The Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove: Understanding Thomas Hobbes’ Philosophy

Engaging with the Enigmatic Hobbes

Philosophibytes level 2Thomas Hobbes, often regarded as the forefather of modern political philosophy, presents a fascinating conundrum wrapped in an enigma. Born in the throes of the English Civil War, Hobbes’ life and work were shaped by the tumultuous currents of his times. In this exploration, we’ll delve into the intricate tapestry of his thoughts, weaving through the fabric of political power, human nature, and the societal structures that bind us. Hobbes’ philosophy, notably his magnum opus “Leviathan”, remains as relevant today as it was in the 17th century. Let’s embark on a journey through time, ideas, and the engaging wit of Hobbes, uncovering the layers behind the man who famously declared life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The Cornerstones of Hobbesian Philosophy

Thomas Hobbes Portrait 703385Thomas Hobbes’ key philosophical tenets revolve around the nature of man, the necessity of a sovereign power, and the social contract. Central to his thought is the idea that in a state of nature, humans would live in constant fear and danger, leading to a chaotic and violent existence. To escape this, individuals collectively agree to surrender some of their freedoms to a sovereign authority, which Hobbes often likened to a ‘Leviathan’. This sovereign, be it a monarch or an assembly, wields absolute power to maintain peace and order. Hobbes’ views on human nature, governance, and society are both ground-breaking and controversial, sparking debates that continue to resonate in modern political discourse.

Philosophies and Ideologies: The Hobbesian Labyrinth

The State of Nature: Hobbes’ concept of the state of nature is a foundational element in his philosophy. Imagine a world with no government, laws, or social structures – a sort of anarchical wilderness. Hobbes argues that in such a world, humans, driven by basic survival instincts, would be in a perpetual state of war, every man against every man. This bleak view of human nature is grounded in his experiences during the English Civil War, witnessing firsthand the chaos that ensues when political structures collapse.

Dall·e A Square Image Depicting Thomas Hobbes' Concept Of The Social Contract. The Image Creatively Represents Individuals In A 17th Century SettingThe Social Contract: The solution to this natural chaos, according to Hobbes, is the formation of a social contract. It’s a bit like agreeing to play a game by certain rules for the benefit of all players. People collectively decide to surrender some of their natural freedoms in exchange for the security and order provided by a sovereign power. This contract is not between the people and the ruler, but amongst the people themselves, agreeing to be governed.

The Absolute Sovereign: The most controversial aspect of Hobbes’ philosophy is his advocacy for an absolute sovereign. He argues that only a power that is undivided and unrestricted can effectively prevent the return to a state of nature. Think of it as a referee with unquestionable authority in a high-stakes game; the referee’s decision is final to prevent chaos on the field.

Human Nature and Morality: Hobbes’ view of human nature is fundamentally mechanical and materialistic. He sees humans as self-interested machines, with their actions governed by desires and aversions. Morality, in Hobbes’ view, is a construct that emerges from the social contract, not an inherent feature of human nature.

Influence on Political Thought: Hobbes’ ideas laid the groundwork for later political theories, particularly those concerning the nature and role of government and the rights of individuals in a society. His influence extends beyond political theory, touching on psychology, ethics, and even metaphysics.

Legacies and Modern Context

The echoes of Hobbes’ philosophy can be felt across centuries in various fields. His ideas about the social contract and absolute authority influenced political structures, notably in shaping modern constitutional governments. In psychology, his views on human nature continue to fuel discussions on egoism versus altruism. In a world increasingly grappling with questions of individual freedom versus collective security, Hobbes’ insights remain strikingly pertinent.

Recommended Reading List
  1. “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes
  2. “Behemoth: The History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England” by Thomas Hobbes
  3. “De Cive (On the Citizen)” by Thomas Hobbes
  4. “The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes” by Tom Sorell (Editor)
  5. “Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction” by Richard Tuck

For further exploration of Thomas Hobbes and his philosophies, you may find these links particularly insightful:

