Thomas Hobbes: philosophy's bad boy reassessed

Essay, 2005

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Hobbes’ image of man and the natural condition of man

2. The Natural Condition of Man

3. The Social Contract and the Sovereign

4. The Natural Law and Hobbes’ method

5. Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury: the case for despotism?

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction: Hobbes’ image of man and the natural condition of man.

Broadly speaking, Thomas Hobbes’ image of man was genuinely pessimistic. The proof for this claim may be found in the first book of Leviathan, in which Hobbes explains his view of the human nature, its soul and its mechanisms. Leviathan was not Hobbes’ first attempt to give such a general overview, and when he claimed that “Homo homini lupus” (Man is a wolf to man), it was firstly not him who coined the phrase (it first appeared around 1500), and secondly not in Leviathan but nine years earlier in De Cive. The idea that “Man is a wolf to man” sums up many of Hobbes’ theories in a single phrase. However, it should be noted that the sentence so often quoted as summarising Hobbes’ theories continues, “Man is an arrant wolf to man, and man to man is a God.” The second half is often forgotten but it is vitally important to remember it in order to fully understand what might be seen as the first coherent and scientific political theory. How can man to man be a wolf and a God simultaneously? Hobbes’ image of man was not only pessimistic but ambiguous too.

Hobbes interpreted human society from the background of the English Civil War. Although he did not witness it in Britain due to his exile in France, the Civil War greatly influenced his view of what men could do to one another. He saw that neighbours who had peacefully lived next to one another for decades were suddenly capable of slaughtering one another like animals, and it is not pushing reason too far to see this as the worst possible condition of any society. England in the 1640s was going to pieces, and the underlying principle of all of Hobbes’ theories was to prevent such a war from happening again.

This essay outlines the political theory of Thomas Hobbes by describing his basic assumptions upon which he built his theory, and then moving on to the social contract, which is the core of Hobbes’ philosophy. The next chapter deals with the question of how a peace contract may be kept, which is followed by an analysis of Hobbes’ method. Finally, a conclusion is drawn on the question of how Hobbes was understood by his contemporaries and by later generations. Admittedly, this means blending out just about half of the Leviathan, namely the two books on religion. However, including them in this essay would mean either to merely scrape the very surface of the topics dealt with by Thomas Hobbes or to extend to about twice its length. Secondly, Hobbes’ political theories work almost independently of his religious beliefs, and Hobbes’ political theory certainly had far more consequences over the last few centuries.

2. The Natural Condition of Man

The Leviathan starts by describing what Hobbes calls “the Natural Condition of Man”, and although he does not mention the Civil War as this natural condition, Hobbes makes numerous references to it. It is important to note that the natural condition is not a historical fact but a hypothetical assumption, as a condition that follows naturally to the fact that “man is a wolf to man” if there is no regulative state. According to Hobbes, the foremost goal of any creature is survival; a point in which humans do no different from any other lifeform. As long as there is no state or ruler to prevent people from doing what they like, all means to ensure survival are perfectly legitimate. Every human beings have the right to do whatever they think is necessary to stay alive, and that may well involve the killing of other human beings. As this is so, it follows that survival means protection against attacks, and such protection in turn is another word for power. So far, Hobbes has proven that all human beings desire power, and if for nothing else, then simply in order to protect themselves.

Up to this point, anarchy would be the most just system imaginable. However, Hobbes makes the observation that the only way to maintain the power and the means for survival is to expand and enhance them. One person is bound to start off this process of expanding his own power and thus pose a threat to everyone else, so that the rest are bound to follow the same principle and try to expand their power too. At this point, and given that men’s passions are strong enough to make them kill one another for whatever idea they believe is true, e.g. religion, the natural condition could be seen as a synonym for war. If everyone tries to enlarge their realm of power, a war is certain, as even within the comparatively small population of 17th century England (c. 1 million), the borders of one man’s influence naturally cross another man’s very soon, meaning that the two of them will need fight to the death.


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Thomas Hobbes: philosophy's bad boy reassessed
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
British Institutions (Landeskunde)
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ISBN (Book)
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378 KB
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Thomas, Hobbes
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Nicholas Williams (Author), 2005, Thomas Hobbes: philosophy's bad boy reassessed, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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