Virtue in Hobbes’ and Platos’s political philosophy


According to Leo Strauss, Hobbes’political philosophy is an attempt to provide an exceptionally modern answer to the question of man’s right life (which at the same time is an answer to the question about the right social order); in respect of its scope and honesty it has not found an equal so far and as such it determined the moral, social and political shape of the ideal of modern civilization. (L. Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes [The University of Chicago Press, 1963] . A similar thesis is advanced by H. Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1973] and M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno in Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente [S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 1969]). Hobbes’ philosophy rests on the concept of natural right, which, in turn, derives from a natural desire for self-preservation. Since it is impossible to make a transition from a natural desire to a natural right within the framework of modern natural science, what we face here is a moral postulate, which implies a radical (and intentional) break with the former tradition based on the concept of virtue and sets the course for the development of modern thought and practice.

The desire for self-preservation, as the strongest human passion, is the source and justification of the system postulated by Hobbes as well as of “public” morality, which makes it possible. Montesquieu suggests that the passions driving people in a given system should be defined as its “principle”, which, he claims, should be differentiated from the “nature” of the system, which defines who and how wields power. The principle and nature of the system remain closely interrelated. Thus it is impossible, for instance, that virtue, which, according to Montesquieu, was the principle of ancient republics, could become the principle of a despotic system based on the fear of subjects.

It may seem strange that although Hobbes and, for instance, Locke want to build a political system on the same principle, that is on the desire of (transformed into the right for) self-preservation — each proposes a different form or nature of the system as the most compatible with this principle. A partial solution to the problem may be Locke’s line of argumentation — he points out Hobbes’ mistake in drawing a false conclusion (about the necessity for the absolute system) from a right premise (about a moral and political priority of the desire for self-preservation). Locke claims that contrary to the liberal rule, the absolute rule is a more serious threat to our survival, greater than the anarchy of the natural state. Looking at the dispute from the modern perspective we are more willing to admit that Locke was right: an undisputable political success of the system he describes seems to confirm his thesis that it is closer to the principle so fundamental for modern times. On the other hand, Hobbes’ and Locke’s different ideas of the system may prove the exceptional flexibility of the rule (its ability to produce various “forms”), which, in turn, would justify Strauss’s claim that it had a considerable impact on all important trends in modern thought and on moral and social practice.

When writing about a “necessary” compatibility of the principle and nature of a given system, Montesquieu’s primary aim was to define conditions of its durability. He believed that ancient republics failed because their citizens would give up virtue (that is a principle); they would indulge in egoistic passions, increasing individualism which valued its own interest over common good, in the disappearance of respect for common norms and values, which permeated and united society, dictating high standards to all its members.

One of the differences between modern systems, based on the principle of self-preservation, and those of ancient republics, is that the concern for moral betterment of citizens is no longer a public issue or a mission of the political power, instituted only to ensure for each individual the conditions for a free (though not violating freedom of other individuals) fulfillment of natural desires, which are the foundation and “justification” of his natural rights, accepted by the political community. A good citizen in a well organized state should not be so much induced to make good as restrained from doing evil by appropriate institutions (which mostly consists in violating the rights of other citizens). A theoretical justification of the idea of the modern political system can be found in the writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, who deliberately reject the fundamental assumption of classical (ancient and medieval) political thought, according to which the stability and well-being of a state depends on the virtue of its citizens. They claim that the classics aimed too high when demanding that politics should be based on virtue: they demanded from all what only few could achieve. That is why the standard should be lowered: instead of demanding moral perfections from the citizens, they should be required to observe the law and the rule which upholds it and which they should agree upon. According to the three thinkers the advantage of such a solution is that it is based on a much more realistic premise. The premise is that political obligation cannot be based on the objective which is (sometimes) pursued by a chosen few, but on the passions which drive human behavior always and everywhere.

However, one can wonder whether in order to make citizens observe the system based on the “principle” of preservation of those “positive” obligations (which result from natural passions) it may be necessary to observe one significant “negative” obligation. It well may be that the general consent (enforced in extreme cases by coercion) to observe laws which ensure that everyone can exercises his natural rights, should be accompanied by the general consent to renounce virtue. According to the classics, virtue transcends the desire for self-preservation and often contradicts its. Would it be possible then that the system based on the desire could outlive the citizens’ (hypothetical) “conversion” to virtue? Or, following “Montesquieu’s law” requiring a harmony between the principle and the nature of the system, would it share the fate of ancient republics due to a symmetrically opposite reason?


If we were to make the political system (based on the principle of self-preservation) advocated by Hobbes fit the Platonic categories of state forms (among which the most important is the system based on virtue, understood in a peculiar way), most likely we would give it a status similar to that of oligarchy, based on wealth. (This, however, needs a significant adjustment, which was provided by Locke: a necessary condition for survival is the possession of financial means). Plato claims that oligarchy surpasses democracy, because contrary to a “democrat”, a person who amasses wealth and grants it the highest value, realizes that he should control his base passions as otherwise they could destroy the value he cherishes. At the same time he believes that as a political system, oligarchy is unstable and it naturally evolves into democracy, which rejects all limitations. According to Plato, an oligarch suffers from a soul’s malady which cannot be remedied by sheer political means — it is necessary to base politics on morality and to make the soul’s well-being and perfection its priority. Hobbes denies this; Plato’s political solution should be rejected because it is based on an erroneous perception of human passions, which are powerful and flexible and thus have a political significance. It is more or less obvious that the social peace, the contradiction of which is war and chaos, ensure the safety of the wealth one amasses. That is why the choice of such a peace and a voluntary submission to what it entails is to the best interest of an individual, the interest which follows from its pure egoistic desire. What is more, by relating — just as Locke did in a most unequivocal way — the accumulation of wealth to the desire for survival, the most fundamental one for each individual, and by shaping the latter in a specific way, we acquire a realistic and stable basis for social order.

