Thomas Hobbes was a political philosopher born in 1588 in Malmesbury, England. He is best known for taking the position in his work the Leviathan that the individuals of a society must agree to obey the authority in power regardless of what that authority decides to do, so long as that authority is able to provide them with peace and security. Hobbes was writing during a time when England was at Civil War, and he witnessed horrible things. He believed that nothing was worse than Civil War, and imagined if it was to get worse that it would be like a state of nature where everyone was at war with each other. In the Leviathan, he explains the way society works and his understanding of human nature in order to give England a way of setting up a more stable government and avoid complete chaos.
Having studied Aristotelian philosophy at Oxford, Hobbes didn’t like the abstract nature of this tradition of studying philosophy (known as scholasticism). He would become the tutor of the son of a noble family, the Cavendishes, and in the process came to travel around Europe with his pupil. During these travels, he became acquainted with scientific thought and met with Francis Bacon as well as Galileo. In this way, he became interested in science and philosophy that was rooted in observation and experience. During these travels, he also came to appreciate Euclid’s geometry, because of the certainty of this method.
At home, England was starting to become divided as the King and Parliament were conflicting with each other. Hobbes was interested in finding a practical way of understanding politics, to try and address the problems that were going on at home. He found his inspiration in Bacon’s scientific method, where he would imagine a few simple principles which when combined could explain the nature of complex things, for example the trajectory of a cannon ball. Hobbes realized that if he could find a few basic principles that explain human nature and politics that everyone would agree with, he could use those principles to explain what was going on in England and what could be done to make things better.
While completing his travels, Hobbes believed that he had found the self-evident principles he was looking for. He became familiar with Galileo’s concept of inertia, which explained that things are naturally in motion, rather than being at rest, as had been previously thought. Interestingly, he will use motion to explain human nature and politics. He explains that humans are in essence mechanical apparatus of sensations and thoughts that are affected by outside things. Every person therefore is constantly in motion because they want to protect themselves from things that are bad (“aversions”) and to acquire things which are good (“appetites”). Most importantly, as humans we have a fundamental fear of death, which we want to avoid at all costs.
Hobbes uses this understanding of human nature as primarily focused on self-preservation and always active to then explain how people act with one another. He explains that power is one’s ability to secure future goods, and that in order for one to secure more goods for himself, he will have to impinge on the power of others. While it would be possible for people to exist harmoniously in a give and take fashion, the problem is because different people have greater appetites than others, there will always be some people who have an unlimited desire for power. They want to be as rich as possible, as powerful as possible, and they are willing to do whatever to accomplish their goal. For this reason, others must defend themselves and in the process there is conflict.
Hobbes saw this conflict happening in England, which was in the middle of a Civil War. He witnessed horrible acts during the Civil War, and he was very concerned. He believed that if the Civil War didn’t stop, and if people didn’t create a stable form of government that wouldn’t be susceptible to Civil War again, that the state of things could get so bad that it would turn into what he calls the State of Nature. For Hobbes, the State of Nature is a terrible place where people can do whatever they want, and will use force to take what they want from others. In this hypothetical State of Nature, no one is safe. He famously writes, “The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He explains that the right of nature, and the law of nature, is that everyone is entitled to do whatever it takes to defend themselves, and the result is that all civilization is impossible and life itself is a war of “all against all.”
In the Leviathan, Hobbes is trying to explain to the rising middle class in England, known as the bourgeoise, that everything that they know and love will be in ruins if this happens. He is trying to get them to stop fighting, to end their Civil War, and to recognize that any sovereign power, so long as its able to keep security and peace, will provide them with the grounds for their continued happiness and prosperity.
Hobbes realized that in a market-based, capitalist society, people are able to get along because they have an outlet to channel their inherent competitiveness. In a State of Nature, in order to get more power, one has to violently take it from someone else by force. But in a market-based society, one can acquire more power through trade. A craftsman can make something and sell it, and then have more money to do other things and in that way be more powerful. Therefore, Hobbes supported capitalism and the market-based society that the bourgeoisie thrived in, because he believed it allowed those who have an excessive desire for power to be able to have a productive, rather than a destructive, outlet.
So long as a sovereign authority is able to be in power and enforce laws, civilized society is possible. For this reason, in order to avoid the chaotic State of Nature, people must agree to give up some of their power to this sovereignty. This collective agreement to be obedient to a sovereign power is known as the social contract. This concept would greatly influence future political philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, and serves as the basis for the US and other modern countries’ constitutions.
Hobbes took the scientific spirit of the 17th century to explain complex phenomena from simple principles, and combined it with his interest in geometry, to create a political philosophy which gave an explanation for why humans act selfishly and why England was suffering from a civil war. In the Leviathan, Hobbes gives England his solution, namely, to embrace whatever authority it can which will ensure peace. The Leviathan was widely read in his time, and his political concepts such as the laws of nature, the equality of people, and the social contract have deeply influenced Western political thought ever since.