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Thomas Hobbes and Social Contract

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Thomas Hobbes and Social Contract

Do you believe it's necessary to have laws to keep order in society? Or do you think it would be better if everyone just was allowed to do whatever they want, regardless of it might hurt other people? If you do believe there should be laws, you have something in common with Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes was an English philosopher who believed in the need for a social contract between people that limited their freedoms in the name of the greater good. Learn about Thomas Hobbes and the social contract as well as how other later Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke challenged some of his views.

Thomas Hobbes: A Man Shaped by His Experiences

Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588. He studied at Oxford and spent much of his life working as a tutor for an aristocratic family. By the 1640s, he became known for a number of philosophical works he had published.

It is around this time that Hobbes witnessed the horrors of war that would shape his political views and beliefs. The English Civil War was fought between 1642 and 1651 and most likely influenced his ideas of the social contract.

Hobbes spent much of the war in exile in France. However, he looked on with horror at the death and destruction in his native country. He had already been an outspoken supporter of absolute monarchy. The events of the war only reaffirmed that view and contributed to his ideas about human nature in what he called the "state of nature."

English Civil War

The English Civil War involved a series of conflicts between those supporting the Parliament and those supporting the monarchy of Charles I. The wars ultimately resulted in Charles being executed, and Parliament ruling England until a restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

However, now the king only ruled with Parliament's consent, and the Parliament chose a new king in the 1668 Glorious Revolution, establishing England and the later union of Great Britain as a true parliamentary monarchy where the king's power was checked by a legislature.

Thomas Hobbes: Social Contract and the State of Nature

Hobbes developed a theory of human nature in what he called the "state of nature." The state of nature was a hypothetical state in the past with no government or laws.

For Hobbes, the state of nature was one of constant competition, violence, and danger. With all men being relatively equal, none could ever establish dominance or security.

To help imagine Hobbes's idea of the state of nature, think about a group of humans competing for an apple. The tallest person may be able to get the apple from the tree the easiest. However, a more crafty one might be able to make plans to steal the apple. The strongest person may just take the apple by force, using violence if necessary. Finally, someone else could always just kill the strongest person in their sleep and take the apple for themselves.

This is an admittedly bleak view of human nature and Hobbes essentially saw the state of nature as one of perpetual war.

Continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"1

Thomas Hobbes and Social Contract Theory Portrait StudySmarterPortrait of Thomas Hobbes. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Hobbes and Social Contract Theory

Thomas Hobbes' social contract theory was based on the idea that human beings entered into an unwritten agreement with each other to escape from this warlike state of nature. This is what he referred to as the social contract.

For Thomas Hobbes, social contract theory was necessary to allow society to flourish. Without the social contract, humans could never move past the simple day to day search for food and survival. There would be no reason to develop agriculture or industry, because your hard work could just be taken from you by someone else.

In such condition, there is no place for Industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no Cultivation, no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea, no 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"2

Thomas Hobbes and the Social Contract's Definition

Thomas Hobbes's social contract's definition was based on what he thought was the logical arrangement humans would make to escape this state of nature.

This is an abstract idea, and it shouldn't be thought of as a physical contract everyone has signed. To help understand it, think about your school. You and your classmates have not signed a contract that gives your teachers power over you, but you generally accept it to be the case in a sort of social contract.

Imagine your school with no rules. Sure, you could do whatever you want and that might be fun, for a while. If you decided you wanted someone else's lunch, you could just take it, at least assuming you were stronger, faster, or craftier than that person. However, you could also be the person whose lunch was taken or maybe that person would try to take revenge on you in some way. It would be difficult for anyone to ever just eat their lunch in peace.

It follows that, in such a condition, every man has a Right to everything--even to one another's body. And therefore, as long as this natural Right of every man to own everything exists, there can be no security to any man--no matter how strong or wise he is."3

Instead, applying the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and the social contract, you can appeal to your teachers if someone takes your lunch. They can then decide who was right or wrong and, if necessary, apply a punishment. As unfair as you think your teachers are sometimes, this situation is probably preferable to no authority at all.

Applying that to society in general is a good way to think of Thomas Hobbes and the social contract's definition.

To put it more simply the definition Thomas Hobbes's social contract is giving up complete freedom to do whatever you want in exchange for security. This allows you to live your life, develop your talents, acquire wealth, or simply eat your lunch, without having to constantly look over your soldier worrying someone will take it from you.

Thomas Hobbes and The Leviathan

Hobbes's best-known work is The Leviathan, published in 1651. It is in this work that the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and social contract theory were expressed. In it, he argues people give up their freedom and submit to the power of a government, or what he called a sovereign, to rule them in the name escaping the state of nature.

Thomas Hobbes and Social Contract and State of Nature Leviathan Cover StudySmarterCover of The Leviathan. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

He describes three potential types of sovereign government, a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy. Hobbes argued the best type of sovereign was an absolute monarchy, with broad and unchecked power, including the ability to censor opposing ideas. He also explicitly rejected the idea that people had the right to change their government.

