Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter seven: On Hobbes - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
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chapter seven: On Hobbes - Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments 
Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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The man who reduced despotism to a theoretical system most cleverly, Hobbes, was quick to support unlimited political power, in order to declare thereby in favor of the legitimacy of absolute government by a single person. The sovereign, he says (and by this word he understands the general will), is irreprehensible in his actions. All individuals  must obey, and they cannot call upon him to account for his measures. Sovereignty is absolute, a truth which has always been recognized, even by those who have stirred up rebellions, or instigated civil wars. Their motive was not the annihilation of sovereignty; but rather to move its exercise elsewhere. Democracy is an absolute sovereignty placed in the hands of everyone; aristocracy is absolute sovereignty in the hands of a few; and monarchy is absolute sovereignty in the hands of one person. The people were able to give up this absolute sovereignty in favor of a monarch, who then became its legitimate possessor.37
We can clearly see that the absolute character with which Hobbes endows political authority is the basis of his entire system. This word “absolute” changes the very nature of the question and involves us in a novel chain of consequences. This is the point where the writer leaves the road of truth in order to stride off by way of sophism to the conclusion he set for himself from the start. He shows that men’s conventions being insufficient to secure obedience, there has to be a coercive force to compel this, that given that a society must defend itself against foreign aggression, there has to be a common force to arm for the common defense; that the existence of conflicting claims among men means there must be laws to establish their rights. He concludes from the first point that the sovereign has an absolute right to punish, from the second that he has an absolute right to wage war, and from the third that he is absolute in legislative power. Nothing could be more false than these conclusions. The sovereign does have the right to punish, but only for culpable actions. He does have the right to wage war, but only when society is attacked. He does have the right  to make laws, but only when they are necessary and insofar as they are just. There is, therefore, nothing “absolute,” nothing arbitrary in these prerogatives. Democracy is power in the hands of all, but power only in such measure as is needed for the security of the society. Aristocracy is this same authority entrusted to a few; and monarchy is the same thing brought together in one person. The people can divest themselves of this authority in favor of a single man or of a small number, but their power remains limited, like that of the people who vested it in them. With this cutting out of a single word, one Hobbes had inserted gratuitously into the construction of a sentence, his whole frightful system collapses. On the contrary, with the word “absolute,” neither liberty, nor, as we will see subsequently, peace, nor happiness, is possible under any institutional arrangements. Popular government is only a convulsive tyranny; monarchical government only a more morose and taciturn despotism.
When we see a distinguished author arrive by way of specious arguments at manifestly absurd results, it will prove instructive in itself and aid greatly in the refutation of error if, by way of research, we retrace the line of this writer’s thoughts, so to speak, to try and pinpoint where he started to deviate from the truth. Almost all writers start off from some true principle. Once this principle has been posited, however, all it takes to vitiate their whole theory is an invalid distinction, or an ill-defined term, or a superfluous word. In Helvétius, for example, it is an ill-defined term. His starting point is incontestable: all our ideas reach us through our senses. He concludes from this that sensation is everything. To think is to feel, he says, and therefore to feel is to think.38 This is where he goes wrong. The error stems from an ill-defined term, in this case “to feel” or “sensation.” To think is to feel; but to feel is not to think. In Rousseau, as we saw, the mistake came from an invalid distinction. He sets out from a truth, namely that the general will must make the law; but he distinguishes the prerogatives of society from those of government. He believes that society must possess boundless political power, and from there he goes astray. It is clear that in Hobbes a superfluous word is the cause of the trouble. He too has a correct starting point, namely that we need a coercive force in order  to govern human societies. But he slips into his sentence a single unnecessary epithet, the word “absolute,” and his whole argument becomes a tissue of errors.
[37. ]Constant is not quoting Hobbes, but summarizing his thought as one finds it in Leviathan, Ch. XVII and following.
[38. ]Claude-Adrien Helvétius, De l’esprit, Paris, Durand, 1758, Premier Discours, Ch. 1, pp. 18–31. Helvétius is more precise in his definition. “To judge [not to think] is to feel.”