This May, the OUP Philosophy team honors Thomas Hobbes (April 5, 1588 – December 4, 1679) as their Philosopher of the Month. Hobbes is remembered as the author of one of the greatest of books on political philosophy ever written, Leviathan, in which he argued with a precision reached by few other thinkers. He was famously a cynic, holding that human action was motivated entirely by selfish concerns, notably fear of death.
Hobbes studied at Oxford and devoted his long life to private tutoring and study. In early life he traveled abroad as tutor to the Cavendish family, and in 1640, aware of signs of the impending English civil war, Hobbes moved to Paris where he could return to his writings in some security. After eleven years, Hobbes returned to England in late 1651, when his most famous book, Leviathan, had been published a few months earlier and was beginning to cause debate and to make enemies for its author.
Whatever the many merits of Hobbes’s other works, there is no doubt that Leviathan is his work of genius which guarantees his place as one of the intellectual giants of European philosophy. It is also one of the great works of English prose. In it Hobbes gives a highly original account of the nature of human beings and their psychology, and the nature and justification for government. According to Hobbes, there is no naturally given hierarchy among human beings, and therefore a perceived natural right to everything. In the absence of a controlling power, conflict will arise between human beings all seeking the best for themselves. It is only by voluntarily accepting articles of peace that humanity may be drawn to agreement. Each person must renounce their right to everything, and pass that right to a sovereign whose duty it is to use the common power of the community to enforce the law of nature for the benefit of all. It is this voluntary and rational renunciation that constitutes the contract of the people to accept one person as sovereign which creates the state.
There would be no restriction on the power exercised by the head of state, hence the name Leviathan, because to do so would imply that there was some other law by which his actions could be assessed, and this would imply another law-giver with power to enforce that other law. It is the function of the sovereign to rule in such a way as to maximize the amount of liberty that every person has, compatible with the security of the state. Despite debate over Hobbes’s view of human nature and the formation of a social contract when trust is at a minimum, Leviathan changed political philosophy in a fundamental way. There have been many interpretations of his work but few, if any, clear refutations of his analysis. Hobbes’s reputation as high today as it has ever been.
Featured image credit: Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.