A life of restraint, the only life worthy


Man is a subject of great ability capable of achieving infinite possibilities. His curiosity coupled with his ability to learn and, therefore, improve can be considered as the prime ingredients to development.

Being the only species to evolve and grow at such an exacerbated pace, man is considered the superior of all species. Yet this prowess is both enabling and disabling, for man has realised that a certain level of restraint is pivotal in society in order for people to be able to lead worthwhile lives.

In the hopes of upholding this idea, a number of rules, establishments and practices have been formulated, erected or implemented in attempts to curb mans’ desires. In other words, man has noticed that his ability to grow, expand and improve also has a debilitating flip side to it that is harmful, dangerous and regressive. Here we shall call all institutions that act to control and constrain man from achieving all their ends: institutions of restraint.

Let us look at some of the theories postulated and the general history surrounding and building up to these events of law making, and public restraint. In order to try to get a clear understanding of man’s progress and the importance and centrality of contemporary laws and institutions, we can start off by looking at what philosophers have named ‘the state of nature’.



The state of nature


In attempts to justify the state, government, laws and their necessity thereof, it’s worthwhile to try and picture a society or time when they were not present. The state of nature is the symbolism of a society void of any law, systems of law enforcement, rules or structures of control and restraint. Though historically impossible to pinpoint such an era, we can nonetheless abstractly speculate its existence. Picture living in a society void of the state.

In the ‘Leviathan’, Thomas Hobbes argues that the state of nature was characterised by immense anarchy, whereby every man lived under the notion of ‘every man for himself’. Of this, Hobbes states that in such an era, “the life of man was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, whereby man would be in constant fear of war and a violent death. Hobbes reaches this conclusion primarily by analysing human nature.

Hobbes postulates that human beings are in constant search of something and never at rest, “there is no such thing as perpetual tranquillity of mind while we are here”. And this unrest is due to the fact that man is at constant search of ‘felicity’, continual success in achieving the objects of desire. And it is this very search to secure felicity that shall bring us to war of all against all and conflict in the state of nature.

He further alludes to this in his definition of power, defining it as “present means to obtain some future apparent good” (Leviathan, 150), and human beings have “a restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death (Leviathan, 161). In other words, in order to assure that one secures felicity and desirable future prospects, one then needs to become powerful.

Sources of power, according to Hobbes, include wealth and riches, reputations, accomplices and friends. But all this is, to a certain extent, rather harmless. What sparks conflict is inherent in human nature itself that being that humans can never reach a state of complete satisfaction and also because a person “cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more” (Leviathan, 161).

Since others will also partake in this endeavour of acquiring power, the search of power is by nature competitive.

Ultimately, Hobbes concludes that it is the fear of life in such a state that impels man to bring about a political state, because in the absence of a political state in the state of nature, Hobbes thinks that the search of felicity would lead to a war of all against all.

Furthermore, Hobbes argues that in the state of nature man seeks not only the means for immediate satisfaction, but also power in order to satisfy and guarantee future conquests and desires. “Now since the reputation of power is power, some people will attack others, even those who pose no threat, purely to gain a reputation of strength as means of future protection.

“In sum, Hobbes sees three principal reasons for attack in the state of nature: for gain, for safety (to pre-empt invaders), and for glory or reputation.

“At bottom, Hobbes relies on the idea that human beings in the search for felicity, constantly try to increase their power (their present means to obtain future goods). When we add that human beings are roughly equal in strength and ability, and that resources in the state of nature are scarce, and that no one can be sure that they will not be invaded by others, it seems reasonable to conclude that rational human action will make the state of nature a battlefield” (Wolff, 2006: 11).

The state of nature, therefore, lacks institutions of restraint.

How then did man turn away from the state of nature? This was done primarily through the organisation of man as in: the formulation of the political state, the formulation of belief systems and the formulation of government, among others, (that is, education and bureaucratic systems). Let us analyse them respectively.



State formation


Many scholars offer theories attempting to explain where the state originated from and how it evolved into its contemporary form. Max Weber, for example, talks about how the state is primarily a form of organised violence. Weber argues that the state consists of official individuals, who legitimately make use of weaponry and violence and claim monopoly over them, persecuting anyone who uses violence outside their consent, in his words: “by state we mean a way in which violence is organised. The state consists of individuals in possession of firearms and other weaponry and willing to put them to use, these individuals then claim monopoly of such use. The state is in the first instance the army and the police” (Collins, 1975: 181).

This statement suggests that within society there are select groups of people that actively make use of violence – with the permission of the populace – in order to attain their goals. The groups, furthermore, claim the unique right to act in this way.

This statement also alludes to two uses of organised violence by the state, one being internal as is the case with law enforcement, which attempts to repress and suppress threats to the public order by use of the police and judicial systems – and the other being external uses of organised violence, as with war and the military establishment.

Now one may ask, just how exactly did war and violence lead to the formation of the state? Gianfranco Poggi provides an answer to this when he states that, “from the beginning the modern state was shaped by the fact of being essentially intended for war-making, and primarily concerned with establishing and maintaining its military might. In turn, the fortunes of war played the decisive role in shaping the maps of Europe and thus the original context of state systems” (2006: 99).

