Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) is the first philosopher who introduces the idea that the State is based on a social contract. In his famous book “The Leviathan” (published 1651), which was written during the English Civil war (1642–1651), he argues for a strong central authority, in order to avoid the chaos that results from civil war. His argument runs as follows: From nature, all humans are equal, so each person has a right to everything in the world. Since there is always a scarcity of goods, this inevitably leads to a war of all against all. He introduces the concept of a “state of nature”, which can be characterized as the state of social life before the creation of a political state. In this state of nature, humans constantly fight with each other, and therefore their lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  The human being, in its natural condition, is characterized by aggression, fear, and selfishness. The state of nature is a state of war. In order to avoid the consequences of these human characteristics, humans agree to form a state. It gets created and finds its legitimacy in a “social contract”, and this creation of a civil society occurs when everyone accepts to be ruled by a central authority, which Hobbes calls the “Sovereign.” He argues that the central feature that characterizes the Sovereign is the monopoly of power; this is necessary for overcoming the war of all against all. The first task of the state is to secure its own power and to establish this monopoly in the territory under its rule. Hobbes rejects a separation of powers, and calls for the Sovereign to be an absolute ruler. The citizens should accept this power, even if it leads to some abuses, because it is better than the alternative of civil war. Rebellion is allowed only in the situation of extreme abuse by the Sovereign.

The title of the book, Leviathan, is taken from the bible, where it describes the Assyrian and Babylonian enemies as a monster that threatens the Jewish people.[1] Hobbes sees the State as such a “Leviathan”, he likens it to a mechanical creation of humans, an invention that allows us to overcome our own nature, but nevertheless a monster that forces its will upon everyone who lives under its domain.

Ironically, even though Hobbes argues strongly in favor of an absolute ruler, the English Monarchists took great offense with the book because of its secular character. Hobbes had to flee from Paris, where he lived at the time of the writing, and he returned to England in 1651, where the parliamentarians had just executed the King of England, Charles I, in 1649, abolished the Monarchy, and established the “Commonwealth of England”.


[1] Isaiah 27, 1, Psalms 74, 14. In the biblical story, the Leviathan gets killed immediately by God. We can only guess about Hobbes’ intentions when he chose to equate the State with the Leviathan.

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