Hobbes on Wealth, Poverty, and Economic Inequality

In: Hobbes Studies
David Lay Williams Department of Political Science, DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA,

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While Thomas Hobbes is not typically cited as a philosopher concerned with economic inequality, there is a great deal of evidence in his writings to suggest that he was aware of inequality and worried about its effects on the commonwealth. This essay first contextualizes Hobbes in the development of the 17th-century English political economy to understand the mercantilist milieu that might have shaped Hobbes’s thoughts. Second, it then explores Hobbes’s thoughts on wealth, poverty, and inequality, as outlined in his major political works – revealing distinctively Hobbesian grounds for understanding these phenomena. Third and finally, it explores Hobbes’s constructive political philosophy for means by which he might offer prescriptions for addressing them.

1 Introduction

By virtue of building a political system culminating in the accumulation of all political power in the hands of a sovereign Leviathan, it can be argued that Thomas Hobbes is among the least egalitarian philosophers in the history of political thought. His system is premised on the concentration of power preferably in the hands of a solitary figure with the people themselves expressly renouncing their own power. Insofar as he is associated with equality, scholars are drawn to his assertion of equality in the state of nature – that “Nature hath made men so equal in faculties of body and mind, as that . . . the weakest has the strength enough to kill the strongest.”1 Yet it is precisely this natural equality between human beings that eventually necessitates the profound inequality between sovereign and subjects that animates Hobbes’s commonwealth.

Less attention, however, has been paid to Hobbes’s thought concerning a different dimension of equality – economic equality. Indeed, with some notable exceptions, relatively little has been written about Hobbes’s economic principles generally.2 And the most celebrated treatments of his economics largely labor to confirm the view that Hobbes is fundamentally inegalitarian, determined to defend the emerging market system and whatever distribution of goods its values might yield. The most prominent interpreter of Hobbes along these lines is C. B. Macpherson, who determined that “Hobbes’s morality is the morality of the bourgeois world and . . . his state is the bourgeois state.”3 Macpherson would subsequently elaborate that Hobbes’s policies were “designed to increase the wealth of the nation by promoting the accumulation of capital by private enterprisers.”4 Another interpreter, Michael Levin, argues more enthusiastically along similar lines – that Hobbes’s political theory demands the absence of economic regulations in a libertarian “minimal state.”5

To be sure, Macpherson and his disciples have had their detractors. Prominent among them is Keith Thomas’s remarkable 1965 essay, “The Social Origins of Hobbes’s Political Thought.”6 Also notable is Gregory Kavka, who argues, “Though it is rarely noticed, Hobbes is a bit of an economic liberal, that is, he believes in some form of the welfare state and in the redistributive taxation needed to support it.”7 This is correct, and even laudable, insofar as, I will argue, Hobbes’s political theory authorizes significant redistribution of property. But Kavka’s analysis has two significant flaws. First, it attends to only one end of the economic spectrum – the poor. While I acknowledge that Hobbes is concerned about the plight of the poor, and I dedicate much space here to exploring this, Hobbes dedicates arguably greater attention to the problems associated with excessive wealth. In fixating exclusively on ameliorating the financial condition of the poor, Kavka treats Hobbes as a sufficientarian. His analysis of Hobbesian economics lingers almost exclusively on locating “the guaranteed economic minimum” in the Hobbesian state.8 The second problem with Kavka’s analysis is that it ignores Hobbes’s rich moral psychology that is integral to Hobbes’s understanding of the problems associated with wealth, poverty, and inequality. Kavka, in other words, treats Hobbes as merely interested in fixing the numbers, as it were – and not addressing the deeper psychological issues that pit the classes against one another in Hobbes’s analyses.9 My essay attempts to reveal the depth of Hobbes’s concern with these psychological issues, without reducing him to the categories of late-20th and early-21st century economists or philosophers.

Hobbes’s own words suggest a more complicated story regarding economic inequality and the concentration of wealth, as even Macpherson himself once admits.10 The philosopher from Malmesbury likens the excessive concentration of wealth to pleurisy – “when the treasury of the commonwealth . . . is gathered in too much abundance in one or a few private men”11 the commonwealth flirts with its own destruction. The story of Hobbes’s concern about inequality and the concentration of wealth is complex and largely untold.12 In order to understand his response to these phenomena, one must understand much not only about his political theory, but also his historical context. Context is no stranger to Hobbes scholars, who have made much of the English Civil War. But much of what led to this war had important – indeed, transformational – economic dimensions. Exploring these dimensions helps to shine a light not only on Hobbes’s understanding of the eventual war, but also on the economic dimensions of his political theory specifically with regard to inequality and wealth concentration.13 For Hobbes, insofar as subjects are permitted to acquire immense fortunes without limits, they become insolent, presumptuous of impunity, and eventually come to threaten sovereign authority. As can be discerned from England’s history in this period, including Hobbes’s own account of the English Civil War in Behemoth, this was one of England’s fatal defects that fostered that violent war. Hence, for Hobbes, avoiding this “pleurisy” necessarily becomes one of the important tasks of managing a healthy commonwealth.

2 17th Century English Mercantilism: Between Feudalism and Capitalism

Historically-minded Hobbes scholars tend to focus on the fact that his ideas were forged in the context of the English Civil War. Yet that Civil War itself occupied a particular economic environment, an environment that itself played a role in those political tensions. This section outlines the economic transformations taking place in Hobbes’s England with an eye to how they shaped the political circumstances that would in turn shape his political ideas.

The defining economic feature of Hobbes’s 17th century England was its slow, sometimes painful, but utterly decisive transformation from a feudal to a market economy. This process had already begun by the time Hobbes was born in 1588, but had not reached maturity until significantly after Hobbes’s death in 1679. Beginning with Adam Smith, economists referred to the economy of this period as “mercantilism.” This was an economy in which serfs had largely left the old feudal estates, owned by lords, who in earlier times compensated their workers with room and board. But this was also before the ascendance of the free market. Monopolies were common, free trade and open markets by subsequent standards were uncommon, and emerging merchants were often viewed with suspicion. It was a period of growing wealth, but also great upheaval and uncertainty. The working class could no longer count on their lords to provide for themselves and their families. Some would succeed spectacularly. Many more would struggle to pay rent and secure food.

For the first time in anyone’s memory, the working class would depend on wages for its living. For all of the limits of feudalism, the old economy had largely protected working people from homelessness and starvation. Under mercantilism, workers would need to find jobs that would pay them such that they could secure their own food and shelter. Yet as even Alexis de Tocqueville would remark nearly two centuries after Hobbes, this exposed workers to new dangers. Market economies speculate “on secondary needs which a thousand causes can restrict and important events completely eliminate.”14 As a consequence, workers who once enjoyed the security of room and board found themselves often living on the edge, especially in contrast with their landed and merchant neighbors. And given the relatively new economic structures along with the fluctuations they introduced, uncertainty about how to navigate the economy and secure basic needs fueled a general anxiety.15

Many factors conspired to impoverish 16th and 17th century English wage laborers. In addition to the vicissitudes of the speculative markets that grew central to market economies, the poor had to contend with high taxes, rising rents, bad harvests, high inflation, and declining real wages. Inflation in the middle 16th to middle 17th century, in particular, was so extreme that some have come to call it the “inflationary century.”16 The relatively stable feudal economy had made inflation largely unknown – especially to serfs, who had little need for money in any case. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, the price of grains – central to the English diet in this period – rose dramatically. Scholars remain uncertain about the precise causes of this inflation. But as Keith Wrightson has observed, “[c]ontemporaries had a ready explanation: greed.”17 According to the moralists of the 16th and 17th centuries, the primary cause of inflation was the unchecked covetousness of land-owning farmers and their economic agents that drove prices up to levels that priced the poor out of the grain market. In a world where markets were still poorly understood, citizens were drawn to the notion of “just prices” – the idea that prices should be set according to what seems “fair” to consumers, rather than from supply and demand.18 Insofar as the price of grains exceeded the ability of many citizens to pay for them, it was understandable that they would have found the high prices to be unjust. The effect of this inflation, according to Christopher Hill, “was a great redistribution of wealth as well as a rise in total national wealth. It was a great divide. Some of the rich and many of the middling sort grew richer; the poor . . . grew poorer.”19

One likely contributing factor to this inflation was the English population boom of this period. Just between the 1520s to the 1580s, England’s population increased by approximately a third.20 As the population increased, so presumably did the demand for grains, which would have driven up grain prices. But the increasing population had important economic effects beyond inflated food prices. Just as wage laborers were for the first time having to secure their own lodgings with rent, rent prices began to skyrocket. As Bernard Mandeville subsequently noted, “As to the rents, it is impossible they should fall while you increase your numbers.”21 As the population grew, landlords began significantly shortening leases in order to avoid being disadvantaged by inflation. Among other effects, this hastened a significant increase in evictions.22 As Wrightson has observed, rental income between the late-16th to mid-17th century grew variously across England anywhere from 100% to 1000%. The growing scarcity of rental properties also allowed landlords to impose hefty fees for late payments. As one scholar has observed, this remarkable increase of rents had the effect of engendering “a massive redistribution of income in favour of the landed class.”23

Another challenge facing working people in this period was stagnant wages, which were in fact radically declining when placed in their inflationary context. Between the years 1603–1640, in a context where nearly half of England’s population became reliant on wages to provide for their needs, the purchasing power of wage laborers dropped somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thirds. As Hill has observed, “The real earnings of a worker born in 1580,” just eight years before Hobbes himself was born, “would never exceed half of what his great-grandfather had enjoyed.”24 Under these conditions, wage earners in this period often retreated to a diet of simple “black bread.” Unsurprisingly, English wage laborers of the 17th century lacked unions or other similar organizations that might have championed wage-hikes in this inflationary period. Wages in this period were largely set by the regional Justices of the Peace, who, again, according to Hill, as themselves members of the employing class of citizens, sought to “fix wages at the lowest possible rates.”25 Wage-earning servants, for example, provide a particular lens on the plight of working people in this period. If servants wanted to leave an employer to work somewhere else, they had to purchase a “ticket of release” from their employer – presumably difficult to afford in the context of precipitously declining real wages. And if servants somehow earned a wage beyond the maximum set by the Justice of the Peace, they were subjected to punitive fines and even imprisonment. Employers paying those salaries, by contrast, were subject to very modest fines, if anything. Further, any employees who threatened to abandon their jobs because of low wages or poor working conditions were to be treated as vagabonds, subject to imprisonment and other sanctions.26 Such measures, to be sure, placed employers in positions of considerable power over their workers. As such, vast numbers of the working poor struggled throughout the 17th century with meeting basic needs, such as food and lodging. In order to compensate for declining real wages, many were compelled to work considerably longer hours than their ancestors. As Wrightson has observed, among craftsmen in Hull by the 1630s workers had to work for 306 days in order to earn what once could have been earned in 192 days. Laborers in the same town would have to work 459 days to pay the same as what could earlier be earned in 256 days.27 Workers would surely have been poorer and more fatigued in the middle 17th century than their predecessors.

Hobbes himself certainly witnessed this poverty. While employed by the aristocratic Cavendish family as a tutor, he had been born into relative poverty. His father, Thomas Hobbes, Sr., was a barely literate and pugnacious clergyman, who struggled with alcoholism. When Hobbes, Jr. was 15, his father brawled with another clergyman and then fled town, never to be seen again. His native Malmesbury had thrived as a wool producer up until the mid 1550s, but then declined rapidly in the decades immediately preceding Hobbes’s birth, as cotton came to supplant wool. Although the Hobbes family was far from the poorest in town, A. P. Martinich describes them as very much “lower middle class.”28

As an adult, Hobbes’s recorded the plight of the working poor during a 1626 trip to the Peak District. He pointedly comments that “Poverty has damned” locals to work in the lead mines, which rendered them “lean as a skeleton, pale as a dead corpse.” Upon his arrival at the mines he discovered that one had collapsed on and crushed two of the men who had dug it. He remarked, “they had dug their own sepulcher.”29 Mining was a backbone of the British economy in this period, and it is likely that such scenes were relatively common throughout the commonwealth.

