Key thinker: Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
Thomas Hobbes was born in Malmesbury, Wiltshire in 1588. His father, a disgraced vicar who left the family after getting into a brawl with a clergyman, left Hobbes in the care of a wealthy uncle who sponsored his education at Oxford University (https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/hobbes_thomas.shtml). Hobbes graduated from Oxford in 1608 and joined the wealthy aristocratic Cavendish family as a translator, accountant, business representative, scientific collaborator, political advisor, and tutor to William Cavendish, the future Duke of Devonshire (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Hobbes). While working for Cavendish, who served as a member of Parliament between 1614 and 1621, Hobbes became interested in matters of government (https://www.biography.com/scholar/thomas-hobbes). He also gained access to the books he needed to pursue his writing and met leading philosophers and scientists, including Galileo Galilei and René Descartes (see Key thinker: René Descartes in Chapter 6 on Baruch de Spinoza). Hobbes was especially interested in the research of politician, scientist, and writer Francis Bacon, whom he worked for as a secretary in the 1620s (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes/).
In 1640, just as the English Civil War (1642-51) (see 5.1. Introduction) was breaking out, the devoted Royalist Hobbes left England for Paris, where he remained in exile for 11 years (https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/hobbes_thomas.shtml). Hobbes, whose political philosophy provided a strong defence of absolute sovereignty, had good reason to fear punishment (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes/). In 1647, Hobbes’ fortunes took an unexpected turn when he was appointed mathematics tutor to the heir of the English throne, Prince Charles, later Charles II (https://www.biography.com/scholar/thomas-hobbes). The fall of the English monarchy in 1649 led Hobbes to expand his early work on human nature into a coherent political treatise. The resulting book, Leviathan, Or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil, was published in 1651. But the book’s hostile reception among Royalist exiles, including the Prince of Wales, made it difficult for Hobbes to continue living in France (https://www.hertford.ox.ac.uk/associate/thomas-hobbes-1588-1679).
Hobbes was forced to return to Britain, where he could produce work on mathematics, physics, and philosophy relatively undisturbed by the Parliamentary regime. But he continued to be embroiled in controversial discussions with religious writers who were enraged by his apparent atheism (https://heritage.humanists.uk/thomas-hobbes/). Parliament soon followed suit and, in 1666, ordered Leviathan to be investigated for atheist tendencies. But Charles, who had returned to England as King Charles II after the Restoration (1660), intervened to protect him and even granted Hobbes a pension (https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/hobbes_thomas.shtml). Hobbes spent his later years in relative comfort thanks to the King and the Cavendish family. He increasingly distanced himself from political philosophy and focused on mathematics and translations of classical texts like Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (https://www.biography.com/scholar/thomas-hobbes). When Hobbes died in 1679 he was buried at Hardwick Hall, one of the homes of the Cavendish family. He was 91 years old.
Thomas Hobbes formed his political philosophy in response to specific political situations, but he believed that works including De Cive (1642), published in English as On the Citizen in 1647, would transcend their historical context (see 5.1. Introduction). Hobbes’ aim was to set out universal rules of government that were based on empirical observation but could be applied to other polities (Skinner, 1990:121).
Hobbes’ account of government is both descriptive and normative, in the sense that it describes how government works while providing a justification for why individuals should submit to a government (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes/). Like John Locke (see Chapter 7 on John Locke) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (see Chapter 9 on Rousseau), Hobbes is considered one of the founders of social contract theory, which posits that a state is founded when individuals freely come together to agree on a set of rules to govern their society and are granted basic rights in return (see 5.3. The Social Contract).
In Leviathan, which remains his most notable contribution to political philosophy, Hobbes describes a hypothetical state of nature where individuals are perpetually at war with each other (see 5.2.2. The Origins of Warre: Hobbes on the State of Nature). For Hobbes, human beings are driven entirely by self-interest and even sociable behaviour can be explained by our desire to preserve ourselves and our overriding fear of death. While individuals in the state of nature can form an agreement not to attack or steal from each other, no one can guarantee that everyone will keep their promises. And precisely because they assume that others will renege on the agreement, everyone is encouraged to break the agreement first.
