Thomas Hobbes Essay

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Thomas Hobbes Essay
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  • University/College:
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  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Words: 2120

  • Pages: 8

Thomas Hobbes

The philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, especially that of his major work, Leviathan, is designed to understand the motives of human nature and, from these, seek the surest way to civil peace. This is one of the earliest examples of a “scientific” method of understanding political science in that the commonwealth was to be built on a handful of axioms, all deriving from what Hobbes considered facts of human nature (cf. Matthews, 118). The nature of these axioms leading to civil peace is the purpose of this present essay. The primary understanding of human nature that, if applied properly, would lead to social peace is that human beings desire power.

This is nearly identical to Machiavelli’s approach to politics. It seems that in both Hobbes and Machiavelli, human beings desire power, and hence, develop “moral” systems that justify the present holding or seeking of power (Morgan, 528-530, and 581-582). But the nature of this axiom is that people are naturally programmed to seek power and no matter of moral suasion will stop this. Hobbes wants to begin from a single concept and build upon it rather than attempt to suppress it, since any attempt at suppression itself proves the axiom correct.

If human nature is taken seriously rather than covered over with metaphysical theories, then peace might be the consequent: human beings must be taken as they are, not as one might want them to be. If the above axiom is true, that is, people desire power, than many other axioms follow from it. The first axiom that follows from the first is that reason is a slave to the passions (Morgan, 641). Reason, in other words, cannot provide ends, but merely means, and significantly, justifications after the fact. Appealing to reason is hence, not appropriate with such a view of humanity, and only the appeal to passion will work here.

Passion is nothing that can be suppressed, but it can be controlled. Passion is the engine of human nature in a similar sense that hunks of matter in a vacuum will continue in constant morion unless acted upon by another force. This is an exact parallel to Hobbes here, and the only opposing force to passionate human motion is other human beings, and hence, the problem: humans are constantly, following from this, in a state of war. What makes this state of war particularly harsh is that the abilities of human beings as individuals, or organizing into groups, are roughly equal (Morgan, 591).

This means that the war of all against all will continue constantly, with no clear winner. Any “winner” will be only a temporary winner, and will soon be dethroned by another faction. The fact of equality is not something here taken from observation, but from a deduction from “atomic” theory (or at least, the theories of matter current at the time), where atoms, in their basic structure, are all the same. Matter is matter, energy is energy, humans are humans. From the above, it follows that human beings are determined. Free will, to an extent, is rejected in Hobbes.

For him, liberty is the ability to do what one wills without outside opposition (Morgan, 621). This is consistent with determinism in that the will must have a reason, that is, a cause, for having the desire it has and bringing it to fruition. Hence, man is determined, but since he does what he wants, he is thus free. This just underscores the fact that reason is impotent to being about peace, only the passions can be appealed to in that the constant clashing of wills and the frustration of one’s freedom as Hobbes describes it is constant warfare.

From the above, Hobbes deduces that humanity is egocentric, power hungry and willful, and as a result, without some countervailing power, is in a constant state of warfare. The nature of this countervailing power is the real centerpiece of the Leviathan. The general point is that if humanity can be reduced to a few, simple, clear axioms that follow logically from one another, as any good scientific theory should do, then the state, the countervailing power that keeps these human “atoms” in line relative to one another, should also be simple, unified and follow logically from the axioms about human nature.

Hence, Hobbes is seeking to be completely scientific and a “realist” about both humanity and the state that they will live under in order to reach peace. At this point in the logical progression, it seems impossible to live in a state of peace. Human beings are depicted as lustful, egocentric and equal beings constantly in a state of motion and hence, clashing with all other peoples, essentially hunks of matter in motion, connected to an almost arbitrary engine of passion.

But it is the Leviathan that will bring this peace, and it is passion that it will use to justify itself and bring peace to the commonwealth. Hobbes describes humanity prior to all law and custom, that is, the “law of nature. ” The primary motive force of humanity is power, considered generally. But if warfare is a constant feature of the “state of nature,” then the drive for power for each and all is constantly being frustrated. It seems logical to hold that eventually, these egocentric people will constantly see their designs thwarted and their purposes constantly harmed y others.