It does not mean, though, that Hobbes’ claims, advanced in opposition to classical thought, concern the domain of (effective) politics only. Hobbes does not question the fact that politics can and should be based on morality, but claims that its moral standards should be lowered (for the sake of maintaining common good, which, in turn, is a necessary condition of individual good.) This moral and political claim results directly from a specific understanding of human nature, which does not aim at a higher end. However, Hobbes does not believe that human existence — what one really is — does not imply any obligation, that is what one should really be. Thus the claim of modern political philosophy to treat an individual the way he really is, does not necessarily imply the breach between politics and morality.

If the classics are right that the human nature develops according to an embedded goal, then the pursuit of this goal is an obligation deriving from the very existence of man. It turns out, however, that it is possible to claim the existence of such an obligation even after rejecting the teleological explanation and adopting instead the view that man is not so much “drawn” by a higher goal than “driven” by desires. Hobbes’ theory is the best example here. The natural fact that man’s basic desire is self-preservation does not invariably mean that it will always motivate and define his behavior (towards himself and his fellow human beings.) The paradox of the natural condition of mankind lies in the fact that human beings, who, according to Hobbes, are most afraid of being killed by one another, fight a mortal combat and thus act contrary to their most basic desire. The transition to a social state is thus a moral postulate, an obligation deriving from human nature and its most basic desire. If a social state is to come, it is necessary to transform the desire and to direct it against other, socially detrimental urges and desires. Thus Hobbes does not content himself with saying that for the establishment of peace it is necessary to adjust mutual relations among human beings. On the contrary, he claims that to ensure peaceful coexistence future citizens need to undergo an inner change. Their well-being and prosperity will depend on the extent to which the change will take root.

It should be borne in mind that a well organized and ruled society is what every individual should consider valuable and desirable, as long as his strongest passion makes him realize what is good for him and for his autonomous existence. It is evident now that Plato’s claim about a close dependence between the good of the state and the good of an individual is still valid in Hobbes’ thought. The principle which ensures and legitimizes the existence of the state is the good of an individual (avoiding death or self-preservation); on the other hand, the state’s stability, prosperity and well-being depend on whether individuals who make it up follow what is good for them.

It seems then that Hobbes’ position allows for an analysis — similar to that which Plato made — of political systems (healthy and corrupt) and corresponding human types. In many respects Hobbes’ state of nature resembles what Plato describes as “democracy.” In both cases it is impossible to pursue any political ends which would lead to common good. The basic reason for this is the corruption of the human being (a “democrat” or a “natural man”) whose behavior is not guided by the good deriving from his own nature. The anti-political type is at the same time the morally corrupt type.1 What it entails is that if one wants to make just and effective politics, one has to make an effort to educate and shape a different type of man. Just like Plato, Hobbes clearly believes that certain human types are mutually exclusive, which has far-reaching consequences for politics. They both believe that this makes it necessary to base politics on morality. They stress that the quality and durability of a state derives from the well-being of its citizens and that the public good, which is what politics is concerned with, is closely related to the individual good.


It turns out that the comparison between Plato’s “democracy” and Hobbes’ state of nature, or “oligarchy”, and the state based on the strongest human passion shows more similarities than differences in the sphere of morality and politics (and their mutual relations.) To make the differences between the two propositions clearer, we need to take into consideration two additional forms of the sate — timocracy and aristocracy — which, according to Plato, are superior to oligarchy and democracy and which correspond with certain human types. To prove their superiority, Plato used two interrelated arguments. According to him, timocracy and democracy ensure a better and more stable social order because in comparison with oligarchy they are more effective in combating detrimental passions. Their political value is closely dependent on the quality of citizens’lives and on creating favorable conditions for the development of specific human types. As Plato believed that man’s moral perfection and the good of the state were necessarily inseparable, it may seem impermissible to make them different. However, it is worth remembering that he regarded virtue not only as the best and most perfect means of achieving the objective (the good of the state) but also as an end in itself. That is why Hobbes’ purely political argumentation would not be decisive for Plato. Even if we assume that the “oligarchy” type may be a relatively stable basis for social order, we definitely cannot say that human beings corresponding to the type would, in Plato’s eyes, embody virtue.

If we were to present Plato’s classification of political systems in the ascending order, it would turn out that being an “oligarch” is just a step on the way to virtue, but not big enough to be considered a necessary condition for achieving it. It is true that an oligarch can control some natural passions, but he is not able to, or does not want to use this skill to realize his humanity. He still values most what is purely natural, what does not make him different from animals: the desire for (comfortable) life. To him the good of the soul is less valuable than the good of the body. Following Socrates, Plato claims that it is spirituality rather than sheer physicality which is responsible for man’s humanity and sets him apart from other beings. Thus a decisive step towards humanity understood in such a way would be acknowledging values which go beyond a pure natural state; in that sense they are supra-natural and worth living and dying for. Such a shift in the hierarchy of values takes places in the soul of a “timocrat” and an “aristocrat” — hence a difference in kind between their way of life and that of an “oligarch.” Although Plato and Hobbes agree that the ultimate justification of a given form of a political system lies in human nature (and that its political effectiveness depends on whether it conforms to human nature), their fundamentally different understanding of humanity makes their ideas about the best form of a political system incompatible.

