A Blow To The State
The State and the Military in The Leviathan
Le général Bonaparte au Conseil des Cinq-Cents, à Saint Cloud, par François Bouchot
Within The Leviathan, the question of how to keep men from engaging in an endless cycle of escalatory violence seems to preoccupy the basis for the establishment of the Commonwealth. In the state of nature, men are ruled by fear of violent death to seek social ties to protect their life. While the Sovereign is able to enforce peace within the Commonwealth, he must rely upon his generals and armed forces to enforce this peace. But with the centralization of violence in this institution, where truly does the force of the State lie? The Sovereign, or the military?
The proper place to try to treat this question should be in attempting to first grasp what fear is. While fear itself may be applied to a variety of conditions, for Hobbes fear is more properly fixated on a violent death. For man, it transcends merely a dislike, but as Hobbes says, man, “...hath his heart all the day long, gnawed on by feare of death, poverty, or other calamity; and has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep” (Chapter 12). The absolute fixation by man is not a simple worry about violent death, but a complete consumption of the psyche by the possibility of such a death.
This prospect of fear of violent death is what seems to fundamentally poison any attempt at social relations between men in nature. We always seek to turn the advantage over the other in order to stave off this possibility. The problem only worsens when it becomes apparent that any of us may kill the other. Hobbes observes, “Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind…..when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit” (Chapter 13).
When it is taken that I may kill or be killed by any other man with whom I meet, it becomes imperative for me to kill him before he is able to kill me. As Hobbes says, “...there is no way for any man to secure himself, so reasonable, as Anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can…” (Chapter 13).
My neighbor may not be seeking to wait for me to sleep at night to kill me, but I am permanently uncertain of this possibility. While I may not think that he has a knife hidden in his clothing, the consequences for my being wrong are infinite in their evil to me.
It is not fear of violent death alone which causes a state of war to emerge, but the rational self-interest within me to defend myself from violent death that causes all men to attempt to kill the other first. For if we are equals in our intellect if I seek to kill another for my own defense, so too would my neighbor seek to kill me. My neighbor may or may not seek to kill me in my sleep, but I know that I can kill him in his sleep and become certain no harm will come to me. While it is a particularly bleak view of our social relations, it nevertheless dominates our worldview in the absence of security.
This fear is what leads men towards a covenant establishing a sovereign Commonwealth, as the fear of violent death also gives a rational basis to bind one’s self amongst a political community, both to protect one’s life from their neighbors and from other political communities. It gives me the confidence that my neighbor will fear their certain death at the hands of the State if he were to cause harm to me so that I no longer have to worry about his intentions as an individual. This, however, is what I am most interested in attempting to explore. Does this fear still find a way to materialize in a rational manner in the State?
Hobbes himself is not silent on the subject and takes great care to address this point in his construction of the State. For Hobbes, the absolute power of the Sovereign and complete centralization of political power is the only feasible means to prevent factionalization. In his treatment of the causes of the dissolution of the State, Hobbes makes note, “For what is it to divide the Power of a Common-wealth, but to Dissolve it; for Powers divided mutually destroy each other.” (Chapter 29) and, “...such government, is not government, but division of the Common-wealth into three Factions, and call it mixt Monarchy; yet the truth is, that it is not one independent Common-wealth, but three independent Factions; nor one Representative Person, but three.” (Chapter 29). These two passages are taken together to give us a picture of what Hobbes may see as the sources of political factionalization; namely, that if power is divided in any manner, these two forces will inevitably end up in conflict.
The distinction is furthered by his explicit rejection of faction as diminishing the power of violence wielded by the Sovereign, “...as Factions for Kindred, so also Factions for Government of Religion....as being contrary to the peace and safety of the people, and a taking of the Sword out of the hand of the Sovereign.” (Chapter 29). These factions not only lead to potential communal political violence in a competition for power, but they also defeat the ability of the Sovereign to be able to use force to impose peace.
The sword in the hand of the Sovereign may be best understood in the context of the Hobbesian distinction between a natural person, and an artificial person. Hobbes wants to posit that a Sovereign may in the State become an artificial person binding the whole of civil society into a complete unity of political will, “For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE, which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall...” (Introduction). His political project crucially rests upon the ability to create this unity of the body politic.
In order to eliminate even the possibility that alternate sets of political power would emerge, the political body must be made whole. No better metaphor for this can be found than in the frontispiece of The Leviathan in which all of civil society makes up the unified body of the Monarch, symbolic of the political community working as one through this artificial person. This also provides for a method of how force is wielded by the Sovereign, in that his artificial person devoid of fractious political structures can use decisive force in the body politic.
