Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: The Philosophy to “Get Through”

Thomas Hobbes’s famous work of political philosophy, Leviathan, was another tome that I’d inexplicably kept on my shelf in the twenty or so years since I first “read” it in college.  Why?  I’m not sure.  It is a tome – a 500-page book taking up some two inches of width in my bookshelves all these years.  Once I’d read Locke, I knew I had to read Hobbes.  It kept coming up all over the place, in both the primary and secondary literature I’ve been reading.  I knew the basics – that it was written before the Enlightenment, all the way back in 1651, that it was a singular, singular book, and I knew all about the “nasty, brutish, and short” life that Hobbes theorized for men in the state of nature.  

I had expected it to be bracing – a kind of apocalyptic vision of humanity, cleansing, a jolt, a condensed dose of something powerful.  Given my fascination with a – if not dim, at least realistic, capacious – view of human nature, I imagined this would be a book I’d really appreciate, or at least find memorable.

It is – sort of.

So far, I have only read Book 1, some 100 pages, which took me a while.  It is not a “hard” book to read (far easier than Dewey, for instance; it’s interesting that although Dewey wrote many of his books not even 100 years ago, his writing is still far harder to follow than that of writers from almost 400 years ago), but it is dense.  Locke was easy – I could read and understand Locke with no trouble.  But paradoxically, that’s partly because Hobbes is more of a “writer” than Locke – he’s quite good, even lyrical – but sometimes this does mean that his writing, necessarily antiquated in places given the time period, is a little more dense, requires a little more care to follow through the metaphor and symbolic language.

Plus, like a lot of these books, it can take some time to understand who he is in conversation with, which writers and thinkers he is responding to.  Along these lines, it’s actually perfect that I just finished Aristotle, because Hobbes is largely responding to Aristotle and the Scholastic tradition, and there were many subtle references to the Nicomachean Ethics that I never would have picked up were it not so fresh in my mind.

The other challenge with Hobbes is that, unlike the straightforward, matter-of-fact, philosophizing of Aristotle or Locke, many of Hobbes’s theories are fairly obscure on their own merits.  Leviathan is *so* ambitious and comprehensive.  Hobbes sees himself as both a kind of natural scientist and a social scientist.  He begins Book 1 with a lengthy account of his theories of how human beings work, physically and “biologically” to understand the world, before moving on to catalog pretty much every last aspect that he sees as a part of human nature – and then explaining how all of this creates the need for a political state – and then starting in on the analysis of this state and its key components.  There is even analysis of religion in Hobbes’s account, too, for good measure.  It’s surely one of the most ambitious books I’ve ever read, and – like any author – some of it is well thought out and clear, and some of it isn’t.  

Hobbes’s Notion of Truth – Social Constructionism?

I found the opening chapters of the book, in which Hobbes tries to describe the nature of sensory experience, the nature of matter, and the nature of understanding to be the most obscure and the most difficult to understand.  Hobbes is clearly some form of materialist – he writes about a nature being a “plenum” – a lot of matter moving around and bumping into our sensory apparatus.  Even our desires are this way – they are to be seen as motion toward or away from something.  It’s a very unique, physical understanding of the senses and even of cognition.  

Things start heating up when Hobbes reaches the question of epistemology.  Hobbes, somewhat obscurely, I think, keeps stressing that truth requires clear “definitions” of words, and there is a motif running through the book that men are easily misled or duped by getting off on the wrong foot with words – misdefined, using different definitions, which be believes the reliance on books or other thinkers plays into.  Yet he is not a Lockean empiricist, either – go out and observe for yourself.  Instead, he tells us – back in 1651! – that our understanding of reality is socially constructed by language.  “We conceive the same things differently,” he writes, which leads to different “naming” of them.  Yes, nature is an objective reality, but there is “diversity of our reception” of it.  So we have to be careful to get our definitions/naming correct, or at least consistent.

Here is where things start to go off the rails.  For whatever, reason, maybe as a reaction to the violence and tumult of the political upheaval of his time, Hobbes believes the way to truth is not to simply ensure we get our definitions correct and consistent, but to give authority to one judge.  He writes, “No one man’s reason, nor the reason of any one number of men, makes the certainty,” (23).  Alright.  Instead we must “set up an arbitrator or judge” (23) to evaluate truth.  Otherwise, the fights over this will “come to blows” (23).  Then he drops the issue and moves on!  So much for the search for truth.

Good and Evil, too, are just seen as arbitrary signifiers for that which a person subjectively interprets that: “There being nothing simply and absolutely so” (29).  He alludes that it’s either this way – subjective – or just whatever the “arbitrator or judge” says it is (29) – !!!

