“The quest for the perfect government has been as old as civilization itself.” And while many philosophers have weighed in on this perennial debate, few have made as significant an impact as the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.
As one of the foremost political thinkers of the seventeenth century, Hobbes sought to revolutionize our understanding of power and authority. His seminal work, Leviathan, laid out a bold vision for the form of government that he believed was not only desirable but necessary for human flourishing.
So what, exactly, did Hobbes think about the forms of government? Let’s dive in and unpack his ideas.”
What Type of Government Did Thomas Hobbes Believe In?
Born on April 5, 1588, in Westport, England, Hobbes’ life was marked by significant political and social upheaval.
Throughout his life, Hobbes made significant contributions to a wide array of academic disciplines, from history and jurisprudence to physics and geometry. However, it is his work in political philosophy that has secured his place in intellectual history.
The time in which Hobbes was active was characterized by an explosion of philosophical thought. Known as the Age of Enlightenment, or simply the Enlightenment, this period saw thinkers across Europe challenge traditional authority and embrace the power of reason and individualism.
In the midst of this intellectual revolution, Hobbes developed a political philosophy that deviated significantly from the optimism of his contemporaries. Whereas other Enlightenment thinkers viewed human nature positively, Hobbes saw it as fundamentally selfish and chaotic. His bleak view of humanity led him to advocate for a strong central authority, a concept that became the cornerstone of his most influential work, “Leviathan”.
Throughout this blog post, we will delve deeper into Hobbes’ political philosophy, examining his views on human nature, society, and government.
1. Understanding Hobbes’ Political Philosophy
As we journey deeper into the labyrinth of Hobbes’ political philosophy, we encounter a unique perspective on human nature and society. Hobbes, unlike many of his contemporaries, held a rather pessimistic view of humankind.
He believed that in their natural state, humans are driven by self-interest and motivated by fear of death, and this inevitably leads to a state of ‘war of all against all‘ (Bellum omnium contra omnes).
In such a state, life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as famously described in Hobbes’s seminal work, “Leviathan.”
Hobbes’ view of society is derived from his understanding of human nature. He argues that to escape the chaotic state of nature, individuals willingly come together to form a social contract. They surrender their individual freedoms and submit to the authority of a sovereign power.
This sovereign, or Leviathan, is tasked with maintaining peace and order, protecting people from their own destructive tendencies.
The Alignment and Deviation of Hobbes’ Philosophy
Now, if we were to place Hobbes among other thinkers of his time, we would notice some fascinating similarities and divergences. Like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hobbes was a proponent of the social contract theory.
All three philosophers agreed that governments were not divinely ordained but rather formed out of necessity by the people. However, the similarities pretty much end there.
While Locke and Rousseau advocated for a government that protected individual rights and liberties, Hobbes saw these concepts as potential threats to societal stability. He argued that absolute sovereignty was necessary to prevent society from descending back into the state of nature.
For Hobbes, the purpose of the government was not so much to safeguard individual rights, but rather to ensure survival and maintain order.
These philosophical divergences marked Hobbes as a radical thinker of his time, a distinction that has earned him both acclaim and criticism. However, these differences also highlight the complexity and richness of his thought process, giving us much food for thought as we delve deeper into his views on government and society in the following sections.
2. Hobbes’ Views on Government: The Leviathan
The heart of Thomas Hobbes‘ political philosophy is perhaps best encapsulated in his idea of the Leviathan. The Leviathan, as Hobbes describes it in his seminal work of the same name, is a supreme ruler or governing body that holds all power.
This entity, according to Hobbes, emerges from the collective will of society, which voluntarily yields their rights to an absolute sovereign to escape the brutalities of the state of nature.
Detailed Analysis of the Leviathan
To truly understand the Leviathan, one must first grasp Hobbes’ views on human nature and society.
He perceived humans as fundamentally self-interested and driven by fear of death, leading to a constant state of war in the absence of a central authority. This ‘war of all against all‘, as Hobbes famously phrases it, characterizes the state of nature – a condition of perpetual conflict and insecurity.
In such a scenario, the Leviathan emerges as a solution. It’s not a physical entity but rather a metaphoric representation of a centralized authority that individuals in society cede their natural rights to for protection. In essence, the Leviathan is a social contract where the people agree to relinquish some of their freedoms in exchange for security and order.
Hobbes’ Advocacy for Absolute Sovereignty
Now, why did Hobbes advocate for absolute sovereignty? His reasoning lies in his belief that partial or divided sovereignty would lead to instability and ultimately result in a return to the feared state of nature.
For Hobbes, the Leviathan must possess absolute power to enforce laws and maintain social order effectively.
This absolute power includes control over military force, judicial decisions, civil appointments, and even determining what beliefs should be publicly endorsed. It’s a controversial notion, as it seemingly tramples on individual freedoms and rights.
However, for Hobbes, this was a necessary trade-off. The surrender of certain liberties to the Leviathan was the price paid for escaping the state of nature and ensuring collective peace and security.