In order to do this, the Sovereign is vested with the tools of statecraft that empower all decision-making in him. In the practical sense of governance, this means the Sovereign and the legislature as one. The sole authority to create and make law flows from the Sovereign as “...the Common-wealth is no Person, nor has capacity to doe any thing, but by the Representative, (that is, the Soveraign;) and therefore the Soveraign is the sole Legislator.” (Chapter 26) The law is what provides the basis of stability within a State, and given its centralization entirely into this absolute figure, only knows its legitimacy from his whims. This law is of course also enforced by the Sovereign. Law, therefore, derives its only meaning from the ability of the person of the Sovereign to implement them by coercion.
Hobbes, in his practical treatment of the rule of a Sovereign, seems to contradict the Sovereign’s sole ability to wield violence, however. This emerges in those functionaries of the State who actually engage in the employ of violence on behalf of the Sovereign. Hobbes is especially careful to note the dangers of military power, “...love of Souldiers, (if caution be not given of the Commanders fidelity,) is a dangerous thing to Soveraign Power; especially when it is in the hands of an Assembly not popular” (Chapter 30). The military as a political institution contains the most obvious example of a political faction that can wield violence against the Sovereign to attain its own self-interest.
Hobbes takes great care to address how a Commonwealth should be structured, so that the absolute power of the Sovereign may work as a unified whole. But the problem is, he still ends up being reliant upon the institution of the military, an institution that is necessarily political. The State after all is not a metaphysical object, but a political object subject to the wills of reality.
The reality, as Hobbes has noted, is that political power and the capacity for the usage of violence must necessarily be distributed to actors besides the Sovereign. The Monarch cannot execute his will without the use of others. Therefore, the ability to implement the law is not entirely within the hands of the Sovereign, but subject to those he delegates coercive power to uphold.
Hobbes also takes pain to show how the civil war in a State, “arises from an Imperfect Institution, and resemble the diseases of a naturall body, which proceed from a Defectuous Procreation” (Chapter 29). The primary focus seems to be specifically on the power of a Sovereign being fractured amongst various political communities who will gradually antagonize each other until an inevitable outbreak of violence occurs.
The problem with this is that his narrow conceptualization of political power seems to lie in a legislature or in a township. However, Hobbes seems to neglect all the institutions necessary for a Sovereign to effectively wield power within the State also being subject to this problem.
With the founding of the Commonwealth, the seeds of its own destruction are sown, being made analogous to a sickness that slowly disintegrates a body from an unseen being. Violence at the core is what brings the Commonwealth into existence, and violence from political factionalism is what causes its fall. While violence is diffuse and equal when in nature—every man may after all kill any other man—in the absolute Monarchy of Hobbes the military possesses for itself a unique institution that wholly owns the profession of violence.
Being a unique institution under the Sovereign, as Hobbes recognizes, the military may for itself seize the throne. While Hobbes wants to conceive of the State as being a unity of action beneath an artificial person, he concedes here that the Sovereign still relies upon institutions to administer for the public good. The Sovereign only has power through the ability to maintain peace through violence—or in other words—through the institution of the military. This however opens an important flaw in which the disintegration of the Commonwealth will emerge, namely that political power must be distributed to the sword.
It is also important to consider the political aspects of the military that are given to us by Hobbes in an attempt to understand both how this institution thinks of itself, and how it may interact with the Sovereign.
The military, as has been said, is the locus of violence in the State. It should be asked first if this violence is different from the violence and war that man experiences in nature. Consider as a case the psyche of a general in charge of an army. His profession is of violence, his chief concern being security, and his life bound to his success in war.
Contrast this to a farmer who enters into a Commonwealth so that he no longer has to fear that his neighbor will break into his home in the middle of the night and kill him out of fear or want of his property. But what is the existence of a general if not the fear of the aggression of the States around him attacking and seizing his lands?
While the farmer enjoys the security of the State, the military enjoys nothing of the sort. The psyche of a man in nature being consumed with the prospect of violent death has not dissipated. Unique among the members of a State, his vocation does not change from a man in the state of nature.
Hobbes seems particularly uncomfortable with this, and attempts to deal with the problem by stating, “For Souldiers are never so generally unjust, as to side with their Captain…” (Chapter 30). In a relatively strange occurrence, Hobbes seems to assign to soldiers a relatively arbitrary set of moral beliefs in which they will just side with the Sovereign in the event of an attempted coup.
Political violence in the state of nature is not a phenomenon of morals, so why should we take it to be the case now? This seems to run contrary to fear as we know it. After all, men do not enter into the Commonwealth out of altruism or a sense of morals. Neither do men when in fear of violent death—as soldiers perpetually are—make their choices based on what is just or unjust.