From this, all those that seek power, that is, everyone, will be forced to come to some agreement, a “covenant” among themselves that will provide a measure of peace so that the power struggle can continue in more peaceful channels. This is the nature of the covenant (Morgan, 594). This agreement comes not about through reason, but through the constant frustration of passion. Reason is a means to an end, and power is always that end. But power cannot be had in the state of nature given its constantly shifting nature, and therefore, reason then acts as a slave to passion and demands some kind of agreement, a contract that will bring peace.

The nature of this covenant must follow from the facts of human nature outlined above. Hence, it cannot really be a parliamentary democracy because that merely leaves the state of nature intact, one faction constantly unseating another, leading to the same chaos as before. The kind of state that is agreed upon is basically a dictatorship of a party that must act equally between individuals and factions within the society. All power is hence transferred to the state, the dictatorship, and in return, this power is used to keep the warring factions from destroying each other.

The only real demand laid on the state is that of objectivity in judging among the factions, and hence, the state must ultimately be a monarchy (of sorts), equidistant from all centers of power in society and hence, able to judge among them fairly (Morgan, 613). Putting this differently, if power is the desire of all individuals and factions, then it follows that the state exists solely for security (Morgan, 606). If humanity is described in axiomatic terms all following one from another, and the state is itself part of this logical progression, then it also follows that the nature of the state’s action also must follow from the above.

This means that the state is unitary, dedicated to one purpose and based on a rule of law that is simple and dedicated entirely to security and, according to the contract, treats all individuals and factions as morally equal to one another (Morgan, 641). The logical structure of the Leviathan comes down to working out contradictions in the axiomatic description of human beings. If human beings desire power and cannot get it in the state of nature, then a powerful state must be crated that permits humanity to live and seek after power through peaceful means.

But since no faction will permit one group to rule at the expense of all others, the state must be single, focused and based on an agreed upon set of laws (a “constitution”) that enshrines this concept of political equality. Only then can all factions agree to give up their violent ways to the central authority. Since human beings are egocentric and passionate, the state based on the rule of law agreed to by all factions beforehand follows logically. The terms “peace” and “justice” are used here in highly technical and scientific ways that part radically with previous attempts to define and justify these words.

Peace, according to Hobbes, is merely the absence of war (Morgan, 592). It simply is a state of affairs that permits power hungry individuals to pursue their designs in a peaceful manner. Any breach of this peace will, ideally, lead to swift and harsh action from the state that they have empowered to keep watch over their actions. Justice is similar in that it is based on knowledge. The early parts of the Leviathan are based on a scientific method, a means of coming to know human nature as generally and simply as possible.

Justice just flows from this. Ultimately, justice derives from science, which is the knowledge of good and evil (Morgan, 603). In practice, this merely means that humans are attracted by the same set of things, and recoil from the same set of things. If power and what it implies are seen in the former, then the frustration of their liberty (as defined above) is what repels them. This knowledge alone allows one to see the basis and ultimate justice of the state.

Hence, justice is defined accordingly, as the ability of the person, or, at last, the state, to control the passions of the population when they threaten to disrupt the precarious balance of peace in the commonwealth (Morgan, 599-600). But this is understood by all who are punished by the state in that they have agreed to this on the basis that their own liberty is endlessly obstructed by others in the state of nature. But, as a final thought, this is the very nature of one’s civic duty–to eliminate all private desires and to follow the laws as laid down by the sovereign and agreed upon by those who have demanded these laws (Morgan, 610-611).

Duty is not something that is arrived at through reason, but through the passionate desire for power. It is frustrated in the state of nature, but permitted to function freely under the rule of law. There is no “thick” view of civic duty here, but rather, the control over one’s passions in the interest of those same passions, to permit them to develop in peace. The desire for peace derives from the identical desire for power, except that this desire is frustrated in a state of war. This is what makes Hobbes compelling: the approach to politics could not be simpler.