    1. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a comprehensive overview of Hobbes’ moral and political philosophy, highlighting his vision of the world and its relevance to contemporary politics​​. Additionally, there’s a detailed examination of Hobbes’ methodology in philosophy, emphasising his significant contributions to political thought and his belief in a “science of politics”​​. You can also learn about Hobbes’ role in the development of social contract theory​​. Access these insights on Hobbes via the following links:
    2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers an in-depth analysis of Hobbes’ work, discussing his wide-ranging interests in various philosophical areas and his influence in physics and on other thinkers like Leibniz​​. Their section on Hobbes’ moral and political philosophy delves into his masterwork “Leviathan” and its significance in the realm of social contract theory​​. You can also find specialized discussions on Hobbes’ philosophy of science​​. Explore these topics further at:
    3. Wikipedia offers a general overview of Thomas Hobbes, including his key work “Leviathan” and his contributions to various fields beyond political philosophy​​. The page on Hobbes’ moral and political philosophy provides a portrait of his ideas on social and political order and the concept of the state of nature​​. The entry specifically on “Leviathan” discusses the structure of society and legitimate government as presented in the book​​. These Wikipedia pages offer a good starting point for general knowledge:

These resources provide a well-rounded perspective on Hobbes’ philosophy, his contributions to political thought, and his lasting impact on various academic disciplines.

Steff asks Sophi:

Hey Sophi, the idea of social contract and absolute sovereignty seem to be at odds with one another. How did Hobbs reconcile this?

Hello Steff! The apparent contradiction between the concept of the social contract and the idea of absolute sovereignty in Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy is indeed a fascinating subject. Hobbes reconciled these two seemingly opposing ideas through his unique perspective on human nature and the function of government.

In Hobbes’ view, the state of nature — the condition of humans without any government — is one of perpetual conflict and fear, marked by a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He believed that in such a state, individuals have absolute freedom, but this freedom leads to chaos and constant danger, as there is no authority to control or mediate conflicts.

The social contract, according to Hobbes, is a solution to this problem. People, driven by the desire for self-preservation and a better life, collectively agree to surrender their absolute freedom to a central authority. This agreement is not made with the sovereign but among the people themselves. They consent to give up some of their natural rights and submit to the authority of a ruler or ruling body in exchange for protection and the establishment of social order. This contract creates a civil society.

The sovereign power, which Hobbes often symbolises as a ‘Leviathan’, then holds absolute authority to ensure peace and security. Hobbes argued that only an absolute sovereign could effectively maintain social order and prevent a return to the state of nature. He believed that if this power were divided or limited, it would lead to instability and eventually revert society back to the state of nature.

Thus, Hobbes saw the establishment of absolute sovereignty as a logical and necessary outcome of the social contract. The people willingly agree to an absolute power in exchange for the benefits of a structured and peaceful society. In his view, the sovereign’s power is justified by the consent of the governed, and it is this consent that legitimizes the sovereign’s absolute authority.

Therefore, for Hobbes, the social contract and absolute sovereignty are not contradictory but are intrinsically linked; the former logically leads to the latter as a practical and necessary means to avoid the perils of the state of nature.

So what were Hobbes’ views on the church?


Thomas Hobbes’ views on the church and religion were quite radical for his time. His perspective on the role of the church in society and its relationship to the state can be understood through several key points:

  1. Subordination of the Church to the State: One of Hobbes’ most significant views was that the church should be subordinate to the state. He argued that religious authority should not supersede civil authority. This was a contentious stance during a time when the church held considerable power and often intersected with or even challenged state authority.
  2. Critique of Ecclesiastical Power: Hobbes was critical of the ecclesiastical power structures that he felt could challenge or undermine the sovereign. He believed that allowing religious authorities independent power could lead to conflict and division within a state, potentially destabilizing it and leading back to a state of nature-like chaos.
  3. Religion as a Tool for Social Order: Hobbes saw religion as a tool that could be used by the sovereign to promote social order and obedience to the law. He believed that the sovereign should determine the outward forms of religion practiced in the state to maintain peace and prevent religious disputes from disturbing civil order.
  4. Personal Belief versus Public Practice: While advocating for state control over public religious practice, Hobbes appeared to support a degree of private freedom of conscience. He distinguished between the external performance of religious rites, which could be regulated by the state, and internal beliefs, which could remain private.
  5. Skepticism Towards Supernatural and Miracles: Hobbes was skeptical about the supernatural aspects of religion and critical of the belief in miracles, which he saw as a source of superstition that could be manipulated to control the masses. This skepticism was part of his broader materialistic and empirical approach to philosophy.
  6. “Leviathan” and Religious Themes: In “Leviathan,” Hobbes presents his views on religion and its role in political life. He discusses the compatibility of Christian doctrine with civil authority and argues against the independent power of the church.

