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Despotic Dominion and Sovereignty: a Hobbesian Account of Authority and Servitude

The final Cause, End, or Designe of men, (who naturally love Liberty, and Dominion over others,) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of Warre, which is necessarily consequent to the natural Passions of men, when there is no visible Power to keep them in awe, and tye them by feare of punishment to the performance of their Covenants.

In part II of the Leviathan, Hobbes describes how commonwealths are established by an assembly of subjects who willingly submit themselves to the rule of a Sovereign in common. The submission to the power of a Sovereign entails a multitude of subjects who cease their ‘absolute liberty’ and Right to anyone and everything, in order to establish a pact that settles into peace and agreement. The prerequisite for such a pact, is that all individuals must submit their right to one Sovereign in common, and in return, individuals are granted protection by a set of Civil Laws that the Sovereign enforces.

In this essay, I will attempt to demonstrate how the rule of one over another is expressed in two correlating contexts: first, is despotic dominion of one Common-Wealth over a foreign territory; second, is conditions in which one individual rules over another. Under these two settings, the distinction between the condition of bondage and captivity will be demonstrated, and the ways in which Hobbes thinks these become legislated and appropriated differently under the public and private spheres. In §1 I will briefly expound Hobbes’s account of human nature and its natural condition of Liberty. In §2, I will proceed to define the reasons behind why Hobbes believes that liberty must be submitted to a Sovereign based on an account of his notion of authority. A distinction between the public and private spheres will be made that aim at exemplifying how authority is enacted within these two different spheres. In §3, I will tie the notion of authority to despotic dominion and the preconditions of bondage and captivity that result under varying circumstances of dominion. It will be demonstrated how power is submitted under the act of conquest, which creates the conditions in which subjects end up in captivity and whose rights do not get fully acknowledged by a Sovereign. Finally, in §4 I will make a distinction between bondage and servitude, and the implications behind despotic servitude and recognised servitude.

1. The Natural State of Liberty

Before describing the phenomena of dominion of one over another, Hobbes commences Leviathan with an account of human nature. For Hobbes all individuals are born equal by Nature; this encompasses physical differences that one has from another, including his/her diverging faculties of mind and body, status in society, and even sex. Naturally, every individual has an infinite Right to anything and everything, ‘even to one another’s body’ (Chap.14, p. 190), but no protection and security by Law can exist if all individuals where to exercise such a liberty. Hobbes account of the human nature is quite pessimistic in the sense that he describes it as something that is naturally inclined towards liberty and dominion over the other. Passions is what compel individuals to acquire pleasures by dominion, but as Hobbes points out, the strongest passion amongst all is the fear of death, that ultimately, inclines men to settle in peace with one another by forming a Covenant to which a multitude of individuals collectively submit to (Chap. 13, p.186). For a Covenant to be successfully established among multiple parties, an overarching power must facilitate the transfer of rights among individuals. As Hobbes states, “without the fear of some coercive Power” demands are never demands, but words that “are too weak to bridle mens ambition, avarice, anger, and other Passions” (p.196). This is why man is willing—and especially when other men are willing to do the same—to put ‘down his right to all things’ and submit to a Covenant that would be enforced by a Sovereign who would oversee individuals and guarantee protection them from the menace of others.

For Hobbes, the Sovereign, is a necessary coercive power that curbs the ‘absolute liberty’ that all individuals possess by nature, which gets binded and submitted to a Covenant; without this submission of liberty, men remain in a state of Nature which Hobbes calls ‘Warre’. To submit to a rule of a Sovereign, or a Master, is the condition that frees the individual from his/her contingency on natural predispositions. Hobbes mentions how thinkers and commonwealths such as Aristotle and Cicero; Greeks and Romans; all derived the notion of Right not from a Natural basis, but from the practices of their own Sovereign commonwealths (Chap. 21, p.269). In a state of ‘Warre’, when one has a Right to everything, there can be no Law, nor any form of commonwealth that protects an individual to and from anything and no action can therefore be deemed as unjust (p.188). Hobbes proclaims that this Natural condition of perpetual ‘Warre’ must be settled, which consists of subjecting every individual to the rule of either a Sovereign, or a Master; as Hobbes puts it in words: ‘Among masterless men, there is perpetual war, of every man against his neighbour’ (Chap. 21, p.266). Hence every individual must be compelled to renounce and transfer his ‘absolute liberty’ to the Sovereign in order to secure his peace and security amongst other individuals.

