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Western Political Thought: Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes of Malmsbury was an English philosopher who gained popularity for his immense contribution to political philosophy. His famous book Leviathan established social contract theory, the foundation of later Western political philosophy. Hobbes also developed some of the basics of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural fairness of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all reasonable political power must be "representative" and based on the consent of the people and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly prohibit.

Among many renowned philosophers of western political thoughts, Hobbes also retained high status as the creators of modern political philosophy and political science. His understanding of humans as being matter and motion, following the same physical laws as other matter and motion, remains influential; and his account of human nature as self-interested cooperation, and of political communities as being based upon a "social contract" remains one of the major themes of political philosophy. Moreover to political philosophy, Hobbes also contributed in other disciplines such as history, geometry, and the physics of gases, theology, ethics, and general philosophy. Hobbes showed that the social contract in the context of elaborating his "laws of nature," which are the steps we must take to leave the state of nature. In calling these rules "laws of nature," Hobbes expressively changes the traditional concept of natural law, in which nature offers moral guidance for human behaviour. By contrast, Hobbes's laws of nature are not obligatory in his state of nature, since, as he makes clear, seeking peace and keeping contracts in the state of nature would be self-destructive and absurd. It can be said that acting against the laws of nature cannot simply be called unnatural or unjust for Hobbes, nothing is naturally just, unjust, or responsible. Justice only exists as a convention, in the context of a civil society.

Hobbes political theory is originated from psychology which is based on his mechanistic conceptions of Nature. Hobbes, similar to Machiavelli, was concerned with the secular Orgins of human conduct. Opposing to Aristotle and medieval intellectuals, who saw human nature as naturally social, Hobbes observed human beings as isolated, egoistic, and self-interested and seeking society as a means to their ends.

Hobbes stated that prior to the formation of state or common wealth, there existed state of nature. Men in the state of nature were essentially selfish. Individuals were creations of desire, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The pleasure were good and pain bad, which was why men were sought to pursue and maximize their pleasure and avoid pain. The pleasure-pain theory was established in a comprehensible and systematic theory of human behaviour and motivation by the Utilitarians especially Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. In addition to being creatures of pleasure and pain, Hobbes saw individuals continually in motion to satisfy their desires.

Hobbes proclaimed that every human action, feeling and thought was eventually physically determined. Though the human being was decent on his life, he was able to control these motions up to some extent and make his life. According to Hobbes, it was reason that distinguished humans from animals. Reason enables the individual to understand the impressions that sense organs picked up from the external world, and also indicated an awareness of one's natural desires.

Hobbes implied that human condition in the state of nature is derived from the nature of man, his basic psycho physical character, his sensations, emotions cravings and behaviour.

Hobbes considered that like all other things in nature, man is principally a body governed by law of motion which pervades the entire physical world. Men in the state of nature possessed some natural instincts like competition, shyness and glory. Men are naturally equal in mind and body. Basic equality of man, according to Hobbes is a principal source of trouble and misery. Men have in general equal faculties, they also cherish like hopes and desires. If two men desire the same thing, which they cannot both obtain, they become enemies and seek to destroy each other. Hobbes stated that passions of desire and aversion are the core cause of conflict in the state of nature. Everybody is moved by the natural impulse of self-preservation and desire and possess the objects or goods that are favourable to his existence.

Competition for goods of life becomes a struggle for power because without power one cannot preserve what one has acquired. Thus it turns out to be a struggle for power after power which ceases only in death. Sense of insecurity, fear and pride exacerbate this tragic condition. Hobbes in his famous work Leviathan wrote thus: in the state of nature we find three principle causes of quarrel. First, competition; second, diffidence; third, glory. The first makes men invade for gain; the second for safety; and the third, for reputation.

Therefore, it is apparent from the above statement that what is central to Hobbes' psychology is not hedonism but search for power and glory, riches and glory. Power is, of course, the central feature of Hobbes' system of ideas. As Miachel Oakeshot in his Hobbesian Leviathan has indicated that "Man is a complex of power; desire is the desire for power, pride is illusion about power, honour opinion about power, life the unremitting exercise of power and death the absolute loss of power." Hobbes specified that conflict is essential in human psychology. It is entrenched in man's inordinate pride covetousness, sense of fear and insecurity etc. Hobbes also discussed another cause of conflict which cannot be traced to psychological egoism. This relates to the difference among men about what is good and evil, desirable and undesirable. In the state of nature, therefore, men are in a condition of "war of every man against every man" Force and fraud the two conditional virtues of war, flourish in this atmosphere of perpetual fear and trouble fed by three psychological causes that include competition, diffidence and love of glory. The mutual effect of the factors is that Hobbesian state of nature is a " war of every man against every man" The life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty cruel and short " In this miserable image of state of nature, there can be no goodness, justice, industry and civilization. In this state, however, there is a right of nature, natural right of every man to everything even to one another's life.

