Mechanical World, Atomistic Self, Artificial State

Thomas Hobbes
c.1669-70, oil on canvas [>>National Portrait Gallery, London]

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a contemporary of René Descartes and one of the fathers of modern philosophy in England, viewed the universe as a huge mechanical system made up of bits of matter called atoms; and human beings were machines within this mechanical system, and viewed collectively were themselves like isolated atoms; and the civil state was an artificial machine, constructed of these individual human beings:

Nature (the Art whereby God hath made and governs the World) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal.  For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within; why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as does a watch) have an artificial life?  For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole Body, such as was intended by the Artificer?  Art goes further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man.  For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN, called a COMMONWEALTH or STATE (in Latin CIVITAS) which is but an Artificial Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Natural, for whose protection and defense it was intended. [Leviathan, Introduction]

A human society, for Hobbes, is a set of individuals who come and stay together purely out of self-interest, agreeing to limit certain of their freedoms in order to increase their security, and thus their overall well-being.  In Hobbes’s mechanistic world, we possess no natural sympathies for one another.  We are, by our very nature, radically selfish, concerned only with our own preservation; and thus our natural state is one of constant war, each against all, until we agree to leave that rough state and construct out of ourselves an artificial machine — the Civil State — built from a set of contractual agreements through which we forfeit certain of our liberties.

In this Hobbesian world, individuals are primary, and society exists only insofar as the individuals decide to form themselves into such.  The human being existing outside of society — an oxymoron for the Greeks — became paradigmatic for these moderns.

Hobbes describes the transition from the State of Nature to the Civil State:

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For WAR consists not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lies not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consists not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. 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. [Part One, Ch. 13, §§8-9]

Leaving this wretched state of nature required transferring most of our powers to a central authority, a sovereign king or parliament denoted by Hobbes as “Leviathan”:

Frontispiece to Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651)

The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort as that by their own industry and by the fruits of the earth they may nourish themselves and live contentedly, is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will: which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so bears their person shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgements to his judgement. This is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH; in Latin, CIVITAS. 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 defence. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the Commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that, by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad. And in him consists the essence of the Commonwealth....