Hobbes' Life & Work
by Garth Kemerling. Be sure to use the extensive links to relavant names and ideas.

On Hobbes's Leviathan
Summaries and observations on this great work from Garth Kemerling.

The Leviathan
A searchable version of
the 1660 text by Hobbes.

Hobbes's Moral and
Political Philosophy

A concise and incisive analysis by Sharon A. Lloyd.



Thomas Hobbes: human condition

In Leviathan, Hobbes provides all of the necessary parts to tell a compelling story of the human condition. Here are the main parts:
bulletOur motives and actions are all based on internal bio-mechanical processes.
bulletGood and evil are dependent on what the individual loves (what s/he seeks) and hates (what s/he avoids).
bulletIn the strictly natural condition (outside of society), there is no objective value (good or bad).
bulletIn the strictly natural condition (outside of society), there is no justice or injustice - everyone has the right to seek and take whatever is good for them and dispose of whatever is bad for them.
bulletHumans are naturally equal in power of mind and body, so that no individual is capable of dominating all the others indefinitely.

Picture the story these elements create - it is a hypothetical situation that is not like our daily lives, it is more like the scenario created in a post-apocalyptic movie, but even further removed from social convention. In that world there would be no trust or fairness. You would have desires (such as food and water) that others may also want. If they are stronger then you, they could take away whatever you have or kill you. If you were stronger or lucky, maybe you would take or kill.

"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; 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." [Leviathan, Ch. VI]

Hobbes does not mean this as a merely possible and scary story. He offers the state of nature as a depiction of the reality that nature actually gives us. Take away our law and social convention, and we will fall into the state of nature. Even in our state of civilization, we carry with us reminders of the consequences of natural liberty;

"It may seem strange to some man that has not well weighed these things that Nature should thus dissociate and render men apt to invade and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this inference, made from the passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience. Let him therefore consider with himself: when taking a journey, he arms himself and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be laws and public officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall be done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions as I do by my words? But neither of us accuse man's nature in it. The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin. No more are the actions that proceed from those passions till they know a law that forbids them; which till laws be made they cannot know, nor can any law be made till they have agreed upon the person that shall make it." [Leviathan, Ch. VI]

Another depiction of this story of unrestricted human desire is found in Plato's Republic in the Ring of Gyges myth. Another important element in this story is general principle of human psychology.

"A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved." [Leviathan, Ch. VI]

This is the principle of self-preservation. Human beings (perhaps all animals and living things) seek to preserve themselves against harm and death. Self-preservation is a value that we all have in common and it leads to a very important point in Hobbes' investigation: the basis for group cooperation.

Suppose that someone is strong enough to harm us at their pleasure. The rational thing to do is to form an agreement with others to protect against that person or get rid of them. There is strength in numbers. But, if we can band together for mutual protection from an individual, then we can also agree upon common rules that mutually protect us from each other. That is, to make and live by a social agreement by which all of us accept limitations on our liberty in exchange for common security.

The above is but a skeletal summary, yet the direction of Hobbes' effort is clear: to derive from the principles of human psychology and natural conditions the basis for a rational commitment to social organization.

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