Another significant concept of Hobbes related with state of nature is his conception of Natural right. Hobbes elaborated that the Right of nature is the freedom each man has to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say of his own life and subsequently of doing anything in his own judgment. "The concept of natural Right is considered to be the great contribution of Hobbes to modern political theory.

In the state of nature, individuals enjoyed complete liberty, including a natural right to everything even to one another's bodies. The natural laws which were commands of reason. Consequently, Hobbes argued that the laws of nature were also proper laws since they were delivered in the world of God. These laws were counsels of prudence. Natural laws in Hobbes theory did not mean eternal justice, perfect morality or standards to judge existing laws. They did not infer the existence of common good for they merely created the common conditions which were necessary to fulfil each individual good.

All through his life, Hobbes assumed that the only true and correct form of government was the absolute kingdom. He argued this most forcefully in his landmark work, Leviathan. This belief stemmed from the central principle of Hobbes' natural philosophy that human beings are, at their core, selfish creatures. According to Hobbes, if man is placed in a state of nature (that is, without any form of government), humans would be in a state of persistent warfare with one another. In this natural state, Hobbes specified, the life of a man was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes' view of human nature was formed principally by the English Civil War, which occurred during 1642 to 1649 and ended in the beheading of King Charles I. Hobbes considered the ensuing chaotic interregnum period, from 1649 to 1660, to be as close to that basic state of nature as humans could get. Considering the highly dysfunctional nature of English government during that time, Hobbes' views should come as little surprise.

Hobbes had pessimistic view of human nature. He believed the only form of government strong enough to hold humanity's cruel impulses in check was absolute monarchy, where a king exercised supreme and unchecked power over his subjects. While Hobbes believed in social contract theory (that is, the theory that a ruler has an unspoken, implicit contract with his people requiring him to reign fairly), he attributed nearly total power to the monarch, and did not believe the people to have any right to rebellious whatsoever.

Hobbes was considered as an extremely individual thinker. He attempted through his writing to influence the political conflicts of his day, but he managed to isolate himself even from those who might have been inclined to side with him. During the civil war, he chose not to tone down his rhetoric favouring absolutist monarchy as did many other monarchists. At a moment, when everyone on the king's side was at pains to announce their support for the Church of England, he proclaimed his distaste for the ministry. These indiscretions caused Hobbes to be expelled from the court of King Charles when he was perhaps the most conspicuous royalist intellectual of the day. He also differentiated himself from his royalist cohorts by claiming that the king's right to rule came not from a divine right approved by God but from a social contract granted by the people. This radical position has led many to consider Hobbes to be among the first "liberal" political thinkers in Europe despite the disdain for his ideas held by liberal philosophers, due to Hobbes's authoritarian views.

It is shown in literature that Hobbes's political philosophy was imbedded in his fundamental belief that all of philosophy needed to be refurbished. Hobbes believed that traditional philosophy had never been able to reach indisputable conclusions or secure universal truth and that this failure was the cause not only of philosophical controversy but also of civil discord and even civil war. Hobbes set out to create a philosophical system that offered secure and agreed-upon basis for all knowledge in the universe. This totalizing philosophy, which Hobbes developed was based in the materialist outlook that all phenomena in the universe are noticeable to the physical properties of matter and motion. Hobbes overruled the observation of nature and the experimental method as legitimate bases for philosophical knowledge. In this respect, he deviated from his near-contemporary Francis Bacon, who also proposed a total reform of philosophy, but one based on the experimental method. Instead, Hobbes suggested a purely deductive philosophy that bases its findings on previously stated, universally agreed-upon "first principals." Hobbes sought to create a philosophy that can fully explain everything that happens in the universe, and he produced original work that cut across virtually every academic discipline. He involved in long intellectual disputes with figures as wide ranging as the mathematician John Wallis, the philosopher Rene Descartes, and the scientist Robert Boyle.

As the political background stressed, two influences are enormously marked in Hobbes's work. The first is a reaction against religious authority as it had been known, and especially against the scholastic philosophy that accepted and defended such authority. The second is an unfathomable admiration for the emerging scientific method, alongside an admiration for a much older discipline, geometry. Both influences affected how Hobbes expressed his moral and political thoughts.

