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Study notes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

One of the most important political theorists of all time is Thomas Hobbes. The influence of Thomas Hobbes derives from the book ‘Leviathan’ and his creation of a social contract.

As befits the grandiose title of his work, Leviathan truly is a landmark piece in the history of political theory. Hobbes could genuinely be termed a pioneer in terms of providing a philosophical construct for the Westphalian system and for a social contract with an authoritarian role for the state.

Thomas Hobbes was born in an era characterised by a search for stability in an inherently unstable world, and this undoubtedly shaped his world-view. It is not hard to see why anyone who experienced the destruction and havoc caused by the English Civil War traversed the intellectual path that Hobbes did. According to Hobbes, the relationships that govern human nature are characterised as “a perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death.” Whilst there are some things we would not do in the pursuit of power – perhaps because they are morally reprehensible or simply illegal – life is nothing more than a struggle for power.

In the absence of a social contract, Hobbes memorably described life in a state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and characterised by “a war of all against all.” In a state of nature no-one would be strong enough to live in total security. Social order therefore demands a decisive and coercive role for the state. As such, Hobbes prescribes a dominant role for the state (or Leviathan) to prevent anarchy and to ensure that contracts are upheld because “covenants, without the sword, are but words.”

In essence, the Hobbesian argument is that all forms of social order are preferable to an absence of social order. Life in an orderly system of governance is superior to the lawlessness associated with a ‘failed’ state. We also need an authoritarian state in order to prevent the collapse of social order. For this alone, Hobbes has traditionally been viewed as a conservative theorist. Whilst there is much merit in this, it could be argued that his world-view is more liberal than it might first appear. Although Hobbes clearly accepts the need to impose authority from above, he asserts the liberalist view that authority derives first and foremost from the people themselves. On closer inspection of Leviathan, it is the people who constitute the figure itself. Intrinsically, it is the people who provide legitimacy and consent to be governed in such an authoritarian fashion. Moreover, he declared that the people had the right to disobey the authority of the state if their lives were under threat. This is an important caveat because Hobbes implies that authority is on loan from the people by the state and can therefore be reclaimed under exceptional circumstances.

Although he is often painted as a pessimistic figure, Hobbes did at least acknowledge our capacity for rational thought. He assumed that we could understand others via a process of introspection. By studying ourselves, we can better appreciate that which motivates others. That said, his overall view of human nature is devoid of the optimism commonly associated with the liberal position. He believes that human nature is rational, but unlike those of a liberal persuasion, this leads him towards a pessimistic view of our behaviour. His view of human nature is undoubtedly negative, and his depiction of the state of nature is the polar opposite of the view taken by theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is why Hobbes is traditionally classed as a conservative theorist.

Footnotes:

[1] The idea that nation-states have sovereignty over their own territory and domestic law, and that each state is equal in international law

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