The Politics of Human Nature: Thomas Hobbes

English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) is widely held as the "father of political science." His 1651 book Leviathan makes the case for why monarchy is the only political system that is consistent with human nature. He bases his argument on the following assumption about humans in "the state of nature" (what we would now call indigenous peoples):

Let us return again to the state of nature, and consider men as if but even now sprung out of the earth, and suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity without all kind of engagement to each other . . . Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes assumes that, without strong, centralized authority human beings will perpetually be at war with each other where "every man is Enemy to every man." Furthermore, he assumes there would be no art, no leisure, no ability to travel over water or create community building projects. Of course, Hobbes had never encountered an indigenous person before. In fact, he never travelled more than 100 miles from the island of his birth, so his understanding of how indigenous people behaved was informed by second hand accounts and his own imagination.

Hobbes was a strong supporter of King Charles I and wrote Leviathan in the midst of the English Civil War when his rule was seriously under threat. Hobbes used the language of the newly emerging scientific method (he was deeply influenced by Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei and English anatomist William Harvey) as a way to justify his political arguments. However, a logical argument, no matter how sound, is only as good as the assumptions that form it's foundational axiom. In this case, his assumptions about human nature.

Whatever else political scientists may find of value in the rest of Leviathan, the foundation for his argument about human nature is spectacularly wrong. Anthropologists have now shown that every point Hobbes claims about the state of nature in fact does exist in hunter-gatherer populations. Further, while violence and aggression exist, it is nowhere near the scale of modern industrialized societies. Unfortunately, this view of indigenous peoples living a life that is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" is pervasive in the modern world.


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"Hobbes assumes that, without strong, centralized authority human beings will perpetually be at war with each other "

I found that a wonderful contrast to Orwell, who pretty much proposes the opposite: that humans will perpetually be at war *because* of strong centralized authorities.

consider men as if but even now sprung out of the earth, and suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity without all kind of engagement to each other

except of course that no humans --- nor even human societies --- ever popped into existence that way.

we're social animals; we naturally organize ourselves into groups. to some extent we can argue by analogy to other social animals on this point, perhaps most saliently chimpanzees. there's always strife, both within and between social groups, but it's never quite every individual for themselves; we'd be solitary, not social, were it so.

i'm not sure i can agree that hunter-gatherer societies have less violence and aggression than industrial societies, though. they have less capacity for mass warfare, true, but that's not likely to be the whole picture. conflict between societies --- organized warfare --- is not all there is to violence, and more organized societies can also produce formalized laws and law enforcement to curb internal violence and keep the peace within themselves. for most people at most times, that's the only kind of violence we really need to fear, and hunter-gatherers might be more at risk for it.

hm. Locke next Friday? or did you cover him some earlier week already?

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 26 Jul 2009 #permalink

The comparison to indigenous tribes is very misleading, because that was not what Hobbes was talking about at all. The 'state of nature' is a situation of man prior to any type of social organization, which hypothetically precedes hunter gather societies. The argument is supposed to show that man is rational and that because he is rational he joins other humans to make a society which requires a set list of rules in order to function. The article is misrepresenting the philosophy of Hobbes.

@Arthur: You are correct that Hobbes is using the hypothetical when he describes humans emerging "like mushrooms" without social connections. However, you are incorrect that this was not a basis for his understanding of indigenous people.

To quote one passage from the discussion in Lott's 2002 essay in Philosophers on Race:

His reference to Native Americans as "savages" suggests a presocial paradigm of rugged individuals living outside of civil association. He sometimes employed the term "savage" to indicate a relationship between social dissolution and the presocial condition. That this "natural condition" lurks beneath the artificial bond of political obligation supplies the major thrust of his argument for absolute sovereignty.