Man is Man’s Wolf – Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679),
Portrait by John Michael Wright

On December 4, 1679, Thomas Hobbes passed away. The philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment and the political theorist of the Absolutism is probably best known for his 1651 book Leviathan that established the foundation for most of Western political philosophy from the perspective of social contract theory.

Thomas Hobbes was born in Wiltshire, England in politically difficult times, because of the invasion of the Spanish Amada. Hobbes’ family faced times of fear and uncertainty due to the conflicts between the king and the parliament as well as the disputes between the many social groups. These events depicted a great influence in Hobbes’ views and philosophies. Thomas Hobbes was a child prodigy, his enormous talents in logics and mathematics favored his educational development and he was able to attent an affiliated institute of the Oxford University at only 14 years. He soon became a private teacher and assistant to the father of empiricism, Francis Bacon, who influenced Hobbes critically.

It was during Hobbes’ third journey through Europe when he developed his plan to divide his philosophies into three different parts:’De Cive‘, ‘De Corpore‘, and ‘De Homine‘. After being exiled due to his support of king Karl I, Hobbes again tried to influence England’s political situation in favor of the absolute monarchy with ‘De Cive‘, which he published in 1642.

Hobbes’ most famous work, ‘Leviathan‘ was published in 1651 and consists of four major parts: ‘Of Man’, ‘Of Common-wealth’, ‘Of a Christian Common-wealth’, and ‘Of the Kingdom of Darkness’. The goal Hobbes’ was to lay a scientific foundation for politics based on rational principles. The work is seen as revolutionary in the sense of social contract theory, Hobbes listed arguments for a social contract and a rule by an absolute sovereign.

In the first part ‘Of Man’, Hobbes developed a state of nature, in which a society exists without laws, a government, and is free of restrictions by morals, traditions, and religion. To Hobbes, a state of ‘bellum omnium, contra omnes‘ is present and every individual is characterized by demands, fear, and reason. Hobbes does not picture the human being as malicious, but indeed as antisocial. Also, the individuals have, according to Hobbes, the ambition of self-preservation in the state of nature and only through the decision by the individuals to develop a political organ they can overcome the state of nature and evolve a government.

In the chapter ‘Of Common-wealth’, Hobbes explains that laws based on reason are not enough to establish peace, wherefore an almighty authority was to be appointed, which was to sanction the individual’s actions. Through a contract, every citizen (except for the unrestricted sovereign) was to renounce from any kind of power in the society in favor of a single person or group, which would end the state of nature. Hobbes’ theories differ in many aspects from the ideas by Aristoteles, who understood a society’s goal as an ‘eudaimonia‘ (good life). Hobbes saw in contrast a common-wealth’s goal as ‘summum malum‘ (the prevention of the worst evil).

The first two parts are seen as the most important and most influential chapters of the work. The last two illustrate Hobbes’ ideas concerning the philosophy of religion as well as church politics.

Through his work, Hobbes had to face criticism from various social groups. The church criticized his support for an independent constitution of the church and his materialism, and the liberalists disliked his idea of an almighty sovereign. Hobbes’ life after the publishing of Leviathan was not easy since he lost numerous friends due to his controversial ideas. He was threatened and his later works were partly not allowed to be printed.

On December 4, 1679, Thomas Hobbes passed away in Derbyshire, England.

At yovisto you can learn more about Thomas Hobbes and his philosophical views in the lecture of Prof. Ivan Szelenyi from Yale University on ‘Hobbes: Authority, Human Rights and Social Order‘.

References and Further Reading:



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