Hobbes’ views on the church were part of his broader concern for maintaining social order and preventing conflict. He advocated for the supremacy of the state over the church, believing that religious authority should be subordinate to civil authority to avoid division and instability. His views were controversial for his time and contributed to the broader conversation about the role of religion in society and politics.

Wow, how did the church respond to this?

As you can imagine, the response was largely negative. Hobbes’ ideas, particularly those expressed in his seminal work “Leviathan,” were controversial and challenged the established religious and political order of his time. Here’s an overview of the reaction from religious circles:

  1. Accusations of Atheism and Heresy: Hobbes faced accusations of atheism and heresy due to his materialistic view of the world and his subordination of the church to the state. His skepticism towards supernatural elements of religion, including miracles, further fuelled these accusations. In an era when atheism was a serious charge, this tarnished his reputation among religious authorities.
  2. Church’s Alarm at Hobbes’ Ideas: The church was alarmed by Hobbes’ advocacy for the absolute authority of the state over religious matters. His suggestion that the sovereign should determine the public practice of religion was seen as a direct threat to the power and autonomy of the church.
  3. Banning and Censorship of His Works: In response to his controversial views, Hobbes’ works were censored and banned in various places. “Leviathan” was particularly targeted. The University of Oxford, a central institution of the Anglican Church at the time, condemned “Leviathan” in 1666, and the Roman Catholic Church placed it on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1703.
  4. Impact on Hobbes’ Legacy and Reception: The negative response from the church affected Hobbes’ legacy and the reception of his work. It contributed to his reputation as a radical thinker, and for a long time, his ideas were treated with suspicion or outright hostility by religious institutions.
  5. Influence on Later Secular Thought: Despite the immediate negative response, Hobbes’ ideas about the relationship between church and state influenced later secular and Enlightenment thought. His advocacy for the separation of religious and political authority can be seen as a precursor to later arguments for the separation of church and state.

So yes, the church’s response to Hobbes’ views was adversarial, reflecting the broader tensions between emerging secular political thought and established religious authority during his time. His works faced censorship and condemnation, but they also laid important groundwork for later developments in political and religious thought.

And what were his views on democracy?

Thomas Hobbes’ views on democracy were complex and, in many ways, critical. His perspective on governance was shaped by his overarching concern for stability and order, which he believed were essential for a peaceful society. Here’s a look at his views on democracy:

1. Skepticism of Democracy: Hobbes was skeptical about democracy, particularly in its pure or direct form. He lived through the English Civil War, a period of intense political turmoil, which influenced his thinking significantly. He associated democratic forms of government with disorder and instability, fearing that they could lead to a state of nature-like chaos.
2. Preference for Absolute Sovereignty: Hobbes advocated for absolute sovereignty as a solution to the problem of civil conflict and disorder. In his view, a strong, centralised authority was necessary to maintain peace and prevent the return to a state of nature. This sovereign could be a monarch or an assembly, but the key was that its power should be undivided and unquestionable.
3. Concerns about the Majority Rule: Hobbes had concerns about the majority rule, a key element of democratic systems. He feared that it could lead to decisions that are not in the best interest of the entire society. In his view, the majority might not always make rational or fair decisions, potentially leading to injustices or the oppression of minority groups.
4. Democracy and the Social Contract: While Hobbes did not advocate for democratic governance, his social contract theory did lay the groundwork for later democratic theories. By arguing that legitimate political power must be based on the consent of the governed, he inadvertently provided a foundation for arguments in favour of more inclusive and participatory forms of government.
5. Limited Role for the People: In Hobbes’ ideal government, the role of the people was largely limited to the initial consent to form a society and submit to a sovereign. Once the sovereign power was established, the people were expected to obey. This stands in contrast to democratic systems, where the people continue to have an active role in governance.

Hobbes was critical of democracy, particularly its ability to maintain order and stability. His preference was for a strong, centralised authority that could prevent chaos and conflict. While he did emphasise the importance of consent in establishing political authority, his views were more aligned with absolute sovereignty than with democratic governance.

I’m guessing Hobbes’ philosophies significantly influenced modern politics? Is there evidence of this?