Hobbes furthers his account of this in his treatment of soldiery in war, “When Armies fight, there is on one side, or both, a running away; yet when they do it not out of trechery, but fear, they are not esteemed to do it unjustly, but dishonourably.” (Chapter 21). To flee in the face of death is just a rational decision to Hobbes. Even though they are soldiers in a Commonwealth, he seems to recognize that war and the passions it engenders in men remain the same.
It seems odd then the way he attempts to build a case that soldiers would be unjust to side with their captain. Surely if to flee in battle is a rational decision, then too would it not be a matter of the sensible self-interest for a soldier when he decides to side with his captain? Hobbes strangely retreats into an appeal to justice when an incongruence arises between what he defines as self-interest in war, and what is necessary to preserve the Sovereign.
Moreover, the case that Hobbes makes about the soldiers siding against their captain becomes weaker if we ask where the military leader truly derives his power from. Is it from his legal empowerment by the Sovereign? Or is it from his ability to exercise control over the armed forces? Again here, Hobbes takes note that the competent commander, “...must therefore be Industrious, Valiant, Affable, Liberall and Fortunate, that he may gain an opinion both of sufficiency, and of loving his Souldiers. This is Popularity, and breeds in the Souldiers both desire, and courage, to recommend themselves to his favour…” (Chapter 30).
This is in direct conflict with Hobbes being opposed to popularity more generally stating, “... the Popularity of a potent Subject, (unlesse the Common-wealth have very good caution of his fidelity,) is a dangerous Disease…” (Chapter 29). In order to function effectively, Hobbes must admit to there being a personality that is conducive to war that simultaneously brings danger to the Sovereign. The competent general, needing certain qualities to be effective against an adversary, also gains the love of his soldiers. This has the effect that he derives his station not from his Sovereign, but from his own position among the soldiery.
Let us now imagine the hypothetical politics of a coup d'état. Would a general who lives or dies on the proper application of State power on the world stage not have a rational self-interest to avoid death by overthrowing his Sovereign in order to avoid a war that brings about the destruction of the State?
If he feels that the conduct of a Sovereign in the actual execution of the war itself is subpar, is it not within his purview to seize control to bring about a better end? Take for instance a conflict emerging between the head of state and his generals over something as simple as which towns should be taken in the course of a campaign.
If the generals are of the mind that the Sovereign simply does not possess for himself the ability to make the correct choices in regards to military force the result of following the Sovereign into war is their own destruction, a fate all men seek to avoid. If it is true that the profession of the military exists in the state of war, his manner of experiencing the world demands that he secure his life.
To follow from this, we can ask, where does the general’s potential self-interest in gaining an advantage for himself end? For a profession that deals solely with the purview of the state of war, it would seem that any act by the sovereign that doesn’t align with what the military believes is in the interests of the state would create a political crisis. Again Hobbes tells us that in this state of war men will always seek to turn circumstances to their advantage.
Surely the general of this scenario would not find his dissuasion in care for the legal basis for their coup, for in no State can it be found to be legal for the military to seize the government. Nor can it be found in an ethical or moral imperative to overthrow the State, if a military leader’s orientation to politics revolves around his essential connection to a state of nature. For in a state of nature, moral and ethical imperatives do not drive men, but fear. It is this fear that should so alarm anyone seeking to avoid this perilous end of the Commonwealth, as there is nothing that dissuades men from acting out of fear but violent force—the exact thing the general has in his exclusive possession.
Hobbes tells us that men in war inevitably seek advantages over the other, and when able to, exert the power they have themselves over others for their own protection. In a place where the prerogative of the Sovereign to wield exclusive control of violence runs against the rational self-interest of the generals, wouldn’t both seek to gain an immediate advantage over the other?
In a state of war, the cruel calculus of killing another man before he can cause your own demise emerges. If the Sovereign presents this risk to the military, there seems to not only be no reason for the military not to attempt to seize power, but it is decidedly in their interest to do so.
For instance, even Hobbes comes to this realization when he proclaims, “No man is bound by the words themselves, either to kill himselfe, or any other man; And consequently, that the Obligation a man may sometimes have, upon the Command of the Soveraign to execute any dangerous, or dishonourable Office, dependeth not on the Words of our Submission; but on the Intention; which is to be understood by the End thereof.” (Chapter 21). In the event that a man is legally ordained to receive mortal harm to himself, Hobbes maintains that the individual has the right to his own defense.