Hobbes is also a subjectivist when it comes to the goal of human existence.  He writes that there is no ultimate, greatest good toward which men aim at (57) – as Aristotle might argue – but instead a constant process of attaining “felicity” – “a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another” (57).  Man wants to “assure forever the way of his future desire” (57).  

This plays into notions of power.


Hobbes details the Intellectual Virtues, but eventually says that everything is based on the desire for power (41) – he considers riches, knowledge, and honor to fall under this umbrella term.  He writes a whole chapter (X – p. 50) on power, indicating that there are two types – natural (wit, body) and instrumental (getting other powerful resources under your command to do your bidding).  Then he basically frames many other things – including a man’s worth – in terms of the fairly vulgar notion of “power” – how much he is worth in peace vs. in war, etc.  This in fact – a man’s “power” – comprises his “honor” – this is not exactly Aristotle’s list of virtues!  “Honourable is whatsoever possession, action, or quality is an argument and sign of power” (53).

Hobbes memorably writes, “I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death” (58).  This is not just because he wants a greater taste of power, but because he simply wants to maintain what he has: “He cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more” (58).  Yet the example Hobbes gives to support this point – about kings who are always going after more power – seems dubious, less about maintaining power than about recreationally branching out into new venues of domination.

Hobbes continues building his case.  The whole of Book 1 is laid out systematically – one step leads to the next, in an apparent emulation of the geometric method of proofs that Hobbes professes to love so much.

Humans’ innate desire for power creates nothing positive, nothing productive – only fighting.  “Competition of riches, honor, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war; because the way of one competitor to the attaining of his desire to to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other” (58).  

Again, there are no higher virtues that humans really seem to aim for.  Everything is a pretty low motivation.  Hobbes cites one of the main human motivations as “fear of death and wounds” which drives men to safety in the form of, as he alluded to earlier, a single, all-powerful ruler (58).  He puts it pretty plainly: “Fear of oppression disposeth a man to anticipate or to seek aid by society; for there is no other way by which a man can secure his life and liberty” (59).  This sort of fear, which he writes memorably about, and equates with Prometheus (64) is also a large part of what drives men toward religion.  Religion itself does keep the people from “mutiny against their governors” and – what a great phrase – it also means they “needed nothing else but bread to keep them from discontent, murmuring, and commotion against the state” (70).  

It’s not all totally bleak.  Hobbes does have a fairly radical view of the equality of all individuals.  His philosophy is deeply individualist, and deeply egalitarian.  There is nothing of the divine right of kings, or the natural aristocracy based on merit of Plato.  But – characteristically – Hobbes’s view of equality is based on a very unsentimental assessment:  Even the smallest or weakest adult, he explains, has the ability to kill or subdue the strongest (74).  So much for the nobility of equality!  There is some pretty interesting writing about this equality (74-75), but unlike Locke, Hobbes does not use this equality as the basis for inherent natural rights.  Instead, he uses our fundamental sameness to indicate that individuals (and it is individuals, not groups, tribes, or factions) will covet the same goods (his is not a plentiful state of nature, like Locke’s) and will begin to fight over them.  This creates a natural distrust of other men, which Hobbes terms “diffidence” (75).

This whole section of Hobbes was less bracing than I thought it would be.  It is – and this is the word that kept coming to my mind while reading Leviathan – slightly mad.  Hobbes seems, for lack of a better term, a little mad.  I mean “mad” in the sense of being a madman, a little unhinged, slightly off his rocker.  His understanding of human equality as somehow resulting in constant fighting over scarce resources seems like it should have been more realistic-seeming to me than it was.  The points he raises to support it are decent.  But I think there might be two issues.  First, his vision is just a little too dystopian.  It just felt a little too implausible, a little too bleak, almost like a caricature.  Second, his “geometric” method, wherein he moves from step to step based on earlier suppositions, just feels a little too thin.  You can see the gaps of logic: so because all humans are equal, they will fight over resources?  That doesn’t seem entirely logical, unless you believe that resources are limited, which Hobbes does not even bother to discuss.  It’s as though he skips too many steps, and he’s hurrying us toward one – quite dark – view of humanity, perhaps because of the harsh time period he lived through – and is forgetting the rest of human nature.

After all, doesn’t the human drive for ambition, survival, and the like actually result in some positive, other than fighting?  What about love, and written communication, and tool-making?  

Hobbes’s vision seems less matter-of-fact than reductionist, slightly implausible, and, yes, slightly mad.


One interesting point is that Hobbes seems to indicate that war, or the desire to dominate other men, is acceptable in the state of nature in some weird way, because otherwise, men will be killed by just “standing only on their defence” (75).  And there are other problems, too – not just the fighting over common “ends,” but a desire that others should esteem us more than they do.  Even this desire, Hobbes says, is “enough to make them destroy each other” (76).  

