Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)


The historical roots and the continuing theoretical basis of the modern liberal, liberal democratic and neo-liberal — states can be traced to the economic and the consequent political and intellectual developments of, what is known as, the long 18th century (1685-1815) in Europe beginning with Thomas Hobbes, as far as the history of political theory is concerned, though his major writings predate the bracketed period.

The 17th century individualism, known as liberalism conceptualizes the human being (man to be more precise) as a self-seeking, existing on his own, not in association with but in separation from others, marks the epochal turning point in the history of humankind. In the realm of political theory, Thomas Hobbes laid down the paradigmatic contours of liberalism as the philosophy and as the ruling idea i.e. the ruling class idea of the new epoch. The foundation of this new theory, the liberalism, through its various phases and versions was and remains the false assumption of the “natural” atomistic composition of society and the “natural” individuality of humans.

The history of the human civilization, as Marx and Engels have noted in the Communist Manifesto, the history of class societies based on the exploitation and domination of human beings by other human beings and of struggles to end the system of domination, about two centuries after the publication of the first liberal Classic–the Leviathan. The task of the organic intellectuals of the dominant classes is to find the justification for and the source of validity of the domination.

Machiavelli, the philosopher of a prince who rules over people not with any divine mandate but by his political skills and wisdom, seems confused in locating the source of validity and places it to the mysterious concept of Fortune. Hobbes clears the Machiavellian confusion and transported the source of validity from the mystery of God to the myth of people’s consent as individuals and not as the part of the collectivity.

The “naturalness” of the Nature has been questionable from the very outset. Rousseau was the first one to point the finger, before Marxism beginning with Marx and Engels, produced its systematic critiques. Liberalism, the political philosophy of the new epoch, concerned with the order in the new society of increasing inequalities was confronted with the issue of finding a new source of validity of the political authority for the management of the new economic structure. With the reformation, God had lost the ground as the source of validity and voluntary or under the pressure of new realities that only God knows, started creating people equal and instead of helping poor and helpless started helping those who help themselves, as a neutral benevolent. Its overemphasis over individuality conceals the reality that individuals do not exist as individuals in and through a society under certain social relations with others, which he enters into independent of his conscious will.

The erosion of theological explanations of the historical progress had already begun in Europe with the Renaissance and `reached its logical conclusion during, the age of Reason .The Will of God or the divine mandate as the source of validity of governance had been losing ground and banished with the public beheading of the Charles I at the end of the long drawn civil war in England. Machiavelli had freed politics from the clutches of theology. Machiavelli’s Prince is no divine ruler with the mandate of God but a mercenary leader, an ordinary, private individual, favored by Fortune, who with political vision of attaining, retaining and expanding power leads his people to found a state. He transported the source of validity of governance from God to Fortune. God was banished from governance and theology from the realm of explanation of the materials world. The new discoveries in the natural sciences, particularly the theories of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, provided materialistic explanations of material world. The banishment of God from his own “creation” sent shockwaves to not only the stakeholders of the God’s universe but ordinary people too, as they had internalized the theological pronouncements as the final truth, what Gramsci calls hegemony . By the 17th century, the process of erosion of the theological explanation of material world had climaxed and the God lost its position as the source of validity of governance.

Thomas Hobbes, rightly credited to be the first liberal thinker, fills the void by theorizing politics using Galileo’s methods of theorizing the physical universe. With materialistic explanation of politics, Hobbes transported the source of validity of governance from God to peoples’ consent. This was a revolutionary theoretical act as in the civil war between Puritans and the royalists in England the issue was not the God but different readings of the scripture. Brian Nelson has rightly said that “Machiavelli was Copernicus of the political theory and Hobbes the Galileo who carried Machiavelli’s revolutionary insights to their logical conclusion.”(p.163) His absolutist conclusions were not appreciated by the Puritans and his materialism was disliked by the royalists who claimed King’s Devin right to rule and not by power as propounded by Machiavelli and rationalized by Hobbes on the basis of the theory of Human nature, a running theme of the subsequent political philosophies and Social Science.

Thus Hobbes inaugurates a new paradigm of analysis in the realm of political theory – the modern political theory, foundations of which were laid by Machiavelli. It was the beginning of the new quest of finding secular, political answers to the secular political questions arising out of the emergence of the new protagonist of the history with the new virtue – the virtue of money making. The qualification of wealth became the new criterion of the new virtue for the new species of the heroes–the heroes of finance with risk free heroism. This hero of finance, which took a peripheral entry on the stage of Renaissance in Europe, as a minor character, had become “the hero”, within less than 150 years and came to occupy the centre stage in the era of the Enlightenment.

