Thomas Hobbes' Contribution to Politics

Thomas Hobbes described the life of man to be
... Images

Violent strife raged between Catholics and the new Protestant Christians in the aftermath of the Reformation. This convinced English philosopher Thomas Hobbes that people must be free to hold whatever religious beliefs they prefer, but that religion must not be the organizing principle of a government. He developed a comprehensive theory of how people should be governed that has influenced most political thought since.

1 Constant Conflict

Hobbes believed that absolute freedom would result in a war of "...all against all." He argued that people spend all of their lives in the restless pursuit of power and influence over others, calling it the "state of nature." This led him to believe a government must have sufficient power to provide internal peace and protection against external threats, while leaving people free to adopt whatever beliefs they prefer without coercion.

2 Dethroning Religion

Most governments of his time were built around a particular religious authority. After nearly a century of religious strife, Hobbes concluded that imposed religious authority could only inflame people's passions. This led him to reject religious authority as a reliable organizing principle for a government. It was a new and controversial idea in his time. Almost half of Hobbes' seminal work, "Leviathan," was devoted to thoughts on religious freedom and its proper place in society.

3 Building a Social Contract

To obtain peace and security, Hobbes maintained that people must mutually agree to give up some of their freedom and submit to the authority of a political power. He called this the social contract. Though a lifelong enthusiast for monarchies, he proclaimed any power legitimate provided that it was strong enough to provide its subjects security. Hobbes was an absolutist, believing that the division of executive, legislative and judicial powers makes a state ineffective. Even so, Hobbes insisted that men still retained the right to defy the state on matters of defense of their lives or, more nebulously, their honor. This led many critics of Hobbes to charge that the only effective recourse he leaves to state abuse is that of revolution.

4 Anticipating the Enlightenment

Hobbes' philosophy could aptly be described as the rough draft of the Enlightenment, which began in the late 1600s. Enlightenment philosophy emphasized reason and science as the proper organizing principles for government. While many later political philosophers came to different conclusions, almost all work from the agenda he set. Their primary concerns are about the definition of the state of nature, the description of the social contract, and what the roles of religion, human rights, and government should be in civil society.

Joe McElroy has been writing on politics and culture since 1983. His articles have appeared in a diverse array of publications, including the "Chicago Daily Observer" and "Immaculata" magazine. McElroy works occasionally as a strategic consultant to federal candidates. He majored in American history at Northwestern University.