Introduction to

De Cive

by Jon Roland

Thomas Hobbes is better known for his Leviathan, but in many ways De Cive (The Citizen) provides a more compact and systematic exposition of his thought, in which natural law is derived from reason and biblical doctrine, the social contract from natural law, and the forms of government and duties of sovereign and citizen from the social contract.

Hobbes did not set out to challenge the legitimacy of monarchy or aristocracy. John Locke, building on Hobbes' thought, would do that. As such, Hobbesian theory, as far as it goes, can be used as the basis for either constitutional republicanism or fascism. However, the notion of the social contract is fundamental to all later political thought, and must be seen as based on a human development model that makes it the natural result of the emerging filial contract between parents and children, which becomes the social contract when the child leaves the care of the parents.

Hobbes extended the parent-child contract into a social contract between sovereign and citizen, whereas Locke recognized that, although the unequal relationship between parent and child was akin to that between master and servant, the contract between parent and child did not embrace that inequality of power, or legitimize it, so that when the child comes of age and into an equality of power, the dominion ceases, and the social contract remains, binding not only parent and child, but the child to all those with whom the parent is bound in the social contract, and by extension, to all tsocial contractthose with whom one is bound in the social contract are bound, as equal parties. This notion of the transitivity of the social contract is implicit in the notions of Hobbes and Locke, although neither of them recognized it explicitly. They did not have the language to express the proposition that, if a, b, and c are persons, and S is the relation of "being bound in a social contract with", then a S b & b S c => a S c. This attribute provides the basis for extension of the social contract to persons with whom one has not dealt with directly, including past and future generations, and the foundation for constitutional republican government.

For Hobbes and other natural law philosophers, natural law was not just the principles according to which events occur, but also the natural constraints on what is rational behavior for human beings, given their natural attributes. Because human perception and reason are imperfect, they do not always act according to what is thus rationally determined, so the social contract is instituted to remedy those defects of perception and reason, and to further alter the constraints on what constitutes rational behavior through the establishment of laws and their enforcement. The choice of such laws is itself a matter of rational choice, given human nature and the human condition, so that human beings, in society, play games, in the sense of game theory, at two levels: the game determined by the chosen rules, and the game of choosing the rules, that is, a metagame.

The political philosophers of the Enlightenment had faith in the possibility of a science, and not just an art, of politics. That possibility rests on the existence and discoverablity of optimal strategies for that metagame, something which was intuitively perceived by the philosophers, but which has awaited the advent of agent-based computer simulation modeling to demonstrate.

Notes on editing decisions

This rendition is mainly based on the original 1651 edition, but with some elements of the Molesworth edition. The spelling of words follows the 1651 edition, with one exception: the word we now spell "than" was spelled "then" by Hobbes. In this rendition the spelling is changed to "than", as it was felt that the original spelling was confusing to modern readers.

Some of the biblical references were corrected, and where Hobbes separated a biblical chapter from a verse with only a comma, a colon has been substituted, in accordance with more modern usage, to avoid confusing chapter and verse numbers.


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