Recently, I had my class read sections from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and was surprised by the response. Students overwhelmingly agreed with the pessimistic assessment of human nature found in it. This has me, over the past few days, reflecting on the theological concept of “sin.” Are my students, despite being in a philosophy class, unknowingly affirming a secular version of what Christian theologians understand to be the result of original sin?
I don’t think they are.
In his groundbreaking work, Hobbes gives a new legitimization of government, one that is formed through a social contract between its citizens, instead of divine right. Hobbes vests the government, whether it be the king, queen, or an assembly, with absolute power over all sectors of society.
This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortal God to which we owe, under the Immortal God, our peace and defense…he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that by terror thereof he is enabled to conform the will of them all to peace at home and mutual aid against their enemies abroad (1).
Hobbes’ understanding of the need for an authoritarian government is based on his view of human nature. According to Hobbes, before there was a government, people lived in a perpetual state of conflict with one another. Life was, in his infamous description, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (2).” His arrives at this conclusion through a trenchant analysis of human nature. According to Hobbes, humans are basically equal when it comes to physical and intellectual capacity. Sure, some individuals are a stronger physically or have a bit more specialized training than others, but in the end, “even the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself (3).”
There are some who may contest that humans are also intellectually equal, but according to Hobbes this is due to their great conceit—“all men think they have in a greater degree [of wisdom] than the vulgar, that is, than all men but themselves and a few others whom, by fame or for concurring with themselves, they approve (4).”
This state of equality results in a constant and unending cycle of violence as humans compete for resources, attempt to secure personal safety, and procure and protect their reputations (5). When two people desire the same thing, and both can’t have it, they inevitably become enemies. In the face of constant potential threat, humans will take pre-emptive measures to secure peace of mind. When the recognition of others do not seem to match the high opinion we have of ourselves (and our family, friends, country, job etc.), we will “extort a great value from his contemners, by damage, and from others, by the example (6).”
Hobbes goes on to clarify, that unlike other animals, i.e. bees and ants, that live together sociably by nature, humans cannot; in other words, we are not social by nature, but only artificially, brought together by contract (7).
(At this point of the analysis, noting that the book was written during the English Civil War, I ask the women in the class if perhaps Hobbes has just been hanging out with too many alpha males. I am surprised to find the women in the class claiming, with laughter, that women are even worse!)
In such a state, “where every man is enemy to every man” there is no economy, art, knowledge, society, etc., only “continual fear of danger of violent death (8).”
According to Hobbes, desiring peace, but realizing that it is unattainable in a state of equality, humans divest themselves of their freedom, and mutually transfer their rights to a third party. But this third party, or common power, must have enough power and authority to “keep them in awe” ruling by “terror” and the ability “conform the will of them all to peace at home (9).” Hence, Hobbes gives the analogy of the government as being the terrifying beast described in the book of Job (41:1-34).
Perhaps Hobbes is overgeneralizing his experience with a few bad apples, so to speak. Perhaps Hobbes is describing human nature in the most extreme circumstances, not the way we normally are. These are explanations I try to get the students to consider (10). Although there is a student that points out that extreme situations sometimes bring out the best in people, i.e. altruism, benevolence, the general consensus is that Hobbes is right about human nature (11).
Does Hobbes’ accurately articulate the Scriptural teaching of the “sinful nature” of humans?
I don’t think he does. In short, I don’t think the Scriptures are as pessimistic as Hobbes is when it comes to its understanding of human nature. In the book of Genesis, humans are depicted as being created in “the image of God” (1:27) and in context, this “image” seems to be an affirmation of our fundamentally relational nature—“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 2 depicts Adam being created first, but God observes that “It is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18). The details of the two stories are different, but the anthropology is the same. Contra Hobbes, in Genesis, humans are understood to be fundamentally relational beings, not just by “covenant” as Hobbes claims.
But what about the Fall? Don’t Christians believe that humans are “totally depraved”? This phrase has been wrongly understood by many as teaching that sin results in the total obliteration of the imago dei in humans. The teaching, more accurately interpreted, affirms the comprehensive effects of sin in all aspects of human ability and capacity—intellect, volition, and desire—not a complete annihilation. Furthermore, it refers to the human inability to seek, know, and perfectly do God’s will without divine grace, not a total inability to desire, know, or do the good generally.
Christian theology affirms the comprehensive affects of the Fall on human nature, not one that is complete. The leaves the question, “How much of the imago dei remains post Fall?” I think that many Christians have erred on the side of answering this question entirely in the negative—“None.” Many of us are very Hobbesian in our views of human nature, leading us to be overly pessimistic of “the world.”
I believe that both a careful reflection on our personal experiences with others and the teachings of Scripture will show that Hobbes’ view, applied generally, as being one-sided. Human nature is much more ambiguous than Hobbes presents it—“sinners” and “saints” exist alongside each other in society, as well as in the church.
Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University. He teaches philosophy courses at Kennesaw State University.
- Leviathan, Part I, Chapter 17, 13.
- Ibid., Chapter 13, 9.
- Ibid., Chapter 13, 1.
- Ibid., Chapter 13, 2.
- According to Hobbes, “[I]n the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel: first, competition; secondly diffidence; thirdly, glory” (Ibid., Chapter 13, 6).
- Ibid., Chapter 13, 5.
- Ibid., Part II, Chapter 17, 12.
- Ibid., Part I, Chapter 13, 9.
- Ibid., Part I, Chapter 17, 13.
- Rousseau will later argue that Hobbes makes the mistake of taking the observations he makes of humans living in society, and assuming this is how humans also are in nature; Hobbes does not consider the possibility that society itself is the cause of human nature being the way it is.
- Of course, if this analysis is accurate, it creates problems for Hobbes’ solution of an all-powerful government, as it would be run by people that inevitably share the nature Hobbes describes. This is why later political theorists will point out, this power needs to be limited with things like separation of powers and term limits.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2755