Hobbes: Authority, Human Rights, and Social Order

Portrait of Thomas Hobbes, by John Michael Wright, oil on canvas / National Portrait Gallery, London

Lecture by Dr. Iván Szelényi / 09.08.2008
Professor Emeritus of Sociology
Yale University

Hobbes in a Historical Context

Wikimedia Commons

Whether Foundations of Modern Social Thought should start with Thomas Hobbes or not, that’s a question. In some ways arguably Thomas Hobbes is the first who laid the foundations of modern social science. He was a genuine scientist, and a formidable one, and an extremely controversial figure, addressing a number of very important issues. We are all still very divided, particularly on human nature. Are we by nature good, or are we by nature evil? I think probably half of the crowd here would go one way; the other half would go another way. And I hope to be able to discuss that in the discussion sections. Anyway there are a number of very important issues that Thomas Hobbes framed, and which have a great deal of impact on later social scientists–of course, on Locke, but also on Adam Smith, on Nietzsche, on Freud, on Max Weber and others.

Okay, so this is Thomas Hobbes, and let me just very briefly talk about his life. He was born in 1588 in Westport. I also mentioned that his father was a vicar and he had actually a fistfight with a clergyman in, of all places, in a cemetery which was absolutely no-no by that time. So he had to skip and disappear and leave young Thomas behind in the care of an uncle who was actually a glover, produced gloves. And this all happened under the rule of Queen Elizabeth. In 1602, he went to Oxford, to Magdalene Hall, and then in 1608 he graduated, and he became a tutor of William Cavendish II who became at one point a very important politician.

In 1610, he went to France and Italy. It is very important because he met Galileo and he was absolutely turned on by Galileo and physics of his time. I already mentioned that Hobbes cannot be classified in any of the disciplines. He even cannot be classified as a social scientist. He was as much a mathematician–I gather a pretty bad mathematician–but also he made important contributions to sciences, particularly to optics. Well, he had a close association with a person whom you may have heard of, Francis Bacon.

And who was Francis Bacon, and what is his influence? Francis Bacon was a philosopher who rejected the Aristotelian logic and system, which basically was a speculative system–started out from some major assumptions and through deductions developed his philosophical system. As I said, occasionally I’ve taught this course by starting with Francis Bacon because Bacon, in some ways, is the Founding Father of modern sciences. Because he said every scientific investigation should start with induction, from sensual observation, and what you cannot observe, you should not assume it does exist. Right? Therefore he advocated a methodology which was exactly the opposite of the Aristotelian methodology, which was deductive. He advocated induction.

Now he was very closely affiliated with William Cavendish and had a great deal of impact on Hobbes initially, though eventually Hobbes changed actually his mind. And he went to Europe and, among other things, he spent time–he knew where to spend time. He went to Paris, and he began to investigate natural sciences, Galileo and Descartes, in particular. Descartes was a great deal of importance for Hobbes. From Galileo he learned an alternative to Bacon’s inductive method. Galileo offered a methodology that, by and large, social scientists today who believe in normal social science subscribe to. Namely that was the methodology, what Galileo called the resolutive-compositive method. It basically meant that you start with deduction. Right? You have some initial hypotheses. Then you move to observation, sensual observation, and from the sensual observation you make inductions. And you make that and you test your hypotheses. That’s how it we would say it today. And this is what Bacon learned from Galileo and adapted his methodology.

Now this is René Descartes, one of the greatest philosophers of his times and of all times. Descartes ascribed to something what I call dualism. Right? Dualism really meant that he separated the soul and body from each other, and Hobbes rejected this idea of dualism because he suggested that–in fact, they were engaged in a big debate on optics, what we do see. And he, Hobbes, was advocating that there must be a real object whose movement we see, what we actually can see. So he rejected the dualism.

And then he wrote–I mentioned very briefly–his trilogy: De Corpore, this is about the human body, De Homine, about man, and finally De Cive, about society. I see this as formidable and something which appeals a great deal to social scientists today. Right? To try to develop a theory of society which begins actually with biology, with biological processes, and build it up gradually from biology to understanding of the social, of the individual, and from the individual to understand society. That’s highly controversial. There are many social scientists who reject it. But today there are many social scientists who are greatly attracted to this, and we see a re-emergence today of sciences and social scientists.

