Hobbes and Locke and the beginnings of “liberalism”: (i) Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) (pp8)


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Links:           Extracts - Hobbes


Imagining Other Index Page


                                                                                                                                      Political Philosophy Contents Page


                                                                                                                                      Locke (pp9)



Main Sources:


Jones, W.T. in the Harrap series: Masters of Political Thought, Vol. 2. 0 245 56783 6

MacPherson, C.B. in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of Leviathan.

Macpherson, C.B. – The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, OUP 1977. 0 19 881084 9



1. Importance:


1.1 The method he used in developing his philosophy of politics was new; he believed it was scientific because the approach was similar to that used in geometry (see 3.1 below). He called it a “resolutive-compositive” method. 


1.2 Other aspects of his thinking are also modern: he stressed the importance of the individual, and discussed the nature of power; and he set out a case for a strong national sovereign.


1.3 He was a distinctive thinker, opposed at the time (viz. during the English Civil War) by both Republicans and Royalists (though the general insecurity felt during the Civil War is probably behind his strong support of the need for a powerful ruler). He advocated an absolutist ruler, but did not use the “Divine right of Kings” argument that Royalists used; Republicans were opposed to his anti-democratic views, but also did not accept the extreme individualism of his outlook (he derived his whole theory from a view of the psychology of the individual, and what he called the natural rights that followed form this).


Note: I spend some time on Hobbes because of his novel, modern approach, and because he was so controversial. His successors, such as Locke, either had to refute him or use similar arguments. Probably until Marx all thinkers in political philosophy are influenced by Hobbes.


2. Life:


2.1 Born in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, he went to Oxford University when he was 15 years old. He disliked the emphasis on logic and reasoning, but in fact his own thinking owes much to this approach (it is not as “scientific” as he thought – see 3.1 below).


2.2 He became tutor to the son of William Cavendish, who was to become Earl of Devonshire. Through this family he met other distinguished people such as Ben Jonson, and Francis Bacon (the true father of scientific method).


2.3 When his great work “Leviathan” – justifying an absolute sovereign with such powers he would be like the mythical sea-monster the Leviathan - was published in 1651 it was condemned as “atheistic”, and he had to leave his post of tutor to the exiled Prince of Wales (in France) and return to England. Here he found (“somewhat to his surprise” says W.T. Jones) that he could support the Protectorate under Cromwell, since this was the kind of government he had been advocating.


2.4 At the Restoration he withstood criticisms of his position so well that the king took him back into favour and gave him a pension.


2.5 He died at the remarkable age of 91. He wrote much, including: translations of Thucydides; and of the Iliad and the Odyssey – written when he was 85, because he had nothing to do…; and treatises on geometry. But he is remembered for his work on political philosophy, Leviathan.


3. The argument in Leviathan:


Note: the numbers below correspond to the Extracts – i.e. for the text commented on in 3.1 see extract 1, 3.2 see 2, etc.


3.1 Method:

To build up a theory of politics we must first identify – largely by introspection – a number of basic propositions. From these we then build up more complex statements. The method is much the same as that used in geometry.


This is actually not the same as the scientific method being developed by Francis Bacon and others: here, observation and experiment are used to identify basic facts, from which scientific laws can be deduced. The latter method is “empirical” – Hobbes was a “rationalist”.


3.2 Movements, Appetites and Aversions:

All our feelings and thoughts can be accounted for in terms of movement of some body/bodies (physical entities). Is this an early form of “materialism”? Some of these movements are involuntary (breathing, blood-flow), others are voluntary – what Hobbes calls “Endeavour”. We can also see how humans move towards things they want or like (“Appetite” or “Desire”), and away from things they dislike (“Aversion”).  This seems to be derived from a basic desire to survive that we all have.

3.3 Good and Evil:

Hobbes takes this a step further: what we are attracted to we call “good”, and what we turn away from we call “bad or evil”. Thus Hobbes does not attribute to humans a distinct moral sense – rather, just as with any living thing, our sentiments are derived from our basic (physical) impulses. This “naturalistic” approach (humans as part of, and no different from, the rest of nature) is a pre-cursor of utilitarianism (developed by Bentham and Mill in the 19th century).


