Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

Leviathan, Part I: “Of Man”, Chapters 10–16


Power, defined as “a man’s . . . present means, to obtain some future apparent good,” is divided into two kinds: (1) natural, derived from inborn abilities of the body and mind, including intellect, strength, wit, and artistic ability, and (2) instrumental, derived from the acquired faculties and advantages of friends, money, or reputation. The lifelong “perpetual and restless desire for power” is a fundamental quality shared by all humans. Along with power, fear of another’s power acts as a counterbalance to the appetite for power and prevents people from constantly struggling to obtain power. Only fear of death and bodily harm causes humans to seek peace.

The mediation between power and fear, as manifested in human affairs, is called manners. The great variety of manners stem from confusions about the best way to mediate between power and fear, and ignorance of a “proper philosophy” that would grant such knowledge. Fear, Hobbes argues, stems from ignorance of causes, an ignorance for which people have tried to compensate by many artificial crutches, including custom, authority, and religion—all designed to dispel fear. Only proper philosophy can successfully dispel fear by granting scientific truth to the philosophy of causes and by enacting a peaceful society.

Reason dictates that a “Prime Mover” must have first set the universe in motion. Although our powers of reason are incapable of telling us the nature of this Prime Mover (or God), philosophy can help us to understand the Prime Mover’s manifestation in the present motions of all bodies in the universe. However, human reason is by no means infallible. The only way for humanity to attain peace is through a universal religion based on the truths of philosophy.

Although men differ in the relative strength of their natural powers, they are all fundamentally equal in their ability to physically harm or kill another by various means. Fear may intervene, but if two people ever desire the same thing, the natural consequence of their mutual desire is war. Human nature is a purely mechanistic construct based in appetites and aversions, desires expressed in power struggles between men. Thus, life before civil society and law was characterized by continuous and total war, “every man against every man.” This chaos is the state of nature, wholly lacking in culture and knowledge, a state in which human affairs are dominated by the continual fear and danger of violent death. “The life of man” in the state of nature, Hobbes famously writes, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In the state of nature, security is impossible for anyone, and the fear of death dominates every aspect of life. Being rational, humans will naturally seek to be rid of fear. Reason teaches us that there are certain natural laws that dictate how a society may guarantee peace. One of these laws is the Right of Nature,” every man’s inborn right to use whatever means available to preserve his own life. Natural law includes our right to self-preservation and forbids humans from taking actions destructive to their own lives. Although war may be necessary for self-preservation—and often is, in the state of nature—reason dictates that the first of all natural laws must be that humans seek peace to fulfill their right and obligation to preserve their own lives.

Building on the first law of nature, Hobbes elucidates other natural laws that he says can be discerned through reason. The second law states that in the state of nature “all men have a natural right to all things.” However, to assure peace, men must give up their right to some things. The individual’s transfer of some of his rights to another is offset by certain gains for himself. The mutual transfer of rights is called a contract and is the basis for all social organization and collective moral order. Although by contract we may give up all sorts of rights we possess in the state of nature—such as renouncing the right to kill another in exchange for not being killed—we may never give up our natural right to self-preservation, which is the basis for any contract.