Hobbes: Human Nature and Political Philosophy

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Hobbes: Human Nature and Political Philosophy

Thomas Hobbes writes in his 1651 masterpiece Leviathan of his interpretations of the inherent qualities of mankind, and the covenants through which they enter in order to secure a peaceful existence. His book is divided up into two separate sections; Of Man, in which Hobbes describes characteristics of humans coexisting without the protection of a superior earthly authority, and Of Commonwealth, which explains how humans trapped in that primal ?state of nature’ may escape and, through agreements, be able to live peaceably among one another without fear of unjust actions being taken against them.

I too will discuss these elements of society as Hobbes intended them to be, with special emphasis on how human nature played a role in determining most of Hobbes’ basis for his political theories. In the introduction to Leviathan, Hobbes casts a highly mechanized view of humans by theorizing that they are simply a motion of limbs and simple machines that come together to produce a living, breathing, working human.

“For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the Artificer? ” (Leviathan, Introduction) Although this is a depiction of how Hobbes views the dynamics of the human body, he contends that human actions work in a similar, mechanistic way. According to the text, specific wants and appetites produce within the human body and are experienced as discomforts or pains (or to be more general, degrees of happiness or sadness) which must be overcome.

Thus, each person is geared to act in such ways as we believe likely to relieve our discomfort, to preserve and promote our own well-being. (Leviathan, Pt. I Ch. 6) Thus, basically everything we decide to do is determined by a natural desire to avoid things that give our bodies negative feedback responses, and the opposite for things which our body tells us is good. Essentially, in this aspect Hobbes asserts that human decisions in this environment are guided only by our strongest desires at that given time and place. The idea being introduced here is pivotal.

It is the notion of self-preservation; that in a state of nature in which there is no rule of law, and each man answers only to himself, people will do (an are fully entitled to do) anything they deem necessary to further their own existence. This animalistic view of human interaction yields Hobbes to conclude that each person (or grouping, such as a family) lives independently from every other person or group, and acts in their own self-interest without regard for others. Hobbes calls this a “state of war”, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. ” (Leviathan, Pt. I Ch.13)

Hobbes later identifies three main causes of conflict in the state of nature which prevent man from entering into peace with one another. The first is competition, which makes people invade for their personal gain. The second is diffidence (distrust) which makes people invade out of fear; a mutual sense of insecurity forces one to anticipate an attack from someone they cannot trust (who likewise feels the same way), so pre-emptive measures are taken. This makes sense because one renders it better to be a surprisor, and not a surprisee, since being surprised meant an almost certain death.

The last cause of conflict is glory, which makes people invade others for their own merit. Knowing these sources of problems, Hobbes then declares; “Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man. ” (Leviathan, Pt. I Ch. 13) Therefore, at this point it is safe to conclude that human nature in this sense is essentially dangerous and evil.

However, assuming that all humans are rational individuals, Hobbes believes that mankind would naturally want to escape this hellish state of existence and live under agreements that ensure the rational causes of quarrel could be avoided (albeit the third cause of quarrel, glory, is noted as an irrational cause of conflict). By establishing a commonwealth, contends Hobbes, we essentially remove the structural causes of conflict and foster the conditions for humankind to prosper under its own benevolence through mutually beneficial agreements. (Leviathan, Pt. I Ch.14)

Although Hobbes had indicated that the state of nature is horrific, he acknowledges the counter-argument that people might not want to leave it because they would have to surrender certain rights granted to them solely while in the state of nature. But Hobbes’ response is rather simple; for it is “the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as hath been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants. ” (Leviathan, Pt. 2 Ch. 17)

What he is saying is that rational individuals would understand that life under a common authority would allow for better means of self-preservation, because it creates an entity that can punish people who do not play by the game fairly. Also, people would be unable to rely on their individual autonomous powers in the effort to secure livelihood and happiness. Hobbes calls the necessary central authority the Sovereign (the institutional embodiment of an orderly government), and those over whom it presides are the Subjects.

Thus, Hobbes’ perception of human nature led him to develop his vision of an ideal form of rule that would govern these autonomous individuals. He believed that a sovereign power was required to keep men united, who would work to maintain the peace among the people as well as protect them from foreign enemies. The people would have to make an agreement among themselves to all submit to this ruler. The people would then submit their wills to the will of their ruler who would in turn assure their self-preservation, giving the ruler absolute control over his or her subjects.

Assuming the people all do submit to this higher authority, the next step is determining the most appropriate form this sovereign entity must undertake. Hobbes offers three examples of governance in the text: a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy. Although the sovereign can be a legislature or an assembly of citizens or a monarch, claims Hobbes, the commonwealth will run smoothest under a hereditary monarch, which to the reader sounds like an unusual choice given all the conditions of human nature previously mentioned.

Hobbes defends this notion though, by explaining that investing power in a single person who can choose advisors and rule consistently without fear of internal conflicts yields the best fulfillment of our social needs. (Leviathan, Pt. II Ch. 19) With a hereditary monarch there is hardly any internal conflict, whereas in a democracy, aristocracy, or any other assembly of citizens there is constant conflict among individuals trying to advance their own private agendas. Logistically, Hobbes says the sovereign will exercise its authority over its subjects in the form of civil laws that are either decreed or implicitly accepted.

(Leviathan, Pt. II Ch. 26) Those who violate the laws handed down will be appropriately punished by the sovereign authority. The end result of it all is the creation of the actual Leviathan; biblically, a monstrous sea creature, but in Hobbes’ scope, it was a metaphor for a fully functioning, healthy society. Just as he previously used references to the mechanistic view of how man functions to further explain the conditions of how humankind and society work in general, Hobbes employs the use of metaphor to tie it all together.

Imagine the sovereign ruler as literally the head of a man, not only the point at which the ideals of the society are created, but the commander of the rest of the body. The hands and limbs are the administrators of the law, whoever they may be under the various examples of government Hobbes previously offered. The subjects of the sovereign are the cells of the body that basically construct it and make it what it is, and allow for everything else to take place. There’s no doubt that Hobbes’ view on human nature shaped the way his political theories were formed.

His works were, and still are highly influential to political philosophers that followed after him, which allowed for further, more concise theories to be generated and debated. And despite the shortcomings of some of Hobbes’ philosophies (such as the feasibility of installing such a government under the premises offered), his work was revolutionary for its time and laid the foundation on which other later significant philosophers built their political ideologies.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 28 November 2016

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