Hobbes's dislike for scholastic philosophy is limitless. Leviathan and other works are scattered with references to the "frequency of insignificant speech" in the speculations of the scholastics, with their combinations of Christian theology and Aristotelian metaphysics. Hobbes's reaction, apart from much savage and sparkly sarcasm, is twofold. In the first place, he makes very strong assertions about the proper relation between religion and politics. He was not an atheist, but he strongly insisted that theological disputes should be kept out of politics. For Hobbes, the sovereign should determine the proper forms of religious worship, and citizens never have duties to God that supersede their duty to obey political authority. Second, this reaction against scholasticism shapes the presentation of Hobbes's own ideas. He insisted that terms be clearly defined and relate to actual concrete experiences as a part of his empiricism. Critics argued how seriously to take Hobbes's stress on the importance of definition, and whether it embodies a definite philosophical dogma. Important factor in his moral and political thought is that he tries to avoid any metaphysical categories that do not relate to physical realities. Reviewers further differ whether Hobbes's often mechanical definitions of human nature and human behaviour are actually important in determining his moral and political philosophies.

Hobbes is mainly popular as a political theorist, and he has been extremely influential in political theory. The most durable components of his philosophy have been his appraisal of the role that power and fear play in human relations and his attractive representation of humans in the state of nature. Political and ethical philosophers of all kinds have had to confront his theories.

Hobbes visualized the sovereign power as undivided unlimited inalienable and permanent. The contract created the state and the government concurrently. The sovereign power was authorized to enact lows as it deemed fit and such laws were legitimate. Hobbes was categorical that the powers and authority of the sovereignty had to be defined with least uncertainty.

Major attributes of Hobbesian sovereign are as under.

  1. Sovereign is absolute and unlimited and accordingly no conditions, implicit or explicit, can be imposed on it. It is not limited either by the rights of the subjects or by customary and statutory laws.
  2. Sovereignty is not a party to the covenant or contract. A sovereign does not exist prior to the commencement of the contract. Contract was signed between in the state of nature mainly to escape from a state of war of every man against every man. The contract is irreversible.
  3. The newly shaped sovereign can do no injury to his subjects because he is their authorized agent. His actions cannot be illegal because he himself is the sole source of law and the laws are subject to his interpretations.
  4. No one can protest that sovereign is acting erroneously because everybody has authorized him to act on his behalf.
  5. Sovereign has absolute right to declare war and make peace, to levy taxes and to impose penalties.
  6. Sovereign is the ultimate source of all administrative, legislative and judicial authority. Hobbes stated that law is the command of the sovereign not its counsel.
  7. The sovereign has the right to allow or takes away freedom of speech and opinion.
  8. The sovereign has to defend the people externally and internally for harmony and preservation which were basis of the creation of the sovereign or Leviathan . Thus. Hobbesian sovereign signifies the ultimate, supreme and single authority in the state and there is no right of resistance against him except in case of self-defence. Hobbes considered that any act of defiance of a subject is unfair because it is against the covenant. Hobbes believes that covenants without swords are mere words. Division of sovereignty means destruction of sovereign which means that men are returning to the old state of nature where the life is intolerably depressed.

By allowing absolute power to the sovereign, some critics disparaged Hobbes as one of the founding fathers of totalitarian Fascism or Communism. However, William Ebenstein in his well-known work 'Great Political Thinkers' has opposed this charge in the following basis.

Firstly, government is set up, according to Hobbes, by a covenant that transfers all power and authority to the sovereign. This contractual foundation of government is an abhorrence to the modern totalitarians.

Second, Hobbes' assigns to the state some fundamental functions such as to "maintain order and security for the benefits of the citizens". By contrast, the aim of modern totalitarian state is anti-individualistic and anti-hedonistic.

Third, Hobbesian state is authoritarian, not totalitarian. Hobbes' appeals for equality before law so that rich and mighty have no legal advantage over poor and obscure persons. Hobbes 'authoritarianism lacks one of the most typical features of the modern totalitarian state: inequality before law and the resulting sense of personal insecurity.

Fourth, Hobbes maintains that the sovereign may be one man or an assembly of men whereas modern totalitarianism is addicted to the one man leadership principle.

Fifthly, Hobbes identifies that war is one of the two main forces that drive men to set up a state. But wherever two main force that drive men to set up a state, he speaks of war, it is protective war and there is exaltation of war in the Leviathan. By contrast totalitarian, imperialist fascist look on war as something highly desirable and on imperialist war as the highest form of national life.