The importance here emerges in the distinction between a normal citizen and a general. A citizen without an institution backing him may have the natural right to resist an obligation that will work contrary to the Commonwealth, but his resistance does not mean the end of the Commonwealth itself.
The Sovereign can easily exercise the law against an individual with force, even if the individual would be rightful in resisting his bodily harm. For who after all does this private citizen have to rely upon to secure his own existence?
However, if the Sovereign attempts to secure the threat against him by lawfully removing from command a man who plots against him, what force of law does he possess? The general as Hobbes has established is a popular charismatic man, who enjoys the love of his soldiers. All such a man would have to do is turn the armed forces against the Sovereign and seize with violence the seat of power for himself to stave off destruction.
While a Sovereign may use force to secure the public good against an individual, it does not suffice to secure the laws against the military. It now becomes necessary to ask: does the Sovereign truly wield any power in the Hobbesian Commonwealth?
If it may be taken that the artificial person of the Sovereign is more an ideal of the State made manifest in an individual, rather than real political reality, a crisis emerges. The threat of violence being the beginning and end of the State, violence becomes the force from which all authority is derived in the Commonwealth, and should be understood as the arbiter of sovereignty in the State. The Sovereign, although he sits outside the law, needs violence to enforce the law.
What means does the head of State have to actually enforce this law when it comes to his own institution of violence? If we take it that the actual coercive ability of the Sovereign lies entirely in the apparatus of State security, and that security now seeks the removal of the head of State, are there other options to which the Sovereign can appeal?
The State, having been ruthlessly centralized, now has all of its mechanisms flow through this one person. In order to achieve this he has eliminated all political factions, and as such any groups that could potentially take his side in resisting a coup have vanished.
How could a citizen of this State have the ability to provide any real resistance when the Commonwealth has banned all leagues and organizations? While this may keep one town from antagonizing the other, the Sovereign is neutered in appealing to the people to stave off the military.
Moreover, the Sovereign exists as the only proper source of the law since he is the only legislator. All laws are handed down from him, and the whole of the legitimacy of the state is created through his will, meaning that one needs only to seize the ability to coerce to have legitimacy. Hobbes admits as much when discussing the possibility of a coup when he says, “...therefore those, who by violence have at any time suppressed the Power of their Lawfull Soveraign, before they could settle themselves in his place, have been alwayes put to the trouble of contriving their Titles…” (Chapter 30).
The military merely needs to topple this one figure, and the whole apparatus of the government now belongs to them. They then have the opportunity to create legitimacy for themselves with titles, “For he is free, that can be free when he will: Nor is it possible for any person to be bound to himselfe; because he that can bind, can release; and therefore he that is bound to himselfe onely, is not bound” (Chapter 26). There is simply no legal basis for the legitimacy of the sovereign in this sense, only who is able to exert force.
One safeguard Hobbes posits is that soldiers may just arbitrarily decide to follow the Sovereign rather than their captain. This is insufficient when addressing this proverbial sword of Damocles hanging over the State. It relies upon tradition and values that seemingly have no basis in self-interest to enforce.
This also goes directly against what Hobbes has established of the general, for he is selected for his ability to be loved by those that follow him. In contrast, the Monarch is a figure left purely to the chance of succession, “As to the question, who shall appoint the Successor, of a Monarch that hath the Soveraign Authority...we are to consider, that either he that is in possession, has right to dispose of the Succession.'' (Chapter 19).
While it is possible that the Sovereign may possess the charisma necessary to keep the love of the soldiers, it is nowhere required of his position that he does. In other words, the general will always possess the love of the soldiers while the Sovereign may only happen to have this by chance.
The other safeguard is equally as arbitrary and is not a good way to solve the essential problem that, “It belongeth therefore to the safety of the People, both that they be good Conductors, and faithfull subjects, to whom the Soveraign Commits his Armies” (Chapter 30). In order to secure himself from the possibility of a coup, the Sovereign is charged with the responsibility of picking commanders of the right character. This is a realistic proposition when thought of in the short term, but must be considered ill-fated when thought of as a gamble taken over centuries. Again here, the succession of the Monarch is of great import.
While a Monarch who possesses an intellect capable of the correct decision-making can take to the throne, it is only a mere possibility and not a necessity. While he may be able to eliminate all other sources of political violence in the Commonwealth, Hobbes essentially leaves the possibility of a coup to a long-running game of chance to see if a military commander is picked correctly.
These two safeguards that Hobbes proposes leave the stability of the Commonwealth to a series of successive coin flips to determine the fate of the nation. It is a possibility that a Sovereign may select a successor that both picks the right military leaders and commands the love of the soldiers, it is important to again return to Hobbes’ concept of a sickness spreading throughout a body. The seed planted in the founding of a Commonwealth is its eventual undoing.
