Thomas Hobbes is regarded as one of the greatest political thinkers in the Western tradition for his contribution to the development of the concepts of political obligation and state sovereignty. His theory is often associated with absolutism in domestic politics and with realism in international relations. A long line of interpreters, however, have questioned such associations.
Hobbes was born in Malmesbury, England, on April 5, 1588. For much of our knowledge of Hobbes's early life, we have to rely on the notes of his contemporary and friend John Aubrey. Hobbes was of humble origin; his education at Magdalen Hall in Oxford was sponsored by an uncle. For most of his life, Hobbes worked for the earls of Devonshire. In his capacity as tutor, he travelled extensively in Europe and came in contact with the finest minds of the time, including Galileo, Descartes, and Leibniz. Hobbes fled to France during the English Civil War and was tutor of mathematics to the future King Charles II, who was also in exile.
The intellectual context of 17th-century Europe inspired Hobbes to plan a comprehensive system of philosophy that explained everything that could be explained, resorting to one basic principle, namely, “motion.” Hobbes's project was made up of three parts, the first on metaphysics, the second on man's physiology and psychology, and the third on politics. The political crisis in his country induced Hobbes not to follow the order of the original project but to begin his investigation with the study of the rights and duties of citizens. Indeed, the political climate also explains why Hobbes translated Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War in 1628. According to Hobbes, Thucydides' work affords us important insights into the weaknesses of democracies and was relevant at a time when there were growing tensions between Charles I and Parliament.
It is not from history, however, that Hobbes thought that political science should take inspiration for its methodology. In Brief Lives, Aubrey relates an anecdote that sheds some light on the method that Hobbes used in his political writings. Apparently, Hobbes was 40 years old when by chance he came across the 47th proposition in the first book of Euclid's Elements. Although at first the proposition appeared counterintuitive to Hobbes, its demonstration convinced him of its truth. This, Aubrey tells us, was the beginning of Hobbes's love affair with geometry.
Hobbes believed that it was possible to apply the formal rigor of geometry to the study of politics and demonstrate logically, proceeding from assumptions to conclusions, the causes of civil war and the conditions for “immortal” domestic peace. Hobbes firmly believed that he had succeeded in his endeavor, and he famously claimed that political science was not older than his book De Cive. The concepts and ideas put across in De Cive are very close to those expanded in Leviathan, which was published in English in 1651, after the execution of Charles I (in 1649). Leviathan is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Western political science. In addition to being brilliant in style, Leviathan brings to light in an unparalleled way the protection-obedience principle that lies at the foundation of the Western concept of political obligation: Citizens obey the political state in exchange for protection.
Hobbes explains the sources, nature, and limits of political obligation in three steps. In the first step, Hobbes describes some immutable characteristics of human nature. To begin with, he emphasizes that every man regards self-preservation as summum bonum and fears violent death at the hands of others “as the greatest mischief that can arrive to nature” (De Cive, Epistle Dedicatory); he stresses that all men are capable of rationality and that “every man by reasoning seeks out the most appropriate means to achieve his ends” (De Cive, chap. 14, sec. 16). Furthermore, he stresses the natural equality of men, in the sense that “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest” (Leviathan, chap. 13, sec. 1) and remarks that some men (who we cannot easily identify) are not satisfied with natural equality but want dominion over others and are in perpetual contention for power, honor, and riches.
In the second step, Hobbes imagines a state of nature where there is no authority, no private property, no industry, and no common definition of just and unjust, right and wrong. Under such conditions, everyone's means of survival are very limited and unprotected. Hobbes puts it to his reader that the combined effect of the action of men living in such conditions is a war of all against all: Driven by a fear of being attacked, all individuals, who are rational and concerned with self-preservation, and who are equally vulnerable and equally dangerous, attack each other in anticipation. Hobbes points out that life in such conditions is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Leviathan, chap. 13, sec. 9). He claims that reason makes man understand the first and fundamental law of nature, namely, that he ought “to seek peace” (Leviathan, chap. 14, sec. 4) if he thinks he can obtain it, and that if he cannot obtain it, he may use his right of nature and defend his life by all means.