The concept of civic duty is summed up by Hobbes as the act of giving up “governing oneself” (Morgan, 608), and permitting the more violent elements of one’s passion to be governed by the state only. What is left to the person is the peaceful pursuit of his passionate desires. Politically speaking, the commonwealth is that entity that exists for the sake of peace and security by the efficient control of the private desires of the people involved. In its place, the public will as expressed by the laws of the sovereign so far as they do not violate the very simple terms of the contract.

In conclusion, the nature of peace and civic duty for Hobbes are two sides of the same coin. The public persona of the person in the commonwealth is as a public entity, a person dedicated to civic peace and dedicated to the elimination of all personal desires relative to other members of the community. The final end, according to Hobbes’ own description is the pursuit of power by peaceful means, engaging in commerce, etc. The sovereign is the public persona and serves to maintain this persona within the personalities of all involved.

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  • University/College:
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  • Words: 683

  • Pages: 3

Thomas Hobbes

If you value gaining a better understanding of yourself and the world, and of the life that is best for you, then philosophy is most likely worth a few hours of your time. Philosophy is concerned with the justification of our most basic beliefs and the analysis of the concepts making up these beliefs. Some of these beliefs are highly relevant not just to how we understand ourselves and the world around us, but also to how we should act in this world. Philosophy pursues questions rather than answers.

What is the justification of the government’s authority? The government may have the power and the force to rule its people, but not every ruler or use of force is legitimate. So, what makes the government be in power? This issue is considered a fundamental one. If the government isn’t legitimate than all other issues about the proper rule of government and our relationship to it do not arise. Thomas Hobbes, writer of the book Leviathan, imagined what life would be like if we didn’t have a government (state of nature).

Without a government to maintain order and regulate human interactions, this will be an all for all situations. Each person would do whatever he or she would or could get away with. Hobbes concluded that human life without government would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. ” As most like me do agree that what Thomas Hobbes said is pretty much true but do the government have to be in our personal lives? Yes, the government does have to be a part of our personal lives.

Take colleges students whom depend on the government to pay for their school. With the high costs of school and technology that makes it impossible to attend any college or university to fulfill their mission requires the support of the local, state, and federal government. In the painting titled “Government Bureau” by George Tooker, it appears as if the government itself. The government is nameless, forbidding, impersonal powers whom control our lives. The government reduces us to faceless and empty people.

Notice in the painting that the people that are assisting the people (the government) have the same faces. Most people recognize that it is necessary to our well-being that government is a part of our lives even though it is a negative aspect. What is justice? Is it between freedom and control? We all cherish the individual freedoms that have just a little bit of but too much freedom would lead to a social chaos. Yet the government is necessary, but too much government control can lead to an unacceptable level of tyranny.

Is the major responsibility of the government is to serve us by extending our individual liberties but allowing us to live our individual lives? Or is limiting our freedom to produce the best results of ourselves and society the responsibility of the government? The Declaration of Independence states that we do have freedom but at the same time we do not have freedom. How can we be free if the government have complete control over just about everything? Do you think we are free or do you think we are mental slaves?

The government is necessary but is everything the government doing is necessary? If we define freedom in terms of externalities, it would be difficult to say we are free. Perhaps impossible. But the great ones have not defined freedom in terms of “systems and regulations, laws and principles” they have talked of internal freedom. Christ was imprisoned and executed. Was he free? Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. Was he free? “The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do. ” – Eric Hoffer – By Aaliyah Hutchinson.

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Thomas Hobbes Essay

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Thomas Hobbes Essay
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  • University/College:
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  • Words: 791

  • Pages: 3

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was an Englishman who wrote the Leviathan during the English Civil War in the 17th century. Naturally Hobbes spends chapter five, and most of the Leviathan describing how to avoid internal conflict. Hobbes argues that by using logical reasoning and eliminating disagreement a state can avoid internal conflict. Hobbes begins chapter five with a definition for reason and the operations that are involved. Hobbes continues his explanation of reason by describing the proper use of reasoning and how absurdity arises. He elaborates on errors and absurdities, explicitly their causes.

Hobbes ends chapter five with his description of the connection between reason and science. Hobbes describes reason as the summation of information, or the analyzing of the repercussions of the actions to which we are reasoning for or against. Particularly, the consequences others will pay in one’s attainment of their goal. Hobbes describes operations used by mathematicians: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division; Logicians use the same operations but with words. Politicians use these same operations to delegate duties among men.