It is apparent from debate that Hobbes' theory of sovereignty is the first systematic and consistent statement of complete sovereignty in the history of political thought. It was Hobbes who first advocated a principle of the absolute and unrestricted sovereignty of the state. His sovereign enjoys an absolute authority over his subject and his powers can neither be divided nor limited either by the law of nature or by the law of God.

In Paris, Hobbes began work on one of the most influential books ever written: Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (usually referred to as simply Leviathan). Leviathan had high ranking as an essential Western treatise on statecraft, on par with Machiavelli's The Prince.

In Leviathan, written during the English Civil Wars (1642-1651), Hobbes contends for the necessity and natural evolution of the social contract, a social construct in which individuals jointly unite into political societies, agreeing to accept by common rules and agree resultant duties to protect themselves and one another from whatever might come otherwise. He also supports rule by an absolute sovereign, saying that chaos and other situations recognised with a "state of nature" could be avoided only by a strong central government, one with the power of the biblical Leviathan, which would protect people from their own selfishness. He also cautioned of "the war of all against all", a motto that went on to greater eminence and represented Hobbes' view of humanity without government.

As Hobbes lays out his opinions on the foundation of states and legitimate government, he does it methodically. The state is created by humans, so he first defines human nature. He stated that in each of us can be found a representation of general humanity and that all acts are ultimately self-serving that in a state of nature, humans would behave completely selfishly. He concludes that humanity's natural condition is a state of perpetual war, fear and amorality, and that only government can hold a society together.

Hobbes' Leviathan is not only a powerful expression of the theory of sovereignty but also an influential statement of individualism. As Prof. Sabine has stated that in Hobbesian political philosophy, both absolutism and individualism go hand in hand. Granting absolute and unlimited power to the state is an attempt to provide a happy and enjoyable life to the individuals. Hobbes is no liberal or democrat but he is a thorough individualist not because he believes in the sanctity of individual man but because for him the world is and must always be made up of individuals.

Critics of Hobbs political thoughts:

Thomas Hobbes is surely one of the most contentious and normally contested political philosophers of contemporary times. A large part of modern political philosophy is a response to or a critique of Hobbes's works. Even the twentieth century political theorists, like Gauthier, Kleinerman, Van Mill and others still occupy themselves mainly with interpretations of Thomas Hobbes. Actually, the twentieth century witnessed a distinctive and exceptional increase in scholarship on Hobbes's Leviathan and his political philosophy in general. Their critique play a significant role in evaluating the question of attribution of power to the sovereign in Hobbes's Leviathan; be it rightly absolute and inseparable, and thus perhaps authoritarian/totalitarian or rather more liberal.

Hobbes, though, consistently struggles to apply scientific rules of logic to his writings and later claims that human nature assumes the existence of state power "without which human beings will lead unhappy lives in a perpetual state of war". However, this state being a barricade of civil liberties, may only be realised, according to Hobbes, by total submission of people's rights and liberties to an institution of absolute sovereign. That being the case, Hobbes does not call for oppression or any totalitarian system of governance. Instead, some thinkers deliberated his absolutism to be a just logical consequence. Van Mill designated that "his statements on absolute sovereignty are about logical consistency rather than the advocacy of tyranny". Macpherson notes, "The step immediately preceding the demonstration of the need for a sovereign able to overawe every individual is the state of nature, or natural condition of mankind".

Hobbes is often condemned for restricting our civil liberties and unchallengeable rights by depriving us of them in favour of the absolute sovereign. His absolute system of governance is supposed to be mismatched with any liberal society whatsoever. It is also claimed, "the concentration of power puts personal liberty in threat of arbitrary actions by officials"

It is assessed through his contribution to political thoughts that Hobbes remained an amazingly prolific writer into old age, undeterred by widespread opposition to his work. He lived to the age of eighty-nine during an era when the average life expectancy was not much older than forty. In his eighties, Hobbes produced new English translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey and penned an autobiography in Latin verse. Despite the disagreement, he caused, he was something of an institution in England by the end of his life. As abhorrent or attractive as his views may be to readers, his radiantly articulated theories are read by people across the political spectrum. Hobbes's ideas may be incorporated or rejected, but they are never overlooked.

To summarize, Thomas Hobbes is one of the distinguished political philosophers. His status as a political thinker was not fully recognized until the 19 the century. His major work the "Leviathan" is the utmost, perhaps the sole masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language. Leviathan a stunning success of philosophical literature is the profound logic of Hobbes' imagination, his power as an artist. It is concluded that Hobbes' ideas are enormously influential, form the basis of nearly all Western political thought, including the right of the individual, the importance of republican government, and the idea that acts are allowed if they are not expressly prohibited. The historical importance of his political philosophy cannot be ignored.