Hobbes Enters Politics as a Royalist

The “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I of England. / National Portrait Gallery, London

Well Hobbes entered politics as a Royalist when William Cavendish entered politics. And, in fact, Hobbes translated, I also mentioned, Thucydides, basically because Thucydides expressed some skepticism about the democracy in Athens. And he was greatly skeptical about democracy and believed the need for a strong central authority. Well these were very troubled times, troubled times and religious conflicts.

It all started with Henry VIII who had a very troubled marital relationship. Right? He had three wives; divorced one, executed the second one in search for a son from one of his wives. But in the process of divorcing, he split from the Roman Catholic Church, and that’s when Church of England emerged, and that’s how England became Protestant of a sort. Well again, as I said, I’ll skip this one and go on. Well this is the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, Mary I, called Bloody Mary. She inherited the throne. She was trying to establish Roman Catholicism but had to resign. There was too much resistance against it so [s]he had to resign and give the throne to his [her] younger sister, Elizabeth.

And this is Queen Elizabeth. And Queen Elizabeth was at the time of Puritanism under a great deal of pressure of Puritans who wanted to get rid of Catholics altogether from government in England. This became a very important issue later on. And New Haven has its Puritan connections. Anybody is from Davenport College? Nobody is from Davenport. Oh my goodness. So no real Puritans around here. Well that’s a shame. Anyway, this was Reverend John Davenport. He was a Puritan who settled in New Haven, with his followers, in 1638. And already, of course, in I think 1703, the Puritans created this institution, and they were basically running this institution until the late nineteenth century–not anymore. Okay.

Elizabeth was called the Virgin Queen. Well whether she was a virgin or not is unclear, but she clearly had a lot of very close friendships with various men in her life. But she never married, and never gave birth to a child. She was actually a very good queen, a smart, good queen by the challenges of the time. But she was the last one, and died without a son.

And then the Crown went over to the Stuarts, and they were a total disaster. James I was already a disaster, and Charles I was a real disaster. And they were in a collision course with parliament, and there was a constant war in England–civil war–culminating in ’42. And finally Charles I was executed in ’49, and Oliver Cromwell came to power. Now–well here I give you a picture of the execution of Charles I. If you don’t believe it, you can see it.

Well Hobbes got into some trouble at that time because he was too close to the Royalists, and he had to flee England in 1640, ahead of time, and he went to live in Paris. He was very close there to the Royalist exiles, and in ’51 he completed his major book, Leviathan–what we will be talking about in a minute. Well Leviathan became an extremely controversial book. It was very controversial in his times–became actually a big hot topic in the nineteenth century. And it’s a very hot topic in the last thirty or forty years because a lot of economists and political scientists who are interested in rational choice theories discovered in Thomas Hobbes the first rational choice theorist. Actually he’s a wonderfully lucid mind, and if you read the text, and you know enough mathematics, you could do a lot of his propositions in mathematical equations. What else an economist wants to do? Right? It must be true if you can put it into an equation. Right? Well that’s what certainly Thomas Hobbes is available to do, because of extremely lucidity of his mind.

Well it was therefore a controversial book–also for the Royalists. Because in ’51, Hobbes–and we will talk about this in great detail–was considering that probably people should be allowed to transfer their loyalty to a new authority which offers safety. Right? And that’s what the Royalists did not want to hear–that Cromwell actually can become a legitimate ruler. And that’s what, in a way, the book Leviathan foreshadows. So he better have to skip out of Paris and go back to London.

This is the First Edition of Leviathan, ’51. This is about the idea that people are by nature evil, and we need an all powerful sovereign to avoid the state of war of everyone against everyone else–a powerful proposition. Again, I would think probably half of the people in this classroom, when really think hard about it, do believe Hobbes’s argument; half of them would be violently opposed to the argument. Right? So it’s a very nice topic, to have heated discussions in the discussion sections. Leviathan is a sea-monster: the state or the sovereign. We need to keep order as such. Okay. There were a great deal of controversies around him. He actually was publishing rather neutral stuff, only attacking universities–which is always a good thing to do, right?

But when in 1660 the monarchy was restored, and Charles II, the son of Charles I became king, Hobbes was invited back to the court, and it looked like he will be just fine right now as a Royalist. Not so, because in ’66 there was a fire in London, and because of this fire–some people believed that this fire was the revenge of God because of the sinful New York–not New York–London. Right? And they were therefore trying to find the guilty one. And who was that? Of course, Thomas Hobbes with his materialism. Right? No soul. So how is then eternal life possible? This must be an atheist. His books should be burned, if not himself. So they did not burn his book and himself, but he certainly was out of grace and died in ’79.