But adhering to the laws of nature (self-interest and self-preservation) can also be a motivation to constrain and limit our own behaviour (see 5.2.3. The Natural Law). To protect themselves from one another in the state of nature, individuals give up their natural rights—the right to take everything they have the power or cunning to take, for example—and submit to a sovereign authority (see Key Concept: Claim Rights and Liberty Rights). Like Locke (see 7.2. Locke, Sovereignty and the State of Nature), Hobbes believed that citizens’ moral obligations depend on a contract among them to establish the society which they participate in. But while Locke’s state of nature is relatively free, peaceful, and civilized, Hobbes’ version is marked by conflict and fear.
Hobbes further argues that only a strong sovereign can effectively exercise political authority over conflicting individuals. While Hobbes doesn’t specify what constitutional form the sovereign should take (a king or queen in the monarchy, a class in an aristocracy, or the people in a democracy), he does insist on absolute sovereignty as the only form of government capable of protecting individuals from life in the state of nature, which he famously described as ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (see 5.2.2. The Origins of Warre: Hobbes on the State of Nature). Hobbes’ belief in absolute sovereignty extends to religion; having witnessed the role that religion played in the English Civil War, he believed that religious matters should be placed under the control of the sovereign, which has the right to both appoint ministers and determine religious doctrine (see 5.3.2. Absolute Sovereignty).
Hobbes’s posthumous influence has been considerable. His theory of the state of nature inspired the Realist strand in International Relations, which argues that states behave in similar ways as individuals in the state of nature: they (pre-emptively) invade others if it is in their self-interest or if they are certain they can do so with moral impunity (see 5.2.5. Locating the State of Nature). But Hobbes has also been criticized for advocating a political philosophy founded on what C.B. Macpherson calls ‘possessive individualism’, or the idea that every individual ‘owns’ themselves (see 7.3. Key Thinker: C.B. Macpherson). As Macpherson (see Key Thinker: C.B. Macpherson) has argued, pre-capitalist thinkers like Hobbes and Locke advocated theories of ‘possessive individualism’ which provided the justifications for the later development of capitalism. He also argues that the working class had been excluded from the liberal social contract which, from its very beginning, only applied to a certain class.
Hobbes’ views on gender were ahead of their time for a seventeenth-century thinker. He argued that families in the state of nature are governed by laws of nature which do not foreground patriarchal norms but the rights of the mother (see 5.2.4. Gender and the Natural Law). For Hobbes, family relations are structured by a contract in which children, for example, owe allegiance to the person who has protected them (often the mother). Thus, cooperation in the family, like cooperation between individuals in the State, is rooted in self-interest and a desire for self-preservation. But as Carole Pateman has argued (see Chapter 9 on Carole Pateman), Hobbes fails to account for why women, who are free and equal in the state of nature and have dominion over children, would enter a contract which clearly subordinates women to men (Pateman, 1988: 49). For Pateman, the social contract is preceded by a sexual contract that enshrines patriarchal relations before the State is even formed.
Charles Mills (see Chapter 9 on Charles Mills) builds on Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988) to argue that social contract theories, like that of Hobbes, rely on the exclusion of people of colour and the working class. According to Mills, the social contract only happens at a point when working class people, women, or non-white people have already been deemed inferior. Therefore, the contract only really applies to propertied white men. Hobbes himself was a shareholder of the Virginia Company and profited from colonialism. He believed that non-whites, and especially Indigenous Americans, actually lived in the state of nature, whereas it was merely a hypothetical situation for civilized Europeans (see 5.2.5. Locating the State of Nature). However, Hobbes may have shocked his contemporaries by suggesting that even Europeans could revert to the ‘savage’ state of Indigenous Americans without the guidance of a strong government (Mills, 1997: 66). For Hobbes, absolutist sovereignty thus applied to both the colonizer and the colonized.
Skinner, Q. (1990) Thomas Hobbes on the Proper Signification of Liberty: The Prothero Lecture. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 40, pp. 121–151.
Pateman, Carole (1988) The Sexual Contract. Cambridge: Polity.
Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Macpherson, C.B. (2011) The political theory of possessive individualism: Hobbes to Locke, ed. Frank Cunningham, Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press.