In comparison with Plato’s vision, Hobbes’ concept of politics and morality seems mundane and void of any sophistication. However, before we explode with moral and aesthetic indignation, we should examine what really happens in the soul of a citizen living in Hobbes’ state. We already know the fate of the passions which Plato ascribed to a “democratic” man and which also Hobbes, seeing them as a threat to a social order, wanted to eliminate, contrasting them with man’s strongest desire. On the other hand, we do not know what has happened, or should happen, with the desires of the soul which, according to Plato, define the existence of a “timocratic” or an “aristocratic” man. Hobbes, let us remember, believed the classical political thought had failed mainly because it resolved to base politics on a shaky foundation of moral perfection, which by nature was accessible onto to few. Thus the lack of political effectiveness resulted directly from a wrong understanding of human nature, which was supposedly set on higher, spiritual goals. However, the sheer assertion that classical thinkers described unreal (not based on human nature) motives, which additionally were politically useless, does not really mean that they are not (were not?) responsible for people’s behavior in real life. As Hobbes himself clearly notices that such a motivation exists and is powerful he needs to define its place in the system of human passions he proposes.

First of all he must confront it with the central (politically and morally) element of the system, that is with the desire for self-preservation (or the fear of dying). One can argue that from the point of view of this strongest human passion, the motives which Plato ascribed to — correspondingly — a “timocrat” and an “aristocrat”, are in a way superfluous, something that can be aspired to by a few chosen ones but which definitely does not carry any weight either in politics or in morality, which would be socially valid. Such an approach seems to correspond with what Hobbes censures the classics for; although he accuses them openly of the lack of realism he does not negate, at least directly, the nobleness of their ideals of humanity. However, we need to raise a question whether consistent attempts to realize these ideals do not clash with the desire for self-preservation. For instance, according to Plato, such a possibility is quite real: spiritual values laying at the “foundation” of timocracy and aristocracy transcend a purely natural sphere, thereby making it (relatively) less valuable. Hobbes claims, however, that a purely natural desire for survival is the only effective guarantee of social peace, whose stability depends on whether the desire becomes a driving force behind citizens’thinking and acting. What is more, the concern for social peace is to the individual’s best interest, as his most important good, even if not consciously realized, is the preservation of life. Should not then all desires which contradict the desire for self-preservation (which “intend” to eliminate it or dominate over it) be regarded as politically and morally threatening? Should not they be eliminated regardless of whether they come “from above” or “from below”? If it is true that “oligarchy” is the optimal political and moral system, then, it seems, those who intend to maintain it should oppose the two extremes: the “democratic” one and the “timocratic” or “aristocratic” one. If, following Hobbes, we define the good of the state and of the individual in the categories of an “average” desire for self-preservation, then we may be forced to admit that the “higher” desires should share the fate of the “lower” ones. This, however, would force us to reformulate Hobbes criticism of classical thinkers: their idealism should be denounced not only because it is politically and morally ineffective, but also because it is a threat to the optimal system.


Deep inside, a Platonic “timocrat” is driven by ambition and a desire for honors. Above all he is concerned with the recognition of his merits (war or military). The recognition he seeks and demands from others is the confirmation of his worth (it derives from the description of the “thymotean” or “spirited” part of the soul, which Plato includes in Book IV of his Republic). The desire for prestige, power and fame is different from the desire for self-preservation and possession of material goods. Those who cherish it do not limit themselves to satisfying purely natural needs. They value the existence itself less than its quality, which they measure by appropriate deeds. They prefer spiritual values which, contrary to biological ones, differentiate people. Thus they are driven by the desire to exceed not only themselves but also others. They demand their high qualities are recognized, and in the name of this recognition they are ready to sacrifice their own life and the lives of others.

Hobbes’“natural man” is also consumed by the ambition to excel, to be compared with others and to demonstrate his superiority. The ambition results in the attachment to fame, pride or vanity, which are characteristic of human nature and make it different from animal nature. They lead to a mortal competition among people, because everyone aims at being the best and demands recognition and respect from others. Pride makes everyone fight everyone else not only to possess more material goods but also to possess non-material goods, such as power, honor or prestige. Hobbes claims that the only counterbalance to pride is fear; just like pride itself, fear is a specifically human factor. It is the fear of a sudden death dealt by another man; it is a shameful death because it is the ultimate failure in the race to bear the palm. Hobbes believes that in order for a man to leave the unbearable state of nature and to enter the social state, his fear needs to conquer pride.

Natural reason, guided by the passion of fear (or the desire for self-preservation) prompts men that the only way to ensure safety is to establish the basis for peace. In turn, the establishment and maintenance of peace requires entering into a contract, on the strength of which everyone agrees to follow the orders of a sovereign, chosen by a common consent. However, as the reason for observing the contract is the desire for safety (escaping death dealt by other men), the transition to the social state is possible only when first the future citizens’souls undergo a transformation. The desire to escape the utmost evil (death) has to prevail over the desire for the ultimate pleasure (to be the first); pride, whose role is to differentiate and hierarchize, has to surrender, being forced to accept a basic equality of all men in view of the natural and ultimate fact of death.

