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Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) [Hobbesian Quotes]

There is nothing in the background of Hobbes that would have marked him as one that was to become one of history's bright political lights. I know not what happened to his mother, but his father ran off after he struck a fellow clergyman at the church door; the point is that Hobbes was raised by his uncle. His brilliance as a child was spotted by those who could advance him in life and arrangements were made for him to attend Oxford University (Magdalen Hall). The Aristotelianism doctrine that prevailed at Oxford during these times "nauseated Hobbes"; he turned to materialism. Materialism was nothing new: it was a widely held system of thought first developed by the early Greeks, such as Epicurus and the proponents of Stoicism.

At the age of 15, Hobbes was taken on by a rich and influential Cavendish family, as a tutor. It was a fortunate appointment for young Hobbes as the family had a "superb library" and connections to certain other leading lights of the age, whom he was to meet, including Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Galileo (1564-1642).

Hobbes' interest in science, particularly that of Euclidian geometry, led him to conclude that it should be possible "to extend such deductive certainty to a comprehensive science of man and society." With this objective in mind, Hobbes set to work and wrote a book which became the "greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy in the English language": Leviathan.1

Leviathan is a treatise on the origin and ends of government. This work, written during the time of the Puritan Commonwealth, was a defence to "secular monarchy."

"'Good' and 'evil' are inconstant names applied haphazardly by different men to what attracts or repels them. This egotistical psychology makes the life of man in a pre-social state of nature, 'nasty, brutish and short,' a constant war of everyman with everyman. Rational, enlightened self-interest makes men want to escape such a predicament by the establishment of a contract in which they surrender the right of aggression, but not that of self-defence, to an absolute sovereign, whose commands are the law, freedom being relegated to the spheres not covered by the sovereign's commands. The social contract is binding only so long as the sovereign has power to enforce it. Sovereignty may be vested in a person or an assembly, but it must be indivisible, not a division of powers between King and Parliament, church and state." (Chambers.)
"Thus, in his [Hobbes'] view, the first principle of human behavior was egoism, or self-interest, and it was this egoism, that was the root of all social conflict." (Benet's .)
(Before going on, permit me a small digression: Hobbes wrote that "stateless societies are forms of armed aggression ... but not organised offensive warfare to conquor people. [Thus,] conquest warfare ... is not an inherent, inevitable feature of human social life -- too many societies have existed in human history without it." Hobbes then poses the question: "Is modern war inherent and inevitable in the modern form of state organization?" Hobbes wrote his Leviathan, in 1651, and much before that time, and since, we have seen government after government, in country after country, rise up, time and time again; and we have seen wars upon wars; and still yet we see them: wars that account for human death and misery in countless numbers: look to the 20th century alone and see what organized governments have done to untold millions of innocent people of the world. We can speculate about the misery of pre-social man, if we like; but it does not on the whole even remotely to be compared with the misery of 20th century man. When one thinks of things this way, one is led to believe that anarchists are not without an argument.)

And, so, it was Hobbes who was likely the first to formulate a reason (beyond the divine) as to why it was in man's best interest to band together under a government. The theory -- and this is but only deemed -- is: that if people were fully appraised of their chances in both states, they would choose the state with a government as opposed to a state without one. This is so, according to the theory, simply because an individual is better off in a state where only the government can, in certain prescribed situations, legitimately exercise aggression; and, thus, allowing an individual to spend his time and energy to serve his and his family's wants, and too, to satisfy those needs of the state necessary to preserve good government.

In the historical development of the social contract theory, one likely should begin with Hobbes.2 Hobbes propounded this theory as follows: government is an artificial creature brought about by the, albeit implied, voluntary association of the governed. To Hobbes, man's nature does not require a governing state, independent of his own, however, a better life might well be assured through the existence of an outside governing state. So, it was Hobbes' view that it was unnatural for man to put himself under the control of others, to have a government, but that it was rational to do so. This is unlike the theories of Plato and Aristotle in that they taught that governments came about because there exists a social instinct in man to gather together under powerful councils, i. e., it was natural for man to put himself under government.

Hobbes preferred monarchy mainly because he believed there should be only one supreme authority. He could tolerate parliament alone, but not a system in which government power is shared. This is the exact antithesis to the views of Locke and Montesquieu.

[Hobbesian Quotes]


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1 Quoted by Chambers as Oakeshott's view. Leviathan, incidently, is the name which was applied to an aquatic animal (real or imaginary) of enormous size, frequently mentioned in Hebrew poetry. "She [Scylla] makes the huge leviathan her prey." Used by Hobbes for: the organism of political society, the commonwealth.

2 "This submission of the wills of all those men to the will of one man, or one Counsell, is then made, when each one of them obligeth himself by contract to every one of the rest,_this is called union." (Rudiments, v. 7. 79.) This theory was expanded and thoughtfully dealt with by John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-88).


2011 (2019)

Peter Landry