Hobbes elaborates, “In sum whatsoever the matter, a place for addition and subtraction, there is also a place for reason; and where these have no place, there reason has nothing at all to do”(32). Addition and subtraction are not caged in mathematics; these operations are also the foundation of reason. Hobbes then explains that reason does not exist without fault. Even the most capable, attentive, practiced men can reach false conclusions. Just as mathematicians can make mistakes in their calculations, no mans reason is certain even if approved by many. Hobbes states that reason can be driven by ulterior motives.

Men create reasoning that will help to push their agenda and reach their intended goal. Hobbes explains that when we are using reason we must proceed cautiously. Man must carefully analyze the foundation of his reasoning. Hobbes then describes how an error and absurdity can occur. Relying on knowledge of previous reasoning can lead one to a different outcome; this is what Hobbes defines as an error. When one draws a conclusion based on false assumptions, this is what Hobbes defines as absurdity or senseless speech. However, Hobbes further explains that an error is a deception, there is no way to truly determine whether it is impossible.

Hobbes argues that the phrase free will is absurd. The word free itself is not free from opposition. Hobbes argues that philosophers are the most guilty of preaching absurdities, “Nothing so absurd, but may be found in the books of philosophers”(34). Unlike mathematics, there is no solid foundation of information to work upon. Hobbes then explains how these absurdities arise. In seven points Hobbes explains that absurdity arises from the preaching of unaccredited philosophies and improper estimation of ramifications of applying said philosophies.

Hobbes argues that a man can avoid absurdity by properly analyzing consequences of actions in order to reach a particular goal. A man must have a good foundation of principles in order to reason logically. Hobbes states that reason is not inherent, nor can it be obtained by experience only. There is no right reason constituted by nature. One must properly identify the components involved in their reasoning and have a solid method of operation to analyze the ramifications of one’s actions.

Hobbes explains the connection between science and reasoning, “ Science is simply the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of the one fact upon another”(35). To Hobbes, the process of science is reason. In practicality man should use prudence in reasoning, however many profess their sapience, using alternative untested methods to yield the same results. Rather than rely on the credited work by authors, they create their own version of reasoning and mode of operation. Hobbes argues that this philosophical reformation is necessary to the preservation of peace. This reformed logical reasoning will be easily applicable to everyone.

If a state promotes the use of practical logic as definite as geometric logic, the state could avoid internal warfare. Hobbes argues that we must not accept that something is true just because many believe it to be true. In order to properly analyze the truth, the people must appoint a leader to judge and determine the proper way to deal with issues that face the state. Hobbes states that the only way to eliminate internal conflict is to eliminate disagreement. By subduing to a higher power that promotes logical reason rather than false philosophies, a state can eliminate internal conflict.

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Thomas Hobbes Essay

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  • University/College:
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  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Words: 2138

  • Pages: 9

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes gave the world one of its most remarkable analyses of the working of human nature.  Although it is now largely forgotten in many fields, his own times considered it very important.  Hobbes divided his analysis of human behavior into two great categories: “ethical” and “political.”  Under the heading of ethical analysis he grouped his discussions about the nature of man.

His political thought included his discussions about the nature of man when in society, because man had to shape his behavior to the requirement of society.  Absent any effective political authority — that is if man was in a state of nature which amounted to a state of war of all against all — man had the right to protect himself by doing whatever he deemed right for himself.  If a political authority exists, then man’s duty was to obey. (Williams (2006): Durant (1963) p. 554; Strauss (1936) passim)

            To develop his view of human nature, Hobbes formulated what was for the time a very sophisticated psychological model.  However, it is important to realize that he did so through a deductive reasoning process.  This meant that instead of starting with observation and experiments, as modern psychologists do, Hobbes started with certain “first principles.”