3.4 Deliberation (Reasoning):

Of course, when these movements are voluntary, we are presented with choices and decisions to make – what would be the consequences of this action? Am I able to do this? Making choices between different options is what Hobbes calls “Deliberation” – i.e. using our reasoning. (Again, bear in mind that this is all in terms of “movements” in the body). When, after deliberating, we decide to act this means that we use our “Will” – and Hobbes says that this is, like everything else, a movement that is a part of reasoning (the last Appetite in Deliberating).


Note that this reduces “reasoning” to an instrument serving our needs…. In the 20th century, “behaviourist” psychologists such as Skinner would take this so far as to say that we have no proof of the existence of “minds”, or “emotional states” – all we can observe and measure is “behaviour” (actions, movements…).


3.5 Power:

There is one more basic definition that is essential to Hobbes’ argument: “power”. This is the “present means to obtain some future apparent good”. This is a very precise and literal definition: only “present” means count towards our power, meaning by present whatever we actually possess when we decide we want to do something. The word “apparent” is also important, and inevitable, here: the individual observer is seeing what he/she wants and deciding how to go about getting it, all in the interests of survival.


Hobbes distinguishes between power that we have in ourselves (strength etc) and things we then use these innate powers to acquire, such as money, fame etc. The latter then enable us to get more of what we desire, and Hobbes reveals an insight that to me is crucial: the more power you have, the more you can acquire.


This would seem to be an obvious and harmless observation… What follows next, however (to my mind at least) changes the argument into something quite disturbing.


3.6 Ever more power:

There is no guarantee that we can acquire enough power to live well – so we keep on trying to get more.  And acquiring power is a “zero sum” game: what one person has another loses, so everyone will try to get more power than everyone else.




3.7 All are equal:

There was a generally widespread belief at this time in the “equality” of human beings (see Locke). I guess this derives from the Christian view that we are all equal in the sight of God, or all created equal. What I find fascinating (as a kind of socialist) is the many different ways that this idea then gets turned around, so that in the end we have arguments justifying the fact that we are all far from equal!  Of these, Hobbes’s is perhaps the most amazing in its consequences. Given our physical and intellectual similarity to each other, we all have similar hopes and expectations, and we are all able to claim an equal right to anything.


We might note, that no natural leaders among men will emerge if this is true… Certainly Hobbes needed a way of explaining how one person could have so much more power that they were able to be leader. And he needed to justify this state of affairs: the two processes are developed together in his argument.


3.8 Competition and Diffidence:

Given all this, Hobbes says, we are bound to compete and struggle for anything that more than one person wants (that can’t be shared). Since we can only see others as threats to our survival, and we inevitably feel “Diffidence” (mistrust, suspicion etc), it is only “reasonable” for each of us to “anticipate” the danger of losing out to others, and so we are driven to get enough power so that we no longer feel threatened. 


Yet, of course, given the individualistic psychology that Hobbes has described, no one is surely ever going to feel that they are secure from others?


3.9 Quarrels:

“Diffidence” is, however, only one cause of “quarrel”: some will be driven by wanting “Gain”, others to protect their “Reputation”…


3.10 The State of Nature:

Finally, we arrive at what is the most famous statement by Hobbes – the “war of all against all” (or in his own words, “of every man, against every man”), and a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. [One of the most rhetorically effective sentences ever written!] What he is describing is what political philosophers call “the state of nature”. Many thought that this was the most telling argument to demonstrate that we need political order, laws, a ruler etc: what would life be like if we went back to a “natural” time, before we had these safeguards? And this then becomes: what would life be like if we didn’t have laws etc now? (Not that this argument follows from the first…)


Hobbes’s argument is perhaps stronger than it would seem if we were to accept his idea of a “state of nature”, for it is really based on assumptions about human psychology. He does not, in fact, need to believe that a “state of nature” ever existed (though perhaps he felt it strengthened his argument). However, we will only accept the force of his arguments if we accept his (pessimistic?) statements about the drive for “power” etc, regardless of whether we find the concept of a state of nature useful or not.


