The Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes


The American Government today is noted for being one of the most powerful governments in the world and considered a model for third world countries. It is also renowned for being the second largest democracy in the world. The federal government of the United States was not conceived based on any simple or bogus thought; in fact, it took decades of compiling ideologies of various philosophers and revolutionaries that led to its formation. One such philosopher was Thomas Hobbes, whose ideas and philosophy was instrumental in the incorporation of today’s federal government.

About Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was born on 5th April 1588 in Wiltshire England. Very little is known about his parents, except that he shared his father’s name which was also Thomas and his mother’s name is unknown. He was entrusted to the care of his uncle Francis with two other siblings. He had the reputation of being a bright student and pupil and went about to graduate from Magdelen Hall which is most commonly related to Hertfort College Oxford. Here he was known to be the student who did not prefer scholastic education and acquired his Bachelor of Arts degree only in 1608. He was later assigned to tutor William, the son of the Baron of Hardwick, William Cavendish; this was a start of a whole new kinship between him and his pupil. Both of them took part in a grand tour in 1610 where Hobbes was exposed to European scientific and cultural methods in contrast to “Scholastic Philosophy” which he learned at Oxford. Hobbes’s scholarly efforts at that period were aimed at the study of Greek and Latin authors and in 1628 he translated “Thucydides” a Greek manuscript, into English as “History of the Peloponnesian War” the first of its kind. It was only around 1629 he began to concentrate his efforts on philosophy and the span of the next seven years enlightened his knowledge of philosophy further which led to him being recognized as a chief debater in philosophical groups in Paris after he visited Florence in 1636. Hobbes’s interests were not limited to philosophy and literature alone, he also contributed his writings in myriad fields of history, theology, physics, ethics, political science, and philosophy but is most remembered for his contribution to political philosophy. The book “Leviathan” titled after the biblical Leviathan brought him worldwide fame. His principle of social structure and legitimate government is considered one of the earliest and prodigal examples of the “social contract theory” which reflects his intellectual mind and understanding. (Hobbes.T,1975)

Philosophy of mankind

Hobbes believed that mankind needed some kind of authority to restrict him from bringing out the innate and almost barbaric qualities of self-interest, selfishness, etc. According to him, our fundamental right is merely to save our skins in the absence of political authority. This philosophy is characterized as ethics of human nature, whereas his political philosophy deals with the outcome of human interaction. In the opening chapters of his book “Leviathan”, he compares the human body to a machine and the political organization (the “Commonwealth”) as an artificial person and he claims that the depth of this philosophical thought can only be understood by self-examination, by analyzing our own thoughts and passions which form a basis for our actions. Hobbes’s reference to man as “mechanically programmed” has raised debates among philosophers. Some argue that his view of man as “mechanically programmed” for self-interest and that only pains and pleasures will influence our behavior, does not leave much room for moral thought. However, it is to be remembered that this was only a metaphorical reference. He also stated that the background or time period from which a person belongs plays a significant role in the development of one’s thoughts and ideas and this was found to be true retrospect to the fact that many earlier theories by various economists and philosophers do not come of much help in today’s world where the political and economic scenario has advanced to a great degree. Such philosophies do not find much scope except for giving us an idea of the earlier times; however, some refined and modern theories have influenced the agendas of various governments that were formed in the later period. Hobbes also wanted to provide a comprehensive theory of what motivates a man. He observed that much of our reasoning and understanding was based on beliefs in the supernatural and the existence of God that often clouded clear judgment and the inability to make analytical and logical decisions. He also said that most of our judgments or opinions were conceived by only vehemently taking into account our personal experiences with pains and pleasures acting as an incentive for it. He observed that unrealistic beliefs in supernatural entities were often a result of fear and lack of knowledge of reality that at times created a negative or ominous image about simple facts that could be explained by science and he, therefore, came to the conclusion that only science could overcome the frailties of human judgment and help in forming a reliable knowledge of the future. Hobbes’s theory of mankind is often criticized for portraying man as a selfish beast, but this is a misunderstanding caused as a result of his blatant and overt style of representation. However, he is not dogmatic about the view that man is always self-centered. He also talks about instances where men are selfless in thought and action like those who devote their lives to religion and those who give their lives for their country. He also compounded that many of the problems were caused as a result of people being too less self-interested that they often feared their reputation and image in society would be affected by expressing their points and opinions freely. This theory led people to think that Hobbes was propagating what was called “ethical egoism”. But it can be concluded that he believed that people should express their opinion in a way that does not reflect obvious selfishness. (Williams.G.2006)

