Problem

Why do we have governments? They aren’t strictly necessary for our survival. How are they supposed to interact with their people? Where does their power come from and what exactly are they supposed to do with it?

The Answer

Enlightenment thinker Thomas Hobbes is well known for his answers to such queries. His most well known book Leviathan goes over the importance of social contracts, absolute sovereigns, and collective security. 

Thomas Hobbes

A philosopher, a scientist, and a historian, Thomas Hobbes influenced fields from geometry to classics translations to law through his many voluminous works. During his lifetime, Hobbes had a mixed reputation in his homeland of England but was fairly well regarded abroad. Today, his theories and ideas expressed in Leviathan are still discussed and debated, almost 370 years after the novel’s first publication in 1651.

The History

Leviathan argues that any society needs a strong central government. This isn’t particularly surprising given that Hobbes wrote the book during the English Civil War – the issue of governing was a hot topic. 

Imagine a society with no government. Hobbes referred to this as the state of nature. He argued that within this state, people would inevitably try to selfishly take everything. After all, everyone sees themselves as having the same right to any particular good. It’s a bit like two neighbors arguing over who owns a rock on their shared property line. Both parties have different ideas on what to do with the rock, but they each see themselves as the only person with the right to decide what happens to the rock. If this were to happen on a large scale with a whole society’s worth of goods and people, it would be chaos. It wouldn’t be long before people were fearing for their lives. As Thomas Hobbes put it, it would become a “war of all against all.”

To prevent this from happening, some kind of strong authority with the ability to punish dissenters needs to be put into place. The only problem is, how? The solution comes in the form of social contracts. It doesn’t need to be a written or even stated contract, but in a social contract, people agree to give up or limit their natural rights and freedoms in exchange for some kind of benefit. In this case, the benefit would be an authority that protects people’s remaining rights and freedoms. In most societies, people give up their autonomy and privileges in order to secure collective freedom.

Hobbes argued that the best authority is an absolute sovereign, one supreme ruler who controls all. The absolute sovereign is the head of the military, law, religion, and state in general. Since the population gives the sovereign their authority via the social contract, their power cannot be resisted. Thus if one is upset with their sovereign, they only have themselves to blame.

So What

The term social contract is still used today and the ideas behind it are even more prevalent. People make social contracts all the time. When you enter a classroom, you defer to your teacher in order to learn. When you go to work, you defer to your boss so you can earn a paycheck. When you finally return home, you defer to your guardians to survive and protect what remaining autonomy you have. Social contracts are everywhere.

Just as widespread is the importance of collective security. People are still willing to give up a lot to ensure their safety and survival. It’s why the age-old argument is freedom versus safety – safety is the tipping point at which many individuals will compromise on their rights. Debates still rage on over which one is more important and how authorities might obtain the most of both, but there’s no universal answer. 

Hobbes’ idea that people give authority figures their power later developed into the monumental battle cry of the necessity to obtain the consent of the governed. Even though Hobbes argued in favor of monarchies, his ideas led to revitalizing democracies. Hobbes may have penned over forty works in his lifetime, Leviathan remains his most well-known work for good reason: it describes the need for social contracts while stating the importance of every individual’s consent.

    Learn More

    1. Bobbio, Norberto. Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law Tradition. Trans Daniela Gobetti, the University of Chicago Press, 1993. ISBN: 0-226-06248-1. 
    2. Boucher, David and Paul Kelly. The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls. Taylor and Francis, 2005. ISBN: 0-203-39292-2.
    3. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: Or, The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill. Edited by A. R. Waller, Cambridge, 1904.
    4. Mintz, Samuel I. The Hunting of Leviathan. Cambridge University Press, 1970. ISBN: 978-0-521-13132-2.
    5. Sorell, Tom. “Thomas Hobbes: English Philosopher.” Encyclopædia Britannica, inc, Apr 2020, britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Hobbes.

    Think Further

    1. What other social contracts do you enter into every day?
    2. Do you agree with Hobbes’ assessment of the state of nature? What are some philosophers who would either agree or disagree with his findings?
    3. When would you be willing to give up your rights for collective security? Vice versa?

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