The Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes is one of the characters already met in this blog as the self-proclaimed first political scientist, but Bertrand Russell has more to say about him from a broader philosophical perspective. He is generally considered among the most influential modern thinkers, but Russell does not quite place him in the ‘first rank’ of philosophers, believing Hobbes to be crude at times and too inclined to dismiss a problem or awkward fact rather than address it. To quote Russell, Hobbes ‘wields the battle-axe better than the rapier’.

Human Nature

Hobbes has always been a controversial figure, including in his own time of the 17th century. His most famous work ‘Leviathan’ did not side fully with the Royalist or Parliamentary factions in England so pleased neither, and his criticisms of religion concerned many. However, the objective of his political philosophy as described in Leviathan is to describe how society can be happy. Human happiness requires a political State. Without that we would live in anarchy, or a ‘state of nature’ (as we did in prehistoric times). For Hobbes, human nature ensures that such an existence would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. There is no objective ethics; good is merely what we want and bad is what we don’t want, and this is subjective. Therefore, there is no natural way for us to agree upon common standards for what is right and wrong in a state of nature. Human nature is also inclines towards conflict rather than peace. Our principle instincts are to preserve our own safety and freedom, but our safety and freedom must sometimes come at the expense of others, such as in the case of scarcity of resources. While we know our own intentions, we can’t know what others are thinking, so cannot assume we are safe from them. The only safe course is to attack others before they can attack us.

The political State is needed to force us to act contrary to our nature, in order that we can live happily together. The State prevents two individuals attacking each other, because they both fear what the State would do more than they fear each other. The only way that a State is strong enough to do that is it is given complete authority, and if this authority is focused on a single sovereign entity. We have a right to choose our sovereign, but after that we have no rights and the sovereign has unlimited power. It doesn’t really matter to Hobbes whether the sovereign is an individual or an assembly, but there must be only one sovereign, otherwise the State will be too weak to serve its function. Ultimately, this function is to protect us from ourselves. Hobbes recognises that this system risks despotic rule, but this is always preferable to anarchy. The purpose of the State is to protect its people, so the only circumstances when people may resist the State are in self-defence, and when the State is unable to protect them.

The Power of the State

According to Russell, one of the key questions in politics is how much power should the state have, and Hobbes takes an extreme view. A person’s view on this question partly depends on whether they fear anarchy or despotism most, and this partly depends on whether you agree with Hobbes’ view of human nature that without a powerful State society would slide into conflict and violence. We might each take offence at Hobbes’ view of human nature and believe that we are better than he describes us, but Hobbes might reply that we behave better because of the State, and that we don’t live according to our natural state. The lack of anarchic societies in the modern world makes it difficult to prove this argument either way, but Hobbes’ doctrine haunts us by bringing to life a version of ourselves that we fear exists within us. Modern history appears to show that it is possible for States to prevent anarchy without possessing absolute power. However, we sometimes forget how powerful the modern State really is, and are reminded during times of crisis. Further, how much power do we really have against the Sovereign? To take the UK Parliament as an example, we only get to have a say during elections, and are only able to choose between the limited options that are presented to us. Elections lead to personnel changes within Parliament, but the results are rarely transformative.

Hobbes’ doctrine does leave significant concerns unanswered, such as the relationship between States. Hobbes considers States to exist only at the national level, which means that anarchy exists between States, inevitably leading to war. If this is the case it seems unlikely that any State is able to guarantee the safety of its people, which is its purpose. Nevertheless, Hobbes’ doctrine remains relevant today as it addresses a question that remains important in the 21st century – how much power should we give to the State?

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