Hobbes’s analysis of the “natural condition” of man

Hobbes starts by explaining that the authority that the government has over its people is an artificial authority and claims that a natural authority in relationships only exists between a mother and child as the child is so much weaker and vulnerable at infancy. This however changes with time as the child grows into a mature adult. Society has an unwritten rule of the strongest person establishing his hold over a weaker person or weaker section of the society. But Hobbes differs from this point of view emphasizing that any person is capable of murder irrespective of whether he is weak or strong, a person not gifted a powerful physique can outsmart a much stronger man using his wit. As he believes that men can be equally competent in taking one another’s life, he lays persistent emphasis on the formation of an “artificial authority” to restrict man from being the cause of his ruin. He believes that man will turn into a ruthless selfish animal if left to his free will unless there is the presence of an artificial authority over his moral thought and action. Hobbes further talks about the state of nature and states that such a situation would have existed perhaps in ‘the beginning of time’ or in underdeveloped countries. This state of man may also exist in modern times for example in the case of the total incompetence of the government in establishing any sort of control over its people. His philosophy of man does not stop with that, he goes onto explain further that man may not entirely be selfish. He has classified some men as cowardly and the other of a selfless kind also stating that most of us are too bothered by what others might think of us and therefore tend to suppress our thoughts or actions. He also talks about “insecurity” and the state of contracts assuming a market economy and observes that a poor person will never be able to complete his part of the bargain unless it is forced upon him. He also contradicts his theory saying that not all of the human race become barbaric in this state, some of us have the morals and also the divine qualities of love, humility, selflessness, and care for our fellow beings. Such people play the roles of our saviors if such a condition is to arise someday. Trust plays a vital role in our lives, and at some point, we have to place this trust on other people as it is impossible for us to exist independently. He also says that violence can be justified in a situation where man has to save his skin and when he is being threatened by a stronger person and also when he chooses to attack an enemy who poses a threat of any kind to his own life or the lives of his loved ones. He states that man is only bound by rules of the society and the “natural condition” of mankind is the opposite of this where there is no written rule. This can be explained by an example. A person existing in the natural condition will not be hesitant and may not even think twice if he wanted to kill someone, whereas a man in the civilized society will think more than once about this decision as it is also legally wrong apart from being morally wrong too. Self-preservation is the main motive of a man in the ‘natural condition” where it is his birthright to go to any extent to attain self-preservation and prevent him from violent death. He also states that we have a right to “judge” what will guarantee our self-preservation. The mention of this point established the superiority and prominence of Hobbes’s theory over the other theories of that period. Hobbes’s theory of mankind and “the natural state” was highly criticized by other philosophers who claimed that the natural state did not have morals of any kind. But we should take into consideration the time period in which Hobbes compounded these theories. The Civil War was the background for all his theories and that may be the main cause of this pessimistic thought. War enforces conditions were people have to go to the extent of even slaughtering one another for safety. Such a situation brings out the worst in man and takes us back to the times where the man was an animal. From Hobbes, we learn to fear the “natural state” and have to work hard so that we would never have to come across this stage which will only take us back to where mankind first laid foot on earth.

Social Contract theory

The Social Contract theory is often referred to when people talk about society and how each individual identifies himself with the society. Sometimes this term is also used to justify the involvement of the government in people’s lives. In simple words, this concept refers to the belief that people who live independently opt to bind themselves to each other in a social setup. This theory has been in existence since the period of the great philosopher Socrates and has late been reformed by Thomas Hobbes.

When we say a person has liberty, people normally tend to believe that he is free, not dependant on anybody else for anything. This is a myth. It is impossible. The Social Contract theory goes on to state that there is nothing called a “natural” state of independence because no individual can exist without the aid of another. It is practically not possible for someone to survive without someone else’s support or company for long. It is a basic need for a person to need another. Independence is different from isolation. Isolation is not a way of life- it is a punishment. Since the beginning of mankind, human beings have always lived as a group, within a social structure. It is unnatural for someone to deviate from a group. If they do so, it is only due to some disagreement or misunderstanding and is not termed “independent”. It is natural for an individual to be brought up in a social setup. Therefore the social contract makes clear the fact that a person always identifies himself with his social setup, society, and so on.

Thomas Hobbes however had his views and his version of the theory and stated his laws as against the law of nature:

  • The first law states that man should enjoy and relish peace as long as it is there and not resort to any activities that would ruin this peace. Hobbes states that, only in a case where man finds it inevitable to secure peace shall he ever think of killing another fellow being or resort to war.
  • The second law of nature is rather complicated; Hobbes says that if the man is altogether willing to stay in a condition where he has a right to all things and everyone seems content with the prevailing situation, he should also be prepared for a situation where he has to face the same conditions and rights against him.

This is however unreal as such a condition will never exist as man’s needs are never satisfied completely and if the “natural condition’ is ever doomed to make its presence in the world, it shall mean complete ruin to civilization and it will take us back to the stone age where men were hardly different from animals and therefore we should all fear it.