The struggle of the poor in this period was not merely a problem for individuals. It was a broader problem for the social order. As England transitioned from a feudal to a mercantilist economy, the poor increasingly turned to uprisings. These began as early as 1549 with Kett’s Rebellion – a violent response triggered by frustrations with the enclosure laws that allowed wealthy landowners to fence off common land.30 This left many poor farmers with no place to graze their animals and posed a significant challenge to their livelihoods. Ultimately following the command of a sympathetic yeoman farmer, Robert Kett, the rebels successfully seized the city of Norwich before being put down by the Earl of Warwick. Three thousand poor farmers were killed in battle and Kett was executed.31 Similar revolts occurred throughout England in 1596, 1607, 1622, 1628–31, and 1640–43. These movements commonly had a clear class component, such as in the Gloucestershire rebellion of 1622, when the unemployed “went in groups to houses of the rich, demanding money and seizing provisions.”32 As Julian Cornwall summarized the poor’s frustrations from this period, there was a growing sense that the “state had been taken over by a breed of men whose policy was to rob the poor for the benefit of the rich.”33

Despite the relatively desperate condition of many in England, some did astoundingly well. The age of mercantilism saw the extraordinary growth of wealth in a few hands.34 Much of this wealth, as can be deduced from the rising rent, went into the hands of landowners, or the “gentry.” By virtue of their land (recently acquired by virtue the liquidation of the monasteries upon the establishment of the Anglican Church) and the exceptionally favorable conditions benefitting landlords, the gentry saw their wealth skyrocket.35 Enjoying their new wealth, they engaged in what Christopher Hill has called “an orgy of conspicuous building, . . . housing themselves in greater comfort” throughout England, but especially creating large country estates for themselves.36

More remarkable, perhaps, was the sudden growth of the merchant class. Whereas under feudalism, wealth was almost exclusively attached to landed estates that were passed down from one generation to the next, clever entrepreneurs in the 16th and, especially, 17th century discerned the rules of the new economy well before their peers, amassing extraordinary fortunes. The paths to great fortunes varied, but included many of the so-called “bourgeois virtues,” such as thrift, careful book-keeping, moderate consumption, attention to economic trends, etc. And naturally, the amassing of fortunes often included a dimension of luck, such as being well-situated to exploit emerging markets for commodities like coal, salt, and textiles. Coal, in particular, was foundational for the new economy, as it fueled production in cannon-founding, sugar refining, paper-making, brick-making, soap-boiling, glass-blowing, dyeing, salt-refining, and brewing, as well as iron, steel, and copper production. Although the largest deposits were in Warwickshire, Staffordshire, and Shropshire, smaller mines were liberally distributed throughout England. The mining process itself was quickly revolutionized by advancements in the division of labor, which presumably had the effect of reducing wages – by virtue of reducing the level of skills required of miners, combined with England’s rapidly growing population. In the century prior to the publication of Hobbes’s Leviathan, coal production increased from 200,000 to 1.5 million tons a year.37 As was typical throughout the mercantile economy, entry into the small world of coal mine ownership was strictly limited by government-restricted grants of monopoly. For example, in the coal-rich Tyne region, there were only twenty coal-mine owners, who were collectively known regionally as the “Lords of Coal.”38

Some of the most spectacular fortunes of this period were generated in the burgeoning field of international trade, such as was the case with the East India Company, founded in 1600 to facilitate the importation of spices from India to England. Privately owned by investors with a government charter, the Company was a quick and remarkable success, earning as much as 500% returns on investments by 1607. For the relatively small set of investors – primarily found in London, but with some others scattered throughout England – small fortunes grew exponentially.39 Similar companies arose in the same period, such as the Russia Company (1555) and the Turkey Company (1581), with similar purposes and profits. Relatively modest merchants were for the first time beginning to acquire massive fortunes, which they would, in turn, invest in other ventures, including government finance, usury, and land for rental income. Such fortunes began to rival and even exceed those held by the gentry.

As just suggested, other new sources of fortunes were usury and finance. Prior to the mercantilist age, usury – defined as loaning money at interest with all risk assumed by the debtor – was largely condemned on moral and theological grounds. Such views rested on the Old Testament (specifically Leviticus 25:36) and Saint Thomas Aquinas, who condemned usury as unjust, since it represented a fundamentally unequal exchange – for example, trading $10 for $12. As such it violates what he called “commutative justice.”40 Hobbes’s own friend, Francis Bacon, had written that “Usury is the certainest means of gain, though one of the worst.”41 As recently as 1487 and 1495, England had passed a series of laws affirming prohibitions on usury. Yet half a century later, another series of laws effectively reversed this policy, at least tacitly permitting loans at up to 10% interest, by virtue of mild, unenforced penalties. By the end of the 16th century, 10% interest on loans had been broadly accepted as morally permissible, with “usury” being re-defined loosely as charging “excessive” interest rates. And even then, these limits on excessive rates were increasingly ignored. This created new low-risk opportunities for those with capital to make a great deal more.42

Many of the above-cited industries took place on large scale and consequently required significant capital to operate. Much of this money could be found in London, which was growing exponentially as England’s economic capital. By 1600, 87% of English commerce passed through the city. The newly wealthy were not only engaged in finance capital and usury, but also in emerging industries such as cloth, where clothiers would employ as many as a thousand workers. As a consequence, by 1640 London was home to the vast majority of England’s wealthiest citizens. Of course, it wasn’t only the rich who flocked to London. The city experienced a remarkable population boom, quadrupling in the 16th century and doubling again in the first half of the 17th century.43

As already mentioned, the fortunes of the merchant class were exploding to the point where it rivaled and even exceeded that of many aristocrats. It was not unusual for the successful merchants to earn fortunes in the thousands or tens of thousands of pounds – enormous sums for the times. William Finch of the East India Company, for example, left an estate of over 80,000 pounds to his heirs.44 In a period when some merchants and members of the gentry began to see their fortunes grow exponentially and members of the working class saw their purchasing power dramatically decline, inequality became the norm. It is difficult to imagine that any society replacing feudalism would be less egalitarian in economic terms, as the feudal system was premised on social and economic inequality. Yet economic historians are confident that this is precisely what happened. Christopher Hill has written of this period, there was a “a redistribution of wealth as well as a rise in total national wealth. It was a great divide. Some of the rich and many of the middling sort grew richer; the poor . . . grew poorer.”45 Broadberry et al. note the parallel growth both in gdp and inequality throughout this period as “income inequality grew substantially,” even as they argue that poverty was steadily declining.46 Keith Wrightson highlights the “gross disparities which existed in the distribution of an expanding national income.” He adds, “There was nothing new about poverty or inequality. But the marked divergence in living standards and life chances between those who gained and those who lost in the decades around 1600, and the sheer growth in the numbers of the laboring poor have led many historians of England and Wales to view this period as one not only of economic expansion, but also of social polarization.”47

As the gentry and merchants built their fortunes, their interests increasingly turned to politics. While they would butt heads with the monarch throughout much of Hobbes’s lifetime, they found their entry into government through Parliament. The House of Lords belonged, more or less, to the propertied class – both old money and new. The House of Commons, however, is where new money especially made its presence felt. Merchants and members of the gentry not only sought the influence of a seat in Commons, but they also aspired to the social honors and distinctions that accompanied it. Suffrage varied from region to region at the time – from only permitting those with incomes of more than 40 schillings, to universal male suffrage – but in most cases the results were the same: members of the House of Commons fervently defended the rights and interests of the emerging wealthy class. As Hill has noted, “The Lower House spoke for the prosperous gentry and the richer merchants.”48

Emerging from a period in which political matters had been largely trusted to the monarch and a hierarchy of associated aristocrats, new wealth began to challenge these old institutions and established laws. For the monarchs, this emerging wealthy class was initially viewed as a new source of revenue. One revenue stream along these lines was the selling of monopoly rights to run state-sanctioned commercial enterprises – such as in bricks and glass, not to mention international trade. But monopolies were controversial from the beginning, as potential economic competitors viewed them as suppressing new economic opportunities.49

Relatedly, merchants were also troubled by the stifling of free trade throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Monopolies represented one state-imposed obstacle to free trade. Trade barriers between nations were still another. These barriers were established partly on the basis of early modern economic orthodoxy – that all trade was zero-sum. The profits earned by one nation were necessarily losses suffered by another. Whether or not such views were accurate, they exercised powerful influence on policy makers – to the great consternation of merchants who saw their various business plans obstructed. By virtue of growing influence over the Parliament, they were able to overturn some of these measures – such as the repeal of the 1606 dissolution of the Spanish Company, which permitted free trade between England, France, Spain, and Portugal. But the process of opening markets was slow and a constant frustration to aspiring trade merchants.

Even where international trade was opening, the government endorsed free trade primarily for its potential to raise tax revenues. It was increasingly important in the half-century preceding the Civil War to raise revenues, as government expenses were increasingly significant due to war expenses and the growing costs of modernizing government bureaucracy. Initial attempts to raise revenue through property taxation failed miserably insofar as wealthy landholders were radically under-assessed.50 A subsequent solution was the sale of offices and titles. Shortly after ascending to the throne, James I began selling knighthoods as a means of raising revenue. Given the rapid pace of these sales, their abundance soon began reducing their price and their relative prestige. As Lawrence Stone observed, “Knighthood in its turn fell into contempt and men began seeking some further title of distinction.”51

A more secure source of revenue was subsequently sought through the imposition of taxes known as “Ship Money.” Ship Money was effectively a wealth tax imposed on wealthy merchants in coastal and shipping towns. James I was drawn to it initially because it did not require Parliament’s consent for its imposition, as it was grounded in a feudal law that entitled the sovereign to claim ships or their financial equivalent from ports. But it was also attractive because of the simple principle of being a tax imposed on where the money actually was – on the growing class of wealthy merchants. While this promised to improve the government’s finance problems, it was decidedly unpopular with those wealthy merchants, who often simply refused to pay up. James I’s successor, Charles i, extended the tax throughout the entire Kingdom, not just on those in port cities. Wealthy merchants legally challenged the Ship Money tax in 1637. They lost their case in the courts, but the public nature of the legal challenge rallied greater public scrutiny of the tax. As Hill has noted, “Almost the whole propertied class united in opposition to Ship Money.”52 Whereas in 1636, the government collected 96.5% of assessed Ship Money taxes, two years later in 1638, it was only able to collect 39%.

As is well-known to Hobbes scholars, the tensions between Charles i and Parliament continued for decades leading up to the English Civil War and the publication of Leviathan. In an earlier dispute, in 1629 Charles i had dissolved Parliament for more than a decade. It was the absence of an active legislature, among other things, that had led him to revive the Ship Money taxes in order to finance the government. But the failure of the wealthy to comply with these taxes, combined with the pressing need to finance the “Bishops’ War” with Scotland, had finally forced Charles’s hand to reconvene Parliament twice in 1640.53 The first of these was the “Short Parliament.” As soon as Parliament met in April, they began by expressing grievances about the Ship Money taxes. Frustrated with Parliament’s unwillingness to consider new taxes, Charles dissolved it in less than a month. Yet by November, still pressed for financing, he was compelled to reconvene Parliament yet again. This would become known as the “Long Parliament.” Among its first acts was a law that prohibited the monarch from dissolving Parliament without Parliament’s consent. Frustrated with a Parliament that would neither fund the government nor could be dissolved, Charles began attempting to arrest members of Parliament in 1642. This precipitated the English Civil War.

The Civil War broke out in 1642 with armies of between 60,000–70,000 fighting on both sides – the Royalists and Parliament. Parliament’s initial stronghold was London and its wealthier surrounding regions, which had profited from growing commerce – citizens whose support for Parliament was consistent with their objections to Ship Money. Charles’s support came mainly from the aristocratic families and the poor. The aristocrats had long been allied with the crown, and had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the emergence of wealthy merchants in their midst, who shared neither their backgrounds, their values, nor their alliances. Parliament further alienated them when it targeted them with new taxes to pay for the Civil War. Parliament also targeted the poor with consumption taxes on beer, meat, salt, starch, and soap. These consumption taxes were Parliament’s alternative to Ship Money, which had been assessed on the wealthy merchant class. These taxes were imposed in a period of low wages, bad harvests and rising food prices. So it is little surprise that the poor preferred to cast their lot with the crown.

With the assistance of Scotland, and after some early setbacks, Parliament won the first round of the Civil War, with the King’s surrender on May 5, 1646. Yet two years later, in 1648, Charles had persuaded the Scots to join the Royalist cause – with the Scots invading England in an attempt to rout Parliament. The invasion failed and Parliament ordered Charles’s beheading, which took place on January 30, 1649. The Scots, now aligned with Charles’s son, Charles ii, made one further attempt to invade London in September 1651, which likewise failed, representing the final formal battle of the English Civil War. Estimates are that the war took more than 200,000 lives over the decade.

3 A Brief Outline of Hobbes’s Political Philosophy54

Hobbes begins his political theory in the state of nature – a thought experiment he invented to grasp human nature, the origins of the state, and the proper functions of government. The state of nature is a condition absent of laws, government, or any discernable organized society. According to Hobbes, in the state of nature, human beings are equal. Although by default this is true in economic terms, since there is no society to support currency, much less its distribution, he suggests an equality in more fundamental terms. They are equal insofar as “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others.”55 This equality engenders competition. Those equally confident in their abilities are inclined to compete over scarce resources, which may include food, but also other objects, like glory. People only compete when they understand themselves to have a reasonable chance of acquiring those things they seek.

