John Milton and Thomas Hobbes on the Natural State of Humanity

Image result for beheading of charles i

Let me set the stage for you -England had been embroiled in civil war for nine years, from the opening battle at Edge Hill in 1642 to the trial/execution of King Charles I in January, 1649.

Image result for charles i beheading

The country was divided between those who saw authority resting with the King – Royalists – and those who believed in a consensual form of government  – Parliamentarians; between those who adhered to the Episcopal Church and those who saw Anglicanism as still needing to be purged of it similarities to Roman Catholicism, referred to as Puritans ; and between the emerging mercantile class (Roundheads ), who saw a future in free commerce and the aristocracy, whose prosperity was tied up in their inherited land, (Cavaliers ).

I have to add a caveat here – in now way can a blog post do justice to history or politics of the English Civil Wars.  What I would like to give you in this blog post is a broad-brush-stroke summary of what your textbook refers to as the crisis of authority.

In the opening to his trial, King Charles I challenges the very authority of the court: “I would know by what power I am called hither.” Charles with this question spoke to the fundamental issue that led to the civil war – does the law rest with the Crown or come from Parliament’s authority? Politically, the Civil Wars were the collision of two distinct ways the English understood their government. The first can be referred to absolute monarchy . This political philosophy assigned all legal authority to the monarch, with Parliament existing to enact the Crown’s will. Here authority was top-down in nature. So, if the King is law, how can the King be placed trial?

Conversely, those who supported Parliament ascribed to a consensual government. From this political perspective, authority rests with Parliament, which represents the will of the people. (People = men who were of the Anglican Church and property owners.) The monarch’s authority is circumscribed by law that Parliament sets forth. Here then is a bottom-up model of authority.

Not to point to fine of a point on the tension between absolute monarchy and consensual government, but the question at the heart of this conflict is whether people are rational beings or animals that most be governed. This question over human nature can be seen by putting in dialogue two key political philosophers of this period – John Milton and Thomas Hobbes.

“No man who knows aught, can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free…”

Following Charles I’s beheading, John Milton took on  key role in the new government as Secretary of Foreign Tongues. Milton was responsible for defending Parliament’s execution of the King to the rest of Europe. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) sets out Milton’s justification in claiming that the role of kings was not to oppress their subjects with their will but to serve as deputies, maintaining justice. As he writes, “And to him that shall consider well why among free persons, one man by civil right should bear authority and jurisdiction over another, no other end or reason can be imaginable.” Milton hypothesizes that society is based on rational individuals agreeing to empower a person, the king, to ensure all are held up to the law: “It being thus manifest that the power of kings and magistrates is nothing else but what is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people.” However, if the king attempts to place himself beyond the law, then those who gave him authority have themselves the authority to execute him. The law exists above the king. Tyranny, for Milton, comes when a king the places himself  above the law.

“And because the condition of man…is a condition of war of every one against every one”

Thomas Hobbes argues a different beginning point for society. In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes lays the foundation for his political theory on the basis that people outside of society will be in a constant state of war with each other. Here without some authority to keep everyone in check we will devolve into a war of all against all. Further, Hobbes suggests that even during those brief periods when one is not actively fighting another we live with the insecurity of being threatened by another:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal.

In other words, peace can never exists in Hobbes’ natural state of humanity.

Now to understand how we escape such a condition, two terms are critical to know. First is what Hobbes refers to as our Right of Nature – the power given to us to do all in our power to achieve whatever ends we so desire. Within in Hobbes’ natural state, I have every right to take all my neighbor has. Conversely, my neighbor has no natural impediment to taking all I have. Even though at one moment we may not be attempting to take away from each other, the threat of either doing is always present. Without peace, agriculture, learning, architecture, art, relationships, economy – the basic building blocks of society cannot exist.

To escape this state of war, Hobbes sees only one way. The second critical term in Hobbes’ political philosophy is Liberty. Please understand he defines liberty much differently than we may. For Hobbes, Liberty is what we achieve when we forego our natural right to do all in our power to fulfill our desires. Doing so allows us all to pursue other ends and lead a more social life and reap the benefits. This agreement is Hobbes’ social contract.

Finally, and most importantly, to secure this peace all people in society must “confer all their power and strength upon one man… to submit their wills everyone to his will, and their judgment to his judgement.” The person Hobbes names the sovereign, whose word is the law.

Image result for thomas hobbes leviathan

To return Charles I’s questioning of Parliaments’ right to try him, both Milton and Hobbes would answer this question in drastically opposing ways.



About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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