To describe and explain the character of a state and of a state power, Hobbes uses many vivid metaphors (mortal god, beast, machinery, giant.) The most famous one is of course the Leviathan, which towards the end of his most famous work Hobbes calls the king of the proud. The task of the sovereign is to establish laws which guarantee social peace and to administer punishment, including the capital punishment, to those who do not want to follow the laws. It turns out then that the fear of death is not only a primeval motif of establishing political order, but also it is the latter’s most important and ultimate safeguard. On the other hand, a proud man is more afraid of dishonor rather than death: he prefers to chose an honorable death than a dishonorable life. Thus, contrary to those who renounce pride for the sake of their own safety, he is not ready to accept the political authority and the laws it establishes.

It seems that calling the Leviathan the king of the proud, contradicts Hobbes’ characterization of the passion of pride. It is impossible for one, whose strongest argument to make people follow the law is to threaten their lives with death, to be their king. The most the Leviathan can do is to physically eliminate the proud, but he will never become their ruler. Here, the most decisive factor is the key moment of drawing up the contract, which establishes authority and society. Among other things, it makes “the king of the proud” entirely expandable. The ends the Leviathan wants to achieve and the rights he is granted, make him the king of “burghers”, but they are not enough to ensure the loyalty of the “aristocrats.” In other words, there is no place for pride in Hobbes’ state, because it is the state of those who have rejected it in the name of safety. The durability and well-being of their state depends directly on the seriousness of this rejection.

What is interesting, the way Plato judges pride is far from unambiguous. Although he claims that a “timocratic” man is superior to an “oligarch, ” yet definitely he is not the highest type. He does not deserve the name of an “aristocrat” because he does not fulfill the conditions necessary for attaining moral excellence. This is enough to consider the “timocratic” system inferior to the “aristocratic” one (as one of the most important criteria of judging the state is the quality of existence of its citizens.) However, there is another, equally important reason for this inferiority. It is difficult to maintain unity and stability of a society whose citizens, driven by ambition and pride, desire honors most of all. One should examine the influence of such an attitude on the mutual relations in a society. Hobbes would claim, it seems, that considering all the circumstances, the only possible relation would be a total war of everyone against everyone else, a mortal combat which this time would take place on a “spiritual” battleground. In his eyes timocracy would be a specific derivative of the state of nature, in which the inevitability of conflicts results directly from the impossibility of establishing standards valid for all and accepted by all. Plato notes the same when he describes the timothean (“spirited”) part of the soul (which in the structure of the political system corresponds to the caste of guardians) and postulates a necessity to subjugate its rational part (to the caste of rational rulers.)

A man driven by thymos responds with anger when he believes someone has offended his dignity, scorned or negated the worth of what he values most. Plato claims that this type of man is necessary for the state which wants to staunchly defend its own values against internal and external enemies. However, when thymos is not controlled by any higher power, it may become exceptionally dangerous for the state. When one’s worth and everything that undermines it, is the object of a purely subjective evaluation, a conflict between men driven by ambitions seems inevitable. The danger of thymos, just like the danger of Hobbes’“pride”, lies mostly in the fact that they do not provide right motivation to value life or one’s self-preservation. As Plato writes “he will not lay down his arms until he gains what he fights for or until he dies, ” unless “the reason he possesses admonishes him and tames him like a shepherd tames a dog.” The question remains in what way the reason may admonish and tame thymos, without negating it. It is possible, writes Plato, when it can recognize and implement universally valid and immutable standards of good and justice. The ultimate guarantee of such a recognition and embodiment is the reason of a philosopher-ruler, who should wield power over the caste of “timothean” guardians. In a healthy state, that is in the state ruled by philosophers, the reason may gain a political value and thus may become universal. The laws and tenets of upbringing, consistent with the principles rooted in the universal idea (model) of good, shape not only social relations but in the first place they shape the citizens’souls by strengthening and perfecting their rational component. A timothean sense of self-esteem ceases to be socially dangerous the moment the men who possess it realize, that the highest value and excellence is what unites them with others, what is independent of their subjective opinions and what is identical with the good of the whole community.


It is worth pointing out that Plato’s solution to the political problem of thymos (or pride) is free of inconsistencies present in Hobbes’ concept. The philosopher-ruler can be a rightful king of the proud, because, first, pride, as understood by Plato, is one of the conditions (and elements) of his own moral excellence and second, on the strength of the role they play, the guardians are neither required nor should renounce it. It is true that pride may cause conflicts in a society but, as Hobbes noted too, its excesses could not be counteracted by the fear of (sudden) death. What is more, although pride is potentially dangerous, it is one of the conditions of a good, honorable life — individual and social. That is why it should not be eradicated but harnessed for the higher ends. It should be directed towards good and excellence, which are objectively valid and which define descriptively and normatively our own humanity, common for everyone.

