Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan

One of the most influential philosophers in recent history is Thomas Hobbes, who was active in Great Britain during the 17th Century. Hobbes was a proponent of social contract ethics, which is the idea that both an individual’s moral and political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live in. During his life, Hobbes published many different works on subjects ranging from political theory, philosophy, and history. The most famous work written by Thomas Hobbes is “Leviathan,” which was written in 1651 in response to the English Civil War, which resulted in the establishment of a parliamentarian system and the reduction in the power of the monarchy. Even though Hobbes rejected the divine right of kings to rule over their citizens, he argued that a powerful king is needed to rule to prevent any instability or societal disorder.

In the chapter “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning their Felicity and Misery,” Thomas Hobbes directs his study to that of human nature. An understanding of human nature will allow people to progress from the state of nature to a stable and civilized society. Hobbes noted that people are continuously moved by what they both dislike and like. As such, people have certain ends on their minds that they are seeking to achieve. Because many people desire the same goals, they are in a continual state of competition and conflict with each other. If the appetites of individuals had limits, the conflict between people would not be as complicated. On the other hand, Hobbes claims that people are never satisfied with any amount of power and are thus always in a power struggle with others. Even though it seems that in such a state of nature the strong would triumph over the weak and some natural equilibrium would be instituted, the nature of power distribution prevents this from occurring. According to Hobbes, individuals are by nature equal in their abilities. From such equality in the state of nature arises a perpetual state of continual conflict. Hobbes then argues that without a common power to mediate any disputes, the state of nature is nothing more than a state of perpetual war and conflict.

Thomas Hobbes then goes over the concept of the Laws of Nature in the chapter “Of the first and second Natural Lawes, and of Contracts.” A law of nature is a given rule that is discovered through pure reason. Such laws assert the concept of self-preservation and reject any acts that are ultimately destructive to human life overall. A law of nature is inherently known by every person because natural mental faculties can understand it. The first law of nature stipulates that every person must attempt to promote and seek peace. The next law of nature is that people must divest themselves of individual rights to escape the state of natural war. The mutual transferring of rights as illustrated in the second law of nature is known as a contract and is the primary foundation of the idea of moral obligations. The third law says that people must be required to keep the contract that they make and that it is not enough to only make such contracts. The third law of nature is the foundation for the concept of justice and fairness in the legal system. Because of the inherent desire for increased power, there always exists incentives to break such a contract. Hobbes also states that additional natural laws must come into effect to preserve the functionality of the third law of nature.

In conclusion, Thomas Hobbes explored the ideas of social contract ethics throughout “Leviathan.” Social contract theory is an entirely different branch of ethical theory that explores the idea that moral and political obligations of an individual are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society or governmental system in which they live in. The idea of social contract ethics combines both elements from philosophy, political theory, and history to develop an alternative theory to explain the ethical decisions that people make. Additionally, Hobbes examines the ideas of the state of nature and the laws of nature and determines that both concepts serve to influence the overall stability of certain societies and political systems.

the author

Matt is a student at Seton Hall Law School and graduated from Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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    Great article on Thomas Hobbes! He is one of my favorite philosophers. I particularly like his theory regarding the social contract and feel that it is still valid today.

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