The stability of a commonwealth requires that all individuals refrain from the sorts of actions that might undermine the regime. For example, subjects should not dispute the sovereign’s authority and under no circumstances should they rebel. In general, Hobbes sought to emphasize on the reciprocal relationship between political obedience and peace. For Hobbes, submission to an authority is a must; if there are groups of people who take up arms to resist the rule of the Sovereign, such an assembly for Hobbes is in a state of ‘Warre’ (Chap. 18, p.233). An example of such a condition, will be mentioned in §3, where the land of Judea resisted submission to a Sovereignty of the Roman commonwealth, which led to the condition of ‘Warre’. In the following section (§2), I will attempt to lay out the reason why a submission of ‘absolute liberty’ is necessary, and to what extents it occurs varyingly among different groups of individuals.

2. Authoritative Submission of Liberty

If giving up liberty can be justified as a prerequisite for establishing order and peace among individuals through a submission of their liberty to a common Sovereign, two question arise: first, is who must give up their authority to a Sovereign; and second, to what extents must one submit his/her authority to a Sovereign. To provide a possible explanation to these questions, Hobbes devises the notion of authorship that provides an indication as to why a submission to a Sovereign occurs unequally among various members of an Assembly. A person who is an author of his/her own actions, is an actor who can thereby act by authority; a person who does not have the authorship of his/her own actions, is an actor who thereby cannot act by authority (Chap. 16, p. 217). All members of a Sovereign commonwealth submit their ‘Wills, by a plurality of voices, unto one Will’; which translates into a multiplicity of subjects who renounce their will and authorship to the authority of a Sovereign (Chap. 17, p. 227). Individuals who have partial authority over their own actions, or those whose authorship is fully submitted to another, includes inanimate things, children, wives1, fools, and Mad-men; but also slaves and servants. These individuals without authority, frequently have a guardian who Hobbes calls an ‘Artificial Person’ (or an entity) who substitutes and advances the wills and authority of the subjects it impersonates (Chap. 16, p. 217). In the case of the assembly of a multitude, this ‘One Person’ or ‘Artificial Person’ is the Sovereign of a Common Wealth, the Leviathan (Chap. 17, p.228). Under this state supposedly, everyone (whose authorship is acknowledged by the commonwealth) plays a constitutive part in the authorship of the Leviathan.

Hobbes demonstrates how authority is not only transferrable to a Sovereign, but also to certain individuals, who possess a higher authority than others. Here an important distinction is made between authority within the public sphere, where every individual submits his/her authorship to a Authority of a Common-Wealth; and the authority within the private sphere, where family members submit their authority to the head of a family. Authors are those who exercise and represent the authority of those who they have sovereignty over: in the case of a commonwealths, this is an authority over citizens; in the case of a head of families, this is an authority over children, servants, and partners. Hobbes puts in paraphrase the acknowledgment that one makes when an individual submits his/her authorship to the authority of another:

I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, 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 (Chap. 17, p. 227).

The submission ‘to this Man’ implies not just a sovereign Monarch within the public sphere, but also a submission that can take place in the private sphere—to the head of a family who has sovereignty over this sphere. The extent to which one submits one’s authority to another, is determined by the extents to which the authorship of the Sovereignty of the later is recognised. When the Sovereignty of an author is established, the question of who gets complete, partial, and no authorship over the rule of the Sovereign, begs a determinate answer. As far as complete sovereignty and authorship is concerned, no single individual can have absolute authority except for the Sovereign; with the exception of a Monarchical commonwealth in which a Monarch has the most, if not absolute authority and sovereignty over the commonwealth. Regarding partial sovereignty, as was demonstrated with the authority within the private sphere, consists of an authority of the head of a family—who has the most, if not absolute authority over the members of his/her private sphere—but whose sovereignty nevertheless gets acknowledged partially by the overarching Sovereign of the commonwealth. The last form of authorship, regards the individuals who have no sovereignty whatsoever over the commonwealth, which commonly follows that they have no authorship over their own actions.

The way in which the authority of the latter group (those with no authorship) gets unacknowledged or revoked, will be explored in the subsequent section (§3); whereas complete and partial authority, as was demonstrated above, consists of a Sovereign that possesses absolute power (with complete authorship), and the subjects whose authorship it recognizes (who have partial authorship).

