Sunday, 05 February 2012 07:39

Thomas Hobbes - Men of Ideas

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Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is generally considered the first English social scientist. By this is meant that he was the first Englishman to dispense with theological criteria in his efforts to understand human (political) behavior. Prior to him English men attempted to explain why human beings did what they did with the perspective of God, Satan and other theological categories.

Hobbes who had travelled widely in Italy was influenced by Italian renaissance and the idea of understanding human beings behavior from the perspective of pure reason (that is, Greek perspective, as opposed to religious perspective). Instead of speculating on what the gods made people do, rational thinkers observed human behaviors in the here and now without reference to unseen forces, such as god and Satan.

Human beings do have governments. So how come they have governments? Christian theological thinkers posited that governments were given to human beings by God. God is the ultimate ruler of the world and earthly governments are the handmaidens of God. Kings and princes are the divine agents of God (and have divine rights to rule men). This was the operating hypothesis on which governments rested until Thomas Hobbes came along.

Do kings have divine rights to govern human beings? How do you ascertain this proposition? Of course you cannot prove it; you have to believe it on faith, believe it because the kings and their supporters, the pope and clergy, said so.

If you were to look at government from a purely rational perspective what would strike you is that it seems a contract between the ruled and rulers; there appears a contract whereby the ruled ask the rulers to rule them. The rulers appear to have undertaken to perform certain tasks for the ruled; governments seem to have a contractual relationship with their subjects.  But when did the ruler and ruled enter this contract?

Hobbes posited what he called state of nature and civil society.  In the state of nature human beings were free agents and did exactly whatever they wanted to do. They had the license and right to do as they pleased. There was no power above the individual’s power.

However, the individual’s right to do as he pleased means that he could harm, even kill, other persons. Thus, in the state of nature human beings were in a perpetual state of warfare and life was brutal, nasty and short.

The powerful took the best land; a band of weak persons who are well organized could take the land away from the strong.

The strong male animal took whatever female animal he wanted, including females belonging to other men. (Marriage is a social construct, a legal artifact, something that could only exist in organized society, so one supposes that marriages did not exist in the state of nature.)

Men fought for property and the result is that every person felt insecure, for his next door neighbor could expropriate his property and reduce him to slavery. Every person in nature lived in total insecurity.

It should be noted that Hobbes lived through the English civil war, 1640s, when the Kings party fought with Parliament’s party, Royalist versus Oliver Cromwell’s puritan army; Anglicans versus Puritans; these two parties slaughtered each other like they were cattle. Living through this mass killing in a place where there was no central authority to check the killing gave Hobbes an inclination of what it must have been like in nature before human beings organized themselves in  civil societies, in a commonwealth. 

As Hobbes sees it, life in the state of nature is worse than death. To live folk needed some semblance of peace and security. To obtain it they resolved to create a monster, a leviathan, to select one of them and make him a monster, government, king, and gave him the right to make laws that restricted their freedom. The people agreed to make one person their leader and gave him the right of making laws affecting their life and death.

As Hobbes sees it, the monster, the leviathan had to be totally brutal otherwise people would not be scared into respecting each others rights. Human beings so love their liberty and would kill each other for it that they needed a devil like person to coral them into law abiding behaviors.

Hobbes was not a democrat; he did not believe that left alone that the people would do the right thing by themselves. He believed that the people needed an absolute monarch to make them do the right thing and punish them if they stepped out of line.

The king, the leviathan is to pass laws and those who disobeyed them were to be quickly apprehended, arrested, tried and jailed or killed and that is the only way to have law and order in society.

The king had to have absolute power. It may be necessary for the king to have advisors but make no mistake about it, Hobbes wanted an absolute monarch. Hobbes was not on the side of Parliament at all.

One would then think that since he came down on the side of the king, as opposed to his rival, the Parliament, that the king would look with pleasing eyes on him. But that was not to be, for he had made one fundamental mistake. He had said that the king’s power rested on the people giving it to him, that the relationship between the king and the people is contractual.

At the time, 1600s, kings believed that they did not owe the people anything; they believed that their power derived from God and God’s vicar on earth, the Bishop of Rome (who crowned them). To say that the king entered into a covenant with the people and agreed to rule them for their own good means that the people could ask the king to leave office if he is perceived not to rule the people right.

Hobbes did not quite see it this way but that was the logical conclusion of his contractual theory of government. Thus, he was disappointed that the king’s party did not look at him favorably. Indeed, he felt persecuted by the king’s men and ran for his life; he ran to Paris, where he was said to suspect the king’s men after his life and essentially lived like a paranoid personality.

Hobbes, like most men of his time, dabbled in many professions; in fact, he taught geometry and considered himself a mathematician. But his fame rests on his book on the origin of government, Leviathan. Hobbes wrote many books on assorted subjects but in the final analysis his book, Leviathan, is what his fame rests on.

What shall we make of Hobbes and his book? Leviathan is an interesting book. It hypothesized a state of nature that no one can ascertain ever existed. As a hypothesis it may be okay to posit  a state where men were like predatory animals, like lions and tigers each living an atomized existence, each doing his own thing and if his thing included attacking and killing other men he did it. This is an interesting hypothesis but the fact remains that given what we know about the fragility of the human child it probably always took society to raise a child.  That is to say human beings may not have lived in a state of nature but always in organized society?

Human beings may be cooperative animals rather than the predatory animals Hobbes would like to make them out as. I do not know.

What is salient is that Hobbes was seeking a rational basis for civil society; he was trying to justify government’s existence and legitimize it. What makes government legitimate?

Hobbes believes that government is legitimate because the people set it up to protect them. This is a useful hypothesis. However, he spoiled it all by making the government so set up tyrannical. He wanted a tyrannical government because of his negative perception of human beings nature.

As a person Hobbes was paranoid and suspicious and believed that he lived in a hostile universe where all people were out to get him and that he needed to defend himself in order to survive. As a man sees himself he sees the world. Hobbes generalized his paranoid perception of living in a hostile universe to all people. Seeing people as predators out to get each other he constructed a government that heavy handedly protected him and people.

Are people as predatory as Hobbes said that they are? Whatever one says here is predicated on ones experience. Some say that human beings are kind and loving (this is usually said by those who were loved by their parents and significant others) and others say that people are evil and will take advantage of you hence are not to be trusted (this is often the view of those who were not loved in childhood).

Let us then say that it is probably fruitless debating what constitutes human nature. What is self evident is that human beings seem to have freedom of will and action and that some do choose to do evil things to other persons.

As long as people have freedom some would choose to harm other people. Therefore, society must have laws to protect the good from the bad. Government seems an inevitable part of society.

What should government be like, absolutistic or limited in its scope, as John Locke desired? We shall get to that point when we look at Locke. For now Hobbes feels comfortable in an absolute monarchy. Some persons do not feel comfortable in such governments; they prefer democratic and or other forms of governments.


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (there are many editions)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176