The knowledge that others are capable of killing anyone, confident in their abilities to acquire those things we want, and are aware that others will compete with them in so acquiring those objects produces diffidence – a distrust each citizen has for one another in the state of nature. Equality, competition, and diffidence, in turn, are the source of conflict and war. Hobbes suggests many ways in which this can come about – including wars for gain, safety, and reputation.56 But all wars – regardless of their objectives – share one thing in common, according to Hobbes: they are to be avoided at almost all costs. Wars are the enemy of everything that reasonable people seek: the opportunity to work, to engage in agriculture, navigation of the high seas, science, arts, letters, philosophy, and society itself. The state of nature is thus a state of war – a condition in which all suffer from “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”57

Hobbes’s account of the state of nature to this point is very much an account of human nature. Specifically, he draws attention here to humanity’s psychological egoism – that people are fundamentally motivated by self-interest. As Hobbes himself confidently asserts, “of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself.”58 This principle is sometimes amplified in his writings, as, for example, in chapter 11 of Leviathan: there is “general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death.”59

Much could be, and has been, said of Hobbes’s principle of egoism. But what is most relevant and noteworthy might be this – that it is not Hobbes’s goal to give free reign to that selfishness. In this respect, there is a decisive disjuncture in the Western tradition of egoism upon the arrival of Bernard Mandeville. Whereas Hobbes is willing to allow some role for selfishness in exiting the state of nature and in obeying sovereign commands (and the attendant threats), he is generally inclined to resist the various encroachments of selfishness, as with the laws of nature, discussed in §5 of this essay. Mandeville, by contrast, seeks to give that selfishness the widest possible latitude in the formation of social norms and laws. In this respect, it is Mandeville, rather than Hobbes, who is best understood as the intellectual forbearer of the free market turn in 20th century social and economic policies. As will be seen, Hobbes was hardly one to endorse the mantra, “Greed is good.” For Hobbes, greed is an unfortunate tendency in human nature, and a violation of the laws of nature.

This egoism is most usefully manifested for Hobbes in the fear of death, insofar as individuals recognize that all prospects of satisfying selfish desires hinge upon the successful release from said fear.60 Hobbesian individuals realize that only a sovereign can protect them from the state of nature. The Leviathan represents a coercive power entirely absent in the state of nature – a power strong enough to redirect humanity’s fears from one another to the sovereign power. It is only when individuals fear the Leviathan that peace – the object of all individuals in the state of nature – becomes possible. Because once they fear the sovereign power, that sovereign can then legislate and enforce laws. And law facilitates peace.

Those civil laws enacted and enforced by the sovereign must correspond to what Hobbes calls the “natural laws.”61 He identifies as many as nineteen such laws. The first and most important of these laws, however, is to seek peace,62 which he defines as precisely the opposite of the state of nature.63 Yet there are countless ways in which this peace can be threatened. So each of the subsequent laws of nature, in turn, is aimed at supporting the fundamental natural law of peace by confronting and mitigating these various threats. This includes, among other laws, the laws of justice, gratitude, pardon, complaisance, equity, and the like. For example, citizens unable to practice complaisance – which Hobbes defines as the ability of a subject to “accommodate himself to the rest” – is a threat to the peace insofar as he fails to acknowledge the rights and needs of fellow subjects. He is, for Hobbes, “stubborn, insociable, froward [obstinate], intractable.”64 He elaborates in On the Citizen that such a person tends to keep “more than he needs for himself” and “takes the necessities of life from other people.” Such individuals “will be to blame for the war which breaks out,” according to Hobbes, since his resources will inevitably be needed – and when the commonwealth or the poor come for them, he won’t surrender them without a fight.65 I will subsequently argue below that some of these natural laws are central to Hobbes’s solution to the problems of excessive wealth and inequality. It is the duty of sovereigns, above all, to preserve the peace, which they can only achieve by legislating and enforcing the natural laws. Failure to do so dissolves sovereign authority, and the commonwealth returns to the state of nature, where everyone lives not in fear of the Leviathan, but rather in fear of a violent death at one another’s hands. Because sovereign authority is central to the commonwealth’s success – and indeed, the very survival of its inhabitants – Hobbes invests it with nothing less than absolute authority. But absolute authority on Hobbes’s account should not, however, be mistaken for sovereign license, as the sovereign can only maintain authority by respecting the laws of nature.

4 Hobbesian Problems with Poverty, Concentrated Wealth, & Inequality

Hobbes’s political program prioritizes peace above all. Along these lines, it is essential when considering Hobbes on economics that one understands how poverty, concentrated wealth, and inequality can obstruct peace. This is one of the fundamental lessons Hobbes likely learned in the decades leading up to the English Civil War – a war at least partly facilitated by the economic upheaval, the impoverishment of many along with the enriching of others, the concentration of wealth, and the systemic inequality. Hobbes acknowledges some of this in his own history of the Civil War, Behemoth. Early in his account, he describes several factors contributing to the corruption of the people, such that they “would have taken any side for pay or plunder” in the wars. Among these factors are two worth emphasizing in this context. The first is the city of London and the other “great towns of trade,” in which merchants have become covetous of the “great prosperity” of places like the commercial Netherlands and have “inclined [them] to think that the like change of government here, would to them produce the like prosperity.”66 In other words, English merchants had learned from the Dutch that co-opting the political system was essential to increasing their profits. A second simultaneous source of corruption among the English was poverty, where many “saw no means how honestly to get their bread.” These impoverished masses “longed for a war” insofar as any significant disruption to the existing order promised to be better than the one that had them on the brink of starvation.67

Hobbes’s attention to these matters in Behemoth is suggestive about their roles in understanding his broader political theory. Namely, they represent threats to his first law of nature – peace – and hence the very possibility of a thriving, enduring commonwealth. But at this point, it is necessary to turn to his systematic political philosophy in order to explore the ways in which greed, concentrated wealth, poverty, and inequality threaten to undermine the Hobbesian commonwealth. In drawing attention to these elements of Hobbes, I hope to introduce an important clarification related to Macpherson’s claim that he failed to perceive a “class differentiation which can be expected to produce a class cohesion.”68 Setting aside the question of whether or not the classes “cohered” in Macpherson’s sense, Hobbes clearly understood there to be stark differences between rich and poor; and this “class differentiation” had profound effects for his commonwealth.

4.1 Hobbes on the Poor

Among the relevant economic and moral categories cited above, poverty receives less attention than the others. Yet contrary to Stephen Holmes’s assertion that Hobbes never “lost much sleep over poverty,” poverty certainly worried Hobbes.69 As already mentioned, he came from a lower-middle class family, and was shocked to discover the conditions of the laboring poor in the English coal mines. His concern for the poor animated his political theory. For Hobbesian individuals, poverty threatens both their dignity and their very physical survival: “What grieves and discontents the human spirit more than anything else is poverty; or want of the essentials for the preservation of life and dignity.”70 Without these basic resources, citizens were often compelled to choose between the unappealing alternatives of begging or stealing.71

The consequences of poverty for Hobbes, however, are also existential for the commonwealth itself. Relatively early in Part ii of Leviathan, he remarks, “no king can be rich nor glorious nor secure, whose subjects are poor or contemptible or too weak through want.”72 In the immediate context, Hobbes suggests this is the case because the king’s soldiers would be too weak to fend off foreign invaders. But he suggests a second underlying reason why poverty poses a serious problem for commonwealths: the “discontent that arises from poverty.” Poor and hungry citizens are discontented, resentful, envious, and angry. While he is not beyond blaming some of the poor for their poverty based on their own extravagance or idleness, he recognizes that many of the poor’s grievances are legitimate. And beyond the question of the legitimacy of their grievances, for Hobbes, is the brute fact that poverty emboldens the poor to commit deeds they might not otherwise contemplate. As he records in his translation of Thucydides, “poverty will always add boldness to necessity.”73 Indeed, for Hobbes, the discontent arising from poverty leads to nothing less than “sedition,”74 a rebellion against sovereign authority. Poverty evidently fosters a restless desire for change, regardless of the consequences.

To be sure, Hobbes never condones sedition and rebellion. “Attaining sovereignty by rebellion,” he insists, is “against reason,”75 since it violates the social contract that each subject makes to obey sovereign commands, holding together the social fabric. To be seditious is to reject the sovereign, government, and society itself. Yet he knows that subjects can nevertheless be driven by circumstances to sedition and rebellion. As he observes in his conclusion to Part ii of Leviathan, rebellion is the “natural punishment” of negligent princes who fail to uphold the peace. While rebellion may technically be irrational, it is nonetheless a natural consequence of particular circumstances, including poverty. This is, to be sure, one reason why Hobbes endorses the Thomist doctrine that otherwise perplexes some readers – that the poor have the right to steal from the rich with relative impunity. Thomas Aquinas’s political theory included a general prohibition against thievery, yet allowed an exception in cases of necessity. For him, “the natural law requires that superfluous things in one’s possession be used for the sustenance of the poor.” So if the rich fail to share their surplus with the poor, the poor have a right to take it by theft – under the authority of the natural law. As Thomas insists, “if the necessity is so pressing and clear that one has an immediate need of things at hand, then one may lawfully alleviate one’s necessity with the goods of another, whether one takes the goods openly or secretly.”76 As such, it cannot properly be called “theft” or “robbery.” He doesn’t give it a name. But it is morally permissible, in response to the sin of the rich who fail in their duties.

Hobbes follows Thomas’s lead, allowing,

When a man is destitute of food or other things necessary for his life and cannot preserve himself any other way but by some fact against the law, as if in a great famine he may take the food by force or stealth, which he cannot obtain for money nor charity; or in defense of his life, snatch away another man’s sword; he is totally excused.77

Hobbes’s excuse of theft here is surprising on at least two levels. First is that despite his contempt for Scholastic philosophy,78 his arguments here parallel Thomas’s in the Summa. Second and of greater immediate importance, however, is how Hobbes allows exceptions to the law. He is generally concerned about the problem of theft. In addition to his approving citation to the Decalogue’s prohibition of theft as binding commands because they are “drawn from the will of God our King, whom we are obliged to obey,”79 he further cites theft as “forbidden by the laws of nature.” Yet even as he defines theft as both a sin and violative of the laws of nature, he allows that the definition of the term is “to be determined by the civil, not the natural, law.”80 Upon recalling the purpose of the laws of nature as promoting peace – in addition to the fact that hunger and indignity fuel sedition – it is consistent with his larger principles to permit the kind of theft he describes in the above-quoted passage.81 A commonwealth that tolerates needless hunger, especially when combined with the indignity of poverty he describes, flirts with its own destruction. The indignant, hungry, and seditious poor ultimately pose a greater threat to the commonwealth than the poor do in periodically thieving the rich. Given England’s problems with peasant rebellions in the century leading up the publication of Leviathan, such as Kett’s rebellion,82 it is easy enough to understand how Hobbes would have arrived at this conclusion.83

4.2 Hobbes’s Psychology of the Wealthy

While Hobbes is surely concerned about the problems poverty pose for his commonwealth, he expresses even greater concern about concentrated wealth. His earliest discussion of wealth can be found in his Briefe of the Art of Rhetoric, written in 1637, his summary of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.84 For Aristotle’s part, the wealthy are

wantonly aggressive and arrogant, since they are affected somewhat by the possession of wealth (for their disposition is the same as if they possessed every good thing, since wealth is something like a standard value for other good things, which is why all of them appear purchasable by it). And they are luxurious and pretentious people: luxurious, because of their mode of life and their display of prosperity; pretentious and vulgar, because all of them are accustomed to spending their time on what they love and admire and to thinking that others are emulously jealous of the same things as themselves. . . . And they think they deserve to rule (for which they think they have the things on account of which one is worthy to rule). And, in sum, the character proper to wealth is that of a prosperous person who lacks understanding.85

Hobbes’s summary of Aristotle echoes much the same:

Rich men are contumelious, and proud; this they have from their riches; for seeing everything may be had for money, having money they think they have all that is good. And effeminate; because they have wherewithal to subminister to their lust. And boasters of their wealth, and speak in high terms foolishly; for men willingly talk of what they love and admire, and think others affect the same that they do; and the truth is, all sorts of men submit to the rich. And think themselves worthy to command, having that by which men attain command. And in general they have the manners of fortunate fools. They do injury, with intention not to hurt, but to disgrace; and partly also through incontinence.86

To be sure, neither Aristotle’s nor Hobbes’s summary portrait is flattering of the rich. The wealthy are vain and arrogant; they tend to reduce the value of things to their cash value; they assume they are better than others; they are selfish; they lack self-control; they express a lust to dominate others; they assume that they, above all others, know best how to rule on account of their riches.87 But as Hobbes’s Rhetoric largely summarizes Aristotle’s work, there are reasonable questions about whether Hobbes actually shares in Aristotle’s assessments about the wealthy’s character flaws. After all, Hobbes generally dismissed Aristotle as “vain and erroneous.”88

Despite Hobbes’s Rhetoric being largely an exercise in translation and summary, there are substantial grounds to take seriously the proposition that he largely agrees with Aristotle specifically on psychology of the rich.89 Some of Hobbes’s most developed thoughts along these lines can be found in his On Man (De Homine), which he completed several years after Leviathan. It is worth examining his thoughts here with some care:

From the goods of fortune, that is from riches, nobility of birth, and civil power it happens that dispositions are in some measure made various; for dispositions are frequently made more proud by riches and civil power, for those who can do more demand that they be allowed more, that is, they are more inclined to cause injuries, and they are more unsuited for entering into a society of equitable law with those who can do less.90

For Hobbes, elevated wealth (but also status and power) tends to fuel pride and vanity. As he elaborates elsewhere in the same text, “Excessive self-esteem impedes reason; and on that account it is a perturbation of the mind, wherein a certain swelling of the mind is experienced because the animal spirits are transported.”91 In Leviathan, he characterizes pride as a kind of “madness,” one that specifically “subjecteth a man to anger, the excess whereof is the madness called rage and fury.”92 It also fuels arrogance – those with great wealth tend to think that they are wiser than others or at least desire to be perceived as such.93 Arrogance in such instances has its own complications for Hobbes – namely, the arrogant are “unsuited for correcting their own faults. For they do not believe that anything in them needs correcting. On the contrary, they are inclined either to correct others’ deeds, or to be vituperative or scornful about them, like those who believe that whatsoever they see being done contrary to their own opinion is being done improperly. And so they judge a state to be badly governed which is not governed as they themselves wish.”94

The pride and arrogance Hobbes associates with great wealth explains why he thinks the wealthy are so difficult to govern in a “society of equitable laws.” On his reasoning, the rich simply assume they are better than not only their fellow citizens, but better even than the government itself. Any law that fails to please them fuels their natural tendency toward anger and rage.

