Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hobbes on Power

Leviathan, 1651

Part I, Chapter X

THE POWER of a man, to take it universally, is his present means to obtain some future apparent good, and is either original or instrumental.

Natural power is the eminence of the faculties of body, or mind; as extraordinary strength, form, prudence, arts, eloquence, liberality, nobility. Instrumental are those powers which, acquired by these, or by fortune, are means and instruments to acquire more; as riches, reputation, friends, and the secret working of God, which men call good luck. For the nature of power is, in this point, like to fame, increasing as it proceeds; or like the motion of heavy bodies, which, the further they go, make still the more haste.

The greatest of human powers is that which is compounded of the powers of most men, united by consent, in one person, natural or civil, that has the use of all their powers depending on his will; such as is the power of a Commonwealth: or depending on the wills of each particular; such as is the power of a faction, or of diverse. factions leagued. Therefore to have servants is power; to have friends is power: for they are strengths united.

Also, riches joined with liberality is power; because it procureth friends and servants: without liberality, not so; because in this case they defend not, but expose men to envy, as a prey.

Reputation of power is power; because it draweth with it the adherence of those that need protection.

So is reputation of love of a man's country, called popularity, for the same reason.

Also, what quality soever maketh a man beloved or feared of many, or the reputation of such quality, is power; because it is a means to have the assistance and service of many.

Good success is power; because it maketh reputation of wisdom or good fortune, which makes men either fear him or rely on him.

Affability of men already in power is increase of power; because it gaineth love.

Reputation of prudence in the conduct of peace or war is power; because to prudent men we commit the government of ourselves more willingly than to others.

Nobility is power, not in all places, but only in those Commonwealths where it has privileges; for in such privileges consisteth their power.

Eloquence is power; because it is seeming prudence.

Form is power; because being a promise of good, it recommendeth men to the favour of women and strangers.

The sciences are small powers; because not eminent, and therefore, not acknowledged in any man; nor are at all, but in a few, and in them, but of a few things. For science is of that nature, as none can understand it to be, but such as in a good measure have attained it.

Arts of public use, as fortification, making of engines, and other instruments of war, because they confer to defence and victory, are power; and though the true mother of them be science, namely, the mathematics yet, because they are brought into the light by the hand of the artificer, they be esteemed (the midwife passing with the vulgar for the mother) as his issue.

The value or worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power, and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgement of another. An able conductor of soldiers is of great price in time of war present or imminent, but in peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt judge is much worth in time of peace, but not so much in war. And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the price. For let a man, as most men do, rate themselves at the highest value they can, yet their true value is no more than it is esteemed by others.

The manifestation of the value we set on one another is that which is commonly called honouring and dishonouring. To value a man at a high rate is to honour him; at a low rate is to dishonour him. But high and low, in this case, is to be understood by comparison to the rate that each man setteth on himself.

The public worth of a man, which is the value set on him by the Commonwealth, is that which men commonly call dignity. And this value of him by the Commonwealth is understood by offices of command, judicature, public employment; or by names and titles introduced for distinction of such value.

To pray to another for aid of any kind is to honour; because a sign we have an opinion he has power to help; and the more difficult the aid is, the more is the honour.

To obey s to honour; because no man obeys them who they think have no power to help or hurt them. And consequently to disobey is to dishonour.

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 dishonour; because it is but alms, and signifies an opinion of the need of small helps.

To be sedulous in promoting another's good, also to flatter, is to honour; as a sign we seek his protection or aid. To neglect is to dishonour.

To give way or place to another, in any commodity, is to honour; being a confession of greater power. To arrogate is to dishonour.

To show any sign of love or fear of another is honour; for both to love and to fear is to value. To contemn, or less to love or fear than he expects, is to dishonour; for it is undervaluing.

To praise, magnify, or call happy is to honour; because nothing but goodness, power, and felicity is valued. To revile, mock, or pity is to dishonour.

To speak to another with consideration, to appear before him with decency and humility, is to honour him; as signs of fear to offend. To speak to him rashly, to do anything before him obscenely, slovenly, impudently is to dishonour.

To believe, to trust, to rely on another, is to honour him; sign of opinion of his virtue and power. To distrust, or not believe, is to dishonour.

To hearken to a man's counsel, or discourse of what kind soever, is to honour; as a sign we think him wise, or eloquent, or witty. To sleep, or go forth, or talk the while, is to dishonour.

To do those things to another which he takes for signs of honour, or which the law or custom makes so, is to honour; because in approving the honour done by others, he acknowledgeth the power which others acknowledge. To refuse to do them is to dishonour.

To agree with in opinion is to honour; as being a sign of approving his judgement and wisdom. To dissent is dishonour, and an upbraiding of error, and, if the dissent be in many things, of folly.

To imitate is to honour; for it is vehemently to approve. To imitate one's enemy is to dishonour.

