An Introduction to Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who wrote during the 17th century. He was active in physics, geometry, law, history, and translation studies, among other fields, but is best remembered for pioneering social contract theory, which posits that society begins when individuals agree to subordinate their freedom to an authority in exchange for protection and stability.

Hobbes entered the world prematurely on April 5, 1588, in Wiltshire, England. His birth was induced by the terror his mother felt upon hearing news of the coming Spanish Armada. Hobbes later jested that his “mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.”

Hobbes’s family consisted of his mother, his two siblings, and his religious and anti-intellectual father, Thomas Sr., who worked as a vicar. Thomas left his wife and children in the care of his older brother Francis after being forced to flee following a fight with the local clergy.

Francis was a wealthy glove-maker without a family of his own and funded Hobbes’s childhood education. By the time Hobbes was college aged, he had received significant training in scholastic logic and physics as well as Greek and Latin Classics. Hobbes moved onto St. John’s College at Cambridge, where he received his B.A. in 1608.

Upon graduating, Hobbes took up employment as a tutor for the Cavendishes, a noble family. He worked under a number of esteemed individuals throughout his life, including Francis Bacon, Charles Prince of Wales, and the future King Charles II.

In 1640, Hobbes was exiled to Paris due to his support for the Crown during the English Civil War. He defended absolute monarchy as the best form of government, which conflicted with the English parliament’s push for a more republican system. Hobbes remained in Paris for a number of years before his heterodox religious views espoused in Leviathan earned him the ire of the French Catholics, forcing him to emigrate back to London. Hobbes was not an atheist per se, but his theology was not compatible with Christianity. His commitment to materialism — the belief that everything in the universe is made of matter — led him to reject the concepts of an immaterial soul and a transcendent God. Instead, he theorized that an extended God entwined with the physical world and its purely corporeal bodies. Furthermore, because God cannot be observed, Hobbes held that all that can be known about Him is that which is true by necessity: that He is an extended being (given our materialist world) and that He is the first cause of all other causes, solving the problem of creatio ex nihilo, or “creation from nothing.” Hobbes dismissed all other claims about God’s nature, such as those found in the Bible, revealed in visions, etc., as untruths and illusions.

Hobbes lived to be 91 years old — a remarkably long time in the 1600s — before passing away from a stroke on December 4, 1679. His last words were “a great leap in the dark.”

Hobbes’s political philosophy begins in a “state of nature”: an idealized pre-societal, lawless condition of existence in which each individual must fend for themself. Hobbes remarks that human beings are equal enough in their physical and mental capacities that no one is ever wholly impervious to attacks. Even if one individual is particularly strong, they may be dispatched by another in their sleep or may succumb to a plot in which a group of weaker individuals band together to take them down.

This relative equality of ability leads to an equality of desire: each individual, recognizing that they have the chance to obtain goods for themself, endeavors to do so. The problem is, when a good can be enjoyed by fewer people than it is desired by, conflict ensues. Even modest individuals who wish to live within their means are vulnerable to attacks by the greedy, which forces them to kill or be killed. In addition to seeking material gain and safety, individuals are also said to initiate conflicts in a state of nature to earn a respected reputation.

Hobbes points out that each individual’s fundamental right (where right is understood as that to which we are entitled) is to attempt to survive, and to do whatever one deems necessary to survive. The difficulty lies in the fact that since any act can be justified on the grounds of survival, all humans are entitled to do virtually whatever they please, including forcibly taking land, resources, spouses, slaves, and so on. According to Hobbes, no morality or justice exist in a state of nature — only individuals operating animalistically to take what they can get.

From this “right [of all] to all things” follows a “war of all against all,” wherein “every man is enemy to every man.” In a state of nature, the only security one can hope for is that which they can “furnish” with their own “strength” and “invention,” making for a precarious life. In Hobbes’s words:

“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, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

A state of nature is thus like a primal prisoner’s dilemma, incentivizing individuals to perform suboptimal acts out of fear. Hobbes cites the dynamics of indigenous societies and states that have degenerated into civil war as real-life examples of a state of nature. Interestingly, he also suggests that heads of state in modern society experience a de facto state of nature in their relations with one another, as statecraft, in practice, also operates on the basis of taking what one can get.

Hobbes believes that states of nature arise from human nature, which he pessimistically describes as:

  • Self-interested, with limited empathy.
  • Pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding.
  • Fearful, especially of death.
  • Prideful, being sensitive to slights and feeling as though others should always agree with us.
  • Flawed in our judgments due to egoism, bias, credulity, and short-term thinking.
  • Anxious about our futures.

In short, Hobbes paints a fairly bleak picture of humanity. However, he suggests that the same traits that have plunged us into a state of nature will also help lift us out of it. As rational beings, we recognize that peace is more conducive to our interests than war. Furthermore, we acknowledge that we cannot trust ourselves to achieve peace, as at least some individuals will lie, cheat, and steal if they feel they can get away with it. Consequently, humanity needs “a common power set over [all], with right and force sufficient to compel performance.” This power is responsible for creating and enforcing laws to ensure peace and stability and assuage individuals’ fears. This is the beginning of civilization: once life, liberty, and property are protected, individuals gain the confidence to farm, manufacture, build, invent, and so on without fear of having the fruits of their labor taken from them.

With this, Hobbes makes this case that it is rational for an individual to give up their unlimited freedom to a sovereign on two conditions:

  1. That all other individuals do so, too.
  2. That the sovereign guarantees everyone’s safety.

Hobbes’s ideal form of government is a commonwealth ruled by a single authority — either a monarch or a small group of people acting as one voice. He prefers this arrangement because he believes it is how a society gets the most done and because it is said to be the most stable, with “powers divided naturally destroy[ing] each other.” Controversially, Hobbes maintains that commonwealths established by conquest are legitimate and must be obeyed. His reasoning is that even the subjugated are consenting to be ruled, for they could alternatively rebel. That said, Hobbes acknowledges that individuals retain the right to self-defense if a sovereign attacks them or fails to defend them.

With this social contract, Hobbes offers humanity an escape from a state of nature. Importantly, he does not regard a commonwealth as utopic by any stretch of the imagination. There will still be difficulties, conflict, suffering, and the like. However, he maintains that it is superior to a state of nature, and, in his pessimistic fashion, that it is the best we can hope for.

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