In essence, Hobbes’ Leviathan presents an intriguing paradox. It’s born out of fear – the fear of violent death in the state of nature. But, it also rules by fear, maintaining its authority through the threat of punishment.
3. The Social Contract According to Hobbes
Having already explored Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, we now turn our attention to another critical construct in his political philosophy: the social contract. The social contract is a cornerstone of Hobbes’ beliefs, representing an agreement among individuals to form a society under a powerful governing body.
In this piece, we will delve into the minutiae of this theory and reflect on its implications for the roles and responsibilities of both citizens and the state.
Hobbes’ Concept of the Social Contract
At the heart of Hobbes’ political philosophy lies his concept of the social contract, a hypothetical agreement in which individuals collectively surrender their natural rights in return for the protection and order provided by a supreme sovereign.
Hobbes envisioned a pre-political ‘state of nature’, characterized by chaos and violence, where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
To escape this bleak existence, individuals would willingly enter a social contract, trading their freedom for security.
In Hobbes’ social contract, the key element is not mutual cooperation but rather mutual fear. The fear of violent death is the driving force that propels individuals to give up their rights and appoint a supreme authority capable of ensuring peace and stability.
This underscores the significance of the social contract in Hobbes’ political theory – it serves as the foundation upon which the Leviathan is erected and legitimizes its absolute power.
The Social Contract’s Influence on Citizens and the State
Understanding Hobbes’ social contract provides valuable insights into his views on the roles and responsibilities of citizens and the state.
For Hobbes, the primary responsibility of the state, embodied by the Leviathan, is to maintain peace and prevent civil war. It does so by exercising absolute power and ensuring that no individual or group can challenge its authority.
This power, however, is not limitless – it is conferred upon the sovereign by the citizens through the social contract.
On the other hand, the role of the citizen in Hobbes’ social contract theory is largely passive.
- Once the social contract is made, individuals have a duty to obey the sovereign at all times, even if they disagree with its decisions.
- They cannot rebel or dissolve the contract, as doing so would plunge society back into the state of nature, a scenario Hobbes deemed worse than any form of political authority.
- Yet, this is not to say that citizens are without rights. They retain the right to self-preservation, which the sovereign must respect and protect.
In essence, Hobbes’ social contract theory presents a delicate balance of power between the citizenry and the state. It outlines a system where the fear of chaos leads to the creation of a supreme authority, to which citizens yield their natural rights in exchange for peace and order.
4. Criticisms and Debates Surrounding Hobbes’ Beliefs
As we delve deeper into the labyrinth of Hobbes’ political philosophy, it’s important to acknowledge that his views have not escaped criticism. Many thinkers, both contemporaneous and subsequent, have questioned the validity and relevance of Hobbes’ ideas on government.
Notable Criticisms of Hobbes’ Views
The first major criticism often leveled against Hobbes is his bleak portrayal of human nature.
Critics argue that Hobbes’ assumption of humanity as inherently selfish and violent is overly pessimistic, possibly ignoring the potential for cooperation, altruism, and social growth. This perspective would suggest that an absolute sovereign is not necessarily required to maintain order.
Another point of contention is Hobbes’ advocacy for absolute sovereignty.
Critics contend that concentrating such immense power in one entity could inevitably lead to tyranny and a disregard for individual rights. This critique also questions whether individuals would willingly surrender their natural rights to such an extent.
The Influence of Criticisms on Interpreting Hobbes’ Work
These criticisms have significantly influenced modern interpretations of Hobbes’ work.
For instance, some scholars argue that Hobbes’ depiction of the state of nature was not meant to describe reality but rather to serve as a hypothetical scenario illustrating the necessity of a strong, central authority.
In this view, Hobbes’ Leviathan is less a literal prescription for absolute monarchy and more a metaphorical call for order amidst chaos.
Others have suggested that Hobbes’ concept of the social contract should be interpreted within the context of his time, marked by civil unrest and war.
From this perspective, Hobbes’ advocacy for absolute sovereignty can be seen as a response to the instability of his era, rather than an endorsement of despotism.
Despite these criticisms, Hobbes’ political philosophy continues to shape debates on the nature of authority, the role of government, and the balance between individual freedom and collective security. His work has laid a foundation for modern political thought, sparking conversations that persist today.
In a world where life can be brutish, nasty, and short, it’s no wonder that Thomas Hobbes turned to a strong central government to keep the peace. His belief in the sovereign’s absolute power was rooted in a deep fear of chaos and violence, and his famous work Leviathan remains a powerful critique of anarchy and individualism.
But for all his strong beliefs, Hobbes was never without his critics, and it’s important to remember that his ideas were just one part of a complex and evolving political landscape.
Whether you agree with him or not, there’s no denying the lasting impact of his thinking on the way we conceive of power, authority, and the role of the state in society.
So let us not forget the lessons of Hobbes, lest we risk falling back into the state of nature, where all is war and every man is a threat to his neighbor.