3. Forms of Authoritative Dominion

For Hobbes, the way in which a single or a group of individuals has sovereignty over a commonwealth is determined by three forms of organization: Monarchy, the rule of one person; Aristocracy, the rule of a small part of an assembly; and Democracy, the rule of a whole assembly or a multitude of people (Chap. 19, p.239). Besides these three forms of government there can be no other form of rule, since it will always fall under these three categories of either the rule by One, rule by More, or rule by All. The exception to all these three rules is when a commonwealth is governed neither by its own Assembly, nor by a Monarch, but by an outside force that does not acknowledge its sovereignty over its won territory.

Such was the case of the land of Judea which was a province that was controlled by the Sovereignty of the Roman Empire. The people of Judea were in this case governed not by their own internal assembly of people, but by an external assembly of the Roman Common-Wealth (Chap. 19, 22; p.247, p.279). Hence, it is considered that Judea was held in bondage and captivity by the Romans, and not in a state of servitude since Judea did not fully submit to a Sovereign, which explains the Jewish–Roman wars as a state of Nature that Hobbes refers to as ‘Warre’. The resolution among the parties fighting for sovereignty over the assembly of Judea is made more challenging by the fact that there can never be more than one Sovereign ruling over the same population without a perpetuation of ’Warre’ (Chap. 19; p.240). The people of Judea where exempted from having their authority acknowledged by the Roman Common-Wealth, therefore did not have authority over their own territory. The ‘Unity’, and ‘One’ consisting of a multitude of many men must be those who are authors (p.229). For it is only the voice of many authors that of a Unity may be considered as an authoritative voice of them all. Those who don’t have authority, are excluded from this collective authoritative voice.

The reason why the authority of certain individuals can remain unacknowledged by a Sovereign, is explained by the ways in which dominion is acquired. First, is by Paternal succession and generation also called paternal dominion, which resolves mostly in the private sphere where a parent gains more authorship over the child than another parent. The parent with most dominion, also gains the right to children’s children (Chap. 20, p.255). This description of succession for Hobbes, is inline with his description of succession of Monarchy within the public sphere, where a Monarch appoints an individual succeeds the authority over the commonwealth. It is for this cause that Hobbes refers to the Family as a ‘little Monarchy; whether that Family consists of a man and his children; or of a man and his servants; or of a man, and his children, and servants together’ (Chap. 20, p. 257). The second way in which dominion can be acquired, is by conquest that a commonwealth enacts against a foreign territory by which Hobbes refers to as despotical dominion. This form of dominion—whether it is monarchic, aristocratic, or democratic—consists of a condition when a commonwealth invades another assembly. The outcome of such an invasion resolves into the roles of the victor and the captive. The means by which the role of the captive is either prolonged as a condition of bondage, or secured as a condition of servitude—will be a matter of investigation in the subsequent section.

4. Authority Over the Vanquished and Servitude

After a resolution of a battle, in which there is a victor and the vanquished; the former procures complete despotic authorship over the latter, whom he can now oversee with near complete authority (Chap. 20, p.255). At this stage, the victor holds the vanquished under the condition of bondage, a volatile position that held until further deliberation (Chap. 20, p.256). However, in the state of bondage, the victor does not have complete dominion over the slave since it is not the victory that allows complete dominion over the vanquished, but a Covenant. The victor needs a Covenant to which the servitude of the vanquished can be tied and secured, otherwise such a victory might a fleeting and temporal one. The prerequisite for establishing and securing peace among the victor and the vanquished, is that the two parties must in one form or another, come to a recognition and acknowledgement of a Sovereign in common, to which both parties would equally (or unequally, as was distinguished in §2) submit their authority to. Only dominion by a Sovereign in this case, can be a complete form of dominion. As was explained in §1, without settling and subjecting two parties to a Sovereign in common, Hobbes demonstrates how both parties risk in remaining in a natural condition of perpetual ‘Warre’. The process of settlement, includes the acknowledgement of authority of the vanquished, since in a state of captivity, the vanquished has no authorship whatsoever and is therefore neither subjected nor bounded to Covenant—a condition which, does not refrain the captive from making an escape and/or violently uprise against the victor (Chap. 21, p.273).

