uses the combined strength of the people to maintain peace and the common defence of the
subjects.

Hobbes identifies three possible types of government based on whether the sovereign is a single person, an
assembly of all the people or an assembly of one part.  “When the representative is one man, then is the
commonwealth a monarchy; when an assembly of all that will come together, then it is democracy or popular
commonwealth; when an assembly of a part only, then it is called an aristocracy” (467).  Hobbes notes that other
forms of government such as tyranny and oligarchy are nothing more than other names for monarchy and
aristocracy with a negative connotation, used by those who dislike them.

To measure which type of government is the best, Hobbes uses as his criteria their aptitude to bring about the
peace and security of the people.  The people are best served whenever public and private interests are the most
closely united.  According to Hobbes, in a monarchy the private interest is the same with the public because the
power and honour of a monarch arises only from the power and honour of his subjects.  “For no king can be rich
nor glorious nor secure whose subjects are either poor or contemptible or too weak through want or dissension to
maintain a war against their enemies; whereas in a democracy or aristocracy, the public prosperity confers not so
much to the private fortune of one that is corrupt or ambitious as does many times a perfidious advice, a
treacherous action, or a civil war” (467).  Public prosperity is not as important in a democracy or aristocracy
because those who have power in these forms of government hold onto it through treachery and corruption rather
than honestly attempting to improve the lives of the people.

Hobbes’s arguments are so compelling because of their simplicity, but I believe they are ultimately too simple to
be correct.  The first premise of his argument is that man’s state of nature is one of a war of all against all, but I
would argue that this is not the case.  Man does not descend to the level of a beast merely due to the absence of a
government, nor is life in a state of anarchy necessarily nasty, brutish, and short.  Hobbes uses the American
Indian as an example of such savages, but it is obvious his only knowledge of them comes from what he has heard
and not what he has experienced directly.  Most Indian tribes did not have a government as those in the western
civilisation would understand it, but life within the tribes was far more peaceful than life in western societies, even
though the latter
did have governments to enforce laws upon the people.  What Hobbes fails to consider is that
while ambition and the desire to acquire power are natural to man, so are compassion and a propensity for self-
sacrifice.  Hobbes believes that government is necessary because people will act out of self-interest unless they
are prevented from doing so by fear of punishment, but fails to consider that people will often act against their own
self-interest merely because they believe it is the right thing to do.  The best way to prevent a state of war is not to
set up a government that can force its subjects to obey the law, but to have a society in which the better aspects
of human nature are allowed to flourish, and situations in which force is necessary to prevent people from harming
each other are rare.

Hobbes is also guilty of oversimplification in his criteria for choosing the best form of government out of the three
he identifies.  While the ability to secure peace and defence for the people is certainly important, it is not the entire
picture.  A government can keep every one of its citizens perfectly safe from one another and from outside
invasion by locking them all up individually in underground bunkers, but only a few madmen would agree that this
is really the
best possible state of affairs for a society.  The degree of freedom that the citizens are allowed is
certainly another very important criterion for determining the merits of a form of government, though Hobbes
ignores this completely.  He correctly asserts that a society will be better off when the public and private interests
are more closely united, but fails to show conclusively that this can only occur under monarchy.  The prosperity of
the people depends less on the form of government than on the nature and disposition of the person or people
who hold power.  A benevolent monarch may be better than a corrupt parliament, but a parliament of honourable
citizens is far better than a tyrant.

Ultimately, Hobbes does little more than offer a weak philosophical justification for the superiority of his own form
of government, which he rests on the weak proposition that men will be reduced to brutal savages without it.