Thomas Hobbes was one of the core social contract philosophers and
is probably best known for his work Leviathan.
The doctrine of Leviathan has come to be regarded as ‘an isolated phenomenon in
English thought, without ancestry or posterity ‘ (Trevor-Roper, 2001, p.233).
For Hobbes, the Leviathan was the ultimate ruler whom had absolute power.
Hobbes recognized that people worked and behaved to further their
self-interests. In a society where people disagreed, it would eventually lead
to conflict and civil war. He believed that people should obey what the
sovereign said and did, as he had their best interests at heart. However, while
the survival of men in a civil society with stable political order is the top
priority of Hobbes, it is hard to see that government and a sovereign is the
only possible alternative to anarchy. By having a sovereign with absolute
power, Hobbes does not allow citizens of this society to represent themselves
as they must be constantly submissive. Scholars
have attempted to criticise and condemn Hobbes’ work. They believed that his
combination of science and philosophy would severely morph the world and that
people would behave irrationally.
Many have interpreted Hobbes’ views as unhistorical and have been
misled by his writings, especially Leviathan.
‘He has been treated as a figure in complete isolation, the inventor of ‘an
entirely new type of political doctrine'(Strauss, 1953, p.182). That being
said, Hobbes drew on material that was already there, in order to develop his
doctrines. He was a fan of looking to the past and learning from it to create a
better future. He did not want to dwell on the past, and on things that he
could not change. ‘The prevailing view, moreover, about the meaning of Hobbes’s
own political doctrine depends in effect on discounting all such evidence about
his contemporary intellectual relations.’ (Skinner, 1966, p.287)
Hobbes idea of the state of nature is one in which no state or
government would be present. Everyone would have the right to everything.
Hobbes states that we need power to fulfil our desires and control our futures.
It is very unlikely that we would be able to survive in the state of nature unless
some sort of authority was wielded over us. We need power to ensure our
survival. Shaftesbury believes that If there was a state of Nature, ‘let it be
a state of war, rapine and injustice’, for ‘to speak well of it is to render it
inviting and tempt men to turn hermits.’ (Shaftesbury, 1900, p.83). It appears
that many scholars, as well as Hobbes, are against this state of nature, as men
would have equal right to others’ possessions and would do whatever it takes to
further their self-interest. This would lead to a likelier outcome of war and
violence, something which Hobbes has tried to avoid.
In conclusion, Skinner has outlined the many critiques and compliments
which scholars have given to Hobbes as they try to understand his writing. Many
have misinterpreted Hobbes’ doctrines and have attempted to over-simplify his
teachings. He is probably most famous for his work of Leviathan, showing that men are motivated by self-interest and that
in order to get out of the state of nature, a sovereign with absolute power
would be the best solution. His combining of science and philosophy has posited
a new way of thinking about society and how to survive in order to get what you
want. While trying to avoid anarchy and
conflict, Hobbes has proffered a solution with both advantages and
disadvantages. While violence would be reduced, it is difficult to believe that
this is the only option to maintain peace in a civil society.