Thomas Hobbes, the Materialist (1)


Hobbes was fundamentally a materialist and was utterly hostile to the supernatural hypotheses in the realm of social thought. In his political philosophy, Hobbes tried to conceptualize the relationship between the new nation State, which had been emerging under the Tudors, and the individual citizen, who could no longer be regarded simply as having a set place in a divinely instituted order. In the old medieval society a man was bound by ties attaching to his status and by duties prescribed for him by the Church. Aristotle’s doctrine of natural kinds and natural places and his account of man as a social animal provided a fitting naturalistic foundation or the theological world view that was accepted by the rulers and the ruled alike. But with the rise of individualism and the social mobility that accompanied the rise of commerce and capitalism, this old conception of man in society no longer applied. Men had shaken off the ties of their guilds and local communities, and the new natural philosophy was beginning to render the naturalistic foundations of the former worldview untenable.

Hobbes’ picture of life as a race, in which we must suppose to have no other good, nor other garland, but being foremost, was a gruesome form of social control which could take its place and prevent the anarchy of a State of nature. The answer was to be found of course in the increasing power of the

executive power of the State and in the growth of the statute law, together with the development of the individual conscience, whereby regulation from within replaced the external authority of the Catholic Church. Hobbes distrusted the anarchic tendencies of the individual conscience as much as he loathed the extramundane authority of the Church of Rome. For him, the task was to banish both, along with the traditional ties. He thought of reconstructing the civil society as a simple mechanistic system.

Let us take a brief look at his social contract and the commonwealth.

Social Contract: Hobbes had a ready model at hand through which he might present his Galilean analysis of the rationale of civil society, the social contract theory. Despite its obvious flaws, the social contract theory was an attempt to rationalize political obligations, to substitute an intelligent bargain for mystifying appeals to Divine Right and tradition. Hobbes’ feat was to employ this model to demonstrate that absolutism is the only possible logical outcome of consistent concern for individual interests. In his attitude towards tradition and Divine Right, he was at one with the defenders of the Government by consent. But because of his depressing estimate of human nature, he came to the somewhat gleeful conclusion, that absolutism could be the only rationally defensible form of Government. Hobbes imagined the individual in the State of nature as having an unlimited right to “protect his life and members” and “to use all the means, to do all the actions, without which he cannot preserve himself.” Hobbes uses the concept of right in a way to talk about both what a person is entitled to do and what a person cannot be obliged to renounce. Hobbes’ “Rights” of nature are derivative from man’s tendency to assert him and seek power. Hobbes held that men would also be driven by his fear of death to accept certain laws of nature and prescribed that every man should lay down his rights to all things and be contended with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. This could be done with either not interfering with other’s enjoyment of their rights or by transferring one’s rights to another, in which case the transfer is obliged not to hinder the recipient. The mutual transferring of such rights is called a contract and the third law of nature is that men perform their covenants made.

Commonwealth: The definition of commonwealth is, “one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves everyone the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall see expedient, for their peace and common defence.” The person that results is the Sovereign, and everyone else is his subject. The Sovereign is created by the contract, but is not a party to it. His basic principle of human nature is revealed by his Galilean resolution, “that the dispositions of men are naturally such that, except they be restrained through some coercive power, every man will dread and distrust each other.” No motive in human nature, except the fear of death, is strong enough to counteract the disruptive force of man’s self-assertion. The fear of death must, therefore, the explanation of the existence of civil society. Sovereignty must be perpetual, undivided and absolute, for to divide and limit sovereignty would be to risk anarchy. The safety of the people is the supreme law.

Historical background

In the 17th century England, the middle class had carried forward their rebellion against absolute monarchy based on Divine Rights. The Parliament was the representation of this class and its fight. The men who now fought the Stuart Kings were precisely those who had profited from Tudor absolutism, which now began to irritate them. The lower middle class then split from their upper counterpart and rallied around Cromwell. So far as the untitled and the unmoneyed class was concerned, they stood largely by the Throne, although they had as little to gain by the King as from the Parliament. The middle class was so afraid of the poor people as of the King. When the parliamentarians talked about the Government based on consent, they had no intention of extending the franchise to the people; it was to be their own consent. Right to property, which they held to be sacred, meant to them the principle that the King had no right to tax them without their consent; it also meant the denial of property to the poor.

It was in this climate that Hobbes arrived on the intellectual scene of England. Coke was attacking the Divine Rights of Kings and he regarded both King and the Parliament, as subject to common law which, to him, was the truly sovereign power in the land. Common law had to be interpreted by the Judges. Throughout Europe, absolute State was becoming the order of the day. Louis XI had first subjugated the feudal nobility. The Reformation then enabled the monarchs to better the Church. Henry VIII had claimed jurisdiction and powers, which no earlier British King had done. To the discomfiture of Hobbes, the cursed Puritans had undone the work so artistically done by Henry VIII and the price had to be redesigned so that the fabric may be saved from total destruction in the hands of the rabble.

Hobbes was eclectic as he borrowed from previous thinkers, but gave his own orientation to their concepts. He agrees with Machiavelli that man is selfish and that human nature is bad but insists that the State could transfer the man into a moral being by the exercise of the master’s rod. He is indebted to Bodin for his concept of sovereignty but, unlike Bodin, would impose no limitations of Divine, Natural or Constitutional law on his subjects. He agrees with Grotius that, reason is the basis of law but insists that it must be sovereign’s reason alone. He modifies the Divine Right theory by discarding the Divine origin of the State and by giving Divine Right to the State instead to the King. Hobbes like Machiavelli, subordinated ethics and religion to politics and was the first prophet of sovereignty.

Morality as a basis for his political philosophy:

Political philosophy of Hobbes was based on Moral philosophy on the one hand and politics on the other. Hobbes treated it systematically in his three discourses viz., Elements of Law, Elements Philosophiae and in the Leviathan. In so far as the principles of political philosophy are not borrowed from natural sciences, the two are independent of each other. According to Hobbes theory of human nature, the basis is in the two most certain postulates of human nature. The first being that of ‘natural appetite’. The second being ‘natural reason’. Hobbes reduces man’s natural appetite to vanity; he can’t recognize the fear of a violent death, not the fear of a painful death, and certainly not the striving after self-preservation as the principle of morality. As he aptly puts it that it is not the legality of the action, but the morality of the purpose that makes a just man.

Concept of individual:

In modern political philosophy, the individual is looked upon as the unit of the society and his liberty and freedom are of central importance. He undoubtedly has the duty to obey the law of the State, but the ground of political obligation is no longer an inexplicable divinity, which hallowed the medieval polity; but an expanded area of freedom which, obedience would release. The State is all-powerful, but its omnipotence is not the outcome of sheer physical force; it is a result of the superior moral ethos, which is the offspring of the contract. The primary functions of the modern State are threefold:

  1. Happiness or Utility.
  2. Material or moral progress.
  3. Promotion of fear and extension of liberty.

The individual, therefore, is of capital importance and the State is, in the long run, subservient to him. It is to hinder hindrances. The hindrance may be the individual himself, or a group of individuals or a class; it may be other states, aggressive, jingoistic and expansionist. In every case, the State has to function as a shield for the individual against aggression and as a sword for his welfare. Positive in content, modern political philosophy is scientific and empirical in nature, approach, and methodology and in technique. Advances in pure and applied sciences have had a deep impact on political thought, the chief example being Hobbes.


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