The new protagonist of the history, the self-seeking, possessive, rational individual who is in perpetual pursuit of desires, gets clearly defined as such and universalized by Thomas Hobbes In his classic work, the Leviathan (1651). And in less than 4 decades of the publication of the Leviathan, John Lock quite unambiguously declares money making to be the political virtue by saying that the serious matters like governance could be entrusted with only those who have proved their worth by amassing sufficient money, in his ‘Two Treatises on the Government’ (1688).

Every philosopher is product of his time, as around after 2 centuries after Hobbes, Karl Marx would say that the consciousness is product of material conditions and the conscious human effort changes the material conditions giving rise to the new consciousness. The intellectuals do not create justices or injustices. They only react to and reflect upon the justices-injustices already existing in their contemporary societies. Therefore a text is better understood by placing it into its historical context.

Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588, in a decade considered to be the beginning of a new era in the European history, the age of Reason. The Enlightenment in Europe also witnessed fierce social political strife and bloodshed. “Hobbes and fear is twin” saying derives its existence from the fact that his mother gave a premature birth supposedly caused by the news of attack by a Spanish Armada. I don’t think that psychological impact at embryonic stage has so everlasting impact. Source of Hobbes’s fear was not the news of Armada in embryonic state but the prolonged civil war that took off practically with the enthronement of James I in 1603. It became more pronounced since 1630.

The bourgeois dissent to absolutist values had been gaining strength for quite some time. The political battle between royalist claim of absolute rights and liberal demands by puritans was fought on the religious agenda of varying readings of the scriptures. Hobbes after his studies from Oxford was recommended as a tutor to the Cavendish royal family in 1610 and ever since he spent most of his life with courtesy and in association of noble men. In 1641 when the struggle looked decisively tilted against the royal side, being staunch royalists, Hobbes fled to France to escape the civil war hardships. It proved for him a Blessing in disguise. It provided him with unprecedented intellectual exposure and brought him in contact with many intellectual luminaries in the fields of philosophy and Science including Francis Bacon and Galileo, whose scientific discoveries became an inspiration for Hobbes’s attempt to build a science of society, using Galileo’s methodology.

In England, as is history now, the civil war had ended with the defeat of royalist forces in 1648 and sealed with the beheading of the King Charles I with the final blow to the divinity associated with the institution of monarchy. During his stay in France he tutored the future King Charles II and worked on the new theory of governance that he published in 1651 after his return to the short lived Republican England under the leadership of Cromwell. In 1660 with the restoration of monarchy, he joined the court and was awarded and received $100 annual honorarium till his death in 1679, at the age of 91.

The context:

As has been pointed out above, a text can be best understood in its context and the central concerns of the author and the consequent object and the motive. As Aristotle had said long ago, which all of us know (May be we need to be reminded of what we already know) that nothing exists without purpose, that is, everything that exists has some end. Similarly nothing is written without purpose. All the writings have some end. Hobbes is writing in the historical context of the civil war in England. The fear of sudden death was not just a theoretical possibility or a mere imagination but a reality. People were being killed and the killing spray stopped only with the killing of the monarch, supposed to be the regent of the God on the earth. Hobbes’s central concern was the experienced fear of civil strife/war that he has witnessed from a partisan position. In the Age of Enlightenment, the Enlightened monarchies marked the transition from the decadent feudal values and feudal state to the modern, liberal nation state. Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy is a concerned political statement of this transition.

The root cause of the political turmoil, which the Europe was undergoing, was the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production via mercantilism caused by the change in the social relations of production and distribution. The new social relations needed new political relations and thereby new definition of state and the new species of the heroes, the bourgeoisies, whose wealth was not the gift of God but result of their business skills, needed not only economic rights but also a share in the political power. This new man, the possessive individual, the propertied patriarch, i.e. the bourgeois man, is the Hobbes’s natural man. This man, interested not only in possession but also accumulation of the property, is apprehensive of the loss of and hence in need of protection of his property. This hero of finance, the money making individual is distrustful of everyone including his neighbors, friends and family members that is why as Hobbes would like to demonstrate, he locks his house and suspecting the integrity of wife and children locks his valuables in the locker inside the house.

