Thomas Hobbes’ Conception of the State: How Did the State Emerge?June 28, 2021
Thomas Hobbes is one of Britain’s greatest political thinkers.
What is less well known is that he was one of the first fitness enthusiasts. Every morning, he would quickly climb the hills to catch his breath. He had a special cane made with an inkwell in the handle in case he had a good idea while he was out. This tall, rosy-cheeked, cheerful man with a mustache and a wispy beard had had a sick childhood. In his adulthood, he was quite healthy and did not stop playing tennis even in his later years. He ate lots of fish, drank very little wine, and sang behind closed doors and out of earshot to work his lungs. Undoubtedly, he, like many other philosophers, had a very active mind. As a result, he lived to the exceptional age of 91 in the seventeenth century, when the average life expectancy was 35 years.
Despite his genial character, Hobbes also thought that man was a weak creature like Machiavelli. He believed that we are all basically selfish beings, driven by fear of death and the hope of personal gain. Whether we realize it or not, we all try to dominate others. If you don’t agree with Hobbes’ definition of humanity, why do you lock your door when you leave your house? No doubt this is because you know that there are many people out there who would happily steal whatever you have. But you can still argue that only some people are selfish. Hobbes disagrees with you on this. In essence, he thinks that everyone is selfish and that the rule of law and the threat of punishment are the only things that keep us in check. As a result, if society collapses and you have to live in the “state of nature,” as Hobbes puts it, without laws or someone to enforce the law, Hobbes says that you can steal and kill if necessary, just like everyone else. At the very least, that’s what you’d have to do if you wanted to survive. If you’re struggling to find food and water to survive in a resource-scarce world, it might actually be wise to kill other people before they kill you.
In Hobbes’ unforgettable definition, life outside the society will be “solitary, poor, bad, cruel and short”. If you remove state power that prevents people from coveting other people’s land and killing whomever they want, the result is an endless war of all against all. It’s hard to imagine a worse situation. In this lawless world, even the strongest person would not be safe for long. We all have to sleep, and when we sleep we are vulnerable to attack. Even the weakest could destroy the strong if he was cunning enough. You may be imagining that one way to avoid getting killed would be to team up with your friends. But the problem is that you can’t be sure of anyone’s credibility. Even if other people promise to help you, they can sometimes go back on their word for their own benefit.
Any large-scale activity that requires collaboration, such as growing food or construction, would be impossible without a basic level of trust. You may not realize you’ve been cheated on until it’s too late, and by then someone may have actually stabbed you in the back. In such a situation, there will be no one to punish the person who stabbed you. Your enemies could be anywhere, you could spend your whole life in fear of being attacked: Not an enticing prospect. Hobbes argued that the solution was to bring a powerful individual or parliament to power. People in the state of nature will have to enter into a ‘social contract’, an agreement in which they give up some dangerous freedoms for the sake of security. Without what Hobbes called the “sovereign,” life would be a kind of hell. This sovereign will be given the right to punish those who go astray.
Hobbes believed that there are some natural laws that you would consider important; An example of this is that we should treat others the way we expect to be treated ourselves. Laws don’t work unless there is something or someone strong enough to get everyone to follow them. People in the state of nature can expect violent death without laws and a strong sovereign. The only consolation is that such a life does not last long. Hobbes’ most important book, Leviathan (1651), describes in detail the steps required for the transition to a safe society where life in the nightmarish state of nature is bearable.
“Leviathan” was a gigantic sea monster depicted in the Bible. For Hobbes, it was a reference to the enormous power of the state. The Leviathan opens with a painting of a dare rising behind the hill, holding a sword in one hand and a scepter in the other. This figure is made up of many little people, yet it is noticeable that they are separate individuals. The giant represents a powerful state with a sovereign at its head. Imagine, Hobbes, that without a sovereign, everything would fall apart and society would be replaced by individual people, ready to tear each other apart for survival, then individuals in the state of nature