The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

sunnyp By sunnyp, 21st Jul 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
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Thomas Hobbes was an English thinker who lived a long life between 1588 and 1679. He had notoriously authoritarian views, partly a response to the turbulent political times he lived through. His project, to devise a political philosophy that would ensure a stable and safe state, is discussed and explained here.

The political background to Hobbes' philosophy

Hobbes was born into an era of civil strife, and lived through times of regicide, civil wars, puritanical commonwealth of Cromwell and the reinstating of the Stuart monarchy. He was acutely aware of this political turmoil and the effects that it had on his life and on the society he lived in: he said that his mother gave birth to twins when he was born, to Thomas Hobbes and to fear! This is an example of Hobbes' dry wit but it is also an example of his philosophical leaning, since he thought that fear of death and the instinct for self-preservation were not only fundamental forces in individual lives, but could also be driving forces in the way society was set up and maintained. Hobbes published his ideas in political philosophy in two key works. The ideas in the first, De Cive, were substantially developed in his later work, Leviathon.

The State of Nature

Hobbes formulated a hpothetical view of how society would operate if all restraints, social customs and laws, were removed. He called this the 'state of nature'. In this state, Hobbes thought that people would look after their own self-interest and kill or threaten those who interfered with them. His views on human nature were essentially pessimistic and he claimed that human behaviour was moulded by the fact that people feared death, were forward looking, selfishly motivated and concerned with their reputations, were roughly intellectually and physically equal to one another, and had desires that conflicted with one another. From Hobbes pessimistic assumptions he constructed a hypothetical state of nature as an active state, at war with all and where human lives are miserable and short. In essence, Hobbes' state of nature describes a state of anarchy.

Emerging from the State of Nature

However, war means destruction. Therefore, for selfish reasons, people will want to get out of the state of nature, as it is a state of war. The motivation of self-preservation meant, according to Hobbes, that people would eventually seek a way to emerge from the state of anture. He thought that people would seek peace as a means of avoiding destruction. A fundamental point in Hobbes' philosophy is the search for peace as a means of self-preservation. Other modes of behaviour, such as justice and gratitude, are, in Hobbes' view, a means to peace.

The Selection of Leader and the establishment of Commonwealth

To emerge from the state of nature required that people set aside self-interest and focus instead on the best interest of the community or society. However, society, as a collection of individuals, is made up of many people with conflicting interests, with different views about what is right and what is wrong. Because good and evil are subjective terms Hobbes thought that people needed to decide to elect one representative as arbitrator. Hobbes argues that we require a strong authoritative state to supervise and govern us in order to lead peaceful and prosperous lives. This is a prudent course of action. Hobbes argued that people are prepared to surrender freedoms and rights in the interests of a more stable society because this is in their own self interest. Hobbes says that either a single man or an assembly of people can be selected as the leader/arbitrator who will act for the good of society. If there is more than one person, they will act in unity for one good. Everyone is to submit to their will, it is more than consent by concord, it is true unity. Such social contract establishes what Hobbes referred to as a commonwealth.

The Social Contract and the Power of the Sovereign

Hobbes thought that peace was worthy of many sacrifices - including the huge sacrifices of rights that given up to a sovereign (in Hobbes' project) in order to guarantee a quiet life. The covenant that creates the commonwealth obliges people in two ways: firstly to one another and secondly to the sovereign power. However, within this social contract the sovereign is responsible for the people but not to the people. This makes it appear as if the sovereign has all the rights while the citizens have all the duties, it seems one-sided. Hobbes justifies the extent of the power vested in the monarch by saying that each right that the sovereign has is necessary in order to establish and keep the peace. The sovereign has the rights to the means to the end. However, unjust actions by the sovereign are forbidden- the subject is author of the sovereign's actions and therefore the sovereign cannot do anything to hurt the subject and according to Hobbes this makes it impossible for the sovereign to act unjustly towards his subjects. The only time Hobbes will allow for civil disobedience, however, is when the sovereign's actions cause misery. The sovereign must act to preserve peace and ensure prosperity, if he does not, then revolutionary action is allowable.

Is Hobbes' Social Contract still relevant today?

Hobbes' aim in his political philosophy was to present a means to a permanent peace. Criticisms, however, include the fact that Hobbes over-simplified the project and based many assumptions on the idea that people act rationally at all times. In addition, people are not always totally and completely briefed and informed, and political deception is rife. A weakness in Hobbes' argument is that you /one does not necessarily require the consent of everyone to govern and prosper - it only requires the assent of those with sufficient resources and leverage. Therefore members of rich and powerful groups do not need to have any consideration for poorer groups and Hobbes' political theory, based on the prudence of moral behaviour and mutual reliance on good behaviour in order to maintain peace, breaks down. In the long run it is theoretically necessary for rich groups to take consideration of the weak groups, e.g. the domestic poor, impoverished nations and future generations. However, few people look this far. Few theorists today believe that it is possible to provide a one-off solution for everyone and for all time in the manner of Hobbes' project. In general, Hobbes' position is radically cynical when he argues that all our actions are in our own self-interest. But it could be argued that it is well-placed cynicism, it is an example of how Hobbes sought to reconcile self-interest with prudent moral action.

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author avatar MaryAnneSimpson
2nd Aug 2010 (#)

social contract

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author avatar Biswajit Basu
3rd Aug 2010 (#)

I am totally mesmerized. What a great creation. This is what I call a timeless composition. The article will be read over generations. Thanks so much for publishing such an informative writing.
God bless you

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author avatar sunnyp
3rd Aug 2010 (#)

Many thanks for your comments!

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author avatar T.W.
8th Feb 2011 (#)

This will be brief because I literally just put down, well, set on fire, rather, Hobbe's 'Leviathan'. I have read some pretty heavy stuff. Taking that into consideration, Hobbes is long, boring, and it seems to me to be a punishment of some sort to make an individual read this esoteric bullshit. It is NOT interesting, and hardly relevant, yet it is still taught? As to why, I am unable to answer that. Pertaining to Hobbes and say, Bacon, or Lock, Hobbes fits nicely in comparing and contrasting...ect...ect But reading Leviathan after Machiavelli's The Prince is utter nonsense. Its pointless. SOMEONE please tell me otherwise!

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author avatar T.W.
8th Feb 2011 (#)

Also....Hobbes is SO philosophically sophisticated, even with contemporary versions of Leviathan, the majority of people will most likely NOT comprehend it. (I read it in accordance with the course i am taking.) In fact, they may be encouraged to rebel against reading it...much like the various obligations and reasons for oveying the sovereign in Leviathan...some(most) people might not comprehend it, thus, they will rebel

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author avatar Lollu
2nd Jul 2011 (#)

hobbes composition is so timeless it will benefit all.

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