Born in Malmesbury, England, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was a philosopher and political theorist widely renowned for his 1651 book Leviathan, arguably the single-greatest work of political philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition. Leviathan brings together parts of Hobbes’s previously published writings, including the 1642 Latin work De Cive and the 1640 Elements of Law, Natural and Political. Hobbes was also author of A Dialogue Between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England (1666); Behemoth: Or the Long Parliament (1668); and various essays on free will, optics, geometry, and moral philosophy.
Hobbes’s influence on modern philosophy and social science has been prodigious. Although he was not the originator of the idea of a social contract, as is sometimes believed, his account of how individuals emerge from an inhospitable state of nature and create government by mutual agreement is now regarded as definitive.
There is considerable debate about whether Hobbes’s political theory should be characterized as liberal or authoritarian. On the one hand, Hobbes argues that government arises from the consent of the governed, and that subjects retain an inalienable right to life. From this inviolable right to self-preservation come other rights such as the right to defend one’s self, the right to food and other basic sustenance, and the right to not be compelled to testify against one’s self in court. Whenever possible, Hobbes’s sovereign would ideally allow subjects an even greater array of liberties within what he called the “silence of the law.” Hobbes also advocated a liberal policy of religious toleration, arguing that because the beliefs of individuals are known only to themselves, the sovereign should allow them to think as they see fit, so long as they conform their external actions to the law.
On the other hand, Hobbes’s argument defends absolute government, and he opposed traditional liberal provisions like divided government and constitutional limits on the power of the sovereign. While he speaks of a virtually unlimited right of nature existing in the state of nature, his account of the origins of law effectively collapses the Thomistic distinction between natural law and positive law, suggesting that the laws of the sovereign are right by definition. His adamant claim that virtually any government, no matter how oppressive, is preferable to the incommodities of the state of nature and civil war tends to lend support to the status quo.
Hobbes is credited with some of the central concepts in contemporary social and political science. The first is his notion that individuals are to be regarded as rational and self-interested economizers. For Hobbes, reason operates as a “scout” for the “desires. ”While his complex theory of human nature is irreducible to models of homo economicus prevalent in neoclassical economics, rational choice theory, and game theory, Hobbes is often read this way. Second, Hobbes is widely cited as the originator of the state of nature concept. Absent some powerful sovereign or state authority, the civil order almost immediately devolves into a war of all against all; Hobbes famously described this in Leviathan as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Lastly, Hobbes theorizes government as arising from a social contract struck between all members in the state of nature wherein if one person agrees to alienate all individual rights, save the inalienable right to self-preservation, to a third party, every other individual will do so on precisely the same terms. Although subsequent social contract thinkers envisioned a contract between the subject and sovereign, Hobbes adamantly denies that the sovereign is a party to this original agreement.
- Gauthier, David. The Logic of Leviathan:The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
- Hobbes,Thomas. Behemoth: Or the Long Parliament. Edited by Stephen Holmes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
- A Dialogue Between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England. Edited Joseph Cropsey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
- Edited by Richard Tuck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- Oakeshott, Michael. Hobbes on Civil Association. Oxford: Blackwell, 1975.
- Sommerville, Johann P. Thomas Hobbes: Political Ideas in Historical Context. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
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