Political philosophy

Hobbes believed that the social existence of man is inevitable without a government. He regarded man as needy and vulnerable in his quest of knowing the world. The human ability to reason is also equally fragile as his quest for knowledge, however, brought him to the conclusion that man can only hope to live a peaceful life under the authority of a government. A situation where there is no government was considered disastrous by Hobbes; he anticipated the complete ruin of the human race. Given that it would be an opportunity for all the dark traits of man to resurface taking it completely away from the civilization. He termed this condition of man as the “natural condition” of man. A government should therefore be established as a “sovereign authority” which is unaccountable to the people. Hobbes also made a deep analysis of the “natural condition” of man as given below (Strauss.L & Sinclair.E.1996).

Political views

Political philosophy is independent of natural science as its principles are not borrowed from natural science. They are provided from experience as they cannot be borrowed from any other sciences.

Thomas Hobbes is regarded as one of the great political philosophers of America. According to Hobbes political philosophy is not only independent of natural science but is also the main component of human knowledge for which the other important component is natural science. He has written a famous political book called the Leviathan insignificant to the other political writings of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, etc. he is famous for the early development which later came to be known as “the social contract theory”, a method of rationalizing political principles or arrangements by appeal to the agreement that would be made among suitably situated rational, free, and equal person. He is infamous for having used the social contract method to arrive at the astonishing conclusion that we ought to submit to the authority of an exclusive and limitless sovereign power. Though, his methodological innova Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy had a great influence in the construction the of the political philosophy work (Lloyd.S & Sreedhar.S.2008)

Absolute sovereign authority

Under this point of view, Hobbes explains two concepts of “sovereignty by institution” and “sovereignty by acquisition”. When there is a situation when people of an empire turn to the emperor for protection or security, it is called “sovereignty by institution” Hobbes expresses this in the form of a “covenant” where people promise their support and loyalty as their share to the obligation. “Sovereignty by acquisition” is another condition where people are threatened by the conqueror and they resort to the people for their protection. The need for both these situations arises from a common root which is nothing but fear. Fear of being unprotected and thereby harmed. A good government will ensure that “sovereignty by acquisition” does not take place as it will completely undertake the responsibility of safeguarding its people.

Absolute power

Although Hobbes preferred an autocratic power to any other form of government, his main concern of argument was that, whatever forms the government is, it must have absolute authority. He states that its power should be neither divided nor limited to a single line of authority. The powers of legislation, judgment, enforcements like law, taxation, war-making, etc are all interconnected as the loss of one control may result in the loss of effective exercise on the rest. For example, taxation without proper enforcement will not enhance the revenue of the government. Hobbes states that, only when a government having the above qualities, can be highly reliable and effective as when the different rights are held by the different bodies that disagree with each others judgment which will result in a war to settle their dispute or hindrance the growth of the effective government may happen.

Similarly, when the government has limited authority people i.e., a democratic government, there is a fear that the government might be completely overtaken by the people if each person starts to decide if the government should be obeyed or not which might result in a war to settle the issue is possible. So, Hobbes believes in absolute authority where people have to treat their government as having absolute power to avoid the collapse of the government and return to normality.

The limits of political obligation

Though Hobbes’s importunes that we should consider our government as having the downright power and authority, he reserves to subjects the liberty of refusing to follow some of their government’s commands. He argues that the subjects should be given the rights to disobey to defend themselves against the sovereign rule, giving them the right to disobey the laws when their life is in danger. He also gives them broad opposition rights in case their families are involved. Many people are involved in the study of Hobbes have been fascinated by this exception. His attribution of apparently unforfeitable rights—what he calls the “true liberties of subjects”—seems contrastive with his defense of absolute sovereignty. Moreover, if the sovereign’s failure to provide adequate protection to subjects extinguishes their obligation to obey, and if it is left to each subject to judge for herself the adequacy of that protection, it seems that people have never really exited the fearsome state of nature. This aspect of Hobbes’s political philosophy has been hotly debated ever since Hobbes’s time. Bishop Bramhall, one of Hobbes’s contemporaries, famously accused Leviathan of being a “Rebell’s Catechism.”

Imbalance of society and religion

Hobbes observes that people blindly believed in religion and started practicing their religious believes in their day-to-day life which leads to an imbalance in society, he says that people should take only the positive aspects from their religion and should be more practical in life (Tarlton.C.2002).

Major political writings

Thomas Hobbes has written many books on political philosophy. Some of his renowned writings are:

  • The elements of law natural and politic (also known as Human Nature and De Corpore Politico) in 1957- the book has considerable claims as to the primary source for Hobbes main ideas; his overall scheme of thought. A look at the few of its main ideas and some of the problems it raised and the criticisms it provoked
  • English Leviathan was published in 1651, and its Latin revision in 1668- It is titled after the biblical Leviathan. It is considered one of the masterpieces in political philosophy in English. The book concerns the structure of society and legitimate government and is regarded as one of the earliest and most influential examples of social contract theory. Thomas Hobbes also argues about a social contract and the rule of the sovereign.