For Hobbes, there was no need to observe or experiment, because he believed that these first principles provided an absolute guide to understanding human nature.  Hobbes asserted that he had drawn these first principles from careful self-examination, but most modern scholars see much more of the considerations of Hobbes own political circumstances and from his various scholarly efforts, the foremost being his translation of the historian Thucydides from Greek into English. (Williams (2006))

            Hobbes regarded a human being as merely a sophisticated machine.  This meant that every function in the body and the mind can be analyzed in terms of pure mechanics.  He went so far as to reason that thought itself can be understood as an instance of the physical operation of the human body.  The driving force in all this was sensation.  Sensation provoked the various and numerous mechanical processes in the human nervous system, and the minds creation of thought was a reaction to various sensations by the brain which perceived them.  (Leviathan I 1; Williams (2006); Kemerling (2001); Durant (1963) p. 553)

            Hobbes acknowledged that his view of human nature emphasizes the animal nature in man.  If left to his own devices, free from any constraints involved with living with others, acting entirely out of self-interest and without regard to anyone else, man would be left in what Hobbes calls, a “state of war,” a way of life that would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Leviathan I 13) To escape this war of all against all, men entered into contracts with one  other—mutually beneficial agreements in which each person surrendered some individual interest to obtain the advantage of security that could come only through social existence.   (Leviathan I 14; Kemerling (2001))

            To anyone familiar with modern science, Hobbes’ view is not grounded in what modern scientists would regard as science.  Hobbes gave his work a gloss of scientific metaphors, but he actually had no proof for his statements on human nature, or the many subjects related to it.  (Williams (2006))

            Critics in Hobbes’ time and since have argued that Hobbes’s mechanical view of man leaves no place for moral ideas, that Hobbes reduces mankind to a being that responds only to base pleasure and pain, with no ability to grasp higher ideals including morality.   However, Hobbes believed that humans were sophisticated enough to allow morality into their thinking, and to realize that morality often provided the same elements of pleasure and pain as many other stimuli did, so that morality became one of the goals of self-interest.  (Kemeling (2001); Durant (1963) pp. 552-53)

            Hobbes considered in detail what motivates human beings to act as they do, making this one of the key parts of his analysis.  He had a truly dim view of human powers of judgment and reasoning, a strong skepticism that humans would rarely have sufficient understanding to behave in a manner truly achieving their own self-interest.  Like many other philosophers, Hobbes sought to build a model which would allow people to better make decisions so that they could achieve moral or other better ends.  To do this, Hobbes wanted to teach people to think scientifically.  He continually sets up science as against a wide variety of less reliable forms of belief, including “absurdity, to which no living creature is subject but man” (Leviathan, v.7; Kemeerling (2001); Durant (1963) p. 550)

            Hobbes had many reasons for thinking that human judgment was not reliable so that man needs to be guided by science. Self-interest and the pleasures and pains of the moment distort human judgments.  Men are subject to base passions, and different sensations and experiences have different affects on different people, but humans tend to use their own feelings as the measure for others   Hobbes concluded that men are “vehemently in love with their own new opinions…and obstinately bent to maintain them, [giving] their opinions also that reverenced name of conscience.”  (Leviathan, vii.4)

Given the malleability of the human mind, it was entirely capable of creating beliefs about supernatural entities and spirits, and of inducing terror in the same way, distorting any judgment.  Further, Hobbes saw that judgment could be molded by rhetoric and persuasive argument, wielded by men whose purposes might be far from the common good, or the good of those whose minds they shaped.  Finally, humans often judged on the basis of immediate needs, without considering the future which they could not reliably know: “the future being but a fiction of the mind.” (Leviathan, iii.7; Kemerling (2001); Williams (2006); Durant (1963) pp. 550-51 )

            Hobbes believed that science, “the knowledge of consequences” (Leviathan, v.17), offered reliable knowledge and the opportunity to conquer frail human judgment.  However, he understanding of “science” in anything approaching the modern sense was crude, involving only a set of mechanistic premises coupled with deductive demonstrations.

