Hobbes: Implications of a Limited View of Freedom

As earlier mentioned, Hobbes holds a mechanistic view of the world in which matter and force are ultimate realities. Everything is determined by the mechanical operation of force on matter. In such a universe, there is little room for freedom in nature or in human life. In fact, one sees in Hobbes the shadow of an understanding doctrine of predestination prevalent among Reformed theologians, a doctrine in which it was (and is) difficult to find a place for a coherent doctrine of human freedom. [1] The result, for Hobbes, and for all those who follow his way of thinking, is a universe without meaning, in which the idea human freedom is ultimately meaningless. Such a vision of reality is inclined to some form of totalitarianism when applied to government. In its Marxist form, it becomes a doctrine of an inevitable materialistic course of human history. In its capitalist form, it becomes submission to a “free market” and its operation.

The position outlined in these blogs is quite different. The human experience of freedom is not a mere illusion based upon a lack of understanding of the world. Historical material forces do not fully or finally determine the future. The world in both its quantum and everyday aspects displays an astonishing amount of freedom. At the most basic level of reality, events contain an element of indeterminism and at the macro-level self-organizing systems reveal a kind of freedom from determinism, seen for example in chaos theory. As physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne puts it:

“Modern science has come to recognize that the processes that give rise to genuine novelty have to be at the “edge of chaos” where order and disorder, chance and necessity, creatively interlace. Otherwise, things are either too rigid for anything really new to happen or too haphazard for novelty to persist. The intrinsic unpredictabilities of quantum physics and chaos theory can be seen theologically as gifts of a Creator whose creation is orderly and open in this way. [2]

The universe humans inhabit does not appear to be fully deterministic. There is a place for both natural and human freedom. In particular, the emergence of the human race brought into existence beings with the ability for conscious choice and the creative ability to both adapt to the determinative elements of the material environment and creatively exploit its potential future organization. Human beings are true participants in the unfolding of a meaningful history, a history in which our choices are real and have real potential to bring about a better and freer future for ourselves and our families (or the reverse).

Hobbes on Freedom

Hobbes begins his analysis of the meaning of human freedom by defining freedom as follows, “Liberty, or Freedom, signifies the absence of opposition; by opposition I mean external impediments of motion; and may be applied to less to irrational and inanimate creatures than to rational.” [3]  There are two aspects of this definition that readers should bear in mind:

  1. Freedom is freedom from “opposition” or “impediments” of motion. In the end, freedom for Hobbes is the freedom to do whatever we wish or will to do without any restraint. [4] Those wishes and wills, however, are determined by material forces. Human freedom is no different from the freedom of a rock to fall under the force of gravity.
  2. Lack of freedom is a matter of external restraint. A rock falling is free to fall under the impact of gravity so long as no other force acts upon it. Translated to human freedom, freedom is the freedom to act without external restraint. A free person is one who is free to do whatever he or she wills to do without external hinderance. [5] Physical infirmity and external laws are natural and human imposed restraints on freedom.

Thus, Hobbes freedom is a freedom “from” restraints on the human will, not a freedom “for” human achievement and flourishing. In the classical view, freedom was not simply a freedom from restraint but a freedom of each individual to achieve the end for which human beings were made. In a classical view of freedom, while freedom from restraint is an aspect of freedom, that freedom from restraint is a freedom to achieve the good for which human beings were created. There is a “telos” (or goal) to human freedom. In Hobbes constricted view there is only a freedom from, for there is no goal to human existence.

For Hobbes every action is caused (determined) by physical causes that mean all human behavior is necessary. The final cause in Hobbes mind is God. [6] Everything that occurs in the universe is determined by necessity, including human actions. Real existential freedom is not part of the universe. According to Hobbes, the fact that an action is caused, and the cause is determinative, does not make it less free.

Political Consequences

At this point, it is important to recall that Hobbes’ view of society as instituted because of fear, the fear of chaos and violence. In order to achieve peace (an absence of the fear of violence and chaos), human beings give up their freedom, human society is formed, and human laws are enacted. These laws are “artificial chains”. [7] The use of the term “artificial chains” is instructive. Laws are external rules imposed upon citizens that constrict their freedom in the search for social peace. Political freedom simply refers to those areas of life that are currently not the subject of some legal impediment to action.