Yes, there is considerable evidence that Thomas Hobbes’ philosophies have significantly influenced modern politics, particularly in the areas of political theory, governance, and the understanding of human nature in relation to state power. Here are some key aspects of his influence:

1. Foundation of Social Contract Theory: Hobbes is often credited with laying the groundwork for social contract theory, a central idea in modern political thought. His proposition that legitimate state authority must be derived from the consent of the governed is a cornerstone of this theory. This concept has influenced the development of democratic governments where the power of the state is seen as originating from the people.
2. Influence on Liberal Thought: Despite his advocacy for absolute sovereignty, Hobbes’ ideas about individual rights and the formation of governments through social contracts have influenced liberal political thought. His emphasis on the rights of individuals in the state of nature, and the idea that government should be formed for the protection of these rights, resonate with liberal principles.
3. Realist Political Theory: Hobbes’ view of human nature as self-interested and his bleak assessment of the state of nature have influenced realist theory in international relations. Realism, which views states as self-interested actors in an anarchic international system, echoes Hobbes’ ideas about the dangers of a life without a central authority.
4. Impact on the Concept of Sovereignty: Hobbes’ idea of absolute sovereignty has had a lasting impact on the concept of state sovereignty in international law and politics. His notion that the sovereign must have undivided and absolute power to ensure peace and prevent civil conflict has influenced the understanding of state power and authority.
5. Influence on Constitutional Design: While Hobbes himself did not advocate for constitutionalism in the modern sense, his ideas about the need for a central authority to avoid chaos have influenced the design of political systems that seek to balance authority with checks and balances, a key feature of many modern constitutions.
6. Influence on Legal and Political Philosophy: Hobbes’ work has been a subject of extensive study and debate in legal and political philosophy. His ideas continue to be relevant in discussions about the nature of law, the rights of individuals versus the power of the state, and the justification of political authority.

Hobbes’ philosophical contributions, particularly his views on human nature, the social contract, and sovereign power, have profoundly influenced the development of modern political thought and the structure of contemporary political systems. His ideas continue to be relevant and are frequently referenced in discussions about governance, rights, and the role of the state in society.

And to the rise of authoritarian government and leaders?

Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy, particularly his advocacy for a strong, centralised authority, has indeed been associated with the rise of authoritarian government and leaders, although it’s important to contextualise this influence.

1. Justification for Strong Central Authority: Hobbes’ argument for absolute sovereignty in his social contract theory has been interpreted by some as a justification for authoritarian rule. This perspective can be, and has been, used to rationalise the concentration of power in the hands of a single ruler or a small group, characteristic of many authoritarian regimes.
2. Influence on Absolutist Monarchies: In the historical context, Hobbes’ ideas emerged during a time of significant political turmoil in England (the English Civil War). His writings, particularly “Leviathan,” were in part a response to this chaos and can be seen as a defence of strong, undivided rule, which influenced the thinking around absolutist monarchies in Europe.
3. Impact on Modern Authoritarianism: While Hobbes himself did not advocate for the suppression of freedoms or the types of abuses often associated with modern authoritarian regimes, his emphasis on the necessity of a powerful, centralised authority for maintaining social order has been used by some modern authoritarian leaders to justify their consolidation of power. They often argue that such concentration of power is necessary for stability and order, echoing Hobbesian logic.
4. Critiques and Misinterpretations: It’s important to note that Hobbes’ theories have sometimes been misinterpreted or selectively used to support authoritarianism. Hobbes did advocate for absolute sovereignty but also believed in the social contract, which implies some form of mutual consent between the governed and their ruler. The way his ideas have been applied in modern contexts may not always align with his original intentions.
5. Contrast with Democratic Theory: Hobbes’ philosophy stands in contrast to democratic theories that emphasise shared power, checks and balances, and individual liberties. While he laid some groundwork for later democratic theories through the concept of the social contract, his advocacy for absolute sovereignty is often seen as antithetical to democratic governance.

While Hobbes did not explicitly promote authoritarianism as it is understood today, his advocacy for a strong, centralised authority to avoid societal collapse into a state of nature has influenced both historical and contemporary justifications for authoritarian forms of government. However, it is crucial to consider the historical context of his work and the differences between his theory and the practical realities of modern authoritarian regimes.


Share this chat

Leave a Comment