Incidentally, Hobbes believed that as regards the relations between states, these were still at the stage of the “state of nature” – there being no superior power to hold them in check and to make them feel that they can trust each other!


3.11 The First Law of Nature is Survival:

Evidently Hobbes thought the argument from “nature” was irrefutable, since he then goes on to describe what he calls “laws of nature”. We are supposed to believe that these laws are as fixed as physical laws – say the law of gravity. However, (as pointed out above) Hobbes has no empirical evidence for these statements – rather the “laws” are the “dictates of right reason” – they are taken to be self-evident. Locke and others would recognise that these are not true natural laws. (Hobbes himself seems to recognise this in a point made at the end of the next section, on Covenants and Natural Laws: “These dictates of Reason, men use to call by the name of Lawes; but improperly: for they are but Conclusions, or Theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves.” (I 14 – 15, quoted by Jones, p 111).


The fundamental “natural law” is survival – all reasonable beings will do what they can to keep alive, and will avoid doing things that threaten their life.


This last point seems pretty incontrovertible… However, the main philosophical problem with all this is that we have no way of knowing how an individual is right, no way of proving that the “natural Laws” Hobbes identifies are those that should be agreed to by everyone, and above all, if an individual chooses to think differently, and can back up their beliefs with reason, then no-one has the right to refute them, surely?


3.12 The Natural Right to Peace - and War; Covenants to Exchange Rights:

He then breaks this first law down into: the desire for peace, and the necessity if our lives are threatened, to resort to war in self-defence, and he makes the point that Natural Laws endow us with Natural Rights. This argument about “natural rights” continues to this day: it is not clear to me exactly what it means. For religious believers – such as John Locke – it was perhaps the same as saying: God created the world in a certain way, and since the world follows certain natural (God-made) laws, then for us to try to do something contrary to these laws is not only absurd (in the case of physical laws such as gravity) but it is contrary to God’s will. Much of the discussion in Hobbes about not taking our own lives seems to me to be a reflection of the Christian rule against suicide, for example. For non-believers, the concept of natural rights is more akin to saying “any reasonable person would agree that it is wrong” to do something contrary to a natural right: such as taking away another’s life. How far these rights extend (if they are accepted at all – and some thinkers do not accept the notion – when we come to Paine vs. Burke we will meet this point again!) is a matter of debate today: do animals have natural rights?  (But see 3.13).




There is then a long passage on Covenants (or contracts) and agreements: to Hobbes, when we mutually transfer rights to each other, we set up a Covenant (contract); and he says there is a third law of nature, that once men have set up a contract they will stick to it. (“That men performe their Covenants made”).  It is often said in political philosophy that the existence of “contracts” is a sign of the willingness of people to respect each other’s rights etc, and one of the foundations of society; in other words, society would break down if there were no general agreement that, once made, a contract should not be broken. This is not to say that individuals will – or even should – never break a contract, but just imagine a world in which you never knew whether what someone had just promised was a genuine promise!


Elsewhere rfc Hobbes says that “Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all”. This clearly reinforces his view of the sovereign’s need for extraordinary power (force) (see 14 and 15 below) but I am not sure it is necessary in his argument (see the next point). Worse, if all that ensures that covenants are kept in the end is force, how do we explain the move from the state of nature to the social covenant? (See also the comments in section 4 below).