He was greatly admired in Continental Europe, but was very controversial in England. And well, if you don’t believe there was a fire in London, here is the proof. Right? There is the great fire of London, ’66, which it looked like Los Angeles to me. Right? Well okay. Well it killed 3000 people, right? The fire brigade was not as effective as today is in Southern California. Okay? Now that’s about the person and the times. I think extremely for my–as far as I’m concerned–extremely important to understand this, the work, if you know the times when he lived in.

Leviathan: Structure and Major Themes

From the frontispiece to the 1651 edition of Leviathan / College of St. George, Windsor Castle

All right, so now let me go on and talk to Leviathan. And here we go. This is the First Edition of Leviathan, which came out in 1651, in two big volumes. Each one was 500 pages long. Well this is the structure of the book. The first part is on man, and the first few chapters are about the mechanisms.

Because of Galileo, Hobbes was obsessed with the idea of motion. So he described the biological motions, what moves man: senses, imagination, speech, reason, and so on and so forth. Then chapter six is a fun chapter. It is about appetites, desires, aversions and fears, and the theory of voluntary action. I will talk about this. This is really very insightful, very important–a very great deal of impact on contemporary times, and I hope you can also relate to it individually. And then chapter seven to eleven is the relationship between people as such. And then finally the state of nature and the two laws of nature. We will have to talk about this in greater detail.

So Part II is about commonwealth. It’s about really the first theory of politics–the rights and duties of the governments and the subjects. There are some very interesting arguments here; that actually the sovereigns also have duties, not only simply rights. And then parts III and IV offer some theological justification what he does. Part III and IV, I think very rarely read, or at least I see very few citations to it.

So what are the major themes of the book? First, about the theory of human nature. The second one is the relationship between nature and the theory of social contract. Hobbes is really the first of the contractarians, who advocates that what brings society together is a social contract. If you want to understand society, you have to understand that we have contracts with each other. And then finally the theory of the sovereign. Right? The major desire, the essence of Hobbes’s work, is to try to find an identifiable sovereign. Right? He lived in turbulent times when you did not know who the sovereign is. Is this the king? Is this the landlord? Are these the burghers? Is this the parliament? Who on earth is the sovereign? He wanted to find one identifiable sovereign–we can all agree, this is the proper source of law. Right? That’s what he was obsessed with. Okay.

Human Nature

Portrait of Charles I from the studio of Anthony van Dyck, 1636. / Royal Collection, Windsor Castle

So let me then move on and about human nature. What are the themes here? Well one important argument is that man will deliberate between appetites and aversions, and as a result it will act voluntarily. Well that’s a fascinating issue–an issue we cannot get rid out of our hair. Well when I was your age, we always were vehemently debating the question: Do we have free will or we don’t have free will? Right? Our action is over-determined. This is exactly the question what Hobbes is talking about and develops the idea of voluntary action which is kind of halfway between absolute free will and complete determination. Right? The idea is that we are driven by appetite, by desires. We will talk in this course later on about Sigmund Freud who was talking about drives. Right? There are drives which makes us move. These are what Hobbes called appetite, a few centuries before Sigmund Freud. But then he said we also have aversions, we have fears. There are things what we want, but we have fears that we won’t be able to achieve what we want, and therefore we have to somehow negotiate out between our desires, appetites, and our fears or aversions. And what comes out is voluntary action. We have a choice. Right?

We have to measure up what the price of our action will be, and then we decide whether it is worth to pay this price or it is not worth to pay this price. So I see somebody whom I desire a great deal, I thought it would be a great partner for me. But in order to approach that person and to say, “Can I have a date?” it has risks because it may say, “Go to hell.” Right? And I don’t want to be rejected. Right? I have fears that I will be rejected. So I will be measuring up, right? And some of you, if you are in such a situation, if you sense that the answer will be no, you don’t place a phone call, and you will never get that person. Right? The fear overrules the appetite. Or others will say, “Heck.” You know? “If they say no, then I will try a second time, I will try a third time, and if it’s no a third time, then I’ll give up.” Right? Okay, so this is voluntary action. Right? This is freedom. Right? You are free to decide whether you want to try it again. Right? Whether you want to achieve your appetites.

And then the second point is we will seek power. The essence of human nature is that we are striving for power. Again an issue, a very good issue to discuss at the discussion section. Again, I think half of the class will probably agree with Hobbes, that people are actually trying to dominate others. Others will say we are much more benevolent. We are actually nice people, we don’t want to dominate. Well we will see his argument for it.

