Thomas Hobbes is a great English philosopher who is best known for his political researches and investigations. He integrated political thought and philosophy and proposed his own model of the state structure providing it with philosophical explanations. Hobbes is famous for his materialistic point of view. His most famous work that is even nowadays the subject of much controversy is Leviathan. The book was written in 1651 during the period of English Civil war.
Hobbs got a proper education at Oxford and then was the tutor for the son of William Cavendish and the Earl of Devonshire. He was engaged in the English Civil War and in 1640 he was made to leave England for France. Nevertheless, in France he continued his scientific and public work and maintained close contact with European scientists, especially with René Descartes and Galileo.
Hobbes’s philosophical treasure is great. According to Hobbes the main subject of philosophy could be only motion and matter. Leviathan is dedicated to the description of solitary, brutish and short life. Hobbes proclaims that the main aim moral rules had being designed for was to avoid chaos. And though in his previous works he disputed the social authority of a monarch and claimed that social authority can come from people only he turned to different point of view in his Leviathan. Not before the Leviathan was published Hobbes received sanction to come back to England. Hobbes was favored by King Charles II after his Restoration in 1660.
Hobbes’s philosophical conception is very interesting and had a great impact to the development of social science, political and philosophical thought. He devoted his life to the elaboration of his own concepts. The main subject of his philosophy was motion and he explained all the physical phenomena according to this notion. He detached Man from Nature and then analyzed them separately. With specific bodily motions he explained the phenomena of passions, sensation and knowledge. All in all, he decided to unite the separate phenomena, such as State, Man and Body and see the relations which existed among them.
After the Civil War the country was crisis-ridden and Hobbes proposed his conception of civil government in his treatise Leviathan. Hobbes presents State as a magnificent artificial man, which he called Leviathan. The State is composed by men and its stage of generation can be easily followed by the stage of dissolution because of people’s conflicts and strife and result wars. Of course, in his work he discussed the advantage of the Commonwealth to gratify the religious doctrines with their rationalism and rationalistic criticism.
The composition of Leviathan was accomplished by the time when he was in Paris and the name of the first public edition was Elementa philosophica de cive. Hobbes set his treatise aside for six years because of a serious illness. So, the work was completed in 1651 and appeared under the title of Leviathan, or the Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil.
The book became a great success. It was lauded and censured by millions of people. Religious and public figures didn’t know how to react to this book. Both Anglicans and French Catholics were enraged with it.
Leviathan is dedicated to the problems of foundation of legitimate governments and societies. Hobbes proposed new ways of the solution of this problem. He believed that despite all humans possessed different abilities and born characteristics, they all were equal when threatened with death. So, he distinguished the self-defense from violent death to be the highest human necessity and all people were equal in front of this threat. All the rights and norms Hobbes believed into derived from this natural necessity to defense. If the right for self-defense is our born characteristic and natural right, states Hobbs, than we have the right to do everything for the sake of this self-defense and thus we can do anything in the world. So, such state of events puts the human in the state of perpetual war against everything and everyone, “bellum omnium contra omnes” (war of all against all), as Hobbes defined it. The life in such a hostile surrounding he described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 145). It sounds like living in the permanent state of war against everyone is a conscious choice of all human beings. Hobbes didn’t share this view and stated that war wasn’t the main interest of human beings. He distinguished self-interest and materialistic desires as the main reasons humans wanted to end up the war. He wrote that “the passions that incline men to peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a hope by their industry to obtain them” (Hobbes, 117). Since Hobbes didn’t recognize moral values and ethical principles as the driving forces of the society he believed that people had been directed only by their own profit and seek for safety, which could be achieved with the help of social contract. So, he believed that social contract was the basement of the existence of any peaceful society. Hobbes believed that society consisted of population obedient to authority. He also believed that obedience was based on covenant in a way that people could express their own rights for authority and at the same time be defended. Hobbes considered that absolute authority was the best way to run the state. He stated that authority could be formed in the form of aristocracy, democracy or monarchy but he personally preferred monarchy. The authority he defined as a Leviathan or an absolute authority. All social laws and norms Hobbes regarded as different forms of social contracts. The political theory expressed in Leviathan had been described in two earlier works by Hobbes. These works were The Elements of Law and De Cive and the theory of authority was described there with slight variations.
Hobbes’s authoritative state is based on the principle of defending its citizens from any kind of aggression. The main principle is a freedom of citizens to do whatever they want until they cause no harm to others. In the case when one man causes harm to others the sovereign must interfere as he is the one who guarantees safety for all and if the life of safety or one of its citizens is in danger he should take and active part in the resolving of the conflict. All the rest of the time people have the right to do whatever they want. At the same time the actions of sovereign are not regulation by any laws and judicial norms so theoretically his actions are not regulated by any prescribed norms. Hobbes believed that only following the natural law could benefit both – sovereign and his citizens. Obligations to natural laws were regarded as the only measure of monarch’s responsibility. Natural laws are directed by one ultimate goal and this goal is to establish peace and security and are natural for all living beings including humans. Another important function of the sovereign is maintaining equality among the common people. Equality Hobbes believed to be one of the main principles of peaceful existence and it could be guaranteed only by the sovereign. Hobbes liked very much the metaphor of ordinary people watching out in the presence of monarch. He compared them to stars, which fade away in the presence of the sun. Hobbes believed that the actions of the monarch should have been directed by prudential morality or moral obligation. The main aim of any sovereign was an attempt to do no harm or to do it as little as possible. He expressed his political credo in the lines “Do not that to another, which thou wouldst not have done to thyself.” This is a paraphrase from the Bible where it’s said that the person should treat others same as he wants to be treated by them. Hobbes changes the notion as he believed in the non-interference to the extend where it’s possible and thus didn’t approve active actions performed without necessity. Leviathan was written during the period of the English Civil War and the idea of strong centralized power which goes through all the book reflects the spirit of the time. Hobbes wrote the book in order to underline the necessity of obedience of authority and great meaning of the strong state power. Hobbes rejected the idea of separation of power as it contradicted his idea of absolute power. He believed that monarch should have controlled civil, military and judicial powers and that the control over the church should have also belonged to him. Hobbes insisted that state authority should dominate over the religions system of the country. Hobbes developed his own religious theory but still he stated that any theory presented in the state should have been adopted to the will and desire of the sovereign. Threatened by the horrors of the war, Hobbes called the obedience to authority the necessary payment for the peace and safety of the citizens of the country. It’s necessary to remember that the ideas of the book had been formed during the wartime when the attitude to the things as peace, freedom and safety differed from those of the peaceful time.
Macpherson, C. B. (1962). The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Strauss, Leo (1936). The Political Philosophy of Hobbes; Its Basis and Its Genesis. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Strauss, Leo (1959). “On the Basis of Hobbes’s Political Philosophy,” in What Is Political Philosophy?, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, chap. 7.
Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books
Hobbes, Thomas (1994 ) Leviathan, ed Edwin Curley, Hackett, Indianapolis
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