Hobbes and the Summum Malum

The derivation of political society is the second great topic of Hobbes. The principle on which Hobbes builds the community is not a social instinct, appearing conveniently as in the work of Grotius, but another passion, equal in power with vanity or pride and, therefore, capable of counteracting its sway: the fear of death.

Man, wrapped up in the dream world of his passion, will come to grief when he runs into another power-mad individual, and this will bring him to his senses. "Men have no other means to acknowledge their owne Darknesse, but onely by reasoning from the un-foreseen mischances" (chap. 44; p. 331). [FN A] Reason as such is powerless, being reduced, as with Grotius, to the faculty of "reckoning,"  but reason can draw conclusions from the experience of resistance of the outer world, the supreme misfortune being violent death at the hand of other men who are one's potential murderers. The man of Hobbes has no summum bonum serving as a point of orientation in his life, but he has a summum malum: death. [FN 10]

Hobbes does not yet penetrate to the deepest layers of existential sentiments; we are still far from Kierkegaard's analysis of anxiety. The experience of death has not yet become the accompaniment of life in such intimacy that the sentiment of death and the sentiment of life would be inseparable and that self-conceit and the building of the shelter of pride would be itself an anxiety. Hobbes has no notion yet of indefinite objectless anxiety, but only of the definite fear of death, and of death in a definite form: in the form of violent death as it may happen to man in civil war. [FN 11]

The examples in the analysis of pride have shown to what extent Hobbes used as his model the experience of religiously determined civil strife. Now we see the danger of death at the hand of the murderous self-conceited dreamer in civil war as the model of death that is to be feared.

This experience of death is the existential origin of morality insofar as it induces man to step out of the dream world of his pride, to renounce the unlimited pursuit of his "glory," and to agree on an imposed order that guarantees life and therewith the pursuit of appetites within limits. The summum malum becomes the center that gives coherence, aim, and rules to the life of man that the lost summum bonum can no longer furnish.

A. Everyman's Library   ed., London, New York, 1962
10. "Mortem violentam tanquam summum malum studet evitare" ( De homine, chap, 11, art. 6; cf. De cive, chap.1, art. 7).
11. De corpore, chap.I, art. 7.

The New Order and Last Orientation
Chapter 1 The National State,
ยง3 Hobbes
c. The Analysis of Fear of Death
pp 65-66.