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The Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

Updated on September 30, 2011

Thomas Hobbes was a 17th Century English philosopher who was hugely influential on political and ethical philosophy due to his pioneering of “social contract theory”, which has since become the dominant political theory in philosophy. Hobbes would form the basis of the concept that would be developed by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls, though these three thinkers would take his ideas in entirely different directions then he had intended. Hobbes developed his theory as a justification of a government that is controlled by a monarchy and though much of his theory continues to be accepted, the form of government that he was actually arguing for no longer is considered a just form of government. The work that Hobbes is best known for is Leviathan, which has an apt name both for its formidable length and for its premise of arguing for a large state apparatus.

Many modern readers consider the idea of human nature put forth by Hobbes to be especially brutal and cynical. His outlook was influenced by witnessing the brutality of the English civil war and he was shocked by man’s inhumanity to man. The influence of his outlook on human nature can still be seen in literature and film, where post-apocalyptic stories portray a world where a Hobbesian state of nature has seemed to become the rule of the land.

The State of Nature and Human Ethics

Hobbes used the device of "The State of Nature" to form the basis for his take on human history and how civilization developed. Hobbes imagined a world without government where human interactions would be “all against all” and no human being could exert any power against another human being because we are all generally evenly matched. What he meant by this is that although one person may be physically stronger another may be smarter and another have yet another talent that gives them an advantage. Hobbes saw the essential human drive as the will to exert power over others. He thought this was the main motivation of all human decision making and it was this drive that caused us to want to create a civilization in the first place.

Hobbes was a materialist and therefore believed that ethics were concrete things that could be divined by looking for natural laws that existed in nature, much as you could divine the laws of physics through scientific experimentation and observation. Humans had discovered these natural laws because life in the state of nature was so unbearable to live in. Hobbes famously described the life of a person within the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short.” Since human beings could not exert power over each other but desperately wanted to, they devised a series of deals that made their lives more tolerable to live and set the foundation of a civilization where a hierarchy could develop.

An example of this would be a rule of society such as “do not steal.” The best case scenario for a human being, as far as having an advantage over others, would be for you to be able to steal from others but for them not to steal from you. The best case scenario for the other person is the opposite. If we both steal from each other then we are both harmed and this negates any advantage that we may gain from stealing and from obtaining our own property. The second best case scenario for both of us is that we both agree not to steal from each other and this gives us both the advantage of being able to obtain our own goods without having to worry about having them stolen. Hobbes believed that all the ethical rules of human society came about due to this kind of calculus.

Because of this viewpoint, Hobbes was often accused of being an egoist by critics of his view and this perception persists even today. Ethical egoism is the viewpoint that all human actions are inherently selfish. Egoists contend that altruism does not exist and even when human beings are performing acts that seem completely selfless they are in fact doing so for some reason that benefits them even if that reason is emotional gratification. David Hume attacked Hobbes as an egoist in his own writing but a careful reading of Hobbes shows some key differences between his view and egoism. Hobbes sees human motivation not merely as seeking gratification and advantage to oneself but in seeking power over other people. Hobbes even goes as far to say that some people may destroy themselves in seeking this power. (We do see some evidence of this in society.) Also most egoists, such as Max Stirner and Ayn Rand, attack the legitimacy of the state as inherently oppressive of the individual. Hobbes is using his philosophy to do the opposite and legitimize state power. This means that if Hobbes can indeed be labeled an egoist he is a very unconventional one.

The Sovereign

Hobbes argues that the entire point of human society is to avoid a return to the state of nature. He sees the key value of society to be security. While human beings want freedom and control over others, this would degrade back into a state of nature if there was not a source of power in order to hold society in check. Hobbes argued that human beings are unconsciously aware of this on some level and therefore they will give their power to a figure who can offer them security in return if that person seems powerful enough to keep society in check. That person is the sovereign and they hold complete power over society. Hobbes places a single limit on the sovereign’s power and that is that he cannot ask a citizen to harm himself but otherwise he holds complete control over society.

Hobbes believed that this form of monarchy was the best for society simply because he believed that the sovereign could best look after the security of his citizens. Hobbes rejected the idea of Democracy as a viable form of government because he thought it would inevitably degrade into a corrupt and ineffectual institution. The same was held for other forms of government such as an aristocracy. Despite the fact that the Sovereign was in control of the government and his decisions were to be the law Hobbes still included within his theory ideas about individual policies and their justness.

Hobbes was somewhat concerned about religion. He gave the sovereign the authority to enforce any state religion he chose and he worried about religious leaders attempting to seize power from the sovereign. In the case of “miracles” Hobbes thought that the performing of so called miracles should be approved by the state. It was the state that had the authority to designate an act a miracle, not church authorities. Hobbes also had things to say about taxes, having the viewpoint that taxes were the debt that citizens owed to the state for the security that it provided. Despite the fact that he thought all citizens should pay their debt in taxation Hobbes was not opposed to social programs to help those who could not work or were otherwise underprivileged.

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