While one cannot assume too much here, it is easy to imagine that Hobbes’s frustrations with the wealthy in such passages reflect the problems that the wealthy merchants created in 17th century England. As the merchants grew wealthier, they became increasingly frustrated, angry, and ultimately rebellious with the sovereign authority that made decisions not to their liking, such as the Ship-Money tax. Hobbes describes the frustrations of the wealthy along these lines in his account of the English Civil War. For him, “those great capital cities, when rebellion is upon pretense of grievances, must needs be of the rebel party: because the grievances are but taxes, to which citizens, that is, merchants, whose profession is their private gain, are naturally mortal enemies.” As he elaborates, the wealthy merchants are thus “most commonly . . . the first encouragers of rebellion.”95 The wealthy perceive the very fact of taxation as an affront for which rebellion is the logical response. This explains, on his logic, one of the fundamental causes of the tumults of the 17th century. As the government increasingly sought to tax the emerging merchant class, that class, in turn, rejected sovereign authority to impose said taxes. It would rather upend the government itself than submit to sovereign authority. Hence, not only does poverty lead to “sedition,” but wealthy merchants are also prone to rebellion. Leviathan contains Hobbes’s most developed thoughts about the effects of wealth on moral psychology:

Of the passions that most frequently are the causes of crime, one is vainglory or a foolish overrating of their own worth, as if difference of worth were an effect of their wit or riches or blood or some other natural quality, not depending on the will of those that have the sovereign authority. From whence it procedeth a presumption that the punishments ordained by the laws and extended generally to all subjects ought not to be inflicted on them with the same riguour they are inflicted on poor, obscure, and simple men, comprehended under the name of vulgar.

Therefore it happeneth commonly that such as value themselves by the greatness of their wealth adventure on crimes, upon hope of escaping punishment by corrupting public justice or obtaining pardon by money or other rewards.96

As in De Homine, Hobbes is concerned by a tendency among the wealthy to become vainglorious. Elsewhere in Leviathan, he describes vanity as commonly the malady of the young, “corrected oftentimes by age.”97 But his remarks above suggest that wealth and privilege have the effect of extending it throughout life.

One of the remarkable features of this vanity born from wealth, according to Hobbes, is the presumption that the laws do not bind them, as they do the “poor, obscure, and simple.” On his account, they sense themselves as exempted from the laws because they harbor expectations – one imagines learned through experience – that the laws will not be enforced upon them. Exceptions will be made; bribes can obtain pardons; justice can always be compromised. As such, for Hobbes, these men “take courage to violate the laws from a hope of oppressing the power to whom it belonged.”98 This is precisely the revolutionary spirit of the bourgeoning merchant class that so disturbs Hobbes in Behemoth. If the system is going to hold them to standards that they themselves do not prefer, the system can always be changed. And threatening to change the system is effectively an act of rebellion – a challenge to the rule of law and to the sovereign itself.

The powerful theme of Hobbes’s treatment of the psychology of the wealthy is the sense of impunity. In discussing the sources of lawlessness, Hobbes acknowledges many factors. As already noted, some of these are, for him, excusable when committed by the poor, who are driven by an understandable sense of desperation.99 But Hobbes is much less forgiving of lawless behavior when committed by the wealthy:

The same fact done against the law, if it proceed from presumption of strength, riches, or friends to resist those that are to execute the law, is a greater crime than if it proceed from hope of not being discovered or of escape by flight; for presumption of impunity by force is a root from whence springeth at all times and upon all temptations a contempt of all laws; whereas in the latter case the apprehension of danger that makes a man fly renders him more obedient for the future.100

Those with means, status, and connections, for Hobbes, presume an ability to manipulate the legal order in their favor. This presumption of impunity makes them especially threatening to the rule of law, which depends on habits of obedience. Whereas poor scoundrels or vagabonds might violate the law on occasion, they always fear the law – since they tend to suffer its consequences. But the presumptions of the wealthy make them indifferent to the law. They do not fear the consequences of their lawbreaking. This is why they represent a unique threat to the Hobbesian commonwealth. There can only be one figure in his commonwealth who acts with impunity – the sovereign.101

An underlying element in the growing fortunes of the wealthy, as well as their subsequent sense of impunity, is avarice or greed.102 Hobbes’s concern about greed may well extend back to his 1629 translation of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in which greed [pleonexia] represents a persistent menace to various parties consumed in the conflict. As Ryan K. Balot has observed, greed is a frequent theme of Thucydides’s History,103 as Hobbes would have intimately known. The Corcyraeans, for example, ruled “out of avarice and ambition,” resulting in the “most horrible outrages . . . without regard of justice or the public good.”104 Greed also features significantly in the Mytilenean Debate, in which Diodotus observes, “For poverty will always add boldness to necessity; and wealth, covetousness to pride and contempt.”105 Hobbes acknowledges the Greek origins of this concept by specifically employing the Greek word, pleonexia, in both Leviathan and Elements, which he defines as “a desire for more than their share.”106

Hobbes also would have been attuned to greed by virtue of his familiarity with Scripture. It is a frequent theme in both the Old and New Testaments, figuring prominently in the Book of Ecclesiastes, as well as the Gospels and letters of Paul. Such assessments of greed could also be found widely in Hobbes’s milieu. Published just ten years before Hobbes’s birth, Philipp Caesar’s General Discourse Against the Damnable Sect of Usurers condemned the “so beastlie and poisoned wickednesse” of usury, as practiced by those who were “worse than pagans, which are without Religion, wicked, not beleeuyung there is a God.” Caesar likens these money-driven agents to “poysoned serpantes, to greedie Wormes, to Wolues, Beares, and to such other rauening beastes.”107 Such views persisted throughout Hobbes’s lifetime, as reflected in James Harrington’s biblical insistence in 1656 that his readers remember “that covetousness is the root of all evil.”108 So perhaps it is unsurprising that Hobbes references the biblical sources in On the Citizen, describing the commandment, “thou shalt not covet,” as a natural law.109

Hobbes sees avarice as deeply engrained in human nature. Indeed, in the Epistle dedicatory of his On the Citizen, he allows two fixed principles of human nature: 1) greed, and 2) natural reason. Greed invites trouble; reason provides the best prospects for escaping it.110 He describes such difficulties in chapter 3 of On the Citizen:

[A] man who keeps more than he needs for himself and, in the hardness of his heart, takes the necessities of life from other people, and is too temperamentally stubborn to be corrected, is normally said to be inconsiderate of others and difficult. Now since our basic principle is that every man is not only right, but naturally compelled, to make every effort to win what he needs for his own preservation, anyone who tries to thwart him for the sake of luxuries will be to blame for the war which breaks out, because he was the only one who had no need to fight; and is therefore acting against the fundamental law of nature [viz., peace].111

The pursuit of greater riches, especially by the rich at the expense of the poor, triggers what Hobbes describes as the poor’s natural and rightful defense of their modest resources. Those consumed with greed “are inclined to continue the causes of war and to stir up trouble and sedition.”112 Greed thus violates the natural law insofar as it threatens the peace. He draws this connection expressly in his Behemoth, in which “rich subjects . . . never look upon anything but their present profit.” He continues, “If they had understood what virtue there is to preserve their wealth in obedience to their lawful sovereign, they would never have sided with Parliament.”113 In other words, Hobbes expressly connects the greed of the wealthy to their undermining of the sovereign. Had they been less greedy, they likely would have accepted sovereign authority and lived in peace with their fellow subjects.114

4.3 Economic Inequality, Envy, Resentment, Factionalization, and Dissolution

Hobbes elaborates that the presumptions of the wealthy (and others of elevated status) are themselves the source of factions. His definition of factions is best understood as a category of human association, as outlined in chapter 22 of Leviathan. As Richard Boyd has aptly summarized,115 Hobbes divides different groups into the classes: “subordinate” versus “independent,” “public” versus private,” and “lawful” versus “unlawful.” The only independent system is the state itself. All other lawful groups are subordinate. Private groups not expressly authorized by the state can be tolerated as lawful if they do not oppose sovereign authority. The most threatening groups are both private and unlawful. This is the category to which factions belong. Hobbes presents his own examples in chapter 22: “If the sovereign power be in a great assembly and a number of men, part of the assembly, without authority, contrive the guidance of the rest, this is a faction or conspiracy unlawful, as being a fraudulent seducing of the assembly for their particular interest.”116 But factions certainly extend, for Hobbes, well outside political institutions. They frequently pit subjects against one another. This is clear in in his definition of factions from On the Citizen: “By faction I mean a crowd [multitude] of citizens, united either by agreements with each other or by the power of one man, without authority from the holder or holders of sovereign power. A faction is like a commonwealth within the commonwealth; for just as a commonwealth comes into being by men’s union in a natural state, so a faction comes into being by a new union of citizens.”117 The definitions of faction both in Leviathan and On the Citizen point to a partiality or particularity of interests. Whereas the commonwealth, for Hobbes, must always seek the “common good,”118 factions prioritize the “particular interest” and “private interest” of subsets within the broader population.119 It stands to reason, of course, that if factions promote their own private or particular interests, they are necessarily antagonistic to the interests of other subjects – this is what it means, after all, to prefer a private interest to the common good. This is why they are especially problematic for Hobbes. Thus it follows that “factions are the source of sedition and civil war.”120

To be sure, there is a long tradition of associating factions with economic or class divisions. As James Madison would observe more than a century after Hobbes, “the most common and durable source of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society.”121 But well before either Hobbes or Madison, Plato’s Athenian Stranger in the Laws observed that the simultaneous presence of “harsh poverty” and great wealth “breed[s] both civil war and faction.”122 Hobbes largely agrees. In listing some of the sources of faction, he identifies popular figures, who can marshal subjects to their side in their grievances against the sovereign. But he quickly adds, “the same is to be said of immoderate private wealth; for everything obeys money.”123

As already suggested, much of inequality’s factious nature, for Hobbes, resides in the reluctance of the wealthy to pay their taxes. Where states depend on the payment of taxes to provide essential benefits – like protection against invasion and promotion of the peace more generally – it is easy to understand the existential danger of failed tax payments. But there is another dimension in which inequality generates Hobbesian problems: envy and resentment. He sketches the logic in chapter 10 of Leviathan:

[R]iches joined with liberality is power, because it procureth friends and servants; without liberality, not so, because in this case they defend it not, but expose men to envy, as a prey.124

Wealth can be a source of great social power, for Hobbes, especially when one donates it to the indigent. In the absence of regular acts of charity, the rich inspire envy, which Hobbes defines as a “grief arising from seeing one’s self exceeded or excelled by his concurrent . . . joined with pleasure conceived in the imagination of some ill fortune that may befall him.”125 That is, envy inspires a desire to watch the suffering of one’s betters, as it were, and as he explains in Leviathan, even to play a role in bringing about that suffering. Those who hoard great wealth inflame the poor’s envy, and thus subject themselves to becoming the prey of the envious poor. The presumptions of the rich thus inspire the violence of the poor. He elaborates on this logic in chapter 30 of Leviathan:

Impunity maketh insolence; insolence, hatred, and hatred, an endeavor to pull down all oppressing and contumelious greatness, though with ruin of the commonwealth.126

The wealthy’s presumption of impunity does not go unnoticed by those without means. The poor are well aware of the wealthy’s privileges, and they resent them for it. That resentment urges them to attack the rich, bringing down the commonwealth along with them. Hobbes may well have in mind moments in recent English history, such as the Gloucestershire rebellion of 1622, in which the poor’s envy led them to forcibly seize the possessions of the rich. While the commonwealth did not collapse on that occasion, Hobbes seems acutely aware that such episodes possess the potential to do so. This is why, for him, “resentment and envy . . . are the sources of sedition and war.”127

To be sure, there is also a tradition of denying the legitimacy of this envy and resentment. Most recently, Steven Pinker has related a Soviet-era fable in which two poor peasants are distinguished only by the fact that one of them has a scrawny goat. When the goat-less peasant is granted a wish, he simply wishes that “Boris’s goat should die.” Pinker uses the fable to expose the unnecessary destructiveness of envy in the context of inequality. The scrawny goat is not the source of the peasant’s suffering, according to Pinker, so much as is his poverty. In a context of a growing commercial economy, however, he argues, everyone is getting better off – and residual envy can only be the source of needless strife.128 But here is what Hobbes understands that Pinker and others do not: we cannot simply will envy and resentment away, however irrational it may be. For Hobbes, envy and resentment will always co-exist with inequality.129 It is no different from telling cuckolds not to experience jealousy. Yes, jealousy is powerfully destructive for everyone involved. One might even say it is irrational. Yet it doesn’t solve the problem simply to tell cuckolds to not feel it. The feeling is more or less intractable. Likely the best strategy in dealing with such jealousy would be to foster healthy relationships that prevent the perfidy in the first place. As can be seen shortly with Hobbes, the solution is not to tell the poor to stop feeling envy and resentment; the solution is to reduce the inequality that generates it.

