Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher and political theorist, was strongly influenced by the English Civil Wars and the beheading of Charles I, and by the growing interest in science. He hoped to set social philosophy on a firm scientific foundation, which, he thought, also would have the happy result of showing all rebellion against authority to be in the wrong. Hobbes’s embrace of science consisted in trying to describe people as they actually were, rather than as the writer would like them to be. To this end, Hobbes began his investigation by attempting to determine how humans would behave in the absence of political institutions. This hypothetical state of society, in which no political institutions exist, Hobbes called the natural condition of mankind or the state of nature. If it can be shown what the condition of man in the state of nature was and why political institutions were essential if these conditions were to be improved, the result would be a strong justification for government. This demonstration is exactly what Hobbes attempts to do in his masterpiece, Leviathan, which was published in 1649.

Hobbes’s analysis of man’s state of nature led him to arrive at a series of conclusions. First, practical rationality consists of applying one’s thinking ability to the situation in which one finds oneself with a view to realizing one’s interests, whatever they might be. Men seek the best life possible, but our views of what best consists of vary enormously. Despite this variation, it is logical to presume that we all wish to avoid death.

Second, all men are equal in the sense that “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” We are therefore all equally vulnerable. Thus, no one may pretend to social superiority solely by virtue of being who or what he is.

Third, although goods are scarce in man’s natural state, this situation is rectifiable. However, nature is not generous. Men must work, indeed work in cooperation with others, to increase the supply of wealth at our disposal. Unfortunately, a shortcut to wealth is available; we can simply take what others have produced through their labor, rather than laboring ourselves. This ability to gain at the expense of others, not innate aggression, sets the stage for conflict between men.

Fourth, we are capable of love, at least in a limited way. Hobbes is widely thought to have espoused egoism, in that the only things we desire are those that conduce to our private good. Yet Hobbes is aware that love unites families, despite our having little general affection for strangers. In a contest between self and strangers, people are prone to act selfishly.

Finally, we are not naturally moral. Hobbes argued that, in the absence of moral or affectional restraint, opportunities to gain by violence will often prevail. At the same time, people will move to defend themselves, including engaging in preemptive warfare. No one trusts anyone, cooperative activity is impossible, and there is “continual fear, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The method by which men extricate themselves from this terrible state is morality. Hobbes provided a list of laws of nature, laws based exclusively on the use of our reasoning from our general interests and not on intuition or religion. The first and most fundamental law of morality requires us to confine ourselves to peaceful interchange with others except when attacked; at that point, we may defend ourselves. This moral law leads to several others, among them that we may claim only as much, but no more liberty, for ourselves as we are willing to grant others, and that we honor our agreements.

These laws of nature, Hobbes maintained, are “eternal and immutable.” If so, why, then, is there a need for the State to enforce these laws? Hobbes argued that these laws of nature are weak and cannot be relied on to enforce themselves. One should refrain from making war on others, but only if they do not engage in warfare first. However, if one can gain from aggressive action of this sort, there is really nothing to stop us. Contracts, Hobbes noted, are “mere words” and “of no strength to bind a man.” What man needs is security, without which we remain in the most awful of worlds, the state of nature. This security can only be obtained, Hobbes concluded, through the creation of a State, to which each of us concedes our power.

It is here that Hobbes blunders and blunders badly. First, there are many devices that might conduce to the security necessary to peaceful coexistence, not the least being parental training of the young. In addition, there are peer pressure, reputation, and the formation of voluntary defensive agencies such as security companies. Second, the idea of government by general consent was, on Hobbes’s own assumptions, impossible. Consent is signified by words. If words do not bind, the agreement to create government is impossible, and we are stuck in the state of nature.

This problem gives rise to the most pervasive dispute among libertarians—whether it is in our interests to have a state, albeit limited in its extent, or market anarchism. The statist thinks the state is necessary to prevent chaos, but its activities can and should be confined to a narrow range—the minimal state (minarchism). Market anarchists argue that the free market is capable of doing everything, including protecting the free market. Nevertheless, both schools agree that Hobbes’s political conclusions are wrong. Indeed, if he were right, all governments, including the worst in history—Stalin, Hitler, Nero—are legitimate because, however bad they are, they are better than the state of nature. Hobbes’s singular contribution to the development of political theory is the clarity of his discussion of the general nature of morality, in which he shows what a proper state, if there can be any such, would do: namely, forbid interpersonal aggression and nothing else. Hobbes saw that peace, prosperity, and the possibility of each of us living the best life as we each understand it lies solely in the prevention of violence. Thus, he deserves pride of place as the founder of liberalism.

Further Readings

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Richard Tuck, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Locke, John. “Second Treatise on Government.” Two Treatises on Government. Peter Laslett, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Oakeshott, Michael. Hobbes on Civil Association. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1975.

Jan Narveson
Originally published