Finally, having argued that the result of the joint action of natural men and women living in the state of nature is a state of war “of everyone against everyone,” Hobbes examines the conditions that would bring about the opposite result, namely, a state of “immortal peace.” As the nature of man cannot be changed, Hobbes argues that the only way to avoid the horror of anarchy is for individuals to “lay down their right to all things,” to enter a social contract with one another, and to appoint a sovereign with the primary task of protecting their lives and bodily integrity. The sovereign, Hobbes stresses, is not part of the social contract but simply retains the original natural right to all things. Hobbes explains that sovereign power can reside in one man (or woman) or an assembly, but its characteristics are the same: It must be absolute, unconditional, unlimited, irrevocable, and indivisible. Hobbes maintains that it would be irrational to impose restrictions on the sovereign power as it would restrict its ability to protect its citizens. He also claims that if there were to be someone who could restrict the sovereign power, then this person would, in fact, be the sovereign. Hobbes leaves virtually no scope for resistance to the state: A Hobbesian citizen can only disobey to protect his own life. Because of his notion of sovereignty, Hobbes is regarded by many as the champion of the absolute state.
In the 20th century, David Gauthier led the camp of those who suggested that game theory (prisoners' dilemmas, coordination games, super-games, etc.) sheds light on Hobbes's political argument. On the one hand, game theory has been used to support Hobbes's claim that from a set of undemanding assumptions he demonstrated that the state of nature turns into a state of war; on the other hand, the game-theoretical armory has also been deployed to claim that Hobbes's enterprise ultimately fails in that rational agents cannot escape from the state of war and cannot create the Leviathan in the way suggested by Hobbes.
Critics of game-theoretical applications to Leviathan have pointed out that Hobbes stresses that, historically, states are rarely born out of contracts. In this view, the state of nature is not meant to describe a state that precedes the creation of the political state but a state into which people might fall into as a consequence of civil disobedience. In other words, the state of nature describes a state of civil war.
There is textual evidence to support the view that, for Hobbes, fear of punishment alone cannot guarantee long-term order and stability and that citizens need to be educated. In Behemoth, Hobbes singles out popular ignorance as the primary cause of the English Civil War. The state of nature is a thought experiment used by Hobbes to teach citizens why we ought to remain in political associations and why bad governments are better than no governments at all.
In Chapter 13 of Leviathan, in addition to stating that the state of nature materializes into civil wars, Hobbes also claims that it occurs in some primitive societies and that it describes the relations between states. He famously compares states to “gladiators with their weapons pointing and their eyes fixed on one another” (Leviathan, chap. 13, sec. 12) in a constant posture of hostility and war. Such remarks have induced some interpreters to claim that Hobbes is one of the founding fathers of realism. It has been claimed that Hobbes's pessimistic view of human nature, his idea that men are self-interested and seek power after power, his concept of anarchy, and his notion of the sovereign state inspired the realist tradition of international relations.
Whereas there is universal agreement among interpreters of the importance of Hobbes's contribution to the development of the concepts of political obligation and state sovereignty, no such agreement exists as to the association of Hobbes with absolutism and with realism. Points of contention among the interpreters are Hobbes's views on natural law, morality, God, and religion. The dominant view maintains all or most of the following claims: (a) the laws of nature for Hobbes are prudential rules that recommend the creation of the absolute state; (b) the state is the source of all law, all justice, and all morality; (c) the detailed analysis of the Bible that occupies a large part of Leviathan is meant to support the claim that the ecclesiastical powers are totally subordinated to the civil power and that a citizen must obey the Leviathan in everything except if he or she is asked to renounce the belief that Jesus is the Christ.
In contrast to the above views, since the work of A. P. Taylor in 1938 and Howard Warrender in 1957, a long line of interpreters have argued that Hobbes's laws of nature are not just samples of prudential morality, that Hobbes makes the Leviathan accountable to God, that the sovereign power is absolute but not arbitrary, that not all justice in Hobbes's construct is legal justice, that Hobbes is ultimately committed to the individual and not to the state, and that the claim that Hobbes is a precursor of John Austin and legal positivism, or indeed a founding father of realism, is ungrounded.
The most renowned works on Hobbes in the 20th century are those by Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Howard Warrender, Michael Oakeshott, C. B. Macpherson, David Gauthier, Jean Hampton, Quentin Skinner, Sheldon Wolin, and Noel Malcolm.
Realism in International Relations, Sovereignty, State
1588-1679 When Thomas Hobbes died in 1679 at the age of 91 his reputation as an atheist in religion and an absolutist in politics not only...
The son of a parson, Hobbes was born in Wiltshire. He graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1608 and became tutor to...
(1588–1679) An English philosopher whose major work in political philosophy is Leviathan (1651) . Other important works include De Cive ...