Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679.

Portrait of T.Hobbes

The natural law philosopher Thomas Hobbes lived during some of the most tumultuous times in European history -- consequently, it should be no surprise that his theories were thoroughly pessimistic regarding human nature. 

Born near Malmesbury, the early death of his father, an impoverished local vicar, brought young Thomas Hobbes under the care of his wealthy uncle.  At the age of fourteen, he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, and took his B.A. five years later.  In 1608, he acquired a post as a tutor to the son of William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire.  This gave him time to devote himself to the Classics.  Disenchanted by Aristotlean acrobatics, Hobbes eagerly embraced the historian Thucydides (whose book he translated and published in 1628).  After his first tour of Europe in 1610, he made the acquaintance of Francis Bacon. However, he only became converted to the scientific outlook in the 1630s, after being seduced by Euclid's Geometry and hobnobbing with European scientists (particularly, the circle of Abbé Mersenne) during a tour of the continent.  

Hobbes was particularly entranced by Galileo's reverse vision of dynamics.  Contrary to Buridan, Galileo claimed that the natural state of objects was one of motion, rather than rest.  Things, he argued always moved unless something stopped them. After meeting Galileo in 1636, Hobbes sought to apply this idea to a comprehensive social philosophy.  He envisioned this in three parts.  In the first part, of Body, he would relate the general laws of motion; in the second, of Man, he would show how humans can be considered bodies in motion (motivated by sensations, desires, appetites, etc.) and how they are impacted by external motions; in the third part, of the Citizen, he would give the results of these dynamic human interactions on the body politic.  

Given the escalation of events between King and Parliament in England, Hobbes decided to reverse the order of appearance of the books.  In 1640, he published his Elements (1640), containing a sketch of the second and third parts.  As his book seemed to support the King against the claims of Parliament, Hobbes began fearing for his welfare, and so, later that same year, departed for Paris, where he would remain in hiding for the next eleven years.  Hobbes came into the orbit of Mersenne's circle once again and, for some of time, served as the mathematics tutor of a young, fugitive prince who would later become King Charles II.  

In 1642, Hobbes's De Cive came out, a more detailed and formal analysis of the third part of his scheme.  Seeing that it had little impact in England, Hobbes set out writing a new treatise which would explain his theory in a more down-to-earth manner.  The result was Leviathan (1651).

Leviathan (1651) was clearly Hobbes's masterpiece.  Man is not naturally good, Hobbes claimed, but naturally a selfish hedonist -- "of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself".  As human motives were, in their natural state, guided by unenlightened self-interest, these could, if left unchecked, have highly destructive consequences.  Left unrestrained, humans, propelled by their internal dynamics, would crash against each other.  Hobbes tried to envision what society would be like in a "state of nature" -- before any civil state or rule of law.  His conclusion was despiriting: life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short", a "war of every man against every man".  

Nonetheless, as all people are equal (in a physical not a moral sense),  possessing a passionate love of survival (right of nature) and some degree of rationality (law of nature), Hobbes concluded that a viable, working society would arise as an equilibrium between these competing forces.  The logic is simple.  Any person's right of nature justifies violence against everybody else. Consequently, in the interests of personal survival, people will come around to agreeing that they should renounce their right to use violence.  However, this yields up a tense and unstable equilibrium.  The moment one party deviates from their promise, all will deviate and war restarts.  

To keep society going with peace and confidence, then an artifice -- a Leviathan --  must be worked into the social contract.  This Leviathan is the State -- whether in the form of an absolute monarch or a democratic parliament, it does not matter.  The important point is that the State will be given a monopoly on violence and absolute authority.  In return, the State promises to exercise its absolute power to maintain a state of peace (by punishing deviants, etc.)  Realizing that its power depends wholly on the willingness of the citizenry to surrender theirs, the State itself will have an incentive not to abuse it.  Of course, there is no guarantee that it won't.  But when it does, it must brace itself for the consequences.   

One of the interesting elements of Hobbes's story is that concepts like morality, liberty, justice, property, etc. have no natural, intrinsic or eternal meaning.  They are pure social constructions.  They are generated and imposed by the Leviathan, through his laws and institutions, to keep war and social disorder at bay. As history has shown, no set of values will last forever but will evolve as circumstances change. 

Hobbes is particularly keen to note that law itself is completely dependent on power.  A law without a credible and powerful authority behind it is just simply not a law in any meaningful sense.  Hobbes is thus one of the progenitors of "legal positivism", i.e. that justice is whatever the law says it is.  An "unjust law" is simply an oxymoron.   

In the context of the age, Hobbes's theory seemed to argue that Parliament's rebellion was illegitimate as long as Charles was king.  But once the head of King Charles I fell, then all rebellion against the Parliament becomes illegitimate.  For Hobbes, power legitimates, power is justice. The State -- whatever its form -- is always, by definition, right, as long as it is capable of maintaining civil peace. 

Accused of being a turncoat by royalist exiles in France, Hobbes returned to England soon after the publication of Leviathan and presented himself before the Council of State.  Soon after, he published his other two other volumes of his philosophical trilogy -- De corpore (1655) and De homine (1657).     

For the most part, Hobbes tried to live inconspicuously in London, but he was quickly drawn into a series of rather long-winded debates.  His first was with John Bramall, bishop of Derry, on the issue of free will (see 1654, 1658, 1682).  In 1655, Hobbes had claimed to be able to deduce the area of a circle by integration.  The mathematician John Wallis repudiation his claims and Hobbes went on the counteract, publishing a series of tracts (1656, 1657) denouncing Wallis and the "new" methods of mathematical analysis.  In 1661, he widened his attack to include Robert Boyle and the fledgling Royal Society.  Hobbes called a truce with his Mr. Hobbes Considered (1662).

After the Restoration of 1660, King Charles II made Hobbes an intimate and granted him an pension.  In the confusion after the Great Fire of 1666, the House of Commons placed Hobbes's Leviathian on a bill of proscribed books.  Through the intervention of the king, the bill didn't pass through the Lords, but henceforth, the king asked that Hobbes vet his publications with him first.  Hobbes complied and most of his remaining political works were published after his death.  Two of them deserve special mention: his 1681 Dialogue attacking Common Law and defending royal prerogative and his 1682 Behemoth, a controversial history of the Long Parliament and the Civil War.  His final years were spent in writing his autobiography and translating the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.

Generally regarded as one of the most prominent "natural law" philosophers of the 17th Century, Hobbes had an enormous impact on subsequent British political, social and economic theory.   Bentham's utilitarianism has elements of Hobbesian hedonism.  Naturally, his idea of a social equilibrium between contradictory self-interests is strikingly obvious in the various aspects of Adam Smith (although Smith was less willing to grant the hedonistic motivation bit) and the rest of economics to the modern day. The last part about the endogenous emergence and evolution of morals and social norms was pinched by both Hume and Hayek.

The counterpoint to Hobbes was John Locke and the more optimistic French tradition, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his English alter-ego, William Godwin.

Major Works of Thomas Hobbes

Resources on Thomes Hobbes

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