What is Hobbes' argument in the first section ("Liberty") of De Cive

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English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) is an empiricist, which by definition means he believes all knowledge acquired by human beings comes from sensory experiences. His body of philosophical works on the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence primarily centers around his political views.

Hobbes develops his political theories out of frustration over the atrocities committed by Western European governments. Since he is enthralled with the scientific advances of his era, he reasons that scientific principles might be applied to politics resulting in a science of politics based on sound philosophical principles leading to a peaceful society free of abuses.

Originally published in 1642, De Cive articulates his political philosophy. He begins by stating,

The faculties of Humane nature may be reduc'd unto four kinds; Bodily strength, Experience, Reason, Passion.

Hobbes theorizes that human beings use their senses of reason to create natural laws and then yield to those laws for the benefit of society. He believes that to build a peaceful society, citizens must forfeit some of their rights, thereby binding themselves to each other and the government they have created. In the absence of adherence to the laws they create, human beings remain in a continual state of war. This concept introduced in De Cive is explained in detail in Hobbes’ later work, Leviathan. In his view:

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war.

Hobbes’ motivation for De Cive emanates from his belief that to achieve social and political order an authoritarian-type government is necessary. In his view, the “natural condition of mankind” is a state of violence and fear of violence. Human beings act selfishly, often ignorantly when they live by their natural propensities. To overcome fear, they must submit to a dominant government:

I hope no body will doubt but that men would much more greedily be carryed by Nature, if all fear were removed, to obtain Dominion, than to gaine Society. We must therefore resolve, that the Originall of all great, and lasting Societies, consisted not in the mutuall good will men had towards each other, but in the mutuall fear they had of each other. [sic]

Hobbes does not have faith in the ability of human beings to use their sensory perceptions of the world around them to secure peace with one another. The result, he concludes, is a perpetual state of conflict and war. Instead, seeking peace among human beings, he prefers to consider the natural laws or impulses of humans to form binding social contracts with other citizens who should collectively create sovereign societies based on the natural laws upon which they agree.

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In the first section of De Cive, Thomas Hobbes argues that society arose out of a state of mutual fear, because the laws of nature demand that men as individuals are warlike. He says that societies can exist because the people participating in them get individual benefits, and that it's worth giving up or transferring some natural rights in order to preserve the rights of the entire community.

Hobbes begins "Liberty" by discussing the laws of nature, saying they are natural or instinctive laws rather than agreements between people like all other laws. The laws of nature are governed by men's desire for peace and -- where peace cannot be found -- the innate instinct to defend ourselves. He says that human nature can be explained in four terms:

  • bodily strength
  • experience
  • reason
  • passion

He says that all men are equal in nature by virtue of the fact that even a weak man can kill a strong one. But many people desire the same things, which can create conflict when not all people can have all things. He argues that without civil society, these natural urges will create a state of constant war.

Hobbes explains the many laws of nature, including:

  • birthright and first possession
  • against pride
  • humility
  • that people have things in common
  • no one can judge his own cause
  • no one who may benefit from a case can judge it
  • against gluttony, because it prevents the use of reason
  • mercy
  • and most importantly, the ability to perform contracts

Hobbes even says that a person cannot do injury to anyone except those with whom he contracts. 

Ultimately, though, he says those laws aren't enough to keep the peace. Hobbes argues that joining together in societies is necessary to establish peace.

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Thomas Hobbes provides a description of a man in his most basic natural state. Hobbes summarizes man’s basic elements as bodily strength, experience, reason, and passion, which determine how men relate to each other and the elements that make them suitable to exist in a society.

He suggests that by ascertaining these elements, it is possible to extract the laws of nature. Hobbes argues that man does not establish or exist in a society for society’s own sake but in order to derive some individualistic benefits from the society. He states that such a need is inherent in man’s nature.

On the law of nature concerning contracts, Hobbes suggests that man lacks a standard measure of reasonableness. He states that men develop opinions based on hatred, love, hope, fear or some other emotional element. Thus, a man gives up some of his rights to ensure that the rights of the whole are protected both from the wish of some to infringe or defend these rights in return.

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In this section of De Cive (by far the most important in the book) Hobbes makes the argument about man in the state of nature that he most famously made in Leviathan. He claims that in the state of nature, men would contend and fight with one another, because of their inherent greed, fear of one another, and the natural desire of self-preservation:

[M]any men at the same time have an Appetite to the same thing; which yet very often they can neither enjoy in common, nor yet divide it; whence it followes that the strongest must have it, and who is strongest must be decided by the Sword.

In other words, the state of nature would be a constant state of warfare, one in which everyone fought against each other to gain and protect possessions by force. It would be, as he famously put it, a "war of all against all." Because people wanted to be safe, however, they would enter into civil society, a point he makes in the second section of "Liberty" and would expand upon later in Leviathan. 

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