Hobbes, Thomas

(redirected from Hobbesian)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Hobbes, Thomas

Sixteenth-century political theorist, philosopher, and scientist Thomas Hobbes left a stark warning to succeeding generations: strong central authority is the necessary basis for government. In several influential works of legal, political, psychological, and philosophical theory, Hobbes's view of society and its leaders was founded on pessimism. He saw people as weak and selfish, and thus in constant need of the governance that could save them from destruction. These ideas profoundly affected the Federalists during the early formation of U.S. law. The Federalists turned to Hobbes's work for justification for passage of the U.S. Constitution as well as for intellectual support for their own movement in the years following that passage. Today, Hobbes is read not only for his lasting contributions to political-legal theory in general but for the ideas that helped shape U.S. history.

Born on April 5, 1588, in Westport, Wiltshire, England, the son of an Anglican clergyman, Hobbes was a prodigy. By the age of fifteen, he had entered Oxford University; by twenty, he was appointed tutor to a prominent family, a post he would later hold with the Prince of Wales. His considerable output of work began with English translations of francis bacon and Thucydides while he was in his late thirties. Soon, mathematics interested him, and his travels brought him into contact with some of the greatest minds of his age: Galileo and René Descartes. His writing canvassed many subjects, such as language and science, to arrive at a general theory of people and their leaders. The most influential works of this polymath came in the 1650s: Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), De Corpore (1655), and Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance (1656). Hobbes died December 4, 1679, at age 91.

Hobbes was a supreme pessimist. To him, people were inherently selfish; they struggled constantly against one another for survival. "[T]he life of a man," he wrote in his master-work, Leviathan, "is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Thus, people could not survive on their own in the state of nature. This foundation led him to a theory of the law: only by submitting to the protection of a sovereign power could individuals avoid constant anarchy and war. The sovereign's authority would have to be absolute. Law derived from this authority rather than from objective truth, which he argued did not exist. All citizens of the state were morally bound to follow the sovereign's authority; otherwise, law could not function. Hobbes chose the leviathan (a large sea animal) to represent the state, and he maintained that like a whale, the state could only be guided by one intelligence: its sovereign's.

The influence of Hobbes's ideas varied dramatically over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. English politicians and clerics derided him as a heretic. But his theories eventually lent support to loyalists who wanted to preserve the Crown's control over the American colonies: Thomas Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts, viewed the upstart challengers to royal authority in a Hobbesian light. Later, Hobbes proved useful to the other side: after the American Revolution, his ideas influenced the Federalists in their arguments for adoption of the federal Constitution in 1787. Embracing Hobbes's pessimism, the Federalists saw the American people as unable to survive as a nation without a strong central government that would protect them from foreign powers.

Hobbes is still taught, and scholars continue to discuss contemporary legal issues in the light of his critique. Particularly relevant are his insights into the form of law and the interrelationship of law and politics, and his subtle explorations of language and meaning.

"The condition of man … is a condition of war of everyone against everyone."
—Thomas Hobbes

Further readings

Dyzenhaus, David. 2001. "Hobbes and the Legitimacy of Law." Law and Philosophy 20 (September): 461–8.

——. 1994. "Now the Machine Runs Itself: Carl Schmitt on Hobbes and Kelsen." Cardozo Law Review 16 (August).

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil. Reprint, New York: Viking Press, 1982.

Malcolm, Noel. 2002. Aspects of Hobbes. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Martinich, A.P. 1999. Hobbes: A Biography. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge Univ. Press

Robinson, Reginald Leamon. 1993. "The Impact of Hobbes's Empirical Natural Law on Title VII's Effectiveness: A Hegellian Critique." Connecticut Law Review 25 (spring).

Rutten, Andrew. 1997. "Anarchy, Order, and the Law: A Post-Hobbesian View." Cornell Law Review 82 (July): 1150–64.

References in periodicals archive ?
Skoble discusses David Gauthier's familiar analysis that the Hobbesian "state of nature" is essentially characterized as a multiperson prisoner's dilemma game.
Ingrid Creppell's argument for the toleration between conflicting identities on the principle of "mutuality"--a willingness to relate to each other--is countered by Glen Newey, who thinks (using Northern Ireland as an example) that good fences make good neighbors and that, in the presence of a Hobbesian sovereign, opposing identities living next to each other rather than with each other is best we can hope for (what he terms "murality").
When, taking our cue from on High, we stand the Hobbesian creature on its head, we are presented with some such picture as the following: our preferences, our values, our distinctiveness as individuals are fundamentally shaped by the families in which we were reared, and likely also by the families of our adult lives.
We face either a Hobbesian future of a war of all against all, or a future in which we utilize the best aspects of the liberal state to move further into the fulfilment of the human being, and of human history.
However, where Schmitt, with his Hobbesian orientation, tended to reify these categories, others find in them multiple dimensions of meaning and the prospect of a dynamic interplay between them - in some cases promoting the transformation of enmity (with its destructive effects) into an embracing friendship (with its mutually supportive possibilities).
Against the extremes of Hobbesian realism and pacifism, he argues that "war needs to be morally justified"; hence the turn to the just-war tradition.
About this social nexus (as I put it in my November/December 1988 Humanist article, "Beyond the Ten Commandments"), there lurks behind a conventional facade of law-abiding politeness and seeming consideration a Hobbesian jungle, "a state of nature wherein the ego that survives as a self-regarding and other-regarding individual has to be competent as adversary.
So, if we take the Hobbesian state of nature as an expression of
I just think it's kind of a false, Hobbesian choice," Reed said.
The reality is that Syria is a perfect example of a Hobbesian atmosphere of "war of all against all".
This paper distinguishes two competing conceptions of dignity, one recognizably Hobbesian and one recognizably Kantian.
Traditional criticisms of anarcho-capitalism have centered on whether the Hobbesian war of all against all would arise in the absence of the state (Bush 1972).