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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."
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.