Commentators in the media have recently taken to quoting Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), usually in connection with his comparison between war and what he calls the 'state of nature'. I therefore thought it might be of interest to expand a little on the views of Hobbes and in particular on what he means by a 'state of nature'.
The notion of a 'state of nature' was used by theorists in the 17th and 18th centuries to indicate the condition of human beings prior to or without government. Most likely, the theorists did not think that the 'state of nature' had ever actually existed. Rather, they used the idea as an appeal to the imagination in order to bring out the rationale for accepting government authority.
The important point is that the kind of government the theorists thought appropriate reflected how each characterised the state of nature. For John Locke (1632-1704), people have natural rights even in the state of nature. But Hobbes saw the state of nature very differently and his view led him to recommend a very different form of government. There were two reasons for this. One was his dark view of human nature and the other was his experience of living through the English Civil War (1642-51).
Hobbes was a consistent materialist, believing that human nature could best be understood as a machine. In this, he was much influenced by the new science of Galileo and Descartes. Moreover, in mid-life, he discovered the Elements of Euclid, and was hugely impressed by the clarity and logic by which conclusions could be reached by deductive steps from definitions.
He carries the inspiration of the new science and of Euclid into the opening of his greatest book: Leviathan
(1651). In it, he outlines his account of how human nature works. He wants to show that there is a plausible materialist explanation for all the features of human psychology. All our desires aim at self-interest, and traditional values are interpreted in a similar manner. For example, he writes:
The value, or worth of a man, is as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power... An able conductor of soldiers, is of great price in time of war… but in peace not so.
Riches are honourable; for they are power. Poverty [is] dishonourable… magnanimity, liberality, hope, courage, confidence are honourable for they proceed from conscience of power.
Following Euclid, he offers definitions of the 'passions' of human psychology. Some of these definitions are amusing. For example:
Sudden glory, is the passion which maketh these grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.
Blushing... in young men is the sign of love... and commendable: in old men it is a sign of the same; but because it cometh too late, not commendable.
Granted Hobbes' account of the ruthless self-interest which drives all human desires, it is to be expected that his 'state of nature' will be no Garden of Eden. In a very colourful chapter he describes the enormous disadvantages of living in this state of nature:
… no place for industry; no commodious building; no knowledge; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Nevertheless, in the state of nature there are 'passions' which incline men to peace. These are 'fear of death and desire for such things as are necessary for commodious living'. Granted these passions, reason suggests some natural laws to assist escape from the state of nature.
The first two are: 'That every man ought to endeavour peace… and when he cannot obtain it that he may seek all helps and advantages of war'; and: 'That a man be willing, when others are so too… to lay down his right to all things and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself'. There are several other laws of nature but they all lead to the establishing of a pact or covenant.
Now the key difference between Hobbes and other social contract theorists such as Locke or Rousseau is this. For Locke, Rousseau and others, the drawbacks of a state of nature are solved by setting up and contracting with a government. The subjects, because of the inconveniences of a state of nature, are willing to give up some of their liberties provided the government will do its part, such as defending them from enemies, defining laws and rights, arbitrating in disputes and carrying out tasks which individuals cannot manage on their own. There are provisions in such social contract theories for overthrowing governments which do not carry our their part of the contract.
For Hobbes, there is no contract with a government; the pact or covenant is with others in the state of nature. This is a novel approach and to try to make it clear I shall use Hobbes' own words. He writes:
This [covenant] is more than consent... it is a real unity of [all men] in one and the same person… I authorise and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition that thou give up thy right to him and authorise all his actions in like manner. The multitude so united in one person is called a commonwealth. This is the generation of the great Leviathan.
The artificial person so created is called the sovereign, and the attaining of sovereign power is by two ways. By natural force, or by agreement when men agree to submit themselves to some one man or assembly.
Two points must be stressed. The sovereign or government or commonwealth or Leviathan is not some body separate from the majority with which the subjects make a pact; it is the totality of the subjects as a unity who agree with each other to be ruled by the corporate will of all. Second, this Leviathan, this corporate will, is absolute; there is no covenant with him. The covenant is among those who want to escape from the state of nature and decide that the only way to do this is to agree among themselves to create an absolute ruler. The absolute ruler is themselves in the form of a corporate or artificial person, the sovereign. It makes no sense to oppose this sovereign for his will is your will.
Why does Hobbes take his line? The first reason is his belief that the natural state is one of ruthless competition among self-interested human beings. He thinks this follows from his view that humans are complex machines. Second, he was by his own admission a fearful person and he had lived through the horrors of the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I. These reasons convinced him that the only way to prevent civil strife was to have an absolute sovereign.
Hobbes was therefore a natural Royalist who supported the Restoration of Charles II as an absolute ruler. But the Royalists did not like his reasoning in support of monarchy. They believed their absolute power was supported by Divine Right rather than by a bizarre political theory. Hobbes had therefore to tread carefully with the Royalists as well as with the Parliamentarians.
Indeed, he had to tread carefully with everyone! It would be fair to say that every right-thinking philosopher after Hobbes had to begin their career by criticising him. Students were sent down from Oxford for defending him.
Hobbes had interests which were much wider than political theory. He wrote on science and religion, and he is considered by scholars to be the founder of modern biblical interpretation. He was a secretary to Francis Bacon, visited Galileo and had disputes with Descartes. In his 90s, he translated Homer from the Greek. The Roman Catholic Church burned his books and some people wanted to burn him with them. He even ventured into mathematics and attempted to square the circle. Good luck with that.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow