Hobbes

Hobbes was a late bloomer; until his forties, he wrote bad books on physics. Once he got started on philosophy, though, he had real momentum.

It is easy to ‘psychologize’ Hobbes’ work—to try to explain it based on his social milieu. In The Leviathan, he says that we should all obey an absolute monarch, one so powerful that he is deemed essentially infallible. That he should give up so much (like democratic rights and freedoms) in the name of stability might not be surprising. Hobbes lived through civil wars and terrible strife in 17th century England; a tyrannical King embroiled in foreign conflicts was executed and replaced with a genocidal parliament. Hobbes himself was chased out of England and had to flee to France. He then got chased out of France, and had to flee back to England. Small wonder, perhaps, that he should so highly value order.

Hobbes’ best idea is that of the ‘social contract’. This is the idea that we all give up a bit of freedom in exchange for stability and long life. I promise to not kill you, and you promise to not kill me; eventually, we all make that promise, and off we go: society gets rolling, and the rule of law spreads.

Agreeing to give up some freedom is perfectly sensible when you consider the alternative: the ‘state of nature’, where there is no law, and every person must fend for herself. Life is, Hobbes says with flair, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

The leap from the state of nature to tyranny is pretty short for Hobbes. He considers that there might be other suitable forms of government, but rejects them for want of stability and efficiency. A despot just gets stuff done.

Hobbes himself seems to have been a bit of a jerk. He feuded with just about everyone. Descartes hated him. The inventor of the infinity sign hated him. The House of Commons thought he was a blasphemer and atheist, and he probably was. He died old, rich, and famous, though, at the age of 91.