4.4 Economic Issues in Hobbes and State Failure

In chapter 29 of Leviathan, Hobbes addresses the sources of a commonwealth’s dissolution. Among these are the failure to grant absolute authority to the sovereign, the division of governmental powers, lack of resources, and the like. But infrequently observed in Hobbes’s discussion of the failing state is how often these failures connect with economic issues. Hobbes himself, however, is sometimes explicit in making this connection. In this section, I draw attention to these failures. In particular, I connect Hobbes’s attention to economic issues to at least five of these sources of state failure. These include: 1) difficulty in raising public money, 2) private judgments of good and evil, 3) individual claims of private and absolute rights to private property, 4) excessive concentration of wealth, and 5) want of absolute sovereign power. As will be shortly evident, there is much overlap in these various maladies of the commonwealth, and they all connect to the economic issues already raised in this essay.

A good place to begin understanding these factors is to reconsider the refusal of the wealthy to pay their ship-money taxes in 1638.130 The sovereign had imposed the ship-money taxes on merchants, as their growing wealth promised a new revenue stream. The merchants acquiesced for a time, and then simply refused to pay. In Hobbesian terms, this refusal posed multiple threats to the commonwealth. First and most obviously, insofar as subjects refused to pay their taxes, they made it difficult for the sovereign to raise public money “for the necessary uses of the commonwealth, especially in the approach of war.”131 In the immediate context of 1638–1640, this seriously hindered the Bishops’ War against Scotland. And with France’s forces in Scotland, it raised questions for Hobbes about England’s ability to maintain its sovereignty. Second, the refusal to pay the ship-money taxes represented a private judgment of evil. For Hobbes, individual subjects cannot have this right to judge a tax evil, just as they have no right to make any private judgments of evil.132 All subjects surrender this right by virtue of residing in the commonwealth. Violations of this prohibition against private judgments about good and evil, according to Hobbes, are “not only vain, but also pernicious to the public state.”133 Third, their refusal to pay taxes represented a kind of claim of absolute private property, “such as excludeth the right of the sovereign.” They effectively claimed that their money was, in fact, their money – and not ultimately the property of the sovereign. Yet Hobbes insists that private property is contingent. Hobbesian subjects have a right to exclude other subjects from seizing their property, but they do not have that right against the sovereign, since the subject has property “only from the sovereign power, without the protection whereof every other man should have right to the same.”134

Fourth, the refusal to pay ship-money taxes came from the wealthiest merchants – merchants who were likely, to Hobbes’s mind, a bit too wealthy. This is because . . .

there is sometimes in a commonwealth a disease which resembleth the pleurisy; and that is when the treasury of the commonwealth, flowing out of its due course, is gathered in too much abundance in one or a few private men . . . in the same manner as the blood in a pleurisy, getting into the membrane of the breast, breedeth there an inflammation, accompanied with a fever and painful stitches.135

Hobbes’s treatment here of the concentration of wealth comes very much in the context of concern about figures who set themselves up to compete with the Leviathan for sovereign authority. This includes not only the non-sovereign rich, but also “popular” figures, like Julius Caesar, “who was set up by the people against the Senate.” The effect of such machinations is to challenge sovereign authority. As Hobbes understands it, “this proceeding of popular and ambitious men is plain rebellion, and may be resembled to the effects of witchcraft.”136 Such is the danger of powerful orators, who have “as much power as the people itself, and they have a kind of tacit agreement to turn a blind eye to each other’s greed (my turn today, yours tomorrow).”137

It is perhaps intuitive to connect the power of popular leaders to the power of wealth, as Hobbes himself acknowledges that the desire for wealth is, at bottom, a “desire of power.”138 As he subsequently elaborates, “Riches are honourable, for they are power.”139 To be wealthy, for Hobbes, is to be powerful – which immediately raises questions about the dangers the rich pose to commonwealths. Thus, on his account, their wealth must be carefully regulated by the sovereign:

[P]rivate power has a certain limit beyond which it will ruin the commonwealth; because of it monarchs must sometimes take steps to see that no harm comes to the Country [Respublica] from that direction. When the source of that power has been wealth, they have decreased it by decreasing the wealth.140

Wealthy subjects can exercise this power in different respects. They may, for example, seize power for themselves, as did Sulla in the Roman Republic.141 Or they work from the sidelines, as it were, to undermine the existing sovereign whenever that sovereign threatens their private or particular interests in pursuit of the common good. Regardless of which strategy they might choose, they pose a consistent threat of contesting and disrupting sovereign authority, which makes it prudent for the sovereign to pursue “decreasing the wealth” as a way to obviate these problems. Failure to do so threatens the commonwealth by undermining the sovereign’s absolute authority, where absolute authority is essential for the commonwealth’s continued existence – the fifth category cited above. So managing economic inequality is not merely a matter of aesthetic preference for Hobbes – it is rather a moral and existential matter on which the continued existence of the commonwealth depends. And insofar as the pace depends on managing inequality, it also becomes a moral matter.142

5 Hobbesian Solutions to the Problems Associated with Economic Inequality

Hobbes’s descriptions of wealth, poverty, greed, and inequality suggest a need for solutions. There is ample evidence in his work to suggest he has them. And what is more, these solutions are very recognizably Hobbesian. The only way to address these pathologies is to rely on the Leviathan, whose absolute powers are necessary to address these social maladies. Hobbes’s broadest measure is to authorize the Leviathan to redistribute property – where necessary – to establish an equitable balance of wealth and property, consistent with peace and the common good. But in order to support this, Hobbes institutes a number of natural laws aimed at addressing the various maladies associated with wealth, greed, and inequality.

In his most obvious measure to confront the problems outlined here, Hobbes specifies that there must be a system of public charity to protect subjects, who by “accident inevitable, become unable to maintain themselves by their labour.” He elaborates, “For as it is uncharitableness in any man to neglect the impotent; so it is in the sovereign of a commonwealth to expose them to the hazard of such uncertain charity.”143 This system of public charity, presumably in the spirit of the English poor laws, is clearly his preferred alternative to private charity, as determined by the good will and whimsy of wealthy private citizens. To be sure, providing for the basic needs of the poor is for him a necessary measure not only for humanitarian reasons, but also for the reason that the poor are prone to sedition, as has already been noted. Thus tending to their most immediate needs should by high priority for any effective sovereign.

This program of providing for the poor is likely connected to Hobbes’s attention to the distribution of property in chapter 24 of Leviathan, as part of a larger discussion of the “nutrition and procreation of a commonwealth.”144 His discussion of property remarkably parallels one found in the Old Testament. Moses outlines the Jubilee laws, according to which God demands that all property that may have been exchanged over the past fifty years must be restored to the original distribution, as subsequently established in Numbers 26:52–54 and Joshua 13–19.145 Numbers, in particular, establishes a principle of equity in property distribution whereby “to a larger group give a larger inheritance, and to a smaller group a smaller one; each is to receive its inheritance according to the number of those listed.”146 There is no principle of distributing land according to talent, merit, or industry. Leviticus explains the underlying authority for Jubilee as divine, since the land ultimately belongs to God, and the Israelites merely “hold [it] as a possession.”147 God’s ownership of the land, thus, authorizes the periodic redistribution of land. There can be no questioning Jubilee, even though the author of Leviticus understands that Jubilee will rankle feathers, and that those benefitting from property exchanges since the last Jubilee will want to maintain their gains for themselves and their heirs. This is why Leviticus’s God promises violent retribution against anyone violating Jubilee laws, including, but not limited to the destruction of crops, attacks by wild animals, the death of children, plagues, famine, and the delivery of violators to their enemies.148

Hobbes’s own discussion of the distribution of property begins with a parallel assumption as that found in Leviticus. Property distribution is ultimately at the “mortal god’s” discretion because, as in the Old Testament all property belongs to God, with Hobbes “propriety [property] . . . belongeth in all kinds of commonwealths to the sovereign power.”149 For this reason and because of the sovereign’s absolute authority, there can be no challenging sovereign decisions regarding property distribution. He connects his own theory of property and ancient Jewish law by expressly evoking the Hebrew division of land from Joshua 13–19.150

While sovereign authority to distribute property cannot be challenged, this does not mean that this distribution should be arbitrary. Hobbes specifies that property should be distributed and redistributed according to “equity and the common good,”151 or as he subsequently elaborates “the common peace and security,” and “equity and the law of nature.”152 Some will be surprised that Hobbes has a notion of “common good” at all, given his assumptions about the baseness of human nature and his determination to build from it.153 But given context in these paragraphs of Leviathan, it seems clear that the “common good” can be reduced to the other terms that accompany it, such as peace, security, equity, and the law of nature – and these terms all share much in common. “Peace” and “security” amount to the same thing – the absence of war154 – and constitute the first and foundational law of nature.155 “Equity” is also a law of nature, and as such, is directed back to the first – to the preservation of peace.156 Beyond this, however, Hobbes specifies that equity requires sovereigns to “deal equally” between subjects.157 The opposite of equity, he notes, is partiality – which, as already noted, is a source of faction.158 Equity also requires that subjects accept this equal dealing as authoritative for the sake of their peace and security.159

Hobbes’s conception of equity has important underlying psychological assumptions. First, he notes that in treating subjects unequally, by “giv[ing] more or less to one than to the other, you are insulting the person who is not favored.”160 While Hobbes speaks here of distributing rights, one can imagine the same principle extending to property distribution. Where subjects are assigned radically unequal shares of land, one can presume the perception of insult. Second, if subjects were to possess radically unequal shares of property, it could well inspire envy and resentment, which, as Hobbes is at pains to suggest, is the source of political instability and even civil war.161 Given the sovereign’s authority to distribute and redistribute property at will; given that Hobbes insists that property should be distributed according to what promotes equity, peace, and security; given that significant economic inequality fosters envy, resentment, factions, and ultimately sedition and civil war; it would seem that Hobbes’s own logic dictates a fairly equitable distribution of property.162 Anything else runs the risk of disturbing the peace and security on which the commonwealth rests.163

Finally, with regard to a Hobbesian sovereign’s authority to distribute and redistribute property, it might be objected that while this is technically within a sovereign’s authority, it is not something Hobbes specifically considered as a measure to confront concentrated wealth and inequality. Yet Hobbes himself cites redistribution as a salutary practice of previous sovereigns: “[w]hen the source of that power has been wealth, they [sovereigns] have decreased it by decreasing the wealth.164 Concentrated wealth is a problem for Hobbes; redistribution of that wealth is clearly his solution.

Hobbes’s program for sovereign distribution of property appears to be his primary mechanism for managing economic inequality. Yet this program of property distribution itself points careful readers to other dimensions of his philosophy that seem aimed at achieving the same. Namely, I speak of selected elements from Hobbes’s laws of nature: the laws against contumely, pride, and arrogance.

Hobbes associates pride with vanity: “The passion whose violence or continuance maketh madness is . . . great vain-glory, which is commonly called pride and self-conceit.165 And one of the primary sources of pride, for him, is wealth: “dispositions are frequently made more proud by riches.”166 The proud and vain-glorious, he observes, “estimate their sufficiency by the flattery of other men or the fortune of some precedent action, without assured ground of hope from the true knowledge of themselves, are inclined to rash engaging.”167 The proud and vain-glorious, for Hobbes, lack an underlying genuine confidence in themselves. They rather seek their sense of self-worth in the appraisal of others. They may be rich, but that alone does not make them feel content. They must seek honor in using their wealth to effect the praise of others. And if anyone should get the better of them on a given occasion, pride merely inspires them to take vengeance against their competitors, as “Revenge . . . is motivated by vainglory, and therefore is without reason.”168 Given that vengeance itself violates the natural law for Hobbes, one can appreciate that pride and vain-glory can lead to a spiraling of offenses against the natural laws, culminating with threats to the first law of peace.169

Hobbes contrasts his natural law against pride with its opposite: the recognition of natural equality. By nature, as he is at pains to demonstrate, all humanity is fundamentally equal, both in body and mind: “The question who is the better man has no place in the condition of mere nature.”170 Yet he acknowledges that civil society introduces inequalities. Aristotle’s error in this regard, for Hobbes, is assuming that social inequalities parallel natural ones. For Hobbes, Aristotle’s presumption of natural inequalities inflates the pride of those occupying the top of social hierarchies. Yet Hobbes goes even a step further, allowing that even if Aristotle were right – that some were naturally better than others – that doctrine would have to be publicly denied: “the pursuit of peace requires that they be regarded as equal.”171 So long as some subjects are permitted to think they are naturally better than others, they will do what is in their power to demonstrate their superiority. And that makes them a menace to others. Hence, “the ninth law of nature . . . that every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature. The breach of this precept is pride.”172

One implication of Hobbes’s law of equality is his requirement that all citizens have an equal liability to taxation: “To equal justice appertaineth also the equal imposition of taxes.”173 He elaborates that this equality of taxes “dependeth not on the equality of riches, but on the equality of the debt that every man oweth to the commonwealth for his defense.” For contemporary readers, this might well appear to be the foundation for what is now called a “flat tax,” where everyone pays the same tax rate, regardless of their economic class. But this is not Hobbes’s position. Rather, he argues, all subjects have a debt to society for their protection. In the first place, this means that all subjects are liable to military service. But Hobbes notes that most rich people will simply “hire others to fight for them.” So whereas the poor pay with their bodies, the rich must pay in cash. Beyond this, they are to pay this as a consumption tax – insofar as Hobbes seeks not to burden those who are working hard and saving, so much as he who is “living idly . . . spending all he gets.”174 In pursuing this policy, he seeks to tax those living extravagantly, rather than the working poor, who labor all day and save all they can. This discussion suggests that Hobbes objected to the previously discussed practice of making the poor pay consumption taxes on items like beer, meat, salt, starch, and soap, as Parliament had imposed with particularly damaging effects on the poor. Hobbes’s calculus suggests that the poor have likely already paid their taxes with their bodies, leaving the consumption taxes to fall on luxury items purchased by wealthier subjects.