So, there are three elements in human nature that make us quarrel – competition, diffidence (distrust/fear), and this business about wanting others to respect us – which he calls “glory.” These translate into humans’ three principal motivations that drive us straight toward war: gain, safety, and reputation (76).  One gets the strong sense that humans require very, very little to begin fighting with each other.  Glory, for instance, is based on “trifles” – for Hobbes, men fight over “a word, a smile” (76).  This is really a dim view of human nature – guns drawn at all times!

And here is the famous quote.  Because there is so much potential for fighting everywhere, this means it is “manifest” that when men don’t have an overarching power over them, they are “in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man” (76).  

And this state of war is not only the fighting, but the anticipation of fighting; in this position, there is nothing at all positive – only “continual fear and danger of violent death” – “and the life man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (76).  That last part is surely the most famous passage in Hobbes.  

From here, Hobbes begins talking about “natural rights.” I think it’s important to note that just his talking about this should be considered unique and historically important, as he was writing well before John Locke, and surely before the Enlightenment.  His notions of natural right are highly individualistic, and, not surprisingly, focused on self-preservation in a brutal state of nature: a man essentially has a right to kill everyone else to protect himself; Hobbes writes that a man “has a right to everything, even to one another’s body” (80).  But from these rather diffuse natural rights, Hobbes quickly derives two “laws of nature” – a man must seek peace, and a man must do this by creating a “contract” with other men, giving up their fairly unlimited natural rights in favor of securing an end to the fighting in the state of nature.  This again, seems important, because it represents very early thinking about the so-called social contract, which Hobbes says is upheld by adherence to the contract (the maintenance of which Hobbes terms “justice”), in addition to a variety of other virtues that Hobbes outlines, and which he terms “other laws of nature” at the end of Part 1.  

One specific law that bears focusing on is “pride,” which Hobbes defines as a kind of self-grandeur causing one not to recognize that everyone else is his equal, and he is no better than they.  Hobbes goes back on what he said earlier, in fact, writing that even though good and evil are largely subjective, there does in fact exist an ultimate good – peace; and an ultimate evil – the state of war.

So it’s worth mentioning the three key concepts Hobbes outlines in Part 1:  First a kind of radical equality among all humans; second, his focus on the notion of human beings having natural rights (although these are mostly centered on the right to survive), and his focus on the notion of a social contract – a voluntary movement from the state of nature into a society on the part of rational, calculating individuals who knowingly sacrifice some of their natural rights in order to follow the primary law of nature: to seek peace.


I think I am going to stop here with Hobbes for now, with the end of Part 1.  At this point, I know, he is going to start describing the “Commonwealth” next, and I know what is coming: the commonwealth, the civilization, must be presided over by a “leviathan” – a massive power, an arbiter capable of settling disputes, resolving factionalism, even adjudicating truth claims.  Like Plato’s all-powerful philosopher-kings, it’s a scary, uncomfortable political vision the more closely you look at it.  Hobbes argument so far in Part 1 has been peppered with references to the “arbiter” – an all-powerful authority who will not only maintain peace physically, but epistemically – by quite literally deciding who is right in the disputes arising from truth-claims.

To be blunt, I don’t have any particular interest – with the rather limited time that I have for reading and serious study! – in hearing these arguments justifying an absolute ruler.  My best sense is that Hobbes is a deeply original, tremendously unique and historically important political philosopher, for all of the reasons outlined above (his early focus on natural rights, the social contract, and the state of nature, for example).  Say what you want about the end product of his state, but the guy certainly did the hard thinking about who human beings really are, and how to manage them productively and peacefully.  Still, it seems to me that his philosophy, though revolutionary, is more of an intermediary stage that other thinkers needed to “get past” or to “get through” in order to arrive at something more workable.  I see John Locke as just the philosopher who did this.  Hobbes was a madcap, revolutionary, iconoclastic genius, but his was never the answer, just the first, powerful impetus to exploration and inquiry.  I actually did not find his work to be a tall, imposing inquisitor that any later thinker must stare down, either.  I’m not sure exactly why, but it didn’t really feel like a specific “challenge” to liberal democracy that we all need to think hard about, along the lines of a Karl Marx.  Instead, it just felt like more of a first, crude attempt to get past traditional, feudal society – it wanted to go in the right direction; it just didn’t quite know how.  It was not so much a challenge to our system, as a prototype version of it (I know that sounds odd, but it does seem true, somewhat).

Again, I am no expert on Hobbes, and these are only my reflections after the first fourth of his book.  Either way, it’s a unique, important book, and I’m glad I understand its foundations and perspective.