Thomas Hobbes and the Leviathan

Born in England in 1588, Thomas Hobbes is considered one of the founders of modern political philosophy.

He is today best known for his book Leviathan (1651), where he formulated his theory of the social contract. He does this by arguing that, by their nature, people are selfish and brutal and desire power. They will never be satisfied with the power that they have, and will seek to acquire ever more of it. The only way to hold control over such a population is by having a monarchy, since a monarch has absolute rule. The monarch should also be the head of the national religion, which can be one of the chief threats to public peace since it can validate authorities other than those designated by the sovereign.

In line with his political and philosophical views, Hobbes was hostile to the Roman Catholic Church.

Man and the state of nature

In Leviathan, Hobbes describes the pure state of nature as the natural condition of mankind.

Any natural inequalities between humans are not as great as to give anyone clear superiority. By this he does not deny that some people may be stronger or smarter, but that, more or less, we all have the power to injure or kill each other. But we are also equal in another aspect: we all want equal success in all our desires.

In fact, human beings are naturally equal. Everyone has the natural right to preserve him or herself, as well as the natural right to claim all those things, or seek all the power, that he judges necessary to this end.

Moreover, in the state of nature, for practical purposes we are equal in physical and mental capacity. No one is strong or smart enough to defend himself with certainty against the threats that arise from the efforts of other individuals to preserve themselves.

This equality, Hobbes claims, leads each and every individual to have equal hope of acquiring good things for himself.

As individuals strive to accumulate goods, they compete with each other. Consequently, they create an atmosphere of distrust. Our attempt to acquire things – and to preserve the ones we have from poaching or encroachment – causes us to try to dominate and control those around us.

Moreover, some people are keen to be known as that sort of person who can dominate others. Such people would not be happy unless they are recognised as superior.

Competition, distrust, and the desire for glory throw humankind into a state of war. For Hobbes, war is a natural condition of human life.

Above everything else, we seek our own individual survival. The state of war, in a Hobbesian sense, is the situation that exists whenever natural passions are unrestrained. Thus, in the natural state of war, every individual faces every other individual as an enemy. This is, according to Hobbes, the natural condition of mankind: a state of utter chaos. In such a state, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because it is a “war of every man against every man.”

Therefore, all must live in constant fear of loss or violence.

In this state of nature, Hobbes argued, there could be no morality, since everyone is focused squarely on self-preservation and survival. In such a state, there is neither personal property nor injustice, such notions only applying in interpersonal situations.

What we want above all things is to preserve our lives and our goods. What we fear the most is violence at the hands of others.

The social contract: from natural evil to civilised society

Once we realise the misery of the natural condition, it becomes evident that we have to do something to change it.

First, we have to decide to make peace and to see what arrangements are necessary to attain and preserve it.

It becomes clear that the only way to attain peace is for us to collectively give up our absolute natural right to acquire and preserve everything by any means possible. Why collectively? Because it only makes sense for an individual to give up the right to attack others if everyone else agrees to do the same.

Hobbes call this ‘collective giving up’ the social contract.

While it effectively inverts the state of nature, the contract builds upon providing a more intelligent way to preserve oneself and safely acquire goods.

Hobbes describes society, or commonwealth, as an “artificial person”, which he calls “Leviathan”, after a monstrous sea creature from Hebrew mythology. The Leviathan represents the strength and power of the commonwealth and its sovereign.

A brief history of natural law

Natural law is a theory in ethics and philosophy that says that moral law is a part of the fabric of nature, much like, say, the laws of gravity.

Since it is a law that is determined by nature, then it is implied that it must be objective and universal, existing independently of human understanding an also independently of the laws of state, political order, legislature or society at large.

Aristotle documented the concept, as did the Roman philosopher Cicero. Later, in the Middle ages, Christian philosophers such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas expanded and further detailed the theory. In its essence, the theory of natural law, in some variation or other, claims that nature offers moral guidance for human behaviour.

Hobbes significantly challenges the traditional concept of natural law.

Unlike previous philosophers on the subject, Hobbes claims that the laws of nature are not obligatory. This is because seeking peace and keeping contracts in the state of nature would be self-destructive and absurd.

Morality, according Hobbes, exists only as a convention, within the context of a civil society. Nothing is naturally just, unjust, or blameworthy.

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