Paralleling the natural law against pride is the law against arrogance. As with the proud, the arrogant seek to distinguish themselves over and above their fellow subjects. The law itself reads, “that at the entrance into conditions of peace, no man require to reserve to himself any right which he is not content should be reserved to every one of the rest.”175 As has already been discussed, it is a tendency of the wealthy, for Hobbes, to assume “that the punishments ordained by the laws and extended generally to all subjects ought not to be inflicted on them with the same rigour that they are inflicted on poor, obscure, and simple men.”176 It is part of the definition of the arrogant to presume greater privileges for themselves over their fellow subjects. For the arrogant, what is illegal for the poor is legal for them. This violates Hobbes’s prohibition against arrogance. He continues, further, that violating this law can also be called “pleonexia, that is, a desire of more than their share.”177 As discussed above, pleonexia is the Greek word for greed – an unquenchable thirst for more that, for the Greeks, often results in self-ruin.178 For Hobbes, the arrogant are exceedingly difficult to rule, insofar as they assume they are entitled to more than others and typically think they know a great deal more than others. And because they are consumed by pleonexia, there is little reason to believe that this quest for more money, this quest for status, this quest for legal exemption will ever cease. More than perhaps any other character in Hobbes’s oeuvre, the arrogant embody the “restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death.”179 Indeed, as Hobbes elaborates, such figures represent an existential threat to the commonwealth: “Competition of riches, honour, command, or other power inclineth to contention, enmity, and war, because the way of one competitor to the attaining of his desire is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other.”180 The aims of the arrogant and pleonectic cannot be broadly shared – it is their very nature to be exclusive. This has the effect of turning subjects against one another and fomenting trouble, enmity, sedition, and war. Hobbes perhaps speaks most directly to the necessity of curbing greed in On the Citizen:

[S]ince our basic principle is that every man is not only right, but naturally compelled, to make every effort to win what he needs for his own preservation, anyone who tries to thwart him for the sake of luxuries will be to blame for the war which breaks out, because he was the only one who had no need to fight; and is hence acting against the fundamental law of nature.181

The desire for more than one’s share is, for Hobbes, not only inconsiderate with regard to the needs of others. It is an attack on the fundamental law of nature, that is, seeking peace. Thus the curbing of arrogance and greed would seem to be a high priority in his commonwealth.

So fundamental are the natural laws against pride and arrogance, for Hobbes, that they inform the very title of his magnum opus: Leviathan. The figure of the Leviathan is a very carefully considered reference to the Book of Job.182 The Book of Job is best known for its depiction of the travails of Job, a wealthy and faithful man, who is tormented by Satan in a series of indignities in order to test his enduring love of God. He endures these torments for a time, but eventually grows weary of them, condemning God for having permitted these punishments despite his best efforts to lead a pious life. God’s response to Job is indignant. In questioning God’s actions, Job has presumed that he knows better than God. God’s closing speech in the Book of Job is an expression of his superiority over Job in every conceivable way – including in brute physical force. It is only God who can create a Leviathan – a great sea creature – capable of filling all with overwhelming, cowering fear.

When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it. A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance. Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. It leaves a glistening wake behind it; one would think the deep had white hair. Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.183

The “haughty,” those who think they know better than others in power, must be tamed by a power they cannot themselves deny – a physically overwhelming force that inspires sufficient fear to terrorize them into submission. And, indeed, immediately after God presents the image of the Leviathan to Job, Job submits to God’s authority.

Scholars have long noted Hobbes’s biblical source here, as Hobbes does himself in chapter 28 of Leviathan.

Hitherto I have set forth the nature of man, whose pride and other passions have compelled him to submit himself to government, together with the great power of his governor, whom I compared to Leviathan, taking that comparison out of the two last verses of the one-and-fortieth of Job where God, having set forth the great power of Leviathan, calleth him king of the proud. There is nothing, saith he, on earth to be compared with him. He is made so as not to be afraid. He seeth every high thing below him; and is king of all the children of pride.184

Christopher Brooke, in particular, has rightly drawn express attention to Hobbes’s concern here (and elsewhere) to tame the pride and arrogance that threaten the public peace.185 Yet there are additional insights that can be learned from the analysis here in Hobbes’s appeal to Job’s Leviathan. First, one should bear in mind that for Hobbes the proud and arrogant are often the wealthiest subjects. Second, Hobbes connects the wealthy’s larger fortunes to their sense that they are above the law. Third, Hobbes attributes to the proud and arrogant a tendency to “judge a state to be badly governed which is not governed as they themselves wish.”186 To be sure, Job is wealthy; and he is also someone who, albeit briefly, thinks he knows better than God how to rule the earth. In broad terms, Job’s presumptions here parallel the wealthy merchants in 17th century England, who think they know better than the king who should be paying taxes and how much. As Hobbes conceives it, it is surely the task of the sovereign to tame those individuals, particularly with respect to their pride and arrogance, so that the state might secure the peace that had been so severely disrupted in the years leading up to the wars.

One further natural law bears mentioning with regard to his concern about the problems he associates with concentrated wealth and economic inequality. This is his law against contumely. Contumely, for him, amounts to “all signs of hatred or contempt.”187 To be sure, here again economic circumstances play a role. As discussed above, the wealthiest subjects tend to assume impunity – and, for Hobbes, “Impunity maketh insolence; insolence, hatred, and hatred, an endeavor to pull down all oppressing and contumelious greatness, though with ruin of the commonwealth.”188 The causal arrow also points in the other direction. The privileges enjoyed by the wealthy fill the poor with envy and resentment, since riches without charity “provoke envy.”189 Thus economic inequality threatens Hobbes’s natural law against contumely, given its tendency to inspire insolence on the one hand and envy and resentment on the other. The common failure of the wealthy to heed these natural laws against pride, arrogance, and contumely, for Hobbes, is well-summed up in chapter 18 of Leviathan: “For all men are by nature provided of notable multiplying glasses (that is their passions and self-love) through which every little payment appeareth a great grievance, but are destitute of those prospective glasses (namely moral and civil science) to see afar off the miseries that hang over them and cannot without such payments be avoided.”190 Humanity’s egoism is magnified by wealth and power; and that wealth and power inclines them to act even more selfishly, expressly against the natural laws, even where those laws uphold the society that nurtures them.

Of course, it is one thing to command subjects to follow the natural laws. It is another thing to get them to follow those laws. In some instances, commanding and following the natural laws is a relatively straightforward matter – such as in the laws of primogeniture and contract. But with other laws, Hobbes speaks to a state of mind – and as he subsequently acknowledges, the mind is difficult to regulate.191 While the Leviathan indeed possesses awesome political authority in Hobbes’s commonwealth, it has no special access to the consciences of individual subjects. It would be difficult to imagine, in other words, that a sovereign simply commanding that subjects cease being proud, arrogant, and contumelious with the expectation that this would solve the problems he describes.

To overcome this limitation of the mortal god’s powers, Hobbes has at least three available measures. First, he supposes the existence of an immortal God, who absolutely has access to the thoughts of subjects. And he specifies that this God very much expects individuals to engage in acts of “charity and love.”192 For Hobbes, Christians have a duty to give to the poor: “we should make friends with our riches of the poor, and thereby obtain their prayers whilst they live.”193 Indeed, Hobbes suggests that alms-giving should extend well beyond token gifts: “To give great gifts to a man is to honour him, because it is buying of protection and acknowledging of power. To give little gifts is to dishonor, because it is but alms and signifies an opinion of the need of small helps.”194 Indeed, as he subsequently adds, the “honour of great persons is to be valued for their beneficence and the aids they give to men of inferior rank, or not at all.”195 To be sure, however, the practice of charity seems in many respects a religious or divine duty – to be enforced by an omnipotent God.

Yet there is clearly another respect in which Hobbes can involve the mortal god, or Leviathan, in rectifying the problems of concentrated wealth and inequality. If the problems of pride, arrogance, and contumely are in significant part attributable to concentrated wealth and inequality, the solution would seem to be to reduce that inequality – an authority the sovereign clearly possesses by virtue of its ultimately ownership of all property. Indeed, this does not merely seem to be within the realm of sovereign authority – it is arguably a sovereign responsibility, insofar as the sovereign’s primary responsibility is maintenance of the natural law, culminating in the first law of nature, the peace and security of the people.196 If reducing the concentration of wealth in a small set of hands and promoting greater economic equality has the capacity to reduce contumely, pride, arrogance, factions, envy, resentment, and the like, then it should follow for the sovereign to pursue this as a matter of public policy in the civil law.

Another respect in which Hobbes attempts to address these problems is through education.197 The civil laws are, as Hobbes often claims, to be coextensive with the laws of nature.198 But as already noted, the nature of many natural laws is such that they are difficult to enforce, since they pertain directly to the content of individual minds and hence typically reside beyond the sovereign’s reach. Hobbes intends for education to address this limitation of sovereign power. Indeed, as adherence to the laws of nature is essential for the commonwealth’s survival, education in the laws of nature is a sovereign duty. Thus there needs be “a general provision contained in public instruction, both of doctrine and example; and in the making and executing of good laws to which individual persons may apply their own cases.”199 The state is to set aside days, indeed, for subjects to learn of their rights and duties according to the natural law. In doing so Hobbes appeals to the Jewish tradition of a Sabbath – a day set aside each week to ponder God’s laws.200 And in order to achieve this, Hobbes insists, the universities must teach the same laws to their students. Among these laws to be taught, of course, are the laws against pride, arrogance, and contumely.201

6 Conclusions

It must be said that while Hobbes’s approach to the problems of poverty, excessive wealth, and inequality offers significant insights to readers of any generation, at least part of his solution is burdened by a familiar objection. In his Second Treatise on Government, John Locke objected to Hobbes’s absolute monarchs, since “absolute monarchs are but men.”202 In other words, if human nature is as selfish and violent as Hobbes depicts it in the state of nature, how would it make any sense to then grant all the political power to a single one among them? This objection, among other observations, has been at the foundation of the doctrines of separation of power and checks and balances, both of which were fundamentally foolish, according to Hobbes. Yet Locke’s objection can even be amplified when thinking about the problem of great wealth. Human nature is dangerous enough without great wealth. Yet Hobbes suggests that people are even more insufferable when they possess enormous wealth. Since it is difficult to imagine a Hobbesian sovereign as anything other than a remarkably wealthy monarch, would that not make the monarch even more dangerous?203 This is a perfectly reasonable question, and one that gets to the heart of Hobbesian political theory. Hobbes’s answer might likely be that it is still better to be ruled by a single wealthy person than a community where others are using their wealth to contest sovereign authority. But the Hobbesian answer to this objection surely suggests the limits to which Hobbes’s logic can be pushed without raising serious questions for those drawn to the virtues of the separation of powers.

To be sure, the case that Hobbes represents a great critic of economic inequality is more tenuous than, for example, the cases for Rousseau or Marx. Rousseau and Marx in many respects understand economic inequality to be the central problem confronting political theorists. One cannot think about them without thinking about inequality. This is not true for Hobbes, who has fascinated readers from the very beginning without regard to what he might have to say about such matters. And one might even build a Hobbesian case that even as Hobbes acknowledges concentrated wealth and inequality to be significant problems, they are problems where the cure might be worse than the disease. This reading of Hobbes would echo the Athenian Stranger’s caution in Plato’s Laws – that in attacking the problem of inequality too quickly and too aggressively one might disrupt the very peace at the center of Hobbes’s constructive political program. That is to say, if a sovereign, upon ascending to the throne, were to aggressively confiscate property from the rich and deliver it to the poor, he might well run the risk of angering the rich to the point of revolution, which would be very much the opposite of what Hobbes seeks. A Hobbesian solution to the nevertheless very real problem of concentrated wealth and inequality, thus, may well require the kind of incrementalism that Plato’s Athenian Stranger recommends for communities where significant inequality is an established fact. This would not be to deny the problem of inequality for Hobbesian commonwealths, but would certainly counsel some caution in addressing it.


Previous versions of this essay were presented to workshops and colloquia at DePaul University, Fordham University, The University of Notre Dame, and The University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as at the 2020 meeting of the American Political Science Association. The author would particularly like to thank the following scholars for their thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts: Richard Avramenko, Deborah Baumgold, Adrian Blau, Andrew Day, Jeffrey Flynn, Eileen Botting Hunt, Daniel J. Kapust, Glory M. Liu, A. P. Martinich, Emma Planinc, Devin Stauffer, Noah Stengl, Nicholas Tampio, Paul Weitman, Reed Winegar, and Samuel Garrett Zeitlin, as well as the anonymous reviewer at Hobbes Studies.


