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The purpose of this essay is to determine what Hobbes considers to be the greatest human power, how he arrives at this conclusion, and how this may be challenged through a different definition of man, or of man’s natural state. Hobbes writes in chapter ten of Leviathan:

The greatest of humane Powers, is that which is compounded of the Powers of most men, united by consent, in one person, Naturall, or Civill, that has the use of all their Powers depending on his will; such is the Power of a Common-wealth: Or the Power of a Faction, or of divers factions leagued. (Hobbes, Ch. 10, P. 150*)

To begin to examine this claim we must first consider the definition of Power that Hobbes offers. Hobbes defines the “Power of a Man” as being his ability in a given moment “to obtain some future apparent Good”. These abilities might be natural endowments, such as strength or intelligence, or they might be “instrumentall” powers that once acquired increase through their use. These powers include things such as wealth, friends, reputation, and luck. (Hobbes, Ch. 10, P. 150)

Hobbes defines “Good” as a subjective term that is relative only to the person who uses it. What men desire they call good, and what they hate is called evil. (Hobbes, Ch. 6, P. 120) Thus men will always do what they believe is good, but will only be advancing their own interests in doing so. What is good for one man may be evil for another.

Hobbes bases his argument on the natural state of men. He sees men as self-interested. Men seek to fulfill their appetites and desires, while seeking to avoid their aversions. To do this they need power. This leads to competition among men. In chapter eleven Hobbes states the following:

So that in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death. (Hobbes, Ch. 11, P 161)

In this competition men are essentially equal, for although some may have abilities that others do not, “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himselfe.” (Hobbes, Ch. 13, P.183).

This being the case, it would seem that the greatest possible power is when men join together and place their power in the hands of one person, so instead of having these powers competing, they are combined and can act as one. There combined powers acting together can be used to gain even more power. In this way their power is not diluted by competition with one and other. If Hobbes is wrong in his assertion that man is naturally competitive, then do men need they combine their power in such a way? I would say no, for if men are capable of cooperating without an absolute sovereign, they may choose to combine their powers, but not necessarily under a solitary will.

There is some evidence to suggest that men can work cooperatively. After all, there are many situations in which people may sacrifice their own well being for the sake of a greater good. A man might choose to give up some personal luxuries so that his family will be better off, or might risk his own life to save another. Hobbes would likely answer that he does these things to gain reputation, and thus power, but I would dispute this by suggesting that when one loses one’s life, power can be but a small concern since it can no longer be of any use in this world.

If men are essentially equal, a single leader is not necessary, and may indeed be superfluous. Why entrust all important decisions to one person, who is as fallible as any other, if there is no need to do so? It would make a great deal more sense to combine their various talents and intellectual strengths to make decisions.

If men be as Hobbes suggests they are, that is, naturally competitive and given to conflict, then an absolute sovereign may be the only way to achieve peace within a nation. If men are not as he says they are, then his argument fails.

NB: I use the words men and man here not as generics for all of humanity, but to indicate male persons, as I believe Hobbes intended. He did not consider women, or how cool it would be if women were in charge!

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