Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was born in Armada year – 1588 – and educated at Oxford. He spent most of his life employed as a tutor and secretary to the Earls of Devonshire. In 1640, he moved to Paris, where he was appointed tutor to the exiled Stuart Prince of Wales. From there, he followed with horror the progress of the English Civil War throughout the 1640s. In 1651, Hobbes published Leviathan, called by Michael Oakeshott "the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language". In 1652, he returned to England and died at the age of 91 in 1679.

Hobbes is often cited as a powerful apologist for the merits of authoritarian government, and as such is an important point of reference in the current debate.

Hobbesian Man and the Basis of Civil Association

Hobbes argues that man is by nature self-seeking – a conception that is the prototype of modern economists' homo oeconomicus – but he exists amongst his competitors, and this leads to a constant potential for conflict. It is true that reason leads men to realise that cooperation may profit them individually; but reason cannot overcome the powerful self-love that generates conflict. As Hobbes puts it:

"… all men are by nature provided of notable magnifying glasses (that is their Passions and Self-love,) through which, every little payment appeareth a great grievance; but are destitute of those perspective glasses, (namely Moral and Civil Science,) to see a farre off the miseries that hang over them, and cannot without such payments be avoyded." (Leviathan, Ch. XVIII)

As a result, the civil order is always fragile, and civil strife always imminent – eternal truths concerning civil association that Hobbes felt had been demonstrated in his own time in the particular circumstances of the English Civil War.

This fragility leads men to acquiesce in the institution of the sovereign, whose laws all men obey not out of reason, but out of fear:

"The final Cause, End, or Designe of men, (who naturally love Liberty, and Dominion over others,) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, (in which wee see them live in Commonwealths,) is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of Warre, which is necessarily consequent . . . to the naturall Passions of men, when there is no visible Power to keep them in awe, and tye them by fear of punishment to the performance of their Covenants . . ." (Leviathan, Ch. XVII)
The Rule of Law and the Best Form of Government

Only the brute fear of the sovereign can counteract the brute impulses generated by every man's self-love. The 'rule of law', therefore, consists of nothing but obedience to the sovereign; since the essential virtue of the law is simply that it is obeyed, so that peace is preserved. The optimal form of the sovereign institution – whether it should be a monarchy, a parliamentary government, some other arrangement – should be decided depending on circumstance: there is no universal formula. The important thing is, however, that it is not to be judged by how representative it is of the opinions of the governed, but by how well it keeps peace between them – for "Power in all formes, if they be perfect enough to protect [the governed], is the same" (Leviathan, Ch. XVIII).

Bees, Ants, and the Citizens of 'Failed States'

Does Hobbes' philosophy provide a basis for the autocratic powers of international missions? Do the citizens of 'failed states' represent mankind in the Hobbesian state of nature, lacking the essential authority of the sovereign, whose worth is to be judged by the obedience it commands of its subjects, and the efficiency with which its laws pacify society?

There is an important stumbling block. Hobbes's theory of the state is deduced from his theory of human nature. So unless we believe that this theory of human nature applies only to the citizens of 'failed states', we are bound to accept Hobbes' theory of the state as an argument for authoritarianism in developed, democratic countries as well. In Hobbes' terms, we would have to believe that whilst the Americans and the French are "Bees, and Ants" – creatures amongst whom social harmony is "Naturall" – the citizens of Bosnia and Kosovo are members of Hobbesian mankind, for whom all agreement is "by Covenant only", and who therefore require "Common Power, to keep them in awe, and to direct their actions to the Common Benefit" (Leviathan, Ch.XVII). Such a distinction, quite apart from being repugnant on the face of it, is not made by Hobbes, for whom all mankind are in the same predicament.

The fact is that Hobbes' political philosophy does not underpin the liberal democracies of the Europe and America: so we are bound to ask how it could serve as a justification of international missions that seek to democratise and develop elsewhere.

Select bibliography:

Leviathan, or, The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill, numerous editions.