Did Hobbes Contribute Any New Political Ideas?
English philosopher and monarchist Thomas Hobbes, who lived between 1588 and 1679, had wide-ranging interests. He studied not only political thought, but also physics, history and -- without much success -- mathematics. He translated Thucydides' classic "History of the Peloponnesian War" from the original ancient Greek to English. He is best known for his innovations in political theory and his most famous work in the field, "The Leviathan." This book, and other major writings, are collected in the volume, "The English Works of Thomas Hobbes."
1 Unique Take on Human Nature
Hobbes argues that without government, people would exist in a combative state of nature characterized by violent competition for survival. In his uniquely stark perspective, this is a state of war in which the individual seeks only personal gain. Such an existence, Hobbes suggests, favors the brutal. He famously describes life in the state of nature as "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." A strong central government is crucial to prevent people from regressing into a war of "all against all."
2 Need for Absolutism
Hobbes supports strong absolutist monarchy, believing it the best way to keep essentially self-interested people in check. He argues that people can discern how dangerous the state of nature must be -- and guard against it by subjugating themselves to government. He sees this as an immutable law of nature that compels individuals to accept government authority. He does not support checks and balances or division of powers, as he fears they lead to political paralysis, government failure, anarchy and even civil war.
3 Social Contract
Hobbes' absolutism is not completely absolute, as it requires a measure of consent from the governed -- this is called the social contract. Hobbes defends the right to violent resistance against the sovereign only when an absolutist power does not protect subjects from harm. When that happens, the sovereign has broken the social contract and ceded legitimacy. Hobbes was the first Enlightenment philosopher -- incredibly, the first philosopher since ancients like Aristotle -- to articulate an argument in favor of social contract theory.
4 Hobbes' Influences on Political Thought
Hobbes' social contract theory influenced Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant -- and 20th-century thinkers like John Rawls. Though a monarchist, Hobbes' views on the need for consent from the governed were influential in forming modern democracies like the U.S. Also, his vision of a chaotic state of nature was expanded by political scientists to describe an international system of states defined by chaos. This vision of the world was central for political scientists observing Cold War international relations.
- 1 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Thomas Hobbes
- 2 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Hobbes's Moral and Political Philosophy
- 3 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Contractarianism
- 4 Hobbes's Political Theory; Deborah Baumgold
- 5 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Hobbes, Thomas - Moral and Political Philosophy
- 6 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Social Contract Theory
- 7 Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory; Gregory S. Kavka
- 8 The Logic of Leviathan - The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes; David P. Gauthier
- 9 The Leviathan; Thomas Hobbes