Essay on Thomas Hobbes

This essay has a total of 3495 words and 14 pages.

Thomas Hobbes



THOMAS HOBBES
Introduction
Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588, and was the son of an English vicar who fathered three
children with his wife. When Thomas was still a young boy, his father was involved in a
confrontation with another parson and was forced to leave his home, wife, and children.
Thomas Hobbes’ paternal uncle took charge of the care of the children, and he took a
keen interest in young Thomas. Thomas was reading and writing at age four, acquired
functional knowledge of Latin and Greek at age six, and went off to study at Oxford at the
age of fifteen (Ebenstein & Ebenstein, 1991). Hobbes studied at Oxford for five years,
and it is said that he was nonchalant about the course of study which he thought was
“arid and old-fashioned” (Ebenstein & Ebenstein, 1991: 398). After graduating
from Oxford, Hobbes worked as tutor and companion for the son of Lord Cavendish. Lord
Cavendisn later became the first Earl of Devonshire, and the son whom Hobbes tutored was
the same age as Hobbes.

Through his association with this aristocratic family, Hobbes became personally acquainted
with influential men in business and politics, and got to know the great scientists of the
period. His acquaintances included such men as Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Harvey.
According to Ebenstein & Ebenstein (1991), Hobbes traveled extensively and spent about
twenty years on the European continent, with much of this time spent in Paris. While in
France, he came to recognize the new developments in philosophy and science. Paris would
become his home for a decade when he fled England during the conflict between Parliament
and the Crown in the 1640s. The historic struggle between the English king and Parliament
is a well-chronicled story.

To understand the context in which Hobbes was writing, one has to understand the political
climate and reality of the period. The battles between the English executive and
legislature goes back to the 1200s when the kingdom was ruled by King John, a descendant
of William the Conqueror. Under the monarchy of King John, England lost its continental
portion of the kingdom, which included Normandy. The taxing power of the king had become
a major factor in the ongoing confrontations between the Crown (the executive) and the
Parliament (the legislature). The king was engaged in a civil war with the English
aristocracy, which consisted of barons and other nobles; and to gain peace, he agreed to
sign the Magna Carta. Since the parliament and the power brokers of the time were
dissatisfied with the taxing power of the king, one article of the Magna Carta stipulated
that “no taxes could be imposed ‘unless by the common council of the
realm’” which became the parliament (Lynch, 1998: 35).

Lynch (1998) concurs that the Reformation period saw the power of the king (executive)
being tested by Parliament (legislature) to the greatest degree. By 1649, the
parliamentary faction had prevailed over the Crown, and King Charles I was already
executed. Oliver Cromwell who led the Parliamentary forces became military leader and
dictator of England, Scotland, and Ireland. After the death of Oliver Cromwell, his son
led England for a short time before key elements of the army rebelled against him, and
restored the monarchy with King Charles II as ruler in 1660. Tension between the
executive and legislature persisted as Charles II and subsequent “Stuart kings
favored a divine-right-of-kings interpretation of power and seemed to consider adopting
Catholicism as the state religion” (36). The conflict would continue after the
death of Thomas Hobbes in 1679. When King James II was forced from the throne in 1688,
his sister Queen Mary and King William were asked to share the throne. The 1688 English
Bill of Rights was a product of this era, and the document established that no man could
be force to pay taxes, grant loans, or give gifts without a consenting act of parliament.

Prior to the political turmoil of the 1640s, the writings of Thomas Hobbes were
anti-democratic and anti-parliamentary. His major work up to this time was the De Cive in
1642, but it was written in Latin. As it as been pointed out (Ramon M. Lemos, 1978), the
De Cive is similar in fundamental principles to his later great work, the Liviathan
published in 1651. The battle between the king and parliament would cause Hobbes to fear
for his life, and in the 1640s he fled England for France. During his stay in France he
instructed Charles II, son of King Charles I, in mathematics from 1646 to 1648. Despite
his concerns regarding the rule of parliament in England, Hobbes returned home in 1651
because he feared the French clergy more than the English parliament. In England he
declared that he would submit to the republican regime, and remained in his homeland until
his death in 1679. The Liviathan is widely considered to be “the first general
theory of politics in the English language” (Ebenstien & Ebenstien, 1991).