Notice that, unlike a classical or Christian view, laws are not constructed by free agents to seek a common good or the good of families or communities. Political society is not formed for the purpose of providing a social structure within which human freedom can be exercised and human potential realized. There is no common good to which all human beings and their leaders should strive within human society. Political society is formed solely to eliminate chaos, violence and fear, which Hobbes believes to be the “natural state” of the human agent. In Hobbes, the more organic and historically accurate view of the origin and evolution of human society is lacking.

One result is to discourage looking at laws as essential to human thriving. For example, the laws against murder and assault are surely partially enacted to prevent social chaos. Nevertheless, they are also a guide to healthy human life. If we believe that human beings were meant to be rational, cherishing human life and human potential, then the laws against murder and violence, as well as a great many other laws, are not merely restrictions on liberty, but also guides to the achievement of human potential. Even with respect to such mundane matters as traffic laws, a Hobbesian view sees these laws as restrictions of human activity (such as speeding). This overlooks the common objective of such restrictions: allowing people to travel safely and reach their destinations without accident, so that they can conduct their lives and businesses profitably. This is an aspect of law that Hobbes misses entirely.

Consequences of the Unlimited Power of the Sovereign

Because Hobbes believes the sovereign has unlimited power (that is an unlimited capacity to restrict human freedom), he is required to defend his notion of freedom in a way consistent with the notion of absolute sovereign power. Hobbes begins by taking the position that there is nothing a sovereign can do that constitutes an unjust deprivation of human freed, even putting a subject to death. [8] This is a totalitarian position granting to sovereigns unchecked power.

In fact, only a sovereign is truly free under Hobbes doctrine. The state, and therefore its rulers, are free because the sovereign and it alone can do whatever it pleases without restraint. [9] This notion of absolute sovereignty flows from his fundamentally material and antisocial view of the human race and its condition without laws: the war of “everyman against his neighbor.” [10] Once again, we see in Hobbes’ limited, dark and entirely constricted view of human beings and of human society—and one that flies in the face of a good portion of human experience.

Liberty without Freedom

According to Hobbes, once a sovereign is either acknowledged or established, having submitted to a government in order to achieve some kind of social peace, the subject has the duty and obligation to support the state. The freedom established by Hobbes notion of sovereignty is not the freedom to achieve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” unimpeded by the power and interference of the state. In the first instance, human freedom is the freedom to obey the sovereign. Hobbes’ freedom is the freedom to obey and support the state, having authorized its actions in advance by submission to its power. [11] However, another remaining liberty is the right to refuse to obey and suffer the due consequences of refusal or the establishment of a new sovereignty. [12] Thus, a sovereign can order the suicide of a subject with no injustice, and the subject can refuse according to the law of nature—but must expect to suffer the consequences.

As for any other form of liberty, it depends upon the “silence of the law.” [13] The only area of human freedom is whatever area is left without legislation or regulation restricting that freedom: “In cases where the sovereign has prescribed no rule, there the subject hath the liberty to do, or forbear, according to his own discretion.” [14] This is again a concrete example of Hobbes negative, “freedom from” view of the nature of liberty. Within his system, there is simply no coherent way to object to a decision of a sovereign. The only real appeal to a decision of the sovereign cannot be to reason, but to force of some kind to remove the sovereign and create another sovereignty by force. There is no notion of freedom as an open area within which the good of human society and the achievement of human potential can be achieved.

An Agapistic Response to Hobbes

There are continuities between some versions of the post-modernist outlook and response to political realities and the dark ideas of Hobbes. Both are radically materialistic in their vision. Both are inclined to see sovereign power as a guarantor of “safety” from violence, physical, social and emotional. Both are inclined to disregard the existence of limitations on what government might do to enforce their vision of social reality.

Interestingly, both can be suspicious of communal norms. This concern of the post-modernists was kindly communicated to me by a philosophy professor with whom I was discussing a communitarian ethic. His concern was the absorption of the individual into the community and the lack of any limitations on what kinds of morality and law a community might enforce. In his mind the state was the guarantor of the individual’s rights to be “different.” At the time, I had no response to his concern. However, I do think a response is possible—but only for those who embrace an ontology and political philosophy of love, what I have called an agapistic political theory.

