Thomas Hobbes 1588-1679

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) Click here: Hobbes: Freedom v Security

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History of Ideas Hobbs on the State


Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651), defended absolutist government as the only alternative to anarchy and disorder. He portrayed life in a stateless society, the state of nature, as a ‘war of all against all’, based on the belief that human beings are essentially power-seeking and self-interested creatures. In Hobbes’ view, citizens have an unqualified obligation towards the state, on the grounds that to limit the power of government is to risk a descent into the state of nature. Any system of political rule, however tyrannical, is preferable to no rule at all. Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature and his emphasis on the vital importance of authority have had a considerable impact on conservative thought. However, Hobbes’ writings also resembled early liberalism in some respects. This can be seen most clearly in the fact that he reached his absolutist conclusions through the use of a rationalist device, social contract theory, rather than through a belief in the divine right of kings,

Key ideas· An ordered society should balance the human need to lead a free life.· Humans are needy, vulnerable and easily led astray in attempts to understand the world around them. In Leviathan (1651), he argued for almost total obedience to absolute government, as the only alternative was chaos. According to Hobbes, freedom without order and authority would have disastrous consequences for human society. He created a hypothetical situation known as the 'state of nature' where people were equal and free, and did not have to answer to any form of higher authority. Hobbes argued that, under such circumstances, humans would exhibit a 'restless desire' for power, leading to conflict and turning the state of nature into a 'war of every man against every man'.

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

In his view, the state of nature would become a state of war and life would become 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. Fearful, self-interested and rational people would choose to sacrifice many of their rights and freedoms in return for order and security. They would enter into a social contract to establish political authority, surrendering all but one of their natural rights (the right to self-defence) to the individual or group to whom they grant authority. In this way, Hobbes argued, government is established by the consent of the people, who authorise those in power to do everything necessary to preserve order and peace. Thus, the people jointly submit to the absolute authority of the state (what Hobbes terms 'Leviathan') which represents 'a common power to keep them all in awe'.

Hobbes' arguments about the state of nature and the need for political authority are clearly shaped by his views on human nature:

  • · Humans are needy and vulnerable People will compete violently to get the basic necessities of life and other material gains, will challenge others and fight out of fear to ensure their personal safety, and will seek reputation, both for its own sake and so that others will be too afraid to challenge them.

  • · Humans are easily led astray in their attempts to understand the world around them The human capacity to reason is fragile, and people's attempts to interpret the world around them tend to be distorted by self-interest and the concerns of the moment.

Unsurprisingly, Hobbes concludes that the best people hope for is a peaceful life under strong government authority to guarantee order and security.