Painting of Thomas Hobbes


Hobbes' Life & Work
by Garth Kemerling. Be sure to use the extensive links to relevant 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: social contract

In his account of human psychology and the human condition, Hobbes identifies a first law of nature:

"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]

Noting that self-preservation is rationally sought by communal agreement with others, he derives a second law of nature;

"From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour peace, is derived this second law: that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself. For as long as every man holdeth this right, of doing anything he liketh; so long are all men in the condition of war. But if other men will not lay down their right, as well as he, then there is no reason for anyone to divest himself of his: for that were to expose himself to prey, which no man is bound to, rather than to dispose himself to peace. This is that law of the gospel: Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them." [Leviathan, Ch. VI]

You might recognize this law as a version of the Golden Rule. You have probably encountered statements of the Golden Rule in many situations. Have you ever been given a sound argument for that rule? Such is Hobbes' commitment to systematic philosophical reasoning, that he will not merely instate a principle that is accepted by many. Rather he provides a reasoned basis for accordance with this principle.

Having concluded that it is natural and rational for people to give up some liberty in Figure of royaltyorder to gain security of self-preservation, Hobbes develops a conception of what forms of social organization and political system are consistent with those aims. The condition in which people give up some individual liberty in exchange for some common security is the Social Contract. Hobbes defines contract as "the mutual transferring of right." In the state of nature, everyone has the right to everything - there are no limits to the right of natural liberty. The social contract is the agreement by which individuals mutually transfer their natural right. In other words, I give up my natural right to steal your food because you give up your natural right to steal mine. In place of the natural right we have created a limited right; in this case the right of property. Hobbes notes that we do not make these agreements explicitly because we are born into a civil society with laws and conventions (i.e. contracts) already in place. It is by performing the thought experiment regarding the state of nature and following the chain of reasoning Hobbes put before us that we can see the foundations of our commitment to civil law.

One matter that Hobbes' investigation allows is the examination of governments for the purpose of determining their legitimacy. The purpose of a government is enforce law and serve the common protection. Wherever the government turns to favor the strong over the weak, oneSeal of the king might way that the government has exceeded its legitimate function. In Hobbes' time the rulers claimed their authority to rule by virtue of divine right. God made them King and anyone who questioned the authority of the King was challenging God. Hobbes made some powerful enemies by doing just that. Even though he supported the monarchy as the legitimate government, his philosophy clearly establishes the right of the monarch on the grounds of reasoned principle, rather than divine right. Hobbes secularized politics which led to an increasing demand for accountability of rulers to the people. The impact of this development on contemporary life is profound.

One of Hobbes' enduring images is that of the artificial man. He describes the State (a political entity, e.g. a nation) on the model of an individual human body.

"that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, Leviathan picture made of citizens, and commerce.CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength; salus populi (the people's safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death."

The above picture is from the frontpeice of the 1660 edition of Hobbes' Leviathan. Note that the figure of the State/Ruler is composed of citizens, territory, and commerce. Now when you hear the term "body politic" you will know where it comes from. Hobbes' has an important message for us today. Even though governmental structures have changed radically and political philosophies operate on very different bases, it is still common to hear proposals that we must give up liberty for security. Such proposals are directly related to Hobbes' ideas. Before readily accepting or rejecting such proposals, it is wise to consider the source. Study Hobbes to find out the roots and branches of such political proposals.

Link to previous pageEnd of this portrait of Thomas Hobbes.



IQ Home



Lao Tzu