Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

Introduction to Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes is one of the most consequential philosophers in history.  Some say he is the father of modern philosophy, and the father of liberalism, “If we may call liberalism that political doctrine which regards as the fundamental fact the rights, as distinguished from the duties, of man and which identifies the function of the state with the protection or the safeguarding of those rights, we must say that the founder of liberalism was Hobbes.”[1]  Regardless of Hobbes’ position as the father of modern philosophy and the father of liberalism, he is – without much doubt – the most important figure associated with modern philosophy and its consequences.

Hobbes wrote many works, the most important being De CiveLeviathan, and Behemoth, though most people only remember him for Leviathan and those that often recollect his name with Leviathan have certainly never read Leviathan.  So why is Hobbes so consequential?  To answer the question why Hobbes is so consequential will also be a nice entryway into reading Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and understanding all that is entailed in that most famous first part of the book.

Breaking with the Classics

While it is sweeping generalization to state that ancient (or classical) philosophy concerned itself with teleology and the highest good (summum bonum), the reality is that this generalization is an accurate one.  Except for sophistry, (ancient) nihilism, and Epicureanism, most of the famous classical philosophical schools: Whether they be Platonic and all of its iterations and derivations, Aristotelian, Ciceronian, Stoic, Jewish, Christian, or Islamic, etc., were all undergirded by a sense of teleology and highest good.  That is, nature has an end and that this end – in various forms – is ontological fulfillment or happiness.  Likewise, most of the classical philosophical schools considered humans to be social animals with sweeping consequences as a result of this view.  That is: Humans are naturally communitarian, they seek community, their lives are enhanced (or fulfilled) by being in a community, and that humans have duties to community and executing these duties (or responsibilities) help to lead to a fulfilled life.  Needless to say, Hobbes rejects all of this.

Throughout the text of Leviathan Hobbes makes no reference to the highest good.  He merely asserts that humans are pleasure seeking consumers.  Hobbes never associates hedonism with the highest good.  He simply says that bodily pleasure and stimulation is what all humans share in common with each other.  He also explicitly denies teleology.  Instead of contemplating and seeking after the good life (summum bonum), Hobbes shifts the trajectory of philosophy toward contemplating and seeking to create the practical and efficient life.

The reason for this shift is generally identified with the rise of the “new science.”  Published in 1620, Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum was revolutionary in philosophy.  In actuality Bacon ought to be considered the father of modern philosophy in the abstract sense moreover than Hobbes.  Though Hobbes is certainly more famous and probably slightly read more by people than Bacon.  Likewise, Hobbes was influenced by the science of his day: the mechanical, mechanistic, and motionary science of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and Copernicus (he was familiar with Bacon and early Newton before his death).


Hobbes’ contributions to philosophy are many, but they all stem logically from his starting premises.  Hobbes begins the Leviathan, in his Introduction and first few chapters, by describing man as a sense-perceiving automaton.  Man is essentially a machine capable of senses and consumption.  He is “matter in motion.”  His only goal is efficient operation.  (In the same introduction Hobbes also describes the state, its body, as operating like a machine – that is the body politic is a well-tuned, mechanical, machine much like man is.)  From here everything else flows.

Since man is at heart an atomized machine with senses, man is not naturally social.  Speech, as Hobbes describes, comes after the automata has been set in motion.  Speech is not really social in its first principle.  It is just an extension of man’s bodily motions.  Speech is the motionary communication of man’s thoughts now verbalized.  Sound is the medium of motion that speech takes when cognitive thought (which is motion in the mind) is communicated to others.  The secondary characteristic of speech is the social implications one derives from it.

Concerning man being a body of mass in motion unless something else acts upon it, Hobbes defines “freedom” as the power of movement/motion.  So long as man is in motion he is free.  All men are in motion.  Hence all men are naturally and equally free.

Rationality and irrationality, Hobbes defines for us, is the principle of regulated and unregulated motion respectively.  Rationality is something that is guiding and aims for something (man’s consuming animus).  In this way he augments the already prevalent Christian idea of Reason being an ordering force in one’s life that guides desire to its end.  But instead of the good life and ultimate happiness, reason guides man’s desires to its basic desire: consumption for bodily pleasure.  Irrationality is unregulated motion.  This represents that man has no control over his appetites and desires.

For Hobbes irrationality defines the state of nature.  It is a brutal field of automata in unregulated (irrational) motion in which motion meets motion and this leads to conflict.  It is only here that reason, speech, communication, etc., arises to the social aspect of man in which society is rational insofar that society helps to regulate our motion so as not to live a life that is “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short.”  The ultimate logical consequence of Hobbes’ philosophy is the rise of a regulatory and comprehensively expansive state that regulates our lives to prevent violent death, but one that aims – paradoxically – in enhancing human choice, material pleasure, and free movement (as long as in this free movement you do not “run into another” so to speak).