Influence on the formation of government

The first prominent political philosophy was given by Thomas Hobbes during that period. His work “the Leviathan” is considered to be a book that defends absolute monarchy. And it is also true that Hobbes, who is against government disorder or anarchy and civil war, supports the indivisibility of sovereignty and emphasis centralized power. Though his theory has nothing to do with the rights of kings or principles of legitimacy, it could be used to back up a real government, whether it is an autocratic government or not. Hobbes starts by stressing the individuality factor. The supposed ‘state of nature’ is the stage before the formation of the political society; every individual strives for the attainment of power for his self-preservation at this end, and there is no existing law that will term his actions unjust. This, according to Hobbes is the war of every man against every man. This he called the state of atomic individualism.

Hobbes also feels that self-preservation can be best attained if men unite together and replace organized cooperation for the anarchy of the state in which no man can feel safe even from his fellow citizens which will result in the living of constant fear. Therefore Hobbes describes men, as making social concordat by which each man agrees to hand over to a sovereign his right of governing himself provided that every other man in the society does the same. This concordat is an imaginary, philosophical, and rationalist justification of society. But the important thing is that the formation of the political society and the erection of the sovereign takes place in a single act, so if the sovereign falls, the society dissolves. And Hobbes thought that this happened during the civil war. The binding of society is because of the sovereign. Therefore the society and sovereignty are interrelated. So if enlightened, self-interest will influence the formation of the political society, it also helps to govern the concentration of power in the hands of the sovereign. According to Hobbes, any type of sovereignty was repulsive which will lead to social dissolution. He was not interested in monarch authoritarianism alone; he also concentrated on the coherence of society.

One of the most important features of Hobbes’s political theory is the naturalism in it. He talks about the natural law not keeping in mind the concept of mortal natural law, he talks about the laws of self-preservation and power through his natural law. Moral distinctions come to exist with the formation of the State i.e. the constitution of rights and the initiation of positive law. Hobbes does philosophies the idea of divine law; but a thorough study in his philosophy shows that the will of sovereign expressed in law, is the norm of mortality. Bu still, Hobbes feels that everything should be controlled by the state including the social life of the people. His view is that men will pursue their security in a well-ordered manner when the state concentrates on indivisible sovereignty. According to Hobbes, a state is formed due to the enlightenment of self-interest. So, if the sovereign is unable to protect his subject that is the end of his title to rule.

As for the government, this is the necessary device to maintain peace, defend society and protect rights and liberties. One of the most efficient checks to ungoverned absolutism is the division of power so that the legislative and executive powers are not vested in a single man. Hobbes’s ideas were influential during the formation of the constitution of America. (Copleston.F.2003)


According to Hobbes:

  • People should not be trusted to make decisions on their own.
  • He thought that each was in a constant battle for power and wealth.
  • Governments were formed to protect the people from their selfishness and evil.

Though he did not trust the reign of democracy, Hobbes believed that a group of people who can act as the representatives of people in presenting their problems might prevent the king from being unfair or cruel to his people. During Hobbes’s period, the business had a big influence over the government; they were given a greater status because of their money. To reduce the growing power of the business, Hobbes thought that an individual can be heard in the government if he had a proper representative to speak on their behalf i.e., for the people who had similar views. Hobbes came up with the phrase “the voice of the people” for the representative. But, the voice was merely heard and not listened to for the final decisions taken by the king. Despite all the criticisms that Hobbes had to face for his pessimistic views, his philosophical ideas and thoughts found their use in framing the constitution of many countries and also were profoundly used by the U.S government for forming its constitution. He was a supporter of “democracy” which was adopted by the American Government. He was of the view that people must come together and voice out their opinions unanimously. He also explained the “natural state” of man and why we should fear it. This can be considered as a good enough reason for peaceful co-existence among the nations today. Hobbes’s theories were subject to harsh criticism without taking into account the time period in which he conceived these thoughts, he had the Civil War as the background and therefore held the pessimistic view that man functioned primarily on self-interest. We should however respect the man for his contribution to the field of “political philosophy” which was the base for which many more developed and influential theories sprung up. Therefore he is treated as one of the pioneers of this field without whom political philosophy may not have even existed.


  1. Hobbes, T (1975): Leviathan: Forgotten Books (Electronic version), Web.
  2. William, G (2006): Thomas Hobbes(1588-1679) Moral and Political philosophy(Electronic version), Web.
  3. Strauss, L et al (1996): The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes(Electronic Version), from, Web.
  4. Tarlton , C (2002): The Despotical Doctrine of Hobbes, part ii: Aspects of the Textual Substructure of Tyranny in Leviathan.
  5. Capleston, F(2003): A History of Philosophy(Electronic Version), Web.