If absolute monarchy then peace?

Incomplete as of Last update on September 05, 2009

Thomas Hobbes is often considered to be a man less concerned with the question of the good state and more concerned to devise a state theory with the sole aim of avoiding civil war. Similarly, it is often thought that he engages a combination of nominalism and ruthless logic to attain this end, concluding that civil peace – i.e. ~civil war – can best be achieved under an absolute monarchy. This representation of Hobbes’ ideas is correct, but only if one understands that ‘best be achieved’ denotes a probable, and not a certain, conclusion.

Hobbes states is the preface to De Cive that as a rule he attempts (Molesworth Edition, vol. II, p. xxii)

…not to seem of opinion, that there is a less proportion of obedience due to an aristocracy or democracy than a monarchy. For though I have endeavoured, by arguments in my tenth chapter, to gain a belief in men, that monarchy is the most commodious government; which one thing alone I confess in this whole book not to be demonstrated, but only probably stated

Accordingly, he concedes that his conclusion that the best regime is an absolute monarchy is not certain but merely probable. So the idea that Hobbes’ conclusion is the product of nominalism and a ruthless logic is in doubt. Deduction yields us certain truths (provided our premisses are true), whereas to talk of the probability that monarchy is the best regime under which to avoid civil war is to accept that the conclusion is not certain.

So what is going on here? Why does Hobbes make the move from deductive truths to probability at this pivotal moment in his state theory? Why does he conclude that it is indisputable that the best sovereign is an undivided sovereign, but that of the three types of undivided sovereign – aristocracy, democracy and absolute monarchy – he can only say with probability that absolute monarchy is the best regime?

Commentators have given various answers to similar questions. Quentin Skinner (2008) urges us to consider that Hobbes was engaged in a debate against republicans and that he employs rhetoric – the art of persuasion rather than strict logic – to make his case. Accordingly, Hobbes polemical interventions may veer off into arguments for things more probable rather than certain truths deductively concluded. Strauss (1952) argues that Hobbes engages the deductive method only after he has drawn important conclusions about the nature of man. Accordingly, the move to probability could be a means by which Hobbes gets from his deduction of united sovereignty to his (predetermined) conclusion that absolute monarchy is the best regime; probability is merely the means to get there. The interpretative possibilities go on.

But there is one interpretation that accounts for the shift to probability without conceding that Hobbes ditches his beloved method at the last minute for rhetorical or pragmatic reasons, at that most pivotal time when he must answer the question of the best regime. Here goes.

To shed light on the introduction of probability into Hobbes’ state theory requires that one ask, ‘What if he had not made this shift? What if Hobbes had decided on the best regime using his deductive method?’ Let’s have a look and see.

If Hobbes had argued not that absolute monarchy is ‘probably the best regime to ensure civil peace’ but, by deduction, that absolute monarchy is ‘certainly the only regime to ensure civil peace’ then we could draw from his conclusion the hypothetical proposition ‘If absolute monarchy then civil peace’. But if Hobbes had done this it would have led him into some logically tricky situations, even for a nominalist, as we shall see.

The hypothetical ‘If absolute monarchy then civil peace’ can be succinctly represented as [(M ⊃ P) where M = absolute monarchy, P = civil peace and ⊃ represents the conditional statement form ‘if…then’]. Note that this conditional is merely another way of stating that you cannot have absolute monarchy and not peace, or ~(M · ~P). We can now test possible conclusions to which this conditional would tie Hobbes. I’ll elucidate all possibilities.

Modus ponens (valid)
[where ∴ represents therefore]

M ⊃ P
M
∴ P

Modus tollens (valid)
[where ~ represents negation]

M ⊃ P
~P
∴ ~M

Apparent modus ponens (invalid: affirming the consequent)

M ⊃ P
P
∴ M

Apparent modus tollens (invalid: denying the antecedent)

M ⊃ P
~M
∴ ~P

I will get to finishing this post in the next couple of days, but the conclusion is that Hobbes makes the shift from demonstration to probability because he could see the absurd conclusions he was committed to if he didn’t. Thus, the question of motivation can be attributed to questions of logic rather than rhetoric (Skinner) or preconceptions (Strauss).


For those who are interested, the HTML for the symbols is:
⊃ = amp hash 8835 semicolon = superset of or conditional
~ = amp hash 126 semicolon = tilde operator
∴ = amp hash 8756 semicolon = therefore

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