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The inalienable right to self-defence: a 17th century perspective

Paul Maritz

Very few thinkers have shaped the Western body of ideas, particularly regarding this thing that we call “the state” as much as the 17th century Englishman Thomas Hobbes.

While he wrote various notable works, Hobbes is most known for his 1651 book Leviathan[1], a book that he himself calls his “discourse of Common-wealth”.  In explaining the causes of such a “Common-wealth”, Hobbes states that

“For the Lawes of Nature in themselves, without the terrour of some Power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural Passions, that carry us to Partiality, Pride, Revenge, and the like… if there be no Power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men[2]”.

Essentially then, for Hobbes, human beings are constantly drawn to these “passions”, meaning that some great power must be erected in order to, plainly expressed, keep us in check.  How is this to be done according to Hobbes? Well,

“the only way to erect such a Common Power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of Forraigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort, as that by their owne industrie, and by the fruites of the Earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly; is to conferre all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men, that may reduce all their Wills, by plurality of voices, unto one Will.[3]

So Hobbes thinks that if we all give up our rights, particularly of “Governing my selfe”, this multitude of rights then become a Common-Wealth, a massive powerful being, which he calls Leviathan after the Bible book of Job, where this fire-breathing monster of the waters is first introduced.

Understanding Hobbes’s idea of a government is more important than we may think, as the founding fathers of the American and French democracies were heavily influenced by Hobbes, and his contemporary John Locke, as well as the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was heavily influenced by them both, although his ideas on government were only published a century after theirs.  This idea that we offer certain powers up in order to receive certain other protections from this “man or assembly of men”, has lead to a great deal of debate over the years.  Recently in South Africa, in terms of weapons, particularly firearms, we were forced to defend the idea that a person may own his or her own firearm.

Current minister of police, Bheki Cele, said in 2021: “There is no right to bear arms in our Constitution and the Firearm Control Act in its current form grants no such right to citizens either. Owning a gun in this country remains a privilege made possible through the Firearms Controls Act.[4]” Cele calling gun ownership a “privilege” speaks to a deep seeded idea that he and his party have for a long time held regarding the power that they have over the South African citizen.  For Cele this government, this “Common-wealth” of our rights which we now call a government, holds our most basic right to defend our lives, and may, if it so pleases, grant us this right as a “privilege”.

This begs the pertinent question: When and how was this sacred right to defend our lives to the best of our abilities, thus with a deadly weapon, transferred from ourselves to the government of South Africa?  Even if the South African police and military had the ability to protect our lives (which after July 2021 we know they do not), this does not in any way shape or form mean that we no longer have the responsibility to protect ourselves, our property and above all, our loved ones.  As South Africa is a deeply Christian country, most of its citizens view the biblical commands to “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” as Psalm 82 (ESV) expresses it, as a religious imperative. In this sense the government that denies a person freedom to follow the teachings of his faith deny him his faith, but it is not only the Bible opposes Cele’s despotic idea that owning a firearm is a “privilege” to be granted by the state. Hobbes himself, while ardently arguing for the creation of this behemoth of a government, admits that certain rights can not under any circumstance be conferred to the Leviathan, to the Common-wealth, or even to Bheki-shoottokill-Cele.  It should be noted that Hobbes profoundly states that “there be some Rights, which no man can be understood by any words, or other signes, to have abandoned, or transferred.  As first a man cannot lay down the right of resisting them, that assault him by force, to take away his life.[5]

There is then, if Hobbes is understood correctly, no way in which a human being can give away their right to defend themselves, be it against assault or attempts at murder.  In our day and age, our age of steel and gunpowder, this means responsibly owning a firearm.  Owning that firearm is not a privilege, it is a right that no fedora wearing Leviathan can ever take from you, and that you never conferred to it.


[1] The original 1651 version is quoted throughout

[2] Leviathan, 71 p.

[3] Leviathan, 73 p.


[5] Leviathan, 54

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