Well he said actually is that if we want to survive, we will need an all powerful sovereign. So voluntary action. He actually said there are two kinds of motions. One motion is what he calls vital motions, and these are stuff like, you know, food, that we want to have food or something. And there is what he calls–well it sounds strange today–animal motions. But this is what I think is better called voluntary motions which actually has something to do with appetites or desires, or aversions, and how to deal with this. So let me just speak about appetites and aversions. Again, I don’t want to read the text. I will put it on the internet for you. It just describes what I have said, that we all have appetites, we have desires, we have needs. And in order to satisfy our needs, it always has costs, and therefore we have to figure out whether it’s worth the cost for us to satisfy that need. Right? And therefore we have a certain degree of freedom. We can’t do whatever we want to do, because we may not have the resources to afford it. Or we want to have many things, and then we will have to prioritize what we want to have more and spend more on it.

As you can hear, Hobbes is very close to what later on becomes the utilitarians. Right? Very close to what Adam Smith will argue in his economic theory, or what John Stuart Mills will represent in his utilitarianism. Or, for that sake, what most economists today believe, who call themselves neoclassical economists, or who identify themselves as “rat” choice, or rational choice; economists or political scientists or sociologists, for that sake; there are some sociologists who also subscribe to rational choice.

All right, this is also very lovely: deliberation and the will. And he said, well when we have desires and we have aversions, that’s when we’re actually beginning to figure out–we deliberate what on earth is worse for us. And the end of this deliberation we have a will. We decide I go for it, I want that date. Right? Or we decide I don’t want it, because the costs are too high. Okay? And this is what we call the will. Right? Your will will be that you decide I go for it, or you decide, no, that’s not worth for me, it would be silly–I make a clawn out of me, I just don’t do it. Right? That’s the will.

Well about power. The power is unending. Right? He said there is a general inclination for us to seek power, our influence on other people. And he said there is nothing evil about it. It is necessary because if we want to survive we will have to try to exercise influence on others. We have to seek power as such. An extremely important idea, which foreshadows especially Nietzsche and Max Weber who comes up later in this course. Well then here comes a very interesting argument about equality; a very exciting argument.

He is one of the very first philosophers who claims that we are all born equal. Now for you this is of course obvious, but it was not obvious in 1651 that people–nobles and serfs, slaves and slaveholders–were all born equal. And he said, in fact–also extremely important–that we are equal actually in strengths because even the weakest person has the capacity to kill the strongest one. Right? Even David can kill Goliath. Right? But he said the same goes intellectually; in fact, intellectually we are even more equal than by physical power.

So that sounds wonderful, and you probably all agree with it. But then he makes a very controversial point, and probably there are some people in this room who agree with him, but others probably will disagree with it. Namely, he said what comes from this equality is this unending fight; that because we desire the same thing– and he operates with the scarcity assumption, that what is desirable is actually scarce–that we’ll fight each other. Right? And we can’t fight each other because we are equal–because we can kill each other, we can outsmart each other. This is a very unusual argument. Right? He is a very ironic guy. Right? He always says things that you may not want to hear. Right? And this is something who believes in equality do not want to hear; that, in fact, equality can be interpreted as the reason for social conflict, rather than the solution for social conflict. That is his argument. Very interesting, very unusual–right?–and again, probably the closest to Nietzsche as we will see.

Well then we have–this is, I won’t read it; save it, this is the page you want to print, because for the rest of your life, if you ever want to cite Hobbes, this is the citation. Namely that we will therefore be in a war of everyone against everyone else, for the above reasons.

The Social Contract

Now about the question of social contract. Well he operates with this idea of state of Nature. And we will talk a lot about this. Because among most of the social theories–Founding Fathers of social theories–there is a debate, what is the original nature of humans? And it’s controversial whether this is a useful concept at all, the state of nature. But he did believe in this. Well there are really two basic laws of nature. One law of nature is that you are forbidden what is harmful to you. Right? You have to pursue self-interest. Here again you see the rational choice theory speaking. Right? People are self-interested, and this is the law of nature that we should be self-interested. Right? We have to do everything in order to preserve our life. But there is a second law of nature, he argues, and this requires that we–what you would not do–yeah, not to do others what you would not want them to do to you. Right? This is–again, you may want to save this citation. A very important citation–foreshadows major theories of ethics, which come many, many years or decades or centuries after him, particularly Emanuel Kant and his categorical imperative. Okay.

