Hobbes, Warfare, and State formation

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived the majority of his life during the 17th century a period described by scholars as the “General Crisis.” This turbulent era experienced a series of demographic, political, economic, and climatic catastrophes that resulted in the breakdown of European society; however, scholars argue that this period was also a time of state building. As an educated individual and a student of political philosophy, Hobbes witnessed many of this era’s upheavals, including the Thirty Years’ War and the English Revolution, and his writings provide an insight into how individuals perceived the interaction between crises and state formation. Moreover, the continuous state of warfare during the 17th century deeply influenced Hobbes’ Leviathan and affected his understanding of state formation. Following in Hobbes’ footsteps, present day scholars continue to examine the link between war and state formation in early modern Europe, and in their analysis, they must contend with Hobbes’ assertions concerning the development of early modern Leviathans.

In Leviathan, Hobbes carefully lays out his argument that human nature is competitive and without an effective government, humankind devolves into “that condition called war, and such a war is of every man against every man.” Rather than see man as part of a larger community or society, Hobbes instead suggests that humans are selfish and prideful, only seeking to satisfy their immediate needs. Hobbes’ argument that human nature is one of perpetual conflict derives from his lived experience in the 17th century where he witnessed daily warfare, waning commerce, and declining agricultural output. In this milieu, humans competed and fought one another for the available scarce resources in order to survive. Witnessing this constant struggle, Hobbes emphasizes humanity’s persistent fear of death, a concept he posits as the first of two “passions” that allow humans to escape their state nature. He writes that fear of death spurs humans to make peace, and once humans set out to make peace, they then only need to achieve the second passion, reason, because reason provides the natural laws that constitute the foundation of peace. Hobbes characterizes natural laws as general rules derived from reason which affirm man’s self-preservation. To achieve self-preservation, humans must forfeit certain rights by creating a contract and a moral obligation to one another by establishing a commonwealth because a commonwealth helps man escape “that miserable condition called war, which is necessarily consequent to the natural passions of men.” Hobbes describes commonwealths as artificial persons called Leviathans, and these artificial men are headed by a sovereign who enforces the contract and maintains order.

Hobbes posits that there are three types of sovereign authority: monarchy, democracy, and aristocracy. Although an Englishmen, Hobbes argues that monarchy is the best form of sovereignty because a monarch can choose his own councilors, is of one mind rather than a plurality, and can establish a succession plan. The single-mindedness of a monarch is particularly important when Leviathans find themselves in a state of war, which they often did during the 17th century. As Hobbes states, Leviathans are artificial humans and, without an international system or contract, Leviathans, like natural humans, exist in that condition called war. The sovereigns ruling Leviathans, like all men, are “in continual jealousies and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing and their eyes fixed on another.” Therefore, sovereigns, like humans, find themselves in states of war whereby they seek to impose their commonwealth over another people, defined by Hobbes as “a commonwealth by acquisition.”

Building upon Hobbes’ argument that warfare leads to state formation and expansion, recent scholarship has closely examined the relationship between war and state formation. In Thomas Ertman’s study Birth of the Leviathan, the author utilizes social science modeling to explore state formation in early modern Europe, and he posits that the form of local government, the influence of representative assemblies, and the timing of geopolitical competition contributed to the type of state that emerged. Within this model, Ertman agrees with Hobbes that warfare is important to state formation, writing that geopolitical competition “fostered the expansion of states.” Those states that Ertman describes as absolutist are closely related to Hobbes’ Leviathans as their perpetual state of warfare led sovereigns to gain control of foreign, military, and financial policies through the creation of bureaucracies; however, he suggest that these sovereigns’ attempt to rationalize the government fell short due to the “irrationalization” of the government and individual self-interests. For example, England’s sovereign often found himself handicapped in attempts to increase taxes by Parliment, undermining complete centralization under the monarch.

Although both Ertman and Hobbes agree that warfare played an important role in state formation, they disagree over the role of representative assemblies. Hobbes suggests that assemblies devolve into war because the only motivation for representatives is self-interest, undermining the object of the commonwealth. In some cases, such as in Poland where the noblemen maintained significant power over the monarch, Ertman agrees with Hobbes that representative assemblies can prove ineffective; however, in the case of England, Ertman asserts that assemblies play a decisive factor in creating strong states because they limit the sovereign’s ability to raise capital and fight wars. Thus, rather than devolving into Hobbes’ state of war, England’s assembly acted as a brake to war by closely scrutinizing the actions of the sovereign and refusing to sacrifice the commonwealth’s credit for war.

Contrary to Hobbes and Ertman, some scholars reject the idea that a constant state of warfare during the 17th century propelled the formation of Leviathan states. Historian David Parrott argues in his book The Business of War that the uninterrupted state of warfare throughout the 17th century increased the scale and extent of private contracting. The increased use of private contracting encouraged the sovereign to delegate authority to obtain and maintain armies beyond his control. The private contracting and freedom of the military enterpriser developed because Leviathans lacked the credit and fiscal instruments to raise and maintain standing armies forcing them to rely upon entrepreneurs to raise armies and fight on behalf of the sovereign in the hopes of receiving future payment. In this interpretation, Parrott does not reject the idea that warfare forced states to take new and dramatic steps; however, he does not see an expansion of state power but rather a forfeiture of power to military contractors. Moreover, these contractors felt little loyalty to the state and instead acted as free agents by working for the highest bidder, a practice that Hobbes found dishonorable because soldiers without command do “not therefore represent the person [sovereign].” Parrott’s arguments also counter Ertman’s interpretation which suggests that a continuous state of war during the 17th century resulted in the sovereign’s inability to rationalize the state. Instead, Parrott asserts that sovereigns acted rationally by hiring military entrepreneurs when they ran out of credit.

Ultimately, the scholars discussed above all agree that the consistent state of war throughout the 17th century forced early modern Leviathans to adopt new and dynamic practices. The issues at stake, therefore, are how did sovereigns react to the state of war? In both Hobbes’ and Ertman’s understanding, sovereigns responded to warfare by attempting to gain exclusive control of foreign, military, and financial policy through the creation of state apparatuses responsive to their will. On the other hand, Parrott suggests that the state of warfare resulted in a devolution of state power as the sovereigns exhausted lines of credit and contracted out their military needs. Thus, the hiring of military entrepreneurs hardly indicates irrationality or the advancement of state power but rather the willingness to transfer power. Although Parrott’s interpretation undermines Hobbes, a witness to the era, his arguments concerning the sovereign’s actions are supported by the historical record. Moreover, Hobbes position as a witness to the English Revolution, a state with an assembly, and the growing power of the French state significantly influenced his writings on warfare and state formation. This influence led Hobbes to focus on the power sovereign and to overlook the importance of financing the state.


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