An Introduction to the Work of Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes presents himself as the first true political philosopher, the first to offer exact knowledge of justice, sovereignty, and citizenship. Hobbes claims, moreover, that his systematic political science will revolutionize political practice, enabling us to build more stable, peaceful, and productive societies. In order to achieve these results, though, Hobbes must promote a view of the proper scope of politics that is narrower than that of the ancients. By focusing political energies on the preservation of life and its comforts, Hobbes helps to institute the proposal made earlier by Machiavelli: that politics should satisfy certain basic, morally neutral needs rather than aim to organize us around contentious principles. Hobbes emphasizes several ideas that have become central to modern politics and modern political science. He argues that human beings are not naturally social or political, that the state of nature is a state of war, and that we must self-consciously create a government that is based on mutual consent and that presupposes a fundamental equality among its members. These ideas are most comprehensively set forth in the Leviathan (1651), which text serves as the basis for this introduction to Hobbes’s thought.

Hobbes’s Political Science

Hobbes’s claim to found the first true political science should be understood against the background of the political thinkers he seeks to supplant, chiefly Aristotle. Hobbes is dissatisfied with the wisdom Aristotle claims to gain from considering multiple opinions about the good, remarking that hundreds of years of philosophical conversation have made no discernible progress on this question. Hobbes aims rather to elaborate a definitive and unambiguous science of the political good. Indeed, he argues that reading Aristotle serves no purpose but to justify the ambitions of rebellious young men.

Because we can know completely and with certainty only what we make and control, Hobbes gives an account of political order that portrays it as a self-conscious construction, an artifice we craft to remove ourselves from a pre-political state of nature. In order to achieve the exact knowledge for which he aims, Hobbes must limit his scientific claims to the implications that can be deduced from this decision to institute a political order, or “commonwealth.” His political science proper therefore constitutes only the section of the Leviathan that concerns the “consequences” that follow from this choice, namely, the rights and duties of the sovereign and of the subjects that are necessary to maintain this basic political agreement. This choice, however, follows upon our passions and our speech, especially our calling “good” the object of our desires, and pleasure the appearance of it.

The State of Nature

Hobbes begins his discussion with a description of human passions and speech, our basic motions. Following this, Hobbes develops his account of the state of nature from the claim that human beings are naturally equal. By this he means that each individual possesses the natural right to preserve himself, and furthermore the natural right to claim all things, or seek all power, that he judges necessary to this end. Moreover, Hobbes writes, in the state of nature we are, for practical purposes, equal in physical and mental capacity, since no one is strong or smart enough to defend himself with certainty against the threats that arise from the efforts of other individuals to preserve themselves.

According to Hobbes, this rough equality of ability leads each person to have an equal hope of acquiring good things for himself. As individuals strive to accumulate goods, they compete with each other, and consequently create an atmosphere of distrust. The attempt to acquire things, and to preserve them from the encroachments of others, causes us to try to dominate and control those around us. Furthermore, Hobbes observes, some people care particularly to be known as that sort who can dominate—they are vainglorious or prideful individuals who are unhappy if they are not recognized as superior.

These three things—competition, distrust, and the desire for glory—throw humankind into a state of war, which is for Hobbes the natural condition of human life, the situation that exists whenever natural passions are unrestrained. This state of war should be distinguished from wars as we usually experience them, for in the natural state of war every individual faces every other individual as an enemy; it is the “war of every man against every man.” The total absence of collaboration makes us miserable, and renders life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes’s description of the state of nature proposes that what human beings want above all is to preserve their lives and their goods, and what they fear above all is violence at the hands of others. This desire to preserve ourselves against the threat of violent death is the core of Hobbesian psychology. Hobbes suggests that his account will be ratified by honest introspection—after all, why else would we lock our doors at night?

The Social Contract

Once the misery of the natural condition becomes clear, it is evident that something must be done to change it. The first step is for individuals to decide to seek peace and to make the arrangements necessary to attain and preserve it. It becomes clear that the only way to have peace is for each individual to give up his natural right to acquire and preserve everything in whatever manner he sees fit.

As Hobbes stipulates, this must be a collective endeavor, since it only makes sense for an individual to give up his right to attack others if everyone else agrees to do the same. He calls this collective renunciation of each individual’s right to all things the “social contract.” The social contract inverts the state of nature while also building upon some key passions responsible for the state of nature: it amounts to a more intelligent way to preserve oneself and safely acquire goods.

Hobbes presents the social contract in the context of elaborating his “laws of nature,” which are the steps we must take to leave the state of nature. In calling these rules “laws of nature,” Hobbes significantly changes the traditional concept of natural law, in which nature offers moral guidance for human behavior. By contrast, Hobbes’s laws of nature are not obligatory in his state of nature, since, as he makes clear, seeking peace and keeping contracts in the state of nature would be self-destructive and absurd. In other words, acting against the laws of nature cannot simply be called unnatural or unjust—for Hobbes, nothing is naturally just, unjust, or blameworthy. Justice only exists as a convention, in the context of a civil society.