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, revised edition, ed. A. P. Martinich and Brian Battiste. (1651; Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2011), ch. 13, ¶1. Subsequent references are to chapter and paragraph numbers.


Recent exceptions include Jesus M. Zaratiegui Labiano, “A Reading of Hobbes’ Leviathan with Economists’ Glasses,” International Journal of Social Economics, 27/2 (2000): 134–146; Quentin Taylor, “Thomas Hobbes, Political Economist: His Changing Historical Fortunes,” Independent Review, 14 (2000); Peter B. Josephson, “Hobbes, Locke, and the Problems of Political Economy,” in Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political Philosophy, ed. Michael R. Strain and Stan A. Veuger (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 2016); Laurens van Apeldoorn, “‘The Nutrition of a Commonwealth:’ On Hobbes’s Economic Thought,” in History of Economic Rationalities: Economic Reasoning as Knowledge and Practice Authority, ed. Jakob Bek-Thomsen, Christian Olaf Christiansen, Stefan Gaarsmand Jacobsen, and Mikkel Thorup (Dortmund: Springer, 2018); and Adrian Blau, “Hobbes’s Practical Politics: Political, Sociological, and Economistic Ways of Avoiding a State of Nature,” Hobbes Studies, 33/2 (2020).


C. B. Macpherson, “Hobbes Today,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 11/4 (November, 1945): 528.


C. B. Macpherson, “Thomas Hobbes,” In The New Palgrave’s Dictionary of Economics, (London: Macmillan, 1987), 663.


Michael Levin, “A Hobbesian Minimal State,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 11/ 4 (Autumn 1982): 338–353.


See also William Letwin, “The Economic Foundations of Hobbes’s Politics,” in Hobbes and Rousseau: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Maurice Cranston and Richard S. Peters (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972).


Gregory S. Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 210.


Kavka, Hobbesian Theory, 214.


One additional consideration along these lines is John Stuart Mill’s reflection on what he learned during his personal “crisis.” Mill’s crisis, which had been brought about partly by his recognition of the limits of utilitarianism, taught him to cease assuming that human problems can be resolved in attributing an “almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances.” A comprehensive resolution to humanity’s social and economic problems must tend to the “internal culture of the individual” (John Stuart Mill, Autobiography [1873; London: Penguin Books, 1990], 118). Hobbes’s attention to moral psychology suggests this kind of richness absent among some of his interpreters.


Macpherson, “Hobbes Today”: 528.


Leviathan, 29.19.


Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), 17–20, and Richard Tuck, Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 81–83, come the closest to understanding Hobbes along the lines discussed in this essay, but neither substantially elaborates on the egalitarian Hobbes in the economic sphere. Christopher Brooke, “Nonintrinsic Egalitarianism, from Hobbes to Rousseau,” Journal of Politics, 82/4 (October, 2020): 1408–1409, suggests that Hobbes sets the stage for Rousseau’s “non-intrinsic egalitarianism,” but does not spell out Hobbes’s own economic views.


Along these lines, one might recall Richard Whatmore’s critique of Quentin Skinner for ignoring contexts of political economy (“Intellectual History and the History of Political Thought,” in Palgrave Advances in Intellectual History, ed., Richard Whatmore and Brian Young [Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006], 121–126).


Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir on Pauperism: Does Public Charity Produce an Idle and Dependent Class of Society? (1835; New York, NY: Cosimo Classics, 2006), 11.


For insights on Hobbes and anxiety, see Eileen Hunt Botting, “Wollstonecraft, Hobbes, and the Rationality of Women’s Anxiety,” in Disability and Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).


E.g., see Christopher Hill, A Century of Revolution, 1603–1714 (1961; New York: W. W. Norton, 1980), 20, and The Pelican Economic History of Britain, Vol. 2, 1530–1780: Economic History to Industrial Revolution (1967; London: Penguin Books, 1969), 65, 87. It should be noted, however, that this inflation was largely limited to essentials, such as food and lodging. Curiously, inflationary trends did not apply to luxury items and other items typically purchased by the well-to-do. See David Jacks Hoffman, Patricia A. Levin, and Peter H. Lindert, “Real Inequality in Europe since 1500,” The Journal of Economic History, 62/2 (June, 2002): 323, 330–34.


Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 118.


Such notions were not unique to the English of the 16th and 17th centuries, and typically inform accusations of “price gouging,” such as Plato’s Athenian Stranger sought to prohibit in Magnesia (see The Laws of Plato, trans. Thomas Pangle [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988], 921c) and David Lay Williams, “‘The Greatest of All Plagues’: Plato on Economic Inequality,” presented to the Political Theory Workshop, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, February 26, 2018, §3.3.


Hill, Economic History, 87.


Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 121.


Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees and Other Writings, ed. E. J. Hundert (1723; Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1997), 124.


Hill, Economic History, 85.


P. Bowden, quoted in Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 184.


Hill, Century of Revolution, 18.


Hill, Century of Revolution, 19.


Hill, Economic History, 57–58.


Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 194.


A. P. Martinich, Hobbes: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 357. Deborah Baumgold emphasizes that “Hobbes identifies with, and appeals to, ordinary subjects” (Hobbes’s Political Theory [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988], 124). See also Daniel J. Kapust and Brandon P. Turner, “Democratical Gentlemen and the Lust for Mastery: Status, Ambition, and the Language of Liberty in Hobbes’s Political Thought,” Political Theory, 41/4 (2013): 668, along these lines.


Martinich, Hobbes, 72.


Andy Wood has commented, “Probably the most common cause of riots in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, was the enclosure of common land” (Riot, Rebellion, and Popular Politics in Early Modern England [New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002], 82). Though, to be sure, there were uprisings predating even this. Francis Bacon treated these in his History of the Reign of King Henry VII, and Hobbes was intimately familiar with this work.


For more on Kett’s rebellion, see Noah Dauber, State and Commonwealth: The Theory of the State in Early Modern England, 1559–1640 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).


Hill, Century of Revolution, 21.


Julius Cornwall, Revolt of the Peasantry, 1549 (London: Routledge, 1977), 23.


See Stephen Alford, London’s Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City (London: Allen Lane, 2017) and Carl Schmitt, Land and Sea, trans. Samuel Garrett Zeitlin (1942; Candor, NY: Telos Press Publishing, 2015).


Alec Ryrie, “Economic History,” in A Social History of England, 15001750, ed. Keith Wrightson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 110.


Hill, Economic History, 85.


Hill, Century of Revolution, 15–16.


Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 193.


Hill, Century of Revolution, 31.


Thomas Aquinas, On Law, Morality, and Politics, 2nd ed. (1265–73; Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2003), Q. 78, Art. 1. See Keith Thomas, “The Social Origins of Hobbes’s Political Thought,” in Hobbes Studies, ed. K. C. Brown (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965), 225.


Francis Bacon, Essays, in The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (1597–1625; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 411.


Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 205–209; Richard Grassby, “English Merchant Capitalism in the Late Seventeenth Century: The Composition of Business Fortunes,” Past and Present, 46 (February, 1970): 98.


Hill, Economic History, 45, and Century of Revolution, 16–17.


Grassby, “English Merchant Capitalism,” 91.


Hill, Economic History, 87.


Stephen Broadberry, Bruce M. S. Campbell, Alexander Klein, Mark Overton, and Bas van Leeuwen, British Economic Growth, 1270–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 308.


Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 200.


Hill, Century of Revolution, 36–37.


Hill, Century of Revolution, 21–27.


Hill, Economic History, 106.


Lawrence Stone, “The Inflation of Honors 1558–1641,” Past and Present, 4 (November, 1958): 52.


Hill, Century of Revolution, 46.


It is worth noting here that scholars have already rightfully drawn attention to the religious dimensions of this conflict, which also significantly occupied Hobbes’s mind in developing his political theory (e.g., Jeffrey R. Collins, The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005]). Yet even these religious dimensions of the tensions leading to the English Civil War had an economic context.


Hobbes’s political philosophy is complex, extensively argued, and rich with detail. My summary here cannot pretend to reflect all of this in a few pages. I rather emphasize those elements of his theory most relevant to understanding how excessive wealth, poverty, and inequality ultimately present serious problems for the Hobbesian political project.


Leviathan, 13.1; Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, ed. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (1647; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), ch.1, ¶2; subsequent references are to chapter and page numbers.


Leviathan, 13.7.


Leviathan, 13.9.


Leviathan, 14.8. This doctrine in Hobbes has been explored and developed by Gregory S. Kavka, Hobbesian Theory, ch. 2. But see also David Wootton, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018), ch. 4.


Leviathan, 11.2.


I note here an important corrective in the literature that Hobbes understands, more than is commonly recognized, that most people fear eternal damnation more than death itself. See Johan Olsthoorn, “Worse than Death: The Non-Preservationist Foundations of Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy,” Hobbes Studies 27/2 (2014).


See Citizen, 14.9-10; Leviathan, 26.8.


Leviathan, 14.4.


Leviathan, 13.8.


Leviathan, 15.17.


Citizen, 3.9.


Hobbes is apparently referencing the 80 Years War, or the Dutch War of Independence.


Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, ed. Ferdinand Tönnies (1688; Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 2–3. All citations to Behemoth are to page numbers.


C. B. Macpherson, “Introduction” to Leviathan (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 56. See also Letwin’s “Economic Foundations,” 158–159.


Stephen Holmes, “Introduction” to Behemoth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), xx, n. 25.


Citizen, 12.9.


To be sure, Hobbes himself located other indignities that were more inescapable: “Want is less a disgrace than stupidity; for the former can be attributed to the inequity of fortune; the latter is attributable to nature alone” (On Man, ed. Bernard Gert [1658; Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1991], ch. 11, ¶8; subsequent references are to chapter and page numbers.).


Leviathan, 19.4. The force of this passage alone is enough to refute Levin’s claim that “It is no part of the Hobbesian bargain to gain security against hunger, cold, ignorance, or poverty” (“Hobbesian Minimal State”: 341).


Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Thomas Hobbes (1629; Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989), ch. 3, 45. It should be noted here that Thucydides is a likely source for Hobbes on the problems of inequality generally. In particular, the ancient Greek historian’s account of the civil war in Corcyra repeatedly emphasizes two elements of that conflict of interest to my reading of Hobbes. First, and of interest to all readers of Hobbes, is the particularly cruel and vicious nature of this civil war. But, second, and perhaps less typically noted by Hobbes scholars, is the economic disparity of the combatants in this conflict. Thucydides repeatedly emphasizes that this was a conflict between democrats (the poor) and the oligarchs (the rich). In a history that Plato knew well (which, indeed, occurred in his lifetime) and one that parallels similar episodes occurring in Roman Palestine in the years leading up to Jesus, there was a good deal of class-based violence – “some [were killed] by their debtors for the money which they had lent them” (ch. 3, ¶81). The “sedition” of the poor Hobbes references above from On the Citizen might well be read in the context of Hobbes’s translation of Thucydides and absorption of his lessons.


Citizen, 13.10. It is reasonable to speculate that Hobbes may have been influenced in this regard by his one-time employer, Francis Bacon, who wrote: “The matter of seditions is of two kinds: much poverty and much discontment . . . . And if this poverty and broken estate in the better sort be joined with a want and necessity in the mean people, the danger is imminent and great. For the rebellions of the belly are the worst” (Bacon, History of the Reign of King Henry VII, ed. Brian Vickers [1622; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998], 367). I was alerted to this and other relevant passages from Bacon cited here by Samuel Zeitlin, “‘The Heat of a Feaver’: Francis Bacon on Civil War, Sedition, and Rebellion,” History of European Ideas, forthcoming 2021.


Leviathan, 15.7.


Aquinas, On Law, Morality, and Politics, Q. 66, Art. 7 (p. 140).


Leviathan, 27.26, emphasis added. What he will steadfastly not tolerate, however, is its opposite – the rich stealing from the poor: “to rob a poor man is a greater crime than to rob a rich man, because it is to the poor a more sensible damage” (Leviathan, 28.51).


See, for example, Leviathan, 3.12, 5.15, 8.27, 12.31, 46.13-32. Exceptions to this rule are noted in more detail in Cornelis Hendrik Leijenhorst, The Mechanisation of Aristotelianism: The Late Aristotelian Setting of Thomas Hobbes’ Natural Philosophy (Leiden: Brill, 2001). For Hobbes’s relationship to Scholasticism more generally see Annabel A. Brett, Liberty, Right, and Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) and Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).


Leviathan, 25.10.


Citizen, 6.16.


Leviathan, 27.26.


See §2 above.


It should be said somewhere that not all of Hobbes’s remarks about the poor are entirely sympathetic. Like many in his day (and other epochs), he assumed that at least some poverty was attributable to the bad habits of the poor. For example, “although everyone knows that wealth is got by industry and kept by thrift, the poor always shift the blame from their own idleness and extravagance onto the government of the commonwealth, as if their private property was exhausted by public exactions” (Citizen, 12.9). This being noted, he neither denies the fact of their poverty nor the dangerously powerful passions that accompany it. These are concrete facts that a successful and enduring commonwealth must admit and address.