However, Hobbes rejects Plato’s solution because he does not believe there is one universal principle of good and wrong, which would derive from the very nature of things. In his view, nature is blind to the highest good and as far as the highest evil is concerned, it provides a relatively perverse answer. The highest evil is the (natural) state of war waged by everyone against everyone else, in which the life of every individual is perennially threatened. The state of nature deserves the name of the greatest evil because the fear of death is the strongest and “necessary” passion of man. Thus nature prompts us to turn away from nature. The only way to leave the state of nature is to establish a society, which fist requires the establishment of universally valid and accepted principles of good and evil. However, as the description of the state of nature suggests, the articulation of such principles before the establishment of a society is impossible. This implies that there are no standards of good and evil which would not be bound by politics or society. The state of nature is radically amoral. As the desire for survival is not determined by choice but by necessity, and in the state of nature everyone has good reasons to be afraid of being killed by another, all actions undertaken in the name of defending life — including killing potential or real enemies (that is everyone else) — cannot be morally judged. Hobbes claims that in the state of nature everyone has an unlimited right to everything which facilitates his self-preservation, and in view of the lack of any “external” standards the decision of what facilitates self-preservation and what does not, rests with an individual himself.

Hobbes believes that the renunciation of this right by all individuals entering a social covenant and its transfer to the sovereign is the condition for establishing social peace and for forsaking the state of war of everyone against everyone else. Because the covenant concerns everyone and everyone accepts it, for the first time there is a chance of formulating the principles of good and evil, which, to deserve their name, must be universal. By submitting oneself to the rule of the sovereign, an individual agrees to observe the laws the sovereign proclaims. Thus the good and evil become synonymous with following or transgressing the established law. The law, however, is not arbitrary, which might be implied by the fact that the sovereign possesses unlimited power. What matters, though, is the source of his power and its legitimacy. The way the power is established defines its objective, function and extent, and thus considerably limits its arbitrariness. The source of power are the individuals who enter a covenant and who convene to set the terms of peace on the strength of a belief that the necessity to preserve life is most important to them.

However, as the state does not serve the purpose of realizing the highest good — defined by the standards contained either in nature itself or in the divine plan of human redemption and identical with a certain quality of human life — so it is not concerned with promoting, supporting and judging those desires which make the citizens’existence as much noble or pious as possible. The objective of the state is to preserve the lives of those who brought it to existence. Thus the original political fact is the right of individuals (or their entitlement) rather than any obligation or duty. Or, to put it otherwise, all obligations and duties are derived from the “natural” right of self-preservation, which everyone is entitled to, and which means that they cannot concern the quality of their individual existence, but only the relations with other individuals.

Hobbes’ concept of the natural state frees politics from the demands of nature (and from divine grace) by removing what is fundamental to them, that is the notion of the highest good. According to Hobbes, it does not have any foundation in reality and, not to mention other reasons, it cannot be the basis of a stable political order. A real and “effective” political good must be of a different kind. However, one can pose a question whether these two concepts of good are not necessarily contradictory. In other words, one can wonder whether at least some citizens could think and act following the “rival” concept of good, which would endanger the stability of the order based on the principles deriving from the desire or the right of self-preservation.

Hobbes himself realized fully well that the “objective unreality” of the aims of a good life, promoted hitherto by tradition, did not negate the fact that some people honestly wanted to achieve them. He was of the opinion that the state does not have to, cannot and should not actively support such aspirations. It does not mean though that the state should remain neutral as far as the lifestyles of its citizens are concerned. As the main task of the political authority is the establishment and the maintenance of the terms of social peace (after all, it is created for that purpose) it must have the right to interfere in this sphere too. It should support such lifestyles which are conducive to peace and oppose those, which undermine it. Thus in order to evaluate Hobbes’“new” policy towards traditional demands of nature and grace, we should check whether the resulting commitment to a certain lifestyle does not clash with the assumptions or conditions which for Hobbes are necessary for maintaining peace.


Hobbes believed that the ominous consequences of following the demands of nature and grace had come to light during the political and religious civil war in England. Having been a witness to the war, he thought it was caused by “seductive doctrines”, which together brought forth a spirit of rebellion against the authority, thus undermining the foundations of social order and peace. Here the author of The Leviathan mentions religious doctrines which empower true believers to decide good and evil (including the political sphere of the sovereign’s decisions) according to the dictates of their own conscience, as well as classical (Greco-Roman) republican theories, whose followers glorified liberty on the basis of moral and political grounds and obligations resulting from the order of nature.

Although for Hobbes the doctrines were socially detrimental, it was necessary to explain why it was so. Their followers did not want to destroy the social order as such, but they opposed the existing order to establish a better one. They believed that the right foundation and guarantee of such an order should be religious or natural rather than political. They were convinced that the good they upheld was universally true and superior; as such, it should be a guiding principle for all institutions and actions. However, each “side” upheld a different concept of universal and superior good and in the name of it refused the central power obedience, which inevitably led to a civil war, a war of everyone against everyone else. Dramatic events in England seemed to fully confirm Hobbes’ claim that people were not able to agree on the issue of the highest good.

Contrary to what the representatives of classical political thought claimed, the highest good is not capable of uniting people, but instead it inevitably leads to a conflict among them. The followers of different concepts of the good, noble or excellent life are not able to negotiate their terms, mostly because they refer to a fundamentally wrong idea of human nature, which has no grounding in reality. If human nature is not guided by one predetermined and universal end, then every attempt to define such an (alleged) end must be arbitrary and doomed to a conflict with other, equally arbitrary ends. Although real nature does not indicate directly what every man should attain (beginning at the present state of his existence), it nevertheless clearly shows what everyone is afraid of losing. Death, writes Hobbes, makes us all equal, because everyone runs the risk of dying from the hands of someone else (as everyone is equally capable of killing others.) However, this natural equality would not be complete, but for the fact that everyone fears death (from the hands of others) and everyone agrees that the loss of one’s own life is the greatest evil. People cannot agree on the issue of the highest good, but they can reach some consent as far as the greatest evil is concerned. Rather than the pursuit of religious or moral excellence, it is the fear of death that is a necessary foundation for politics, on which one can build a community of opinions, aspirations and achievements. The unity and peace can be assured only by the art of politics, which creates a social and political order without referring to any predetermined natural or supranatural order of things and without deriving the principles of good and evil from the nature of things themselves.