The Leviathan, or the Sovereign

Particularly because there is no natural sanction for justice, we need to institute some guarantee that everyone involved in the social contract will keep his word. Hobbes argues that individuals require a “visible power to keep them in awe,” to remind them of the purpose of the social contract and to force them, for fear of punishment, to keep their promises. This power must also be sufficient to keep in check the yearning for superiority of those who desire honor or glory. Hobbes calls the power necessary to transform the desire for a social contract into a commonwealth the sovereign, the Leviathan, or the “king of the proud.”

The sovereign power is created when each individual surrenders his private strength to a single entity, which thereby acquires the means to keep everyone in obedience. Every individual must also surrender his private opinion about public issues to the sovereign—for to have sufficient power to safeguard the contract, the sovereign must have the authority to decide what is necessary to keep it, and what constitutes a transgression of it.

The relation of the sovereign to the subject is not a contract. Rather, as Hobbes makes clear, the individual must understand his will to be identical with the sovereign will, since one who desires peace must logically will whatever is necessary for peace to be maintained. The “real unity” that the subjects and the sovereign comprise is dramatically expressed in the picture found on the cover of the Leviathan, in which one finds a huge figure literally composed of small individuals.

Although it is commonly assumed that the Leviathan is a king, Hobbes makes clear that the sovereign power can be composed of one person, several, or many—in other words, the Leviathan can equally well describe a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. The only requirement that Hobbes sets for sovereignty is that the entity has absolute power to defend the social contract and decide what is necessary for its defense.

Religion in the Commonwealth

One power that Hobbes insists the sovereign must possess is the authority to determine the public observance of religion. In Hobbes’s opinion, religion can be one of the chief threats to public peace, since it can validate authorities other than those designated by the sovereign. Hobbes is concerned both with Church authorities who make spiritual or moral claims with political intent, and also with the appeal to private conscience, which Hobbes argues is essentially the claim that an individual opinion should take priority over the common agreement represented by the political sovereign.

Hobbes attempts to counter the religious threat to public peace by drawing a strict distinction between private belief and public worship, and then attempting to render private belief politically ineffectual while submitting the form of public worship to the decision of the sovereign. Hobbes tries to make private belief politically neutral by encouraging skepticism: his account of the human mind makes us doubtful of what we know, and his reading of Scripture emphasizes the passages that insist on the mysteriousness of God’s will. Hobbes ultimately pares back Christianity to the personal belief that “Jesus is the Christ,” who will come—in some future time—to reign on earth. In the meantime, Hobbes insists, we should follow Romans 13 in recognizing that all authority comes from God, and obey the civil sovereign.

Hobbes likens the obedience a subject owes the sovereign to that of a monk to the pope. Yet there is a glaring difference: in the Hobbesian commonwealth, subjects owe only outward obedience to the commands of the sovereign. Subjects must be allowed to believe whatever they want (in part because persecution would unnecessarily disturb public peace), as long as they do not try to influence public argument with their personal beliefs.

Hobbes, Liberalism, and Modern Politics

Hobbes’s emphasis on the absolute power of the Leviathan sovereign seems to put his political thought at odds with liberal theory, in which politics is devoted to the protection of individual rights. Hobbes nonetheless laid the foundation for the liberal view. His concept of the state of nature grounds politics in the individual’s desire to preserve his life and his goods, and stipulates that the role of government is to serve these ends. Happiness or “felicity” is continual success in obtaining what we desire. For Hobbes, the individual has no natural duties toward others or to the common good; obligations are taken up only as necessary means to one’s own ends. Furthermore, Hobbes makes clear that the individual retains his natural right to preserve himself even after entering the commonwealth—he has no obligation to submit himself to capital punishment or likely death in war. While Hobbes has a much more limited understanding of individual rights than liberal theorists, his political science launches the argument that the individual has an inviolable right by nature, and also suggests that politics exists to help further the individual’s pursuit of his own happiness. Hobbes begins the liberal notion of representative government: government represents but does not rule us; its duty is to make our lives and acquisitions safe, not to form our souls.

Not long after Hobbes’s death, John Locke used many of the elements of Hobbes’s thought to develop the first full account of modern political liberalism. Although Locke takes pains to distance himself from Hobbes, Hobbes’s influence can be seen in Locke’s account of the state of nature, in his argument that the origin of all legitimate government lies in the consent of the governed, and in his view that the political community should aim to serve basic, common needs (Locke makes the preservation of property central). Through Locke, Hobbes indirectly influenced the founders of the United States, who, in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, proclaim a new kind of politics based on equality and consent, in which government serves relatively limited and popular aims.

Hobbes’s political ideas aroused much controversy in his time, and they continue to be contentious. Some disagree with Hobbes’s claim that politics should be viewed primarily as an instrument to serve self-interest, and side with Aristotle in thinking that politics serves both basic needs and higher ends. On this view, Hobbes’s attempt to divert public debate from tackling controversial but fundamental questions hampers our pursuit of wisdom, happiness, and excellence. Others argue that Hobbes’s systematic focus on achievable goals has made possible the security and prosperity that those in modern Western nations enjoy, and furthermore that these conditions give us the leisure and peace to pursue knowledge and excellence in private life. In either case, Hobbes’s contribution to the framework of the modern world makes a study of his work important to understanding our political horizons.

For further introductory reading, see also:

Lawrence Burns, “Thomas Hobbes,” in History of Political Philosophy, Eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.

Richard Tuck, Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: 2002.