This “science” cannot stand for the physical sciences in any modern terms.  His understanding of human behavior was even less satisfactory as a scientific model.  Notwithstanding these difficulties, Hobbes was an acute commentator of political affairs, and he offered very careful demonstrations of human conduct constructed so that they created chains of logical reasoning.  However, the deductive method often carried him into his own reasoning rather than into a sound understanding of human nature.  (Williams (2006))

            Critically, Hobbes’s argument on human nature centers on his view of the motivation which causes humans to act.  This topic is the center of many debates about Hobbes’s philosophy. Some readers argue that Hobbes’ man is self-interested, rational, and  calculating.  While these ideas have little influence in modern psychology, they have played important roles in other fields, such as political philosophy and economic thought, and especially of rational choice theories.  Some of the problems people face do lead to solutions along the lines that Hobbes suggests.

            Hobbes sometimes used sweeping, even shocking claims, to make his point.  “I obtained two absolutely certain postulates of human nature:  one, the postulate of human greed by which each man insists upon his own private use of common property; the other, the postulate of natural reason, by which each man strives to avoid violent death” (De Cive, Epistle Dedicatory). This is clear, forceful, and seems to be correct, but on examination, it fails.  First, people no not always act out of pure self-interest.  People do many altruistic, charitable things.  They also do many needless cruel things against their self-interest.  Hobbes did not use this model of the human being.  Instead, he described and relied on motives going beyond or against self-interest.

            Hobbes is not surprised to find people acting against their own self-interest, for good or for bad.  He finds that many of the problems that humanity faces result from the fact that people do not follow their self-interest thoroughly.  Often, Hobbes thinks, people give too much importance to what others think, or follow religious tenets,  or are carried off by others’ inflammatory words.  (Williams (2006))

            Considering then Hobbes’ view of man in a business environment, the business person must often feel like Hobbes’ man in the state of nature.  The businessman continually faces a world in which life is a battle of each against all.  To avoid this dreadful situation, Hobbes would counsel the businessman to enter into a series of contracts for mutual benefit, ultimately forming a Leviathan, a monster with such absolute power that it would impose peace on the economic order.  (Durant (1963) p. 556)  However, any such contract is forbidden by the antitrust laws, so that contracts are not available as a means of escaping the state of nature, and there is no effective means of escape.

            Hobbes provides a more useful view of customer action.  If the customer behaves in a truly Hobbesian manner, then the businessperson has a wide range of opportunities in dealing with him.  The customer will act in his own self-interest.  However, as noted above, that course of action can be diverted and controlled.   The businessperson can use advertizing to shape the desires of the customer, to color his choices, to play at his pleasures and pains, so that the customer accepts what the businessperson has to offer as an answer for anything he wants.  Of course, as noted, Hobbes worked from an flawed understanding of human nature, so that he is not nearly as sophisticated as many modern analysts of human nature and desires.  Nevertheless, eh can serve as a useful starting point in the businessperson’s analysis.

AUTHORITIES CITED:

Durant, Will (1963)   The Age of Louis XIV.  New York, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hobbes, Thomas.  The Leviathan, Project Gutenberg.  2006, accessed January 29, 2007.  Available at <http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext02/lvthn10.zip>.  Internet.

Kemerling, Garth. (2001).  “Hobbes’ Leviathan.” Philosophy Pages.  2001, accessed Janaury 28, 2007.  Available at <http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/3x.htm >.  Internet.

Lloyd, Sharon. (2002, February 12). “Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy.”  Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Accessed January 28, 2007.  Available at <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes-moral/>.  Intenet.

Strauss, Leo (1936).  The Political Thought of Thomas Hobbes New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Garrith.  (2006).  “Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679):  Moral and Political Philosophy.”  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Accessed Janaury 28, 2007.  Available at <http://www.iep.utm.edu/h/hobmoral.htm>.  Internet.

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  • University/College:
    University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Words: 2015

  • Pages: 8

Thomas Hobbes

The life of Hobbes is given us in a quaint contemporary account: His father, Vicar of Charlton and Westport, was one of the “ignorant Sir Johns of Queen Elizabeth’s time,” (Piet Strydom, pp 90) who could only read the prayers and homilies of the church and valued not learning. So the son was educated by an uncle at a local school whence at the age of fourteen, with precocious skill in Latin verse, he was sent to Oxford.