The end result is the great paradox commentators and philosophers have long observed about liberalism: In order that humans have rights they must be separated from each other, in order for humans to flourish they must be regulated to prevent conflict with each other, in order to be free (which is to have the most choices and ability to freely move) all barriers that restrict choice and free movement must be eliminated, but the elimination of these barriers can lead to conflict and the return of violent death which is bad because it is unpleasant, thus a universal and homogenous ‘space’ must be created for individuals to live separated from each other but given a great deal of consumer options before them and not be disallowed to move to new locations if they so choose.  As Hobbes defined freedom in its modern liberal context, “Liberty, or freedom, signifies the absence of opposition; (by opposition, I mean external impediments of motion)…a free man, is he, that in those things, which by his strength and  wit  he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to do.”[2]  We see the paradox of freedom in liberal thought that is trying to be resolved here: If freedom is about freedom of action (motion) to do as one wills without opposition, what happens when my action runs into opposition with another’s actions which results in opposition?

Hobbes’ definition of freedom is only applied to bodies.  Only bodies can be free or unfree (enslaved).  Hobbes’ definition is also important for the later development of liberal ideas of freedom and liberty in John Stuart Mill.  Mill, building off Hobbes, divided freedom and liberty as meaning two different things but all still tied to Hobbes’ foundational definition.  For Mill freedom is the power (of the body, e.g. person) to act; it is a display of power – or motion of the self (body).  Liberty, for Mill, is about not having opposition (or no coercive opposition to the motion of the self).  Liberty transitions into freedom once one has power to act.

This leads to the dichotomy of positive and negative freedom: Positive freedom being the ability of the self to act, and negative freedom being about having nothing to bind, or coerce, the self from being able to act.  You can see how Hobbes’ definition of the body being in motion as the epitome of freedom is still found in Mill.  Liberty is, in a sense, the ability to get into motion.  Freedom is motion.  (Mill also expounds how liberty is also enhanced by choice since lack of choice is a form of opposition – you are coerced by lack of choices to choose only one or two things, while having more choices leads to less coercion/opposition thereby having greater liberty and enhancing freedom when one decides to act.)  And we all know, deep down, this is still the bedrock idea of freedom in modernity: “Don’t tell me what to do with my body!”  As liberalism expanded ever more into modernity, liberalism came to see structures as constraints on liberty.

The political ramification of Hobbes is that humans are not bound to communities, culture, family, or other such ties, since such things and ties are barriers to movement and choice.  People are purely “out for themselves.”  But since humans are consumeristic machines that seek pleasure, the ultimate end of the political is not to promote the good life, the contemplative life, but to create the efficient, practical, and hedonistic life of peaceable consumption.  Politics becomes a mathematics equation to solve, something to make efficient and practical, so as to ensure a life of peaceable consumption.  This is called political hedonism.  In short, contrary to more ancient political philosophy (such as Cicero’s duty-oriented communitarian patriotism found in his Commonwealth/Republic), Hobbes suggests that humans do not have any duties or obligations to society (or community). Instead, the role of state is to uphold the peace so individuals can pursue what they deem to be the easiest and most efficient paths to their own bodily happiness without causing harm to others.


What is Hobbes saying?

  • Man is a sense-perceiving and consuming machine in motion.
  • All life is reducible to matter. (Monistic Materialism.)
  • The goal of human life is to live a peaceful, efficient, consumption-oriented life.
  • The purpose of politics is to guarantee this “political hedonism.”
  • Politics, to guarantee this political hedonism, needs to also be a practical and efficient machine.
  • Whatever constricts one’s ability to have maximal choice and movement is a barrier against freedom.
  • Freedom, then, is about unopposed movement and maximum choice.  To do what one wills and to not be limited by choices.
  • The “state of nature” leads to a problematic paradox:
  1. Maximum choice and movement among all persons leads to conflict.
  2. In order to avoid conflict we must regulate some degree of choice and movement so as to not have a “war of all against all.”
  3. The social contract is established to achieve this regulation while still allowing choice and movement.
  • The formation of the commonwealth leads to a problematic paradox:
  1. Since life is about maximum choice and movement and the social contract regulates this, the purpose of politics is about enhancing choice and movement without leading to conflict.
  2. Is it possible to enhance choice and movement through regulation?
  3. We must be willing to accept a certain degree of regulation in choice and movement because this is what is truly rational. (Regulated movement.)
  • Humans are, at their heart, a-social and self-interested.

Hobbes, as an embodiment of modern philosophy, is credited for the “break with ancients” in the ways I explained above.  Namely, he rejects teleology and communitarianism in favor of zeitgeist consumerism and “individualism.”  Rather than humans having bonds and duties to each other, humans only have rights to satisfy themselves.  Therefore humans are not really social animals at all but solitary and self-centered machines.  The good life, the best life, the good regime, or the best regime, what is justice, etc., – all of those seminal questions of classical philosophy – are pointless because they are impractical questions that do not derive universal answers, instead the primary task of philosophy is like a mathematical equation: What is most efficient and practical life possible?  Pragmatism is the logical outgrowth of Hobbes’ philosophy.  This leads to Hobbes coming to understand that the pleasurable life is universal to all and therefore the answer to that equation is creating the most efficient and practical order to achieve this for all persons.  As one noted scholar of Hobbes in the 20th century wrote in observation, “Hobbes’ political doctrine is meant to be universally applicable and hence to be applicable also and especially in extreme cases…the spirit of Hobbes’ political philosophy is the outlawry of war or the establishment of a world state.”[3]

[1] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 182.

[2] Leviathan, ii.21.

[3] Strauss, NRH, p. 198.


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