Hobbes’s central concern was the civil war, which he considered to be the worst evil, under which there can be no industry and no progress. He thought that the civil war was the result of man’s natural tendency to dominate over others leading to the state of war of all against all. This “natural” tendency of the “natural” man has to be checked in order to fulfill another, superior, natural desire of “peaceable, commodious” life that is impossible if he behaved “naturally”. This natural tendency in Hobbes’s opinion could be checked by a strong, legitimate, deterrent power. Thus the purpose of his political theory is to deduce the need of a powerful, legitimate, public authority capable of overawing all the “natural”, self-seeking individuals. For this, Hobbes involves a thought experiment with the interrelated concepts of state of nature, laws of nature, natural rights and the social contract, on the pattern of the inviolable laws of the market contract. Hobbes transports the source validity from theological notion of God to a concrete concept of social contract among the “free and equal” individuals different from obscure notion of Machiavellian Fortune. To have order in an increasing inequality, Hobbes begins with the axiomatic assumptions of natural equality and equal freedom to prove that the natural equality and freedom of the natural man is a curse and the root cause of the social miseries. As naturally all of them seek their own dominion and dominate others. Everyone being equal no one can accomplish that and there would state of war of everyone against everyone and hence the need of an absolute Sovereign power capable of overawing all the “natural” individuals to conduct themselves.

Hobbes presents the order and freedom as dichotomous and surrenders the latter for the former. His central concern is a legitimate public authority in the wake of the dissolution of the feudal bonds. For this, he indulges into a thought experiment involving interrelated concepts – the state of nature; the natural laws; the social contract to construct the theory of political obligation. The foundation of the edifice of his theory of sovereignty and obligation is the theory of human nature that Hobbes constructs with his psychological assumptions.

The State of Nature

Hobbes’s thought experiment, using Galilean method, resolves the society into its constituent atoms in motion – individuals – and individuals into its constituent elements – desire, appetite, aversion etc — and then recomposes them back to transform the unsocial society into an ordered state under a sovereign, an artificial man who becomes the sole spokesperson of the body and motion of society. He makes an imagined pre-social; pre-political state as the starting point – the zero point – the original state and calls it the State of Nature. He makes certain psychological axiomatic assumptions about the natural human behavior if not regulated by an external force. And then from psychological assumptions, he deduces the social behavior of the individual, who is naturally a rational egoist. It is not a historic state of nature but an imagined one, as admitted by Hobbes himself, abstracted from the existing society. The primitive societies show just opposite human attributes to those of Hobbesian natural man. Hobbesian axiomatic assumptions about the “natural” nature of the self-seeking, solitary individual, overtly-covertly remains the running theme through the various stages of liberalism up to the present neo-liberal stage.

Though Hobbes himself admits, as mentioned above, his state of nature is not historic, but imagined one yet his novel like presentation makes it appear real. Natural behavior of his universal natural man is about how individuals would naturally behave if there was no regulating mechanism of the state. His natural individual in the state of nature is abstracted from the emerging commercial society. Unlike Aristotelian axiomatic natural inequality, Hobbes, in order to defend the existing inequalities, which he considers conventional, begins with the assumption of natural equality and proves it to be the root cause of all the miseries owing on the basis of his assumptions of human nature.

Hobbes’s State of nature consists of solitary, free and equal individuals. This natural man, a rational being equipped with the developed faculty of reason, is a self-seeking egoist, involved in the unceasing pursuit of desires that ceases only in death. He is not satisfied with the fulfillment of the present needs but the needs for an unseen future too. He does not want only to use but also to posses, and as much as possible. These were the attribute of the new man, the bourgeois man. Hobbes generalizes and universalizes it to obscure the root cause of newly created unfreedoms and inequalities through the ruin of craftsmen and artisans by transforming the craft production into manufacturing system with the spread of commerce and the growth of world market on the one hand and on the other hand, expropriation of peasantry under, what is called the Enclosure movement[i]. Not only is he not interested in discussing the existing inequalities but condemns the natural equality as the root cause of the worst kind of miseries like the civil war. In fact his state of nature is abstracted from the civil war in England that was, in Hobbesian language culmination of contending claims of Sovereignty in the state of nature.

Hobbes’s free natural men are approximately equal in strength and cunningness. To prove his point he says that even the weakest can kill the strongest. He seems to obsessed with the fear of violence that cites the killing ability to prove natural equality of men.

“……….. For as the strength of body ……’ men are in that point equal than unequal………”

In state of nature people have natural right to self-preservation and to do whatever they deem fit for it using their natural power of their body and mind. The solitary individuals in state of nature, diffident and suspicious of each other, present a split personality. This rational egoist, in unceasing pursuit of desires is a paradoxical creature. On the one hand, he seeks not only his own dominion but also to dominate everyone else and that no one can even touch him or dare to look at him. The attributes of Machiavelli’s Prince are made universal by Hobbes. On the other hand, he also desires a peaceable commodious life. Because of the “naturally” free and equal individuals as they “naturally” are, the reconciliation of the two becomes impossible in the state of nature. The source of this impossibility is the natural equality. Since everyone is equal, equally free and equally ambitious to lord over others, no one can be winner, everyone is loser and there is a war of everyone against everyone. Everyone is living under the constant threat of sudden death.