Philosophy
Early philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who defend absolute government,
believed in the principle of human inequality. Those early philosophers posited the tenet
that some men are naturally predisposed to rule, and are endowed with different attributes
than the people over whom they rule. Hobbes argues from the opposite perspective, and
proposes “that men are naturally equal in mind and body” ( Ebenstien &
Ebenstien, 1991). He makes the point that, as for physical strength, the weakest possess
enough strength to kill the strongest by destroying him secretly, or with the help of
allies who are in the same danger. He reasons that mental strength and wisdom among men
is naturally equal, though some people think that their wisdom is greater than others.
Believing that one is wiser than others makes one contented with ones share of wisdom, and
contentment with ones share of anything is a sign of equal distribution. That, in itself,
he believes is enough proof that all men are equal rather than unequal.

The basic equality of men poses a threat to peace among men. Men with equal faculties
will share like hopes and desires, and if two men desire the same thing, which they cannot
both have, they will be at odds with each other. In explaining the theoretical state of
nature, which is his explanation of “every man against every man” (Jackson J.
Spielvogel, 1991: 559), Hobbes uses this brutish characteristic as a take-off point for
discussion of the condition of war among men. Before the organization of society, humans
did not abide by reason and morals, but by an animalistic and ruthless instinct to survive
within the state of nature. According to Hobbes, the nature of war is not defined by the
actual fighting, “but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is
no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace” (559). As long as men live
in a state of nature in which their security lies only in their personal strength or
secret machinations, then there is no culture, industry, and no knowledge of the earth.
It is a condition of “continual fear, and anger of violent death; and the life of
man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (559).

In Hobbes’ view, the fear of death is the force that leads men to aspire for peace.
The individual desires for things like power and glory yield to the desire to secure life
at the minimum, and, if possible, the means of a comfortable and fulfilling existence. As
Aristotle believed that it is man’s ability to differentiate between just and
unjust, or good and evil that makes him different from other animals, so did Hobbes
believe that man’s ability to reason is the defining element of man over other
animals. It is this power of reason which lead man to realize that his fear of death was
due to the ‘every man for himself’ attitude which results in the state of
perpetual war of ‘every man against all’. This power of reason also leads man
to realize that he needs not do that to another “which thou thinkest unreasonable to
be done by another to yourself”(Ebenstien & Ebenstien, 1991: 400). In the same
manner in which Socrates and Plato see the State being formed for the creation of a
collective good, so does Hobbes see the creation of a sovereign to secure the collective
good for man, which is his security.

Hobbes argues that the essential faculty of reasoning guided man to the acceptance of the
fact that to save themselves from destroying each other, they had to contract to form a
commonwealth, which he called the great Leviathan. This commonwealth would concede its
collective power to the hands of a sovereign authority. Hobbes prefers a single ruler
serving as executor, legislature, and judge. Also like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle,
Hobbes accepted the possibility of an assembly of men being the sovereign authority. Like
the early philosophers who believed in the unchallenged authority of the king, Hobbes
believed that the absolute ruler possessed unlimited power, and that subjects should be
suppressed if they try to rebel. If the ruler should fail to exercise his power in an
effective manner, then he should relinquish sovereignty. The subjects should then
transfer their loyalty to another ruler so that their peace would be secure (Spielvogel,
1991). A sovereign authority is a necessity in keeping the covenant between men, since
mans desire for power and glory may lead him to break any covenant made with words only.
This means that the proverbial sword must enforce the word in any agreement between men.

Hobbes was careful to explain that the covenant, which gives sovereign power to a single
ruler or assembly of men, is a covenant of everyone with everyone, including those who
voted against it. This hints at Hobbes’ democratic mechanism at deciding on the
single ruler or assembly of men. However, once that covenant has been made there is no
withdrawing from it; and

“they that have already instituted a commonwealth, being thereby bound by covenant
to own the actions and judgements of one, cannot lawfully make a new covenant, among
themselves, to be obedient to any other, in any thing whatsoever, without his
permission” (Ebenstein & Ebenstein, 1991: 413).

This means that once a king or assembly has been elected, the power cannot be taken from
the ruler or assembly of men and given to another. If this is done, then the covenant
would have been broken, and according to Hobbes, breaking a covenant is injustice. In
making the covenant to give authority to the sovereign, “they have also every man
given the sovereignty to him that bears their person, and therefore if they depose him,
they take from him that which is his own, and so again it is injustice” (413).

Hobbes agrees that the sovereign can commit iniquity, but not “injustice or injury
in the proper signification” (400). This is because the covenant, or social
contract as he calls it, is made between subjects and subjects, and not between the
subjects and the sovereign. The sovereign cannot break the covenant because the sovereign
was not author of the contract, but was given the authority by the subjects.
“Consequently, he that complains of injury from his sovereign, complains of that
whereof he himself is author, and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himself”
(414).
Continues for 7 more pages >>




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