The acknowledgement of the authority of the vanquished, however, does not always have to be a Sovereign, which the servant and the master аknowledge as their common authority. As mentioned in §1, the submission to an authority frees the individual from his/her contingency on natural predispositions; but this submission requires an acceptance of a Sovereign authority. A submission to a Master however, may also serve as a form of submission to an authority within the private sphere: under servitude, the slave can make a promise to the Master that he/she wont run away, while not requiring an obligated submission to a Sovereign (Chap. 21, p.273). Under this condition, the servant merely transfers his/her authorship to the Master, and not to a Sovereign; even if a Servant’s promise to a Master might not be as authoritative if compared to an agreement settled through a Covenant. Hobbes demonstrates how such a promise may be a fleeting one, unless the servant’s promise is binded and enforced by a Covenant. To demonstrate why such a submission to a Master may nevertheless function as a form of transfer of authorship, the distinction between the public and the private spheres made in §2 may serve as a ground for such an elaboration. Since under both, the private sphere and the public sphere, there is an authority to which individuals submit; both spheres can to some extents, be self-sufficient authorities insofar as everyone willingly submits to a common authority within it. In the public sphere, such an authority is the Sovereign; in the private sphere, such an authority is the head of a family. Within the private sphere, a servant submits to a master, just like all members of a family submit to the head of a family. The authority to which individuals submit, serves as a guardian who advances the wills and authority of the subjects it impersonates (Chap. 16, p. 217). In regards to the public sphere, when an army is losing in a battle, it can either make a decision to continue the fight to death, or cast down the arms and turn to submission. This logic also applies to peaceful times and the private sphere, which is why Hobbes argues that any submission to an authority—whether it is a head of a family, a Master, or a Monarch—is better than risking one’s life to the constant state of perpetual ‘Warre’ (Chap. 20, p.257). Under submission—even if is a submission to the condition of servitude—there is a better chance that the individual will overcome his natural predisposition towards ‘Warre’: a condition in which there is Right to everything, but no protection and security from anything.

Although the servant’s acknowledgement of an authority can occur under the private sphere, a Sovereign of the public sphere must be the ‘Artificial Person’ to whom authority over the vanquished is instituted. Only under this condition can bondage be fully transformed into a state of servitude, without a continuation perpetual state of conflict between the captive and the victor. Captivity without an established Covenant results with this perpetual state of conflict, such was the case with the Jewish–Roman ‘Warre’. In such instance, Judea was held in captivity by the Romans, and not in a state of servitude since the assembly of Judea did not fully submit to the Sovereignity of the Roman Empire. The captive in such a situation, would either engage in a perpetual ‘Warre’ with the victor, or work under the victor solely in order to avoid cruelty, but not because the captive deems that it is a duty to work for his victor. Since the captive does not acknowledge the authority of the victor, his motivation is solely to avoid death; but given an opportunity to uprise or revolt, the captive will take advantage given that he is neither loyal to his mater, nor did he submit to a Covenant shared with a master.

5. Concluding Remarks

The exposition of this essay sought to account Hobbes’s account of the notion of authority and submission in order to demonstrate how these concepts form the grounds on which the distinction between servitude and captivity is made. An emphasis on both, the distinction and similarities among the public and public spheres was made (§2) in order to demonstrate the correlating tendencies of submission and establishment of authority. The reason as to what causes unequal acknowledgement of authority among various individuals, was attempted to explained in the context of dominion; although, the imperative regarding as to why Hobbes might (or might not think) that everyone must equally submit to a common authority, remains vaguely answered. As far, as Hobbes account of human nature (§1) concerns, the argument in this essay attempted to lay out Hobbes’s assurance problem, and why even a submission to servitude and the rule of Monarchy, for Hobbes, is more preferable than the condition of perpetual ‘Warre’ and ‘absolute liberty’ (§3). Given this exposition, it was demonstrated how the transition from bondage to servitude, is more preferable then the continuation of the perpetual conflict among the captive and the victor (§4).

  1. Hobbes believes that all individuals are by nature free and equal regardless of their sex, but despite the fact, Hobbes gives a lucid account as to why patriarchy prevails among relations among men and women, especially in their roles as husbands and wives. Even thought a woman by nature is equal to man, the ownership of their child falls into the same problem of rule by more than one authority (Chap. 20, p.253). For assemblies of people, if there is more than one Sovereign that they submit to, it will eventually resolve into a conflict among the two Sovereigns which relapses into a state of ‘Warre’; Hobbes believes that the relation between husband and wife is analogous to the dilemma of rule by more than one Sovereign (Chap. 19, p.240). As to why the roles of husband and wife resolve into patriarchal dominance, Hobbes also attempts to explain by an account that Civil Laws where primarily written by men, not women, which in turn, favors the transfer of authority to men (Chap. 20, p.253). 

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