Playing on the fear psychosis, the natural rational egoist decides in favor of the peaceable and commodious life. Hobbes presents dichotomy of alternatives between order wherein he can peacefully enjoy his possessions and the freedom of state of nature and deduces that end of the miseries and the state of constant fear of sudden death, is possible only by ending the state of nature itself. For order, the natural man surrenders the natural freedom and promises political obligation to the laws of the Sovereign, the artificial man – a person or the body of persons – to whom he surrenders the natural rights and becomes social through a social contract.

The Social Contract

As we have seen above, in the context of the protracted civil war in England, the central concern of Thomas Hobbes was the order, order among the unequals, as they existed. Order, in his opinion, could be created only through the absolute political obligation to an absolute sovereign. For this, he constructs a logical state of nature in which the possessives and egoist, power seeking, overambitious, solitary individuals are equal and free and with his theory of human nature, proves the freedom of equal individuals dangerous to their desire of peaceable, commodious life. And in the dichotomy between freedom and the order and shows preference for the order.

The end of the State of Nature is the only way of the peaceable and the commodious life for the rational individuals. For this he constructs a theory of Social Contract, that too, like his theory of the State of Nature, is logical not historic. The solitary rational egoists, incapable of living together in owing to their “natural” ego, diffidence, competitiveness, come together to make a covenant among themselves. made to conduct themselves properly only Though he himself does not claim the historicity of the contract, yet the way he presents makes it read like a real contract at some point of time. Like Machiavelli considers fear to be the most reliable basis for the order, Hobbes replaces the adjective, “most reliable” by the “only”. The “naturally” “free” and “equal” individuals can be by fear of some all powerful authority capable of overawing them all. Rousseau, almost a century later, would correct him by demonstrating that individuals are not warmongers by nature but they quarrel over things and they are so not naturally but in and through a society. Hobbes cunningly universalizes a particularly socialized human nature and deduces the need of an absolute power, the sole spokesperson of the body and motion of the society with the “consent” as the source of validity of its authority. All the individuals, as they are, nasty, brutish, diffident who do not trust each other, only Hobbes knows how, come together and collectively pose trust in another person or body of persons to create and ensure conditions of life free from the constant fear of sudden death. Under the contract people surrender their all the natural rights and powers to a Sovereign, a person or a body of persons – an arterial man with its own body and motion. The contract is irreversible. People, on the basis of rational calculations of the self interest, collectively enter into a contract with a sovereign who is not party to this contract by surrendering their natural rights. The words, as Hobbes puts it, have no weight without the sword – the coercive power –and hence people surrender their natural power of self preservation also.

The command of sovereign is the law. Thus through the contract people create a law making and enforcing public authority deriving the validity from the consent of people. Thus beginning with liberal assumptions arrives at absolutist conclusions. Nevertheless, the theory of governance by consent of the free and equal individuals has revolutionary implications, as inadvertent consequence. Sometimes inadvertent consequences prove to be more substantial than the intended ones. In course of time the free and equal individuals, living not in isolation but in and through a society, would reclaim their natural freedom and equality – the human emancipation. The sovereign himself is not the party to the contract and hence remains in the state of nature with all the human attributes.

The Sovereign

The sovereign, thus created by consent is absolute and indivisible. It not only interprets but makes and enforces the law. Thus Hobbes envisages three functions of the state, law making; law interpreting; law enforcing – legislative; judicial and executive. Hobbes though concentrates all the three powers into one authority, yet provides basis for the development of the theory of the separation of power by future liberals. People, by virtue of having consented to be governed are not only having legally extractable prudential obligation to obey the sovereign but Hobbes would like us to believe that as is dictated by the reason the obligation is moral too.

Who would be the sovereign as, according to Hobbes, all men are naturally equal in physical and mental strength that he meticulously demonstrates in the first chapter of Leviathan. Hobbes finds an easy way out of the complex problem by bringing in the notions of sovereignty by institution, i.e. by agreement and sovereignty by acquisition, i.e. sovereignty by conquest. He acknowledges the historic fact that most of the sovereignties are established by conquest. As his state of nature that is a state without the regulating mechanism of a centralized government. Therefore if there is no government with absolute authority people will plunge into miserable state of nature. Therefore the prudent individuals must pay their unconditional obligation to the sovereign by acquisition in the same way as they would have done had they created it by consent.
Ish Mishra, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Hindu College, University of Delhi

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