There have been some questions raised about Hobbes’s authorship of this work, but I am persuaded by Timothy Raylor that it is authentically Hobbes. See Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 281–92.


Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2018), Book 2, chapter 16, 1390b31-1391a15.


Thomas Hobbes, The Whole Art of Rhetoric, in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, vol. 6 (1637; London: John Bohn, 1839), ch. 2, ¶18.


To be sure, Aristotle’s account of the wealthy bears some resemblances to that sketched by his teacher, Plato, especially in his Laws. See Williams, “Plato on Economic Inequality,” §3.2.


Leviathan, 44.3.


This has previously been noted in Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis (1936; Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 40–41.


On Man, 13.5.


On Man, 12.9.


Leviathan, 8.18–19.


On Man, 11.8. See Thomas, “Social Origins,” 199–200.


On Man, 13.6.


Behemoth, 126.


Leviathan, 27.13-14, emphasis added.


Leviathan, 6.41.


Leviathan, 27.15.


Leviathan, 27.26.


Leviathan, 27.30.


Citizen, 5.13.


Wootton addresses Hobbes’s conception of greed in his Power, Pleasure, and Profit, 101.


Ryan K. Balot, Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), ch. 5.


Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 3.82.


Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 3.45.


Leviathan, 15.22. See also Thomas Hobbes, Elements of Law: Human Nature and De Corpore Politico, ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (1640; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), ch. 17, ¶2; subsequent references are to chapter and page numbers. The fact that Hobbes twice uses the word “pleonexia,” once in Greek (Elements) and once in its Romanized spelling (Leviathan) lends to the suggestion that he is deeply informed by one or both of the accounts of Thucydides and the Greek New Testament. He also would have encountered this word in reading Plato and Aristotle.


Philipp Caesar, General Discourse Against the Damnable Sect of Usurers (London: Iohn Kyngston for Andrevv Maunsell in Paules Church-yard at the signe of the Parret, 1578), 4.


James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics, ed. J. G. A. Pocock (1656; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 111. See 1 Timothy 6:10. All biblical refences are to the Harper Collins Study Bible, ed. Harold Attridge and the Society of Biblical Literacy (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2006).


Citizen, 14.14; see Exodus, 20:17.


Citizen, “Epistle dedicatory,” p. 6.


Citizen, 3.9. See Thomas, “Social Origins, 216–18.


Leviathan, 11.4.


Behemoth, 142.


Adrian Blau has added, along these lines, that for Hobbes greed is a source of corruption that threatens the commonwealth (“Hobbes on Corruption,” History of Political Thought, 30/4 [Winter, 2009]: 596–616).


Richard Boyd, Uncivil Society: The Perils of Pluralism and the Making of Modern Liberalism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004), 56–57.


Leviathan, 22.30.


Citizen, 13.13.


E.g., Leviathan, 24.6; Citizen, 5.4; Elements, 19.8.


Leviathan, 22.30. Hobbes’s critique of the pursuit of private over public or common ends is also a religious critique, as he argues in his section “On Religion”: “That which taketh away the reputation of love is the being detected of private ends, as when the belief they require of others conduceth or seemeth to conduce to the acquiring of dominion, riches, dignity, or secure pleasure to themselves only or specially. For that which men reap benefit by to themselves they are thought to do for their own sake, and not for love of others” (12.27). For Hobbes, the pursuit of private ends marks the polar opposite of the Christian duty of love or mutual charity, summed up in the commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (30.13). He emphasizes that it is one of the sovereign’s most important responsibilities that this maxim be taught to all subjects.


Citizen, 10.12.


James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” The Federalist with the Letters of Brutus, ed. Terence Ball (1787; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 42.


Plato, Laws, 744d. See Williams 2018 (§2.1 & 3.3) for discussions of Plato on factions. Aristotle would similarly observe in his Politics, “That the middle constitution [with neither rich nor poor] is best is evident, since it alone is free from faction” (Politics, trans. C. D. C. Reeve [Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1998], 1296a).


Citizen, 13.13.


Leviathan, 10.4. See Thomas, “Social Origins,” 220.


Elements, 9.12. In Leviathan, he defines it as “Grief for the success of a competitor in wealth, honour, or other good . . . joined with endeavor to supplant or hinder a competitor” (6.48). Also worth noting is a passage from the History of the Peloponnesian War: “Without the destructive force of envy . . . people would not value revenge over piety, or profits over justice” (3.84).


Leviathan, 30.16.


Citizen, 5.5; see also Leviathan, 17.7.


Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York, NY: Viking Press, 2018), 98–99; but see also Harry Frankfurt, Inequality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 10–11, and Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 46, 50.


It is also worth noting here that Freud agrees with Hobbes on this point. “It is to be expected that these underprivileged classes will envy the favored ones their privileges and will do all they can to free themselves from their own surplus of privation. Where this is not possible, a permanent measure of discontent will persist within the culture concerned and this can lead to dangerous revolts” (Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. James Strachey [1927; New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1961], 15).


See §2 of this essay. Tuck mentions the Ship Money taxes in a similar context (Hobbes, 83).


Leviathan, 29.18.


See Leviathan, 6.7, 18.10, 26.8, 46.32.


Leviathan, 46.32.


Leviathan, 29.10.


Leviathan, 29.19. Again here, Hobbes may well be informed by Bacon’s similar observation: “Above all things, good policy is to be used that the treasure and monies in a state be not gathered into few hands. For otherwise a state may have a great stock, and yet starve. And money is like muck, not good except that it be spread. This is done chiefly by suppressing, or at least keeping a straight hand upon the devouring trades of usury, ingrossing, great pasturages, and the like.” Later he attributes the concentration of wealth to the growing prevalence of usury. For Bacon, “a state flourisheth when wealth is more equally spread” (Essays, 369).


Leviathan, 29.20.


Citizen, 10.7.


Leviathan, 8.15.


Leviathan, 10.40; see also Elements, 8.5.


Citizen, 10.7.


See Jeffrey Winters, Oligarchy(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 117–119.


My thanks to Andrew Day to suggesting this point to me.


Leviathan, 30.18.


Richard Tuck has also argued along these lines regarding chapter 24 of Leviathan (Hobbes, 81–83).


See Leviticus, 25: 28.


Numbers, 26:54.


Leviticus 25:23.


Leviticus, 26:23–39. This practice of redistributing land also has an English precedent in William’s seizure of all land upon his conquering of England in 1066 on the presumption of sovereign authority upon conquering. See Aaron Levy, “Economic Views of Thomas Hobbes,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 15/4 (October, 1954): 594. Hobbes expressly cites this precedent at Leviathan, 24.6.


Leviathan, 24.5. In fact, the parallels might begin at least one step earlier than this, insofar as Hobbes speaks of “that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence” (17.13). It is worth adding here that the notion of all property belonging to either a god or the sovereign is subsequently adopted by Rousseau for similar purposes in his Social Contract, 1.9.


Leviathan, 24.6.


Leviathan, 24.6.


Leviathan, 24.7.


See, for example, Holmes, “Introduction” to Behemoth, 13 n16.


Leviathan, 13.8.


Leviathan, 14.4.


Larry May has argued that “equity . . . is the dominant moral category in Hobbes’s political and legal philosophy” (“Hobbes on Equity and Justice,” in Hobbess Science of Natural justice, eds. C. Walton and P. J. Johnson [Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987], 241). Tom Sorrell also acknowledges that equity is an important moral category for Hobbes, but finds that it is subordinate to justice (Tom Sorrell, “Law and Equity in Hobbes,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 19/1 [2016]: 29–46).


Leviathan, 15.23.


See §4.3 above. In his Elements, by contrast, Hobbes defines the opposite of equity to be pleonexia or greed, “which is commonly rendered as covetousness, but seemeth to be more precisely expressed by the word encroaching” (17.2). In this case, as with partiality, the effect is the same, since for Hobbes greed is a primary source of war and sedition (Leviathan, 11.4). Partiality also, as Blau notes, undermines the rule of law (“Corruption”).


Leviathan, 15.24.


Citizen, 3.15. Hobbes also strongly implies that the absence of equity in a commonwealth fuels the “hope for impunity” that one finds among “the rich and mighty” (Leviathan, 30.15).


Citizen, 5.5; see also Leviathan, 17.7.


One might argue that the forced redistribution of property would create new problems that would undermine peace – namely, that those having their property confiscated would develop resentments that threaten the public peace. I address this in my conclusion below.


My interpretation of Hobbesian equity here differs in emphasis from that developed by Johan Olsthoorn (“Hobbes’s Account of Distributive Justice as Equity,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 21/1 [2013]: 13–33. Olsthoorn argues that Hobbes’s account of equity and distributive justice leaves the sovereign free to distribute property in any fashion whatsoever without fear of violating the natural law of justice. This is technically true, given that the sovereign is incapable of being unjust by Hobbes’s own express arguments. Yet this point of emphasis ignores the fact that there are still other reasons to consider the question of property distribution carefully. Most relevantly here, distributing property in a radically unequal manner would seem to create many of the problems outlined in this essay that Hobbes is especially keen to avoid, such as factions, envy, resentment, and a sense of impunity – factors that ultimately hasten a state of war. So while Hobbes’s Leviathan is legally entitled to distribute property according to any principle, it is most prudent – for the Hobbesian reason of promoting peace – to distribute that property with careful attention to these concerns.


Citizen, 10.7.


Leviathan, 8.18. Kinch Hoekstra, “Hobbesian Equality” (in Hobbes Today, ed. S. A. Lloyd [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012]) is particularly insightful on Hobbes, egalitarianism, and pride – yet does not connect these concepts to wealth distribution.


On Man, 8.5.


Leviathan, 11.12.


Citizen, 3.11.


As Steven B. Smith has summarized Hobbes on this point, “His critique of pride is not religious – ‘pride goeth before the fall’ – but political. Pride is dangerous because it causes conflict and war” (Political Philosophy [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012], 152).


Leviathan, 15.21.


Citizen, 3.13.


Leviathan, 15.21.


The fact that Hobbes insists on equal tax liabilities may not seem progressive, but bear in mind the context in which the poor were carrying a substantial tax burden in this time when wealthy merchants were routinely refusing to pay their Ship Money taxes. In context, the argument for equal liability would have likely offended many of Hobbes’s readers in the merchant class. The equal liability to taxes, for Hobbes, amounts to a rejection of the doctrine ultimately embraced by Leona Helmsley, the New York real-estate heiress, who is reported to have said, “We don’t pay taxes. The little people pay taxes” (John J. Goldman, “Leona Helmsley Sentenced to 4 Years in Prison: Taxes: The hotel queen must surrender on April 15. Her plea to remain free to care for her ailing husband is rejected,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1992).


Leviathan, 30.17.


Leviathan, 15.22.


Leviathan, 27.13; see also On Man, 13.5.


Leviathan, 15.22.


See §4.2 above, as well as David Lay Williams, “Plato on Economic Inequality,” §2.2, and “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, Greed, and Inequality in Early Christianity,” presented to the DePaul Social Science Research Council, DePaul University, Chicago, IL (September 14, 2019), §2.3.


Leviathan, 11.2.


Leviathan, 11.3.


Citizen, 3.9.


For an insightful accounting of Hobbes’s biblical source here, see Baumgold, Hobbes’s Political Theory, 122–23. See also Paul D. Cooke, Hobbes and Christianity: Reassessing the Bible in Leviathan (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), 43; Ross Harrison, Hobbes, Locke, and Confusion’s Masterpiece: An Examination of Seventeenth-Century Political Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 44–45; Devin Stauffer, Hobbes’s Kingdom of Light: A Study of the Foundations of Modern Political Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 205–206.


Job 41:25–34.


Leviathan, 28.27.


Christopher Brooke, Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 74, and “Introduction” to Leviathan (London: Penguin Books, 2017), xxvii.


On Man, 8.6.


Leviathan, 15.8.


Leviathan, 30.16. Indeed, as previously cited, this view expressly echoes his summary of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, with similar language: “Rich men are contumelious, and proud; this they have from their riches” (Rhetoric, ch. 2, ¶18).


On Man, 9.7.


Leviathan, 18.20. My thanks to Daniel Kapust for noting the importance of this passage to me.


Leviathan, 46.37.


Leviathan, 43.4.


Leviathan, 45.38.


Leviathan, 10.21.


Leviathan, 30.16.


Leviathan, 30.1.


As Teresa Bejan has recently observed about Hobbes, “popular education was of paramount political importance” (“Teaching the Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Education,” Oxford Review of Education, 36/5 [October, 2010]: 609).


E.g., Leviathan, 26.8.


Leviathan, 30.2.


Leviathan, 30.10.


As Devin Stauffer has recently observed, “This is one of the chief purposes of Hobbes’s state of nature teaching: to sober men up, and in particular to convince those who are capable of a sensible sobriety of the necessity of uniting in a rational commonwealth that can protect them against those who remain intoxicated by pride” (Kingdom of Light, 206, emphasis added). See also Quentin Skinner, “Hobbes and the Social Control of Unsociability,” in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, ed. A. P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).


John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, ed. Peter Laslett. (1690; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), §13.


My thanks to Eileen Hunt Botting for this important question. I should add here that this is at least one clear advantage to Plato’s system, in which philosopher-rulers are denied the right to any private wealth.

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