Over successive generations, the chances being taken compound among each other just as political factions compound into eventual strife. The flipping of this proverbial coin can only come up heads so many times until a situation arises like when, “Julius Caesar, who was set up by the People against the Senate, having won to himselfe the affections of his Army, made himselfe Master, both of Senate and People.” (Chapter 29). A general will at some point rise up and make himself master of the Commonwealth.
This broader digression on the safeguards against a coup is to answer what power the Sovereign really holds. In this respect, it appears that the Sovereign has much more in common with the average man with no means to truly secure himself than he does with a man wielding the coercive power of the state. His position seems so fragile, and open to the whims of those who control the loyalty of the armed forces, what chance does he have of maintaining his position?
There seems at least one rational option that can be undertaken within this framework for the Sovereign to pursue that does not leave his fate to chance, however. But it is the impossible choice of weakening his security forces in order to protect himself from the possibility of a coup. This creates two chief problems that undermine Sovereign’s chief aims.
The first problem is that a weakened military serves to open up his State to conquest from other neighbors who can seize upon his position. Since other polities will inevitably seek to gain an advantage, it is merely the weighing of one possibility of evil against another. A precarious game that leaves little margin for error, and is of such a delicate balance that it would be hard to foresee lasting for long.
The other challenge this path possesses is that he will be less able to secure peace among the body politic. If a Sovereign is concerned chiefly with preventing the military from seizing control, he will no longer possess the forces necessary to exert the coercive control over his own polity. In order to prevent other political factions from forming, the Sovereign wields the sword undivided, but a sword that has been blunted can only keep the peace so well. His own fear of his institution works to undermine the unity of his rule, much in the same way a political faction would.
He is then caught in a position where can no longer work towards his chief aim of securing the lives of those in the State, and if he empowers his institutions of violence he empowers his own potential doom.
Hobbes admits that there can be no perfect Commonwealth secured against all evil saying, “...nothing can be immortal, which mortals make; yet, if men had the use of reason they pretend to, their Common-wealth's might be secured, at least, from perishing by internal diseases.” (Chapter 29). His attempts at making the Commonwealth secure from perishing due to internal strife have produced this very internal disease.
By so heavily centralizing the State in this one figure, Hobbes has made the State incredibly brittle and has allowed the seeds of conflict to germinate in the midst of a community. Coercion as we have seen permeates every aspect of this conceived Commonwealth, and while this may be necessary to prevent war from breaking out between men, it comes with difficult trade-offs.
To maintain the ability to have coercion he has centralized the fear of violent death and the responsibility for war between men into one arm of the State. This arm of the state, the military, ends up holding the true power when their relationship with the law is revealed.
The most alarming lesson from this is that no particular state structure would entirely prevent this. If Hobbes is able to resolve all other possible sources of friction in society and eliminate all potential political groups that would produce civil war, what picture are we left with when the military still poses a threat to civil society? More importantly, can the eventual death of a Commonwealth in violence even be prevented?
Regardless of if civil society is diffuse and decentralized, or as highly centralized as Hobbes wants it to be, there will always be an institution committed to violence. While this paper has focused more specifically on the autocratic nature of the Hobbesian regime which makes it easier for a coup to take power and centralize its power in the government, the fundamental issue is present no matter how one structures a Commonwealth.
While this does not dispute the need for armed forces in the service of civil society, it raises a pointed question of its true relationship to it. It becomes a calculated gamble in which there is a violent institution inherent in a functioning body politic, in order to ensure its survival against internal and external threats. We are forced to recognize that the very thing that secures our politics poses a permanent hazard to the life of a State.
The balance between these forces in the most optimistic views seems to render the armed forces as a State within a State, operating by the norms and laws of its Commonwealth, but always possessing for itself the prerogative of owning the true exercise of violence. In a more pessimistic light, the military from the inception of the Commonwealth is the true Sovereign, and all other pretenses such as laws are subject to the discretion of this institution. At any time when fear dominates the military, it takes its initiative to overthrow the government and bring into power who it sees fit.
Hobbes is rightly concerned with the violence inherent in human affairs. However, he so deeply embeds this fear of violent death in the framework of his State that there can be no escaping its relationship with the end of the State. Hobbes, in wanting to eliminate the original sin of the founding of the Commonwealth, creates the mechanism by which it is doomed to failure.
By handing to the Sovereign the sword by which he manages all affairs of the State, he also hands the Sovereign the sword by which he will die.