However, before the fear of death can become the foundation of a real unity and a peaceful coexistence, it should be first “politicized” and thus made “moral”. The original or “natural” fear of death from the hands of another, must be transformed into the fear of death from the hands of the sovereign. The establishment of the state itself, which signifies the abandonment of the state of nature, is the result of a consent reached by individuals, who agree that the greatest evil is the “sudden” death. They also agree that the only way to avoid the greatest evil is the establishment of peace, which requires relinquishing an individual’s own “natural” right to everything and contenting oneself with so much liberty towards others as he grants others towards himself. Still, however, the covenant is problematic and uncertain. Once an individual decides to drastically limit his original, unlimited rights, he runs the serious risk of forfeiting his survival (in the name of which he enters the covenant in the first place), because others may want to violate or breach the agreement. So as to be sensible and truly effective, the agreement must meet two more conditions: when giving up their rights at the time of entering into the agreement, everyone should have certainty that everyone else will do the same and, what is equally important, they should have some guarantee that in future the terms of the agreement will be kept. Hobbes believes that the obligation to abide by agreements is the basis of society and the foundation of all principles of justice and injustice. In the state of nature, where there was no obligation to abide by any agreements, everyone had a right to everything. The socialization of man, which makes the terms of peace possible, takes place at the moment when the mechanism and institutions which guarantee compliance with agreements, and especially the original agreement, are created. The problem is, however, that in the state of nature there are no laws which could be used to formulate the principles of justice and injustice (of abiding or not abiding by agreements) and no sanctions which would enforce them. Hence it is necessary to chose a political body (a sovereign) who is solely authorized to make and enforce laws. The question remains, what could possibly justify and sanction legislative and executive measures undertaken by the sovereign. The only possible and, according to Hobbes, effective solution is to refer to an amoral and irreligious necessity of survival, to the fear of death. The latter is the ultimate justification of laws which aim at securing citizens’lives in the time of peace and it guarantees the compliance with agreements, without which the peace would not be stable. In other words, the sovereign must be invested with the power to punish with death those, who would breach the agreement, hoping to reap profits.

The stable existence of society is closely related to abiding by agreements, which can be guaranteed by the political authority only when the citizens do not expect a more precious reward than the (worldly) life or a more sever punishment than a (natural) death. Bearing this in mind we can better understand why among the causes of the civil war in England Hobbes placed the doctrines, referring respectively to a natural and religious concept of the highest good. Among other things, he was motivated by his belief that people were not able to reach an agreement on the issue of the highest good. Another, equally significant reason, was the fact that a man, supporting one of the above mentioned ideas of the highest good, can value something more than life itself (for instance, liberty or eternal happiness) or be afraid of something more than death (for instance, coercion or the ultimate damnation.) Such men are a threat to the social order not only because their ideas are incompatible and thus lead to conflicts, but most of all because they refuse to acknowledge the rule which makes the order possible and keeps it stable. They can renounce allegiance to the authorities because they are not afraid of death the authorities may put them to, they will not hesitate to breach the agreement because they refuse to give their consent (which has to be universal) to the belief that death is the greatest evil. In turn, the consent, based directly on the existential choice of a given lifestyle, is the only guarantee of peace, as there is no other justification of the social and political order.


According to Hobbes, the unlimited power of the sovereign should also apply to censorship and the teachings of the Church and universities. The teachings may be dangerous to the social order when they propagate ideas prodding citizens to rebel against law, whose only source is the sovereign. No mater what the content of the teachings is, they should adhere to the law established by the political power. However, we may remember that the only viable reason for observing the law is the fear of death or a desire for self-preservation. Its seems then that the sovereign’s duty is to censor those elements of “seductive doctrines” which lessen the fear by promising a more valuable reward than just a biological existence and a more sever punishment than a physical death.

In the chapter of The Leviathan devoted to the justification of censoring religious and moral doctrines, Hobbes uses an argument which considerably weakens an absolutist implication of his concept of a sovereign rule. He claims that the inner faith, invisible by nature, cannot be legislated by humans. It seems his claim may be an excellent justification of a moral and political postulate, which later on was indeed used by liberal thinkers, to separate the (inner) private sphere from the (outer) public sphere. Leaving aside the influence of Hobbes’ thought on the liberal doctrine, it is worth asking whether his idea of the private character of conscience allows for such an interpretation of politics, which after all retains the significance and autonomy of the rival religious or moral ideas of the highest good.

