Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
Themes, Arguments, and Ideas
The Materialist View of Human Nature
Hobbes believed that all phenomena in the universe, without exception, can be explained in terms of the motions and interactions of material bodies. He did not believe in the soul, or in the mind as separate from the body, or in any of the other incorporeal and metaphysical entities in which other writers have believed. Instead, he saw human beings as essentially machines, with even their thoughts and emotions operating according to physical laws and chains of cause and effect, action and reaction. As machines, human beings pursue their own self-interest relentlessly, mechanically avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. Hobbes saw the commonwealth, or society, as a similar machine, larger than the human body and artificial but nevertheless operating according to the laws governing motion and collision.
In putting together this materialist view of the world, Hobbes was influenced by his contemporaries Galileo and Kepler, who had discovered laws governing planetary motion, thereby discrediting much of the Aristotelian worldview. Hobbes hoped to establish similar laws of motion to explain the behavior of human beings, but he was more impressed by Galileo and Kepler’s mathematical precision than by their use of empirical data and observation. Hobbes hoped to arrive at his laws of motion deductively, in the manner of geometrical proofs. It is important to note that Hobbes was not in any position to prove that all of human experience can be explained in terms of physical and mechanical processes. That task would have required scientific knowledge far beyond that possessed by the seventeenth century. Even today, science is nowhere near being able to fully explain human experience in physical terms, even though most people tend to believe that science will one day be able to do just that. In the absence of such a detailed explanation, the image of the human being as a machine in Hobbes’s writing remains more of a metaphor than a philosophical proof.
The Inadequacy of Observation as a Foundation of Knowledge
Hobbes rejected what we now know as the scientific method because he believed that the observation of nature itself is too subjective a basis on which to ground philosophy and science. Hobbes contested the scientific systems of the natural philosophers Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. These major figures in the Scientific Revolution in England base their natural philosophy on a process of inductive reasoning, making inferences and conclusions based on the observation of nature and the manipulation of nature through experimentation. For Hobbes, the chief aim of philosophy is to create a totalizing system of truth that bases all its claims on a set of foundational principles and is universally demonstrable through the logic of language. He rejects the observation of nature as a means of ascertaining truth because individual humans are capable of seeing the world in vastly different ways. He rejects inductive reasoning, arguing that the results of contrived experiments carried out by a few scientists can never be universally demonstrable outside of the laboratory. Accordingly, Hobbes holds that geometry is the branch of knowledge that best approximates the reasoning that should form the basis of a true philosophy. He calls for a philosophy based on universally agreed-upon first principles that form the foundation for subsequent assertions.
Fear as the Determining Factor in Human Life
Hobbes maintained that the constant back-and-forth mediation between the emotion of fear and the emotion of hope is the defining principle of all human actions. Either fear or hope is present at all times in all people. In a famous passage of Leviathan, Hobbes states that the worst aspect of the state of nature is the “continual fear and danger of violent death.” In the state of nature, as Hobbes depicts it, humans intuitively desire to obtain as much power and “good” as they can, and there are no laws preventing them from harming or killing others to attain what they desire. Thus, the state of nature is a state of constant war, wherein humans live in perpetual fear of one another. This fear, in combination with their faculties of reason, impels men to follow the fundamental law of nature and seek peace among each other. Peace is attained only by coming together to forge a social contract, whereby men consent to being ruled in a commonwealth governed by one supreme authority. Fear creates the chaos endemic to the state of nature, and fear upholds the peaceful order of the civil commonwealth. The contract that creates the commonwealth is forged because of people’s fear, and it is enforced by fear. Because the sovereign at the commonwealth’s head holds the power to bodily punish anyone who breaks the contract, the natural fear of such harm compels subjects to uphold the contract and submit to the sovereign’s will.
Good and Evil as Appetite and Aversion
Hobbes believed that in man’s natural state, moral ideas do not exist. Thus, in speaking of human nature, he defines good simply as that which people desire and evil as that which they avoid, at least in the state of nature. Hobbes uses these definitions as bases for explaining a variety of emotions and behaviors. For example, hope is the prospect of attaining some apparent good, whereas fear is the recognition that some apparent good may not be attainable. Hobbes admits, however, that this definition is only tenable as long as we consider men outside of the constraints of law and society. In the state of nature, when the only sense of good and evil derives from individuals’ appetites and desires, general rules about whether actions are good or evil do not exist. Hobbes believes that moral judgments about good and evil cannot exist until they are decreed by a society’s central authority. This position leads directly to Hobbes’s belief in an autocratic and absolutist form of government.
Absolute Monarchy as the Best Form of Government
Hobbes promoted that monarchy is the best form of government and the only one that can guarantee peace. In some of his early works, he only says that there must be a supreme sovereign power of some kind in society, without stating definitively which sort of sovereign power is best. In Leviathan, however, Hobbes unequivocally argues that absolutist monarchy is the only right form of government. In general, Hobbes seeks to define the rational bases upon which a civil society could be constructed that would not be subject to destruction from within. Accordingly, he delineates how best to minimize discord, disagreement, and factionalism within society—whether between state and church, between rival governments, or between different contending philosophies. Hobbes believes that any such conflict leads to civil war. He holds that any form of ordered government is preferable to civil war. Thus he advocates that all members of society submit to one absolute, central authority for the sake of maintaining the common peace. In Hobbes’s system, obedience to the sovereign is directly tied to peace in all realms. The sovereign is empowered to run the government, to determine all laws, to be in charge of the church, to determine first principles, and to adjudicate in philosophical disputes. For Hobbes, this is the only sure means of maintaining a civil, peaceful polity and preventing the dissolution of society into civil war.
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