Hobbes and the Problem of Succession

Thomas Hobbes argued famously that, if a group of human individuals were ever to find themselves in the conflict-ridden “state of nature” that he envisioned — an unenviable situation in which every individual faces the rather grim prospects of a “nasty, brutish, and short” life fighting for his or her own survival — then their only means of escape would be to collectively enter into a social contract, thereby empowering one of their number as an absolute sovereign to rule over them all. It is, of course, a matter of some controversy whether this Hobbesian strategy (or something closely resembling it) could ever be successful in effecting an exit from the state of nature. But let us set such controversies aside and suppose that some group of human individuals do, in fact, manage to institute, in Hobbesian fashion, an absolute sovereign, whom we shall dub unimaginatively “Rex I”.

It seems clear that, insofar as this provides a remedy to the perils of the state of nature, it does so only temporarily. For the time will surely come when Rex I, being a mere mortal, is no longer capable of ruling. At such a time, unless there is a successor capable of taking over the reigns, everyone will once again be plunged into turmoil. In order to effect a permanent remedy, then, our group of individuals needs, not only a method by which an absolute sovereign might be appointed in the first place, but also a method by which the first absolute sovereign so appointed might then be succeeded by second, then the second by a third, and so on. Call this the problem of succession.

Below I shall (1) suggest one obvious solution to the problem; (2) show how the suggested solution might be thought to give rise to a dilemma; and (3) argue that the dilemma can be resolved through careful analysis of the notion of absolute sovereignty.

Here’s the obvious solution I want to suggest: every sovereign, apart from the first, is established via an explicit command of the preceding sovereign. That is, each sovereign issues a command, at some appropriate time, to the effect that, at some later time, everyone is to to begin obeying the commands of his chosen successor. If each sovereign does his part, then there will be established a chain of sovereignty stretching indefinitely into the future.

But now the dilemma. Suppose that Rex I, on his deathbed, proclaims with his dying breath:

“I hereby command that, henceforth, everyone is to obey the commands of my beloved first-born son Rex II.”

We may ask, with respect to this last command of Rex I’s, do the people have a duty to obey the command or not? Clearly, if they have no such duty, then they have no duty to obey the commands of Rex II, in which case Rex II cannot be an absolute sovereign. But, on the other hand, if the people do have a duty to obey the last command of Rex I, then it seems again that Rex II cannot be an absolute sovereign, because, if he were, the people would have duties only to obey his commands — not anyone else’s, including those of Rex I. In either case, therefore, Rex II cannot be an absolute sovereign. This argument seems to show that the suggested solution to the problem of succession cannot work.

It will be helpful to set the argument out as follows:

(1) Either the people have a duty to obey the final command of Rex I, or they do not have such a duty.
(2) If they don’t have such a duty, then Rex II is not an absolute sovereign.
(3) If they do have such a duty, then Rex II is not an absolute sovereign.
(4) Rex II is not an absolute sovereign.

However, the dilemma can be resolved, I argue, by rejecting premise (3). Given a plausible analysis of absolute sovereignty, either (3) is false or the conclusion of the argument is weaker than advertised.

To save space, allow me simply to state my analysis, without anything in the way motivation or argument. First, say that an individual A is sovereign with respect to a proposition P at a time T just in case, if A were to command, at T, that P, then everyone (besides A) would have a duty to see to it that P. (I purposely leave vague here what “seeing to it” entails; but you get the idea, I hope.) Then here’s the analysis:

An individual A is an absolute sovereign at time T just in case, for every proposition P, A is sovereign with respect to P at T, and no one else is sovereign with respect to P at T.

Adopting this analysis, we see that premise (3) is ambiguous. Let T1 be the time of Rex I’s final command, and let T2 be some time after his death. Then we have two disambiguations of (3):

(3a) If the people have a duty to obey Rex I’s last command, then Rex II is not an absolute sovereign at T1.

(3b) If the people have a duty to obey Rex I’s last command, then Rex II is not an absolute sovereign at T2.

On our analysis, (3b) is false and, although (3a) is true, it supports only the rather unsurprising conclusion that Rex II is not an absolute sovereign at T1.

[Thanks to Noah Levin, a graduate student at Bowling Green, whose work in this area inspired this post.]

2 Replies to “Hobbes and the Problem of Succession

  1. I think there may be a small problem in the works, and it is this.
    I think that, under a fairly plausible reading of Hobbes, having a duty to obey the sovereign is intimately connected with His ability to actually enforce that duty.
    So, in your case, I don’t think we can really form an obligation to obey the dying command of Rex I.
    Rex I cannot enforce this obligation, so we cannot possibly owe a duty to him.
    And if Rex II CAN enforce the obligation, then we don’t really owe the duty to Rex I at all but to Rex I.
    I am unsure if this causes problems, but I think it is another way to think the common sense answer is problematic.

  2. I have less a solution to the problem or a critique of Campbell’s solution than an observation that I believe may make the problem less urgent. Hobbes distinguishes between the commonwealth’s creation and the choosing of the sovereign. The covenant establishing the commonwealth requires unanimous consent and compels its adherents to obey the sovereign that is ultimately selected, even if only by a majority. A few times in chapter 20, Hobbes refers to the entity that exists after the covenant but before the establishment of the sovereign as a “congregation.” This is significant with respect to the problem of succession because the urgency of the problem seems due to the idea that in the absence of a sovereign (say, upon Rex I’s death), the commonwealth is dissolved, which Hobbes appears to deny. If Rex I had uttered the statement anointing Rex II his sucessor, Hobbes seemed to think that the citizens are bound to obey Rex II, but even if Rex I had said nothing about sucession, the majority must simply select a new sovereign.
    An oddball case would be something like Rex I saying:
    “No one may be succeed me as sovereign if upon my death the majority of my subjects favor him as sovereign!”

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