3.13 The Golden Rule:

In what now seems to me to be an important next step, Hobbes declares that it makes sense if we moderate our desires – after all, a right of everyone to everything is a right of no-one to anything!! We should only allow ourselves as much liberty (or power?) as we would allow others to have in relation to, or over, us. This is a variation of the “golden rule” – to do unto others only what you would have them do unto you. It can also be used to decide who has natural rights: since another reasonable human being would not want me to rob him or attack him for no good reason, and nor would I want him to do this to me, then clearly it would be wrong (“naturally”) for either of us to rob or attack the other – it would be “unnatural” for either to break this implicit agreement. (But would it?!) So some (Locke, for example) restrict the notion of natural rights to rational humans. Others – Peter Singer today, for example – argue that animals feel pain, and rational humans ought to accept that it is wrong to inflict pain on them: in other words the animals have a (natural?) right not to suffer.


However, this ‘next step’ in Hobbes’s argument is mainly important because it prepares the way for the agreement to institute a sovereign (see next point).


3.14 The Social Covenant, and the Sovereign:

This and the next point mark the climax of Hobbes’s argument: we should all by now agree that the only way out of this “war of every man against every man” is to lay down our own rights to seek power over others, and to give these rights to one man or one body of men. They will then have an obligation to protect us. Many (liberal) political philosophers use the device of a “contract” (or social contract) in their theories. One important point to note here, however, is that this is a contract between the people to appoint a sovereign – the sovereign is outside, or above, the contract surely, so what is to “bind” him to keep his word? (Compare Machiavelli here).



Note that the point of this Covenant is to protect the people (against “foreigners” and against each other!) – to bring peace. It is not to bring about a good life, nor to ensure the citizens are happy, good, wise etc. This “minimal state” argument (that the state has no right to do anything but ensure we are safe) is still used by some on the political right (e.g. Robert Nozick; and Mrs Thatcher tried to use it, but soon found that she had to use the state to try to influence social (and moral) behaviour). The concern with ‘security” is also topical post 9/11…


3.15 The Leviathan:

Logically, of course, this “protector” has to have more power than all the people he is protecting put together! Hence he is a Leviathan (a mythological sea-monster).

However, it is paradoxical surely, that an all-powerful state is needed to protect the mass of helpless individuals (helpless not only because they have given up their rights but also because they can only ever act – by Hobbes’s definition – as individuals)…


3.16 The Right to Refuse Obedience:

Given that “the end of Obedience is Protection” Hobbes is forced by logic to admit that there might be circumstances in which the citizen could refuse to obey. These circumstances are remarkably wide, and even include the right to refuse to serve as a soldier. (See Jones p 123). It is, however, clear – I think – that these “rights” are in effect meaningless, since the sovereign has such overwhelming power – and the individual citizen has none. Locke was much more consistent on this, pointing out that in Hobbes’s Leviathan state the citizens could only exercise these rights of resistance if the state had, in effect, broken down. As Jones says, “if the sovereign’s power is absolute it cannot be conditioned in any way; and if there is any sort of restriction or limitation on his power it is not absolute… Hobbes cannot have it both ways at once.” (p 125)




Apart from the paradox just noted, some have argued that if individuals were as selfish and insecure as described in the state of nature, then they would never be able to come together to “covenant” the laying-down of their rights. My own feeling is that Hobbes has described the psychology of individuals so carefully that he avoids this… in particular the argument that we all recognise the “golden rule” is an important qualification to the selfishness he portrays.


However, what I find objectionable is the idea that somehow as humans we stopped at this basic level of moral consciousness. There seems to me to be plenty of evidence – both empirical (the construction by huge teams of people of wonderful artefacts such as megaliths and henges) and from rational argument (see Kropotkin on Mutual Aid as a factor in evolution) – to suggest that humans are capable of, and even desire, co-operation.



Above all, and frequently pointed out, the idea that the sovereign should not be party to the contract is a fatal flaw. There is nothing to stop the sovereign abusing their power – and given that Hobbes says nothing about education and the moral values of the population (since all they have is self-interest, moderated by an awareness that others think the same way, and therefore everyone desires to avoid suffering) then what is there to stop the sovereign from “shaping” the people to serve his needs?


Yet it is an inevitable, given Hobbes’s logic, that the sovereign is outside the contract: for a future sovereign to agree to protect others he would already have to be different from them, and already not purely selfish…