Otto Hintze claimed in 1970 that each state derives its institutional arrangements chiefly from the ways it goes about providing for its sinews of war (p. 53).

According to these theorists, states where developed primarily through conquests, war and violent means in order to acquire or defend territorial spaces. Contemporarily violence still plays a pivotal role in how the state conducts its affairs, for by legitimately institutionalising violence – laws, offices, personnel, et cetera, are used for this purpose – the state now uses violence in its endeavours for maintaining peace and order and acquiring popular compliance. We see a clear transition here, in turning from the state of nature, a state characterised by anarchy and violence (Hobbes), man chose to create a political state that institutionalises order and demands compliance through the use of violence.

Citizens are willing to give the state legitimate consent to act in this way for they know that it is necessary in order to prevent regression into a state of nature. It was, therefore, by acknowledging these detrimental forces and their disabling nature (as in violence) that stemmed the need for its restraint, that violence came to be organised.

As we said in the introduction, man came to realise that a certain level of restraint is pivotal in society in order for people to be able to lead worthwhile lives. The state can, therefore, be seen as an institution of restraint, that actively aims to cater and provide for the people, whilst also curbing their desires and ensuring that all are protected within it, a task it achieves by using violence amongst other things.





Religion is an amalgamation of a people’s beliefs regarding a deity or a higher power, the origin of life on earth, notions of the afterlife, and a sacred engagement with what is considered a spiritual reality. It contains a cluster of a people’s beliefs, rules and principles regarding the righteous conduct of life etc. This is why one group of religion differs from another, because the people in each perceive God and, therefore religion, in their own way, hence the differences between Christianity, Buddhism, Islam,  et cetera.

As defined in the Microsoft Encyclopaedia, “religion is a worldwide phenomenon that has played a part in all human culture, and so is a much broader, more complex category than the set of beliefs or practices found in any single religious tradition. An adequate understanding of religion must [therefore] take into account its distinctive qualities and patterns as a form of human experience, as well as the similarities and differences in religions across human cultures” (Microsoft Encarta, 2009).

As mentioned above it is common for religions to stipulate how one should conduct themselves and lead their lives – usually righteously – as a way of guaranteeing an afterlife or a better earthly life. These stipulations are usually in the form of rules or principles to be followed and not strayed from.

The righteous or religious way of life is very distinct from what is regarded as the ‘worldly’ or mundane way of life, which is the secular way whereby man’s life is guided by non-religious principles. Many religions enforce their creed by alluding that an afterlife exists and to attain it is determined by the lives we live now. In other words, a life well lived results in an afterlife in paradise, whereas a life wrongly lived results in a perpetual afterlife in hell or a non-desirable location.

Ergo, among many things, religion goes about restraining man from following all their desires and leading unrestrained lives. An unrestrained livelihood is considered dangerous, therefore, man has to constantly not only act in a certain way but also curb their thoughts and desires and try not to give in to them.

Religion, therefore, perfectly fits the description of an ‘institution of restraint’, whereby in the hopes of guaranteeing a fulfilled life for its subscribers, it brings them to acknowledge that the best way to achieve this is by living moderated, restrained lives in respect of themselves and their neighbours. And in doing so, man goes about prolonging the immediate gratification of desires while leading a spiritual life that beseeches him to love, care and aid his neighbours, as opposed to acting out maliciously. We can then picture how this could play a role in bringing man out of the era of the state of nature, by numbing his malicious desires and giving his life purpose.





The need for government could be said to have originated from the realisation that collective decisions were necessary and that not everyone could actively partake or have the interest to do so, in politics. Furthermore, some individuals naturally demonstrate more political prowess than others do and are, therefore, more befitting to politics. These individuals (political executives) that are selected by the people to represent them are known as the government, the need for which we shall discuss now.

Post-colonial African nations in their efforts to modernise their countries have identified a number of factors as necessary for paving the way towards what they consider development and nation building to be. Among these factors are education, nationalism, modernisation, liberty, et cetera.

In order to thoroughly, or efficiently, orchestrate nation building, a heightened degree of order was and is necessary. Hence, “in their pursuit of attaining and maintaining order, Africans tried to institutionalise The African Revolution that is to give form, meaning and stability to national independence” (Burke). The liberation governments are proof of this, thus symbolising the African revolution and African rule.

It is the government that plays the critical role of ensuring, and maintaining, order and stability ‑ thus making it crucial to nation building. The government, thus, goes about making, implementing and interpreting law and overseeing public administrative systems. In choosing their governments, individuals are thus giving some of their power and rights over to the government in the hopes that it will in turn represent their interests and protect their remaining rights.

Government, thus, acts as an overarching power and supervisory figure ensuring that the rights of individuals are protected and their needs are met. And in representing all, the government has to protect some from the others, enforce law, be punitive and at times malicious, thus also making it an institution of restraint.

In all, institutions of restraint are necessary and pivotal for ensuring that man acts and conducts self cordially, leads a fulfilling purposeful life, and advances without harming or debilitating the wellbeing of others. It is then reassuring that even in our attempts to advance, only certain behaviours are considered favourable, thus making it a fair game for most, if not all.

January 2014
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