Here, to his mind, the scholastic logic furnished nourishment fit only for worms and geometry was counted a black art. Because of this latter obstruction it was not until the age of forty that Hobbes “fell in love with geometry” (Piet Strydom, pp 90) on meeting with the works of Euclid. Reading the forty-seventh proposition of the first book, “By God,” he exclaimed, “this is impossible,” (Piet Strydom, pp 90) but referring back to other positions he was at last demonstratively convinced of that truth.

This meeting with a famous book was significant, but meeting with a famous man was more so. In the continental tour which Hobbes took as tutor with the third Earl of Cavendish he visited the great Galileo, then confined in his tower outside of Florence by the Inquisition. Through him an interest in physics was added to an interest in geometry and Hobbes from now on started to build up a mechanical philosophy of life.

Through this philosophy the actions of politicians could be explained as dearly as the actions of planets, and moral motives reduced themselves to veritable motions starting the very springs of conduct. From that mighty atom — the state — down to those tiny atoms — men — the whole of society can be seen to be nothing but a mechanism whose stresses and strains, actions and reactions, furnish sufficient reason for the behavior of the highest statesman as well as of the lowest yokel.

This sounds like the crudest kind of behaviorism, but traces of it are still to be found on all sides: in statecraft as the study of the balance of power between rival nations; in political science as the study of the political machine where the executive, legislative, and judicial powers are looked upon as so many weights and counterweights, and finally in morality as the pulling and hauling of conflicting motives.

These views may be crude as explanations, but they are serviceable as descriptions. Nowadays men still speak of wars as due to unfavorable trade balances, of elections being won by an overwhelming weight of public opinion, and of crimes being committed because of suppressed complexes or to relieve pent-up emotions. In short, statesmen, politicians, and psychologists still talk respectively in terms of mechanics, physics, and hydrostatics and in so far as they do this belong to the school of Hobbes.

Another influence on Hobbes — sometimes denied but wrongly so — was that of Francis Bacon, for Hobbes’s biographer particularly says: “The Lord Chancellor loved to converse with him and his lordship would often say that he better liked Mr. Hobbes’s taking his thoughts than any of the others.” (Piet Strydom, pp 177) Following his master, who advocated the advancement of learning, his secretary contended that it is not through metaphysics that advancement is made, but through mathematics and mechanics. Here, then, in the England of revolutionary days, when the King and Cromwell were at swords’ points, there were laid the foundations of a political ethics which had great influence on modern civilization.

Hobbes’s system, which began with the doctrine of the social contract — agreed upon by primitive men in woods and deserts to prevent “a war of all against all” (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 67) — was not only revolutionary in itself, but contained the seeds of future revolutions. In England it led to a study of the respective rights of king and people, in France to the watchwords of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and in America it was at the bottom of that terse advice of Benjamin Franklin to his fellow colonials, then in rebellion against the crown, “Unless we all hang together we shall all hang separately.” (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 69)

Hobbes’s influence was perhaps greater on his successors than on his contemporaries. This was because of his constitutional timidity, which made him a man of peace at any price. His biographer calls him “a harmonicall soule,” (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 73) which being interpreted means a compromiser. He was never, says the account, habitually a good fellow, for to drink every day with company spoils the brain, still he has been drunk in his life a hundred times, which, considering his great age, did not amount to above once a year.

Hobbes’s compromising spirit, which lay at the bottom of his principles such as the social compact, also extended to his practices. When his chief work, Leviathan, was counted suspect by a crown committee for the suppression of atheism and profanity he is reputed to have made a show of conformity to the established creed. And when some of the bigots made a motion to have the good old gentleman burned for a heretic he, says his biographer, fearing that his papers might be searched by their order, told me that he had burned part of them.

But Charles II was a friend of Hobbes and the Merry Monarch, in spite of his other weaknesses, stood by his friend. When the wits of the court were wont to bait the old philosopher, the King would say, “Here comes the bear to be baited.” (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 77) And Hobbes would be “marveflous happy and ready in his replies.” (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 77) So Hobbes lived on, for as his biographer again relates, “he had a good eye which was full of life and spirit even to his last.” (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 77)

Hobbes had no such courageous outlook. According to his own account, fear pursued him from the cradle onward through life. He declared, it may be recalled, that at his birth “myself and fear were twins.” After the Restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne, he records that he considered the great fire of London to be a divine warning against the impurity of the English court.