To honour those another honours is to honour him; as a sign of approbation of his judgement. To honour his enemies is to dishonour him.

To employ in counsel, or in actions of difficulty, is to honour; as a sign of opinion of his wisdom or other power. To deny employment in the same cases to those that seek it is to dishonour.

All these ways of honouring are natural, and as well within, as without Commonwealths. But in Commonwealths where he or they that have the supreme authority can make whatsoever they please to stand for signs of honour, there be other honours.

A sovereign doth honour a subject with whatsoever title, or office, or employment, or action that he himself will have taken for a sign of his will to honour him.

The king of Persia honoured Mordecai when he appointed he should be conducted through the streets in the king's garment, upon one of the king's horses, with a crown on his head, and a prince before him, proclaiming, "Thus shall it be done to him that the king will honour." And yet another king of Persia, or the same another time, to one that demanded for some great service to wear one of the king's robes, gave him leave so to do; but with this addition, that he should wear it as the king's fool; and then it was dishonour. So that of civil honour, the fountain is in the person of the Commonwealth, and dependeth on the will of the sovereign, and is therefore temporary and called civil honour; such as are magistracy, offices, titles, and in some places coats and scutcheons painted: and men honour such as have them, as having so many signs of favour in the Commonwealth, which favour is power.

Honourable is whatsoever possession, action, or quality is an argument and sign of power.

And therefore to be honoured, loved, or feared of many is honourable, as arguments of power. To be honoured of few or none, dishonourable.

Dominion and victory is honourable because acquired by power; and servitude, for need or fear, is dishonourable.

Good fortune, if lasting, honourable; as a sign of the favour of God. Ill and losses, dishonourable. Riches are honourable, for they are power. Poverty, dishonourable. Magnanimity, liberality, hope, courage, confidence, are honourable; for they proceed from the conscience of power. Pusillanimity, parsimony, fear, diffidence, are dishonourable.

Timely resolution, or determination of what a man is to do, is honourable, as being the contempt of small difficulties and dangers. And irresolution, dishonourable, as a sign of too much valuing of little impediments and little advantages: for when a man has weighed things as long as the time permits, and resolves not, the difference of weight is but little; and therefore if he resolve not, he overvalues little things, which is pusillanimity.

All actions and speeches that proceed, or seem to proceed, from much experience, science, discretion, or wit are honourable; for all these are powers. Actions or words that proceed from error, ignorance, or folly, dishonourable.

Gravity, as far forth as it seems to proceed from a mind employed on something else, is honourable; because employment is a sign of power. But if it seem to proceed from a purpose to appear grave, it is dishonourable. For the gravity of the former is like the steadiness of a ship laden with merchandise; but of the like the steadiness of a ship ballasted with sand and other trash.

To be conspicuous, that is to say, to be known, for wealth, office, great actions, or any eminent good is honourable; as a sign of the power for which he is conspicuous. On the contrary, obscurity is dishonourable.

To be descended from conspicuous parents is honourable; because they the more easily attain the aids and friends of their ancestors. On the contrary, to be descended from obscure parentage is dishonourable.

Actions proceeding from equity, joined with loss, are honourable; as signs of magnanimity: for magnanimity is a sign of power. On the contrary, craft, shifting, neglect of equity, is dishonourable.

Covetousness of great riches, and ambition of great honours, are honourable; as signs of power to obtain them. Covetousness, and ambition of little gains, or preferments, is dishonourable.

Nor does it alter the case of honour whether an action (so it be great and difficult, and consequently a sign of much power) be just or unjust: for honour consisteth only in the opinion of power. Therefore, the ancient heathen did not think they dishonoured, but greatly honoured the gods, when they introduced them in their poems committing rapes, thefts, and other great, but unjust or unclean acts; in so much as nothing is so much celebrated in Jupiter as his adulteries; nor in Mercury as his frauds and thefts; of whose praises, in a hymn of Homer, the greatest is this, that being born in the morning, he had invented music at noon, and before night stolen away the cattle of Apollo from his herdsmen.


  1. It is really interesting. After reading this chapter I found some similarities between the nature of power in my own country (Iran) and here (US)! The only question I have is about legitimation of power in Hobbes theory. It seems that his definition of power is so quantitative. I mean the form of power in two different models (Iran and US) is somehow similar due to the function and from descriptive point of view as Hobbes described. But the legitimation of power is different and it could be religion, capital or any kind of discourse.
    In the other word, I think quantity couldn't be a proper paragon to define the legitimation of power and I feel that I miss this part in Hobbes theory. I really think Lock's model of power is more acceptable in this topic.

  2. To me all the concepts that Hobbes introduce power with, are relative. For instance when he says "being successful makes one powerful". In my opinion success does not have a specific definition. So I really don't get how can he say such a definitive fact, that any one who is successful is considered as a powerful person!