The Philosophies of Thomas Hobbes

Views on Knowledge

Hobbes believed that basing philosophy and science on the observations of nature alone was too subjective because humans have the ability to view the world in many different ways. He rejected the work of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, who used inductive reasoning from nature to draw scientific and philosophical conclusions. Instead, he believed the purpose of philosophy was to establish a system of truths that were based on foundational, universal principles that could be demonstrated by anyone through language and agreed upon by all.

In searching for a philosophy based on universal principles, Hobbes turned to geometry as a model and claimed it to be the first universal principle. Because of its deductive reasoning, Hobbes believed geometry to be a model of true science and used this notion of deductive reasoning to create his political philosophy.

Views on Human Nature

Thomas Hobbes did not believe in dualism or the existence of a soul. Humans, according to Hobbes, are like machines; made of material and whose functions could be explained by mechanical processes (for example, sensation is caused by the mechanical processes of the nervous system). As such, Hobbes claimed that humans avoid pain and pursue pleasure in an effort to seek out our own self-interest (which makes humans’ judgment extremely unreliable), and that our thoughts and emotions are based on cause and effect and action-reaction. Hobbes believed that human judgment needs to be guided by science, which, in Leviathan, he refers to as “the knowledge of consequences.”

Society, according to Hobbes, was a similar machine that, while artificial, also followed the same laws, and all phenomena in the entire universe could be explained through the interactions and motions of material bodies.

Fear, Hope, and the Social Contract

Hobbes did not believe morality exists in a human’s natural state. So when he speaks of good and evil, he refers to “good” as anything people desire and “evil” as anything people avoid. Based on these definitions, Hobbes then goes on to explain various behaviors and emotions. Hope, according to Hobbes’s definition, is the possibility of gaining some apparent good, and fear is recognizing that an apparent good cannot be attained (though this definition is only maintainable when considering humans outside of the constraints of laws and society). Since good and evil are based on individual desires, rules regarding what makes something good or evil cannot exist.

It is the constant back-and-forth between feelings of hope and fear that Hobbes believed was the defining principle of all human action, and he claimed that one of the two are present in all people at any given time.

Hobbes depicts the “state of nature” as humans having an instinctive desire to gain as much good and power as they possibly can. This desire and a lack of any laws that prevent one from harming others create a state of constant war. And this constant war in the state of nature means humans must be living in constant fear of one another. However, when reason and fear combine, it makes humans follow the state of nature (the desire to gain as much good as one can) and makes humans seek out peace. Furthermore, good and evil cannot exist until a society’s supreme authority establishes these rules.

Hobbes claims the only way peace can truly be achieved is by coming together and creating a social contract in which a group of people agree to have one supreme authority rule over a commonwealth. Within the social contract, fear serves two purposes:

  1. It creates the state of war within the state of nature so that a social contract is required.

  2. It upholds the peace within a commonwealth (by allowing for the supreme authority to instill fear in everyone through punishing those who break the contract).

Views on Government

While, in his earlier works, Hobbes claimed society needs a supreme sovereign power, in Leviathan, Hobbes makes his stance clear: An absolute monarchy is the best type of government and the only type that can provide peace for all.

Hobbes believed that factionalism within society, such as rival governments, differing philosophies, or the struggle between church and state, only leads to civil war. Therefore, to maintain peace for all, everyone in a society must agree to have one authoritative figure that controls the government, makes the laws, and is in charge of the church.