This persistent note of timidity is also to be found in his emphasis upon complaisance and caution as among the laws of nature and in his definition of Leviathan as “that mortal God who hath the use of so much power and strength conferred upon him, that by terror thereof he is enabled to perform the wills of them all.” (Criseyda Cox, pp 23)  In other words, Hobbes’s political ethics, which began with an insistence on natural rights and the equality of all men, degenerated into an instrument of peace at any price through non-resistance and passive obedience. So at least it was taken to be by the monarchy men and the advocates of the absolute power of the sovereign.

This is paradoxical. Hobbes’s great work is utilized by some as a document of reaction; by others as a charter of liberty. The latter use of it was made by the American colonists in their struggle against the arbitrary power of the British crown. Thus Jonathan Mayhew, a colleague of James Otis, delivered certain “Discourses Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Powers — With Some Reflections on the Resistance Made to Charles I.” (Alan Hager, pp 92).

Similar views were expressed by William Livingstone, just twenty years before the Declaration of Independence, in his remarks on “the divine rights of royal roguery. . . .’Twas a damnable sin to resist the cutting of throats and no virtue more Christian and refulgent than that of a passive submission to butchery and slaughter.

To propagate such fustian in America argues a disposition prone to senility. . . . But there are two species of monarch. In absolute monarchies a vindication of the natural rights of mankind is treason, but in limited governments there are inherent rights and fundamental reservations. Therefore the right of self-defense is not a donation of law but a primitive right prior to all political institutions, resulting from the nature of man and inhering in the people till expressly alienated and transferred, if it be not in its nature inalienable.” (Alan Hager, pp 94-97)

Hobbes’s system opens up two great vistas, one into the future and one into the past. In the latter case it exhibits the break with ecclesiastical ethics by going back to the original rights of mankind prior to revelation. Here the Dutch jurist Grotius, upon whom Hobbes partly depends, had expressed a view that natural law is a dictate of right reason, and that man’s peculiar “appetite” for tranquil association with his fellows is as unalterable, even by God himself, as the truths of mathematics.

This law, discoverable by the light of nature, apart from revelation, was acknowledged even by Thomas Aquinas, who in turn received it from Cicero by way of Augustine. Cicero finally received it from his master, the Stoic Posidonius, who believed in an original state of nature, social in part, but not yet political, a state in which individuals or single families had lived side by side under natural laws prohibiting mutual injury and mutual interference with each other’s use of the goods that were common to all. (Gary L. Mcdowell, pp 16-18)

Views like these, embodied in the Leviathan, awakened suspicions of Hobbes’s loyalty to the throne. He had been mathematical tutor to Charles II during the latter’s exile in France. He now expressed a hope that the Leviathan would fall into the hands of a sovereign who would consider it himself without the help of any interested or envious interpreter, and by the exercise of entire sovereignty, in protecting the public teaching of it, convert this truth of speculation into the utility of practice.

But the Merry Monarch was not interested in the fiction of the original social contract, nor in the additional fiction that, in order to obtain “the conservation of men in multitudes,” (Alan Hager, pp 89) the people had virtually made a second contract by which their rights were perpetually vested in the person of the king. With customary official stupidity the book was burned by the common hangman and all that Hobbes could do was to derive a certain sardonic satisfaction, to judge from his quiet observation that the book’s price had gone up from six to thirty shillings.

Work Cited:

Alan Hager. The Age of Milton: An Encyclopedia of Major 17th-Century British and American Authors; Greenwood Press, 2004

Criseyda Cox. “Thomas Hobbes: Was He an Atheist”; History Review, 1997

Gary L. Mcdowell. “Leviathan Harpooned: Aware of the Dangers Posed by Judges and the Law, Thomas Hobbes Offered a Solution”; National Review, Vol. 49, June 30, 1997

Piet Strydom. Discourse and Knowledge: The Making of Enlightenment Sociology; Liverpool University Press, 2000

  1. J. Hochstrasser. Natural Law Theories in the Early Enlightenment; Cambridge University Press, 2000
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