Well in the state of nature if there are no restraints, there is no civilization. That’s a very interesting idea, that pressure limiting the state of nature is necessary. This is again foreshadows absolutely Sigmund Freud and his theory of civilization; that civilization comes out of the repression of drives, rather than satisfaction of drives. If whatever you always need is immediately satisfied, there is no civilization. Civilization comes from sufferings, from suppressed desires. That’s when you go back and you create great pieces of art or you become a great scientist because you suppress your sexual and other desires. Right? It’s always from suffering the great products of humankind are coming from. Right? That’s what he’s saying, and that’s of course what Sigmund Freud will say.

Okay, there are there are the two laws of nature. And again, I don’t want to elaborate on it; this is quite obvious. He said there is the elementary law of nature, the first right, that we have to do whatever is necessary for self-protection. And the other one is that we actually should consider others, what others will do. Well, and then the contract. Well what follows from the Second Law of Nature is that we put our rights aside and transfer it to others. Well this transfer of rights, there is some reciprocity in it. We give up some rights, and we get something in exchange–protection or safety or something, as such. And when we transfer this right to somebody else, this is what is called the covenant or social contract. As far as I can tell, this is the first formulation of the theory of social contract.

It’s not quite the theory of social contract that we will read from Locke or from Rousseau. Because he said two, again, controversial comments. One, that, in fact, a contract we entered by fear is also obligatory. Just because we were forced into a contract out of fear does not mean that we can walk out of this contract whenever we want to. Right? So it’s very much status quo. He’s a conservative guy. I think it has to be understand, he’s deeply conservative. And then he also said that in fact a former contract makes void a later contract. So there is no divorce, to put it this way. Right? Once you swear, you know, that well I’ll stay with you until we live, that’s about it. Right? There is no new contract which voids it.

Power of the Sovereign

Now very briefly about the power of the sovereign. Its power is to produce safety to the people. He lives in unsafe times. So he wants safer– safety. But obedience is only due to the extent the sovereign can deliver this safety, and if it cannot–why Charles I couldn’t–well you could withdraw your obedience, your loyalty from it. Okay, now what is important in his time, to find out who the sovereign is. And the sovereign actually can be–and I just point out two words from this citation–can be transferred on one man, the king, or upon one assembly of man. That’s, I think, extremely important. Though he was very strongly in favor of absolutism, he did consider that the sovereign can be a properly assembled body of man. But how they will be properly assembled, he doesn’t have the faintest idea, or doesn’t have the guts to say it. Right? It will become much more clear in Locke, and particularly in Rousseau, where the sovereign is, and it becomes, of course, crystal clear in the American Constitution, which starts, “We the people.” Right? That’s where the sovereign is. In Hobbes’s time, it was not quite we the people, but he did consider that it may not be the royalty, the king. Right?

Now the sovereign does have duties. The office of the sovereign has to procure safety of the people. And he said–he adds to this; extremely important–that it is not bare preservation. It has to give more than just survival, as such. And therefore you can expect for the sovereign to deliver this, and if the sovereign does not deliver, you can withdraw your loyalty. So even though he is a theorist of Absolutism, he does see the need and possibility that you withdraw your loyalty and you transfer it to a good king, to a good sovereign, as such.

Well the question is also what are the good laws? People say good laws are the laws which are good for the sovereign. And he said–and this is extremely important, it is not so, not true, that good laws serve only the sovereign. The good laws should serve the people. Well, and this is the end of it.

Hobbes’s Contributions and Shortcomings

What are his contributions and what are his shortcomings? Well his emphasis is on peace and order. But what he does not consider, that the sovereign might abuse his power. And this will be the big criticism of Hobbes by later theorists; particularly by Locke. Locke is primary considered by the possibility that the sovereign may abuse its power.

Well, and then he actually does not develop, as a result, any theory how power can be held in checks. There is no theory of checks and balances. There is one in Locke, and even one more developed in Montesquieu. And the American Constitution does not come from Hobbes, but it comes from Locke, and particularly from Montesquieu. Montesquieu is the one which defined that checks and balances which entered the American Constitution. Well he was an apologetical theorist of an enlightened absolutism–not any absolutism, right? He was against real monsters, as I already demonstrated it. As a result, he was not acceptable to the monarchs because he put too much limitations on their powers; but he was not acceptable to the emergent bourgeois class because it attributed too much power to the monarch.

And therefore nobody really liked Hobbes, but it’s impossible to ignore him.