First let us make it clear that Hobbes’ claim is purely technical. By no means is it a moral postulate which would refer, for instance, to the idea of holiness or to the integrity of private conscience. Acting as a sovereign’s advisor, Hobbes points out inevitable and insurmountable limitations of his otherwise unlimited power. What is inside every man, his inner faith, is by nature beyond human jurisdiction and thus beyond the sovereign’s jurisdiction. Had it been different, it is likely Hobbes would not have expressed the idea in his work. When claming that the establishment of social peace demands an absolute (as far as possible) power, he was surely not very happy to grant it some limitations. However, the very fact that he acknowledges a (necessary) autonomy of individual conscience gives some hope that the conflict, which within the framework of Hobbes’ work seems inevitable, can be resolved. It is the conflict between the highest good, which is suprapolitical and natural, and the artificial or conventional political good, which to Hobbes was the only possible. The solution may be to grant each of these goods a (relative) autonomy and to place them in a society in such a way as to minimize the conflict or to render it downright impossible. It seems that separating the private sphere from the public one may meet requirements of such a solution. Even if we grant that certain moral or religious doctrines can constitute a threat to social peace, we do not necessarily have to ban them (in the name of common good.) It is true that the political power should have a possibility to monitor such doctrines, but monitoring should be limited to their external, public manifestations and could be justified only when they are a real social threat. In all other cases the doctrines are a private matter, regulated by an individual conscience which cannot (Hobbes) or/and should not (liberals) be legislated by the political power.

The question remains whether such a solution may satisfy both “sides” of the controversy. In all likelihood Hobbes, who was not interested so much in the excellence of citizens’lives as in the specific quality of their relations, would be satisfied. However, it is more complicated in the case of those, whose aim is to shape their lives following different ideas of the highest good, and who treat the task in all seriousness. In their eyes, declaring the doctrines private may necessarily weaken, transform or misrepresent them, so that ultimately they lose their essence and cease to matter.

Hobbes’ claim that the “inner faith” cannot be “legislated by humans” can be reduced to what appears a banal statement that the secular power does not have any means to access the “invisible” sphere and thus it cannot shape our private beliefs. However, Hobbes realized very well that the public sphere, which was controlled by the political power, was bound to influence (even if implicitly) the private sphere. In the context under discussion, the influence, inevitable in itself, must lead to a fundamental transformation of those religious or moral ideas which, it is said, are supposed to be made just “private.”

Quoting Pascal and Kierkegaard, Raymond Geuss argues that a genuine “man of faith” has many reasons to reject a liberal postulate of public tolerance (History and Illusion in Politics [Cambridge University Press, 2001], 76-78). Geuss maintains that the key issue is how we treat our religious beliefs. If the salvation of the soul is the highest good to me, then I will find it difficult to consent that politically tolerance is a reasonable solution, because people cannot achieve a full certainty about religious and metaphysical issues. (The famous Pascal’s wager characterizes the situation very well: I should bet that God exists not because I am sure He does, but because the good He stands for exceeds all possible gains which I could have by choosing the life without Him.) Geuss states that such a justification of tolerance may become convincing only when the lack of certainty about the tenets of faith is accompanied by a belief that the tenets are not of utmost importance. A similar belief seems to guide also those, who, following the ideas of the earlymodern thinkers, want to defend tolerance in the name of social peace (threatened by religious conflicts.)

What then is the meaning of a compromise based on the distinction between what is public and what is private? Roughly, it means that no matter what motifs command an individual in his private life, the moment he enters the public sphere he must follow the motif which makes him observe the law. What is important, however, is the kind of the motif that “rules” the public sphere. If, as Hobbes claims, it is the fear of death or the desire for self-preservation, then the very fact that that an individual is ready to accept the compromise proves his “private” beliefs are not genuine. When we believe, or want to believe, that certain values and aims are more important than self-preservation itself, but at the same time assume a priori that in certain circumstances the desire for self-preservation will dominate all other motifs, then as a matter of fact we betray those values and ideals. It means that the same motif of self-preservation determines not only our inner (“private”) nature, but also the outer “public” mode of its expression.

Thus when we refer to the distinction between what is public and what is private, we need to remember that these two spheres form two different relations. First, the public sphere “willy-nilly” influences our inner faith and beliefs. Second, what seems more important in the present context, the shape, principles and tasks of the public sphere are closely dependent on who the citizens are, on the quality of their inner, private nature. In other words, every image a given political system reflects the souls of those, who live in it.

Both Plato and Hobbes realized this very well. Both thought, however, that the systems they supported were objectively the best, because they fully corresponded to the true nature of a man and reflected who a man really was. To a great extent, the differences in their understanding resulted from their universalist claims. In turn, the solution suggested by, among others, Montesquieu, implies that the differences between them resulted from the fact that they described, in a more or less idealized way, a certain type of a man, and then projected what the best political system would be for the chosen type.


Also today the followers of the liberal democratic system (one of the systems based on the desire for and the right of self-preservation) often point out the dangers related to the attempts (real or hypothetical) to introduce virtue into the sphere of politics. By indicating (just like Hobbes did) that its is impossible to find a metaphysical basis for a universally accepted concept of virtue and by concluding (just like Hobbes did) that different visions of good life are incompatible, they contend that all such attempts carry a threat of using violence, which may bring about a totalitarian enslavement. It seems, however, that the noble concept of virtue has retained its appeal, insomuch as usually no one urges its eradication — their strongest postulate is to keep it in the private sphere.