A politics of love rejects the notion that there are no limits on what governments can and ought to do, on the grounds that the freedom is necessary for human beings to flourish and for human culture to progress. The natural tendencies for political units to increase their power and control has to be balanced by a desire to allow persons, families, neighborhoods, churches, communities, and other social groups form themselves and those who belong to the group. Love, by its nature, sets limitations on power.

Of course, those who believe in God and in some transcendental purpose to life will defend the maximization of social free space as allowing individuals the freedom to achieve their true end, their true nature, as reflected in the nature of God. [15] Christians will believe that this free space is necessary for believers to truly become like Christ in their capacity for self-giving love. Those who do not believe in God can also participate in this vision because they too believe that human beings ought to be free to become their true, chosen selves.

From a theological point of view, God created the universe with a kind of freedom through which human beings eventually evolved. Throughout eons and eons, God has allowed and continues to allow the evolution of human society as a place of freedom from the absolute control of the creator so that this creature might freely embrace fellowship with God and others, creating a social life that achieves a not the abstract dictates of a Divine Dictator, but the free choices of human persons. One of the purposes of human society is to protect the maximum amount of that freedom consistent with human safety and society.

On the other hand, a politics of love recognizes that love can only be experienced and practiced within social realities, marriage, family, neighborhoods, communities, social organizations, and even in political institutions. The social fabric of a sound society is necessary as a place where love can flourish, and so it is necessary to build up the social bonds of that kind of love that we can call “social pragma,” the love of members of a society for the society as a whole and all of its members, not just for members of its own social group. [16]

Finally, freedom cannot exist without sacrifice—a kind of sacrificial love in which the individual is cherished by his or her society and given the social space to be achieve their own individual destiny and purpose. In this view, society is almost like a dance, with the partners being freedom and community, with each individual both respecting communal norms and being granted the space to grow and flourish, even in some instances in responsible dissent from those norms.

This defense of freedom will be the subject of future blogs.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This is not the place for a discussion of the Doctrine of Predestination or the various forms it takes in Catholic and Protestant circles.

[2] John Polkinghorne & Nicholas Beale, Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox 2009), 43.

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York, NY: Collier-McMillan, 1971), 159. All references herein are to this edition of Leviathan. I have taken the liberty of rendering Hobbes language into more contemporary English, since we do not use terms like “signifieth” in normal conversation.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 160. This is not a theological essay, but it is fascinating how Hobbes and other early mechanists appear to be influence by an extreme predestinarian outlook on the world. One might say that a dark result of extreme Calvinism is the loss of freedom for both the individual and for creation as a whole.

[7] Id.

[8] Id, at 161.

[9] Id, at 162. Notice again that sovereigns are free because they lack restraint. Thus, the kind of checks and balances that prevent democracy from degenerating into mob-rule, aristocracy from degenerating into oligarchy, and kingship into tyranny is entirely lacking any foundation.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, at 164.

[12] Id, at 165.

[13] Id, at 165-166.

[14] Id, at 166. To anticipate a future argument, the so-called “legal realism” of is an adaptation to American law of this principle, which once again, I think can be mistaken.

[15] The idea for this section came to me in reading John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness (London, ENG: T & T Clark, 2006. For those not familiar with Zizioulas, he is a Greek Orthodox theologian, most well-known for his insistence that the trinity is constituted by the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and therefore, communion precedes being. John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1985). His communal ontology has been influential in Christian circles far beyond Eastern Orthodoxy. Communion and Otherness was written to defend his approach against the complaint that it tends to diminish “otherness” or the personal. Among others, John Polkinghorne has noted the similarities between certain aspects of quantum physics with this kind of ontology. See, John Polkinghorne, ed., The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 2010).

[16] Pragma matures and develops over time in persons and society. It is not merely physical nor does it focus on attraction (as in eros). It is not primarily based on genetic or personal commonality (as in filios). Pragma involves a degree of self-denying commitment (like agape), and results in a personal and social harmony formed over time as a result of human effort. Whether personal or social, pragma requires reason, compromise, dialogue, patience and tolerance. Persons and institutions are formed in love when formed in pragma.

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