In this respect, the optimism of modern liberals stands in a strange contrast with the pessimism of Hobbes, who claimed that although the political power had no access to private conscience, nevertheless it had to influence it in an indirect way by controlling the teachings of churches and universities. At the root of such a belief lies an opinion, which Hobbes shared with Plato, that the soul of the state (political system) is an enlargement of the human soul, that such a system as democracy cannot come into existence and survive without democrats, without a democratic type of a man. According to this opinion, the problem of private conscience and the hierarchy of its needs, values and aims is far from being irrelevant for politics; on the contrary, it is its foundation. From the point of view of Hobbes (and Plato for that matter), the supporters of liberal democracy make a politically fatal mistake, freeing private conscience from the pressure of politics and leaving the issue of good life to random choices.

However, the stability of liberal democracy, proved empirically, demonstrates that the above objections and fears are groundless. Its strength (proved by its supremacy over rival systems) and durability make some claim that this system, the best of all possible ones, crowns history and brings it to an end. To a large extent the system was created according to Locke’s precepts, who came to believe that the absolute power (Hobbes’ Leviathan) was not indispensable to ensure social peace (necessary for survival) and could be replaced by a legislative assembly. To justify this claim, Locke put forward a more optimistic concept of human nature than Hobbes did. Locke’s man is much less belligerent and much more enterprising than Hobbes’ man. He is much less belligerent because he is not driven by the passion of pride, which, according to Hobbes, was one of the main reasons of everyone fighting everyone else. He is much more enterprising, because he realizes that the main threat to his survival is not other people (as Hobbes claimed), but hunger. For Locke the concern for the means of survival becomes central for man, as it results from his strongest passion — the fear of death. That is why the motif which ultimately makes people create a state is not only a “negative” passion — the fear of death — but also a “positive” desire for unlimited possession. This shift of emphasis, due to endowing the strongest passion of man with a “positive” feature, is central to Locke’s theory, because it allows him to prove the expendability of the absolute power based on fear. To maintain social peace the state does not have to and should not appeal to fear (of absolute power); it is enough that it ensures adequate conditions for amassing possessions which will make (comfortable, it is hoped) survival possible. In this way the state lays ground for a free realization of the strongest “positive” passion (possession), which results from the strongest “negative” passion (fear of death), and thus it may safely give up its claim to control human conscience. It is possible, because in the conscience of all, or most of all, members of society, passions become hierarchised (almost spontaneously) in the way which is most conducive to social peace. The passion for possession, once it can operate freely, subordinates all other passions, especially those, like pride or virtue, which lead it astray and may become a threat (as properly understood self-interest informs us) to social peace, shaped and controlled by the passion for possession.

As Montesquieu observed, the political system of modern English republic was more stable than that of ancient republics, because, among other reasons, the English managed to turn trade activities into something that to a large extent replaced morality based on virtue. According to Tocqueville, the system based on the equality of all people, who are all equally engrossed in amassing wealth, is the work of Providence, the ultimate political system. In many respects democracy he describes (in the United States) resembles the state of the “last man”, where, as Nietzsche writes, there is no longer a division between those who rule and those who are ruled, where man finds his happiness and fulfillment and no longer needs to “hurl arrows of longing over other men.” Likewise, Nietzsche predicted democracy would rule for long on Earth, though at the same time he envisaged a final catastrophe as a direct consequence of the death of God, “the most important events in the history of mankind.” The last man, just like the citizen of Montesquieu’s modern republic or Tocqueville’s democracy, recognized that the fear of death was the strongest human passion and built his state and society accordingly. Nietzsche writes that a similar understanding was shared by his (pagan and Christian) predecessors. However, they were aware of something which the modern man has forgotten and which he will remember again when he learns that God is dead. It is the realization that the strongest human desire resulting from the strongest human fear is not self-preservation but the longing for meaning. On the basis of this his predecessors were shaping their own existence and their own state in the spirit of virtue. They believed that the life itself (no matter how prosperous and comfortable) was not worth living without the framework of sense and meaning. Nietzsche asserts that although the last man has lost the virtue and faith of his forefathers, he still lives his life in the same framework, in “the shadow of God”, who, however, without faith and virtue is just “an empty shell” of the original concept. The last man’s happiness and self-satisfaction derive from his blissful belief that he will pull through, that there is some purpose, or, if there is not, he can do without it. Having removed virtue from his life, he denies a necessity to transcend himself, he no longer desires anything. That is why he is the last man, a creature who may “live the longest of all” but who invites his own doom. As a “perennially incomplete creature” man “prefers desiring nothingness rather than not desiring at all.”

  1. However, there is one significant reservation. Hobbes makes it clear that the state of nature is not only pre-social, but also pre-moral. Morality (which he believes is determined by the laws made by a sovereign) comes after the establishment of the political authority and after the emergence of society. That is why my interpretation is based on an ex post facto inference. My evaluation of the morality of a natural man assumes he has already been socialized. In this case, the retrospective approach seems to be justified because Hobbes was evidently convinced that the sate of nature which was impossible to eradicate (“wars of everyone against everyone else”) resulted from bad passions (“bad” from the point of view of “subsequent” morality), which made it hard to follow the call of natural reason. The latter, in turn, tells man what is genuinely good for him. It’s also worth pointing out that while discussing the state of nature Hobbes not only describes events from the ancient past but also tries to show man’s natural inclination, which manifests itself in the absence of authorities (he quotes the civil war in England as an example of man’s “reverting” to the state of nature). Hence I believe that seeing the state of nature as a moral corruption does not really falsify Hobbes’ intentions. ↩︎