I authorize and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men"4

Difference Between Thomas Hobbes and John Locke's Social Contract

Thomas Hobbes's social contract definition and theory are often contrasted with that of John Locke.

Locke's More Optimistic View of the State of Nature

The difference between Thomas Hobbes and John Locke's social contract is primarily due to Locke's completely different view of human nature.

Locke saw the state of nature as governed by natural laws where men did respect the "life, liberty, and property" of others. Unlike Hobbes, he did not see man in a perpetual state of war when living in the state of nature.

However, Locke recognized that some would violate these natural laws, taking man from a state of nature to a state of war. It is to prevent this that the social contract must be made, and government formed. In this way he is not totally unlike Hobbes, but he viewed the role of government differently.

Locke's Support for Just Government

This differing view of the role of government is the other key difference between Thomas Hobbes and John Locke's social contract. Locke saw government's most important role as protecting the lives, liberty, and property of individuals. In the case that the government is failing to successfully do this, he argued people have a right to change that government.

Jean Jacques Rosseau, a French Enlightenment philosopher saw the social contract similar to Locke and also argued for the necessity of just government that ensured the rights of people and the collective good.

Hobbes, on the other hand, believed people must accept their leaders' rule in all cases to prevent a return to the state of nature.

Therefore, the difference between Thomas Hobbes and John Locke's social contract was not so much on the social contract itself, since both believed man gave up some freedom to construct a government that served their collective interests, but on whether people had a right to change their government if they no longer felt it best served them.

Portrait of John Locke. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Considering Context

It can be easy to simply conclude that Hobbes was a pessimist and Locke an optimist. However, it's worth considering their contexts. Hobbes lived through a time when the monarchy was the only form of government that had existed and challenges to it resulted in a bloody civil war. Meanwhile, Locke had seen a successful challenge to monarchy and calls for more just government and his ideas represented an acceptance and evolution of that idea. Think about other political philosophers and ideas and how they may have been shaped by their context.

Thomas Hobbes's Social Contract Theory Legacy and Impact

Most democratic governments today are based on Locke's and Rousseau's ideas of government more than Hobbes's. However, that does not mean Hobbes's idea of the social contract and state of nature does not remain influential.

He was the first political philosopher to explicitly express this idea, and it is generally agreed today that we have to give up some freedom to do whatever want whenever we want in the name of the greater good and collective security, whether that be following laws, accepting the ruling of judges, not running a red light when we are in a hurry, or not taking your friend's lunch that looks tastier than yours.

Thomas Hobbes and Social Contract - Key takeaways

  • Thomas Hobbes's social contract theory was based on the idea that human beings give up their freedoms to avoid living in the state of nature.
  • Hobbes's view of the state of nature was one of constant competition and the threat of violence and death.
  • For Hobbes, the best form of government was one of absolute monarchy.
  • Hobbes's ideas of human nature and the social contract contrasted with Locke's ideas that humans were inherently good, and government could be replaced if they did not uphold the natural laws that protected life, liberty, and property.

1. Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, 1651.

2. Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, 1651.

3. Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, 1651.

4. Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, 1651.

Frequently Asked Questions about Thomas Hobbes and Social Contract

Thomas Hobbes influenced the idea of the social contract by arguing it was an implied agreement humans entered into to give them security and avoid constant conflict.

Thomas Hobbes was attracted to the social contract because he believed human nature was cruel and a social contract would give people security. He was influenced by the events of the English Civil War.

Thomas Hobbes beliefs about the social contract were that people gave up some of their liberty to be ruled by an all powerful king that was responsible for ensuring their safety.

Thomas Hobbes contributed the ideas of the need for a strong rule to counterbalance human nature's evilness.

Thomas Hobbes was the first modern political philosopher to propose the social contract theory, although later philosophers would build upon and challenge his views.

Final Thomas Hobbes and Social Contract Quiz

Question

How did Thomas Hobbes describe the state of nature?

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Answer

One of perpetual warfare or competition and the threat of violence.

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Question

What was Hobbes's idea of the state of nature?

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Answer

It was a hypothetical time before government.

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Question

What was the name of Hobbes's most influential work?

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Answer

The Leviathan

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Question

What was the best kind of government in Hobbes's opinion?

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Answer

An absolute monarchy with a powerful ruler.

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Question

Did Hobbes believe people had the right to change government if they believed it to be bad?

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Answer

No, Hobbes believed everyone had to submit to the government's rule.

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Question

Why did Hobbes think the social contract was necessary?

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Answer

He believed it was the logical result of people wanting to escape the state of nature where they were constantly in danger.

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Question

What event likely influenced Hobbes views of human nature and best form of government?

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Answer

The English Civil War

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Question

What other English philosopher wrote about the state of nature and the social contract?

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Answer

John Locke

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Question

How was Locke's view of human nature different from Hobbes's?

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Answer

Locke saw humans in the state of nature as respecting each other's life, liberty, and property, whereas Hobbes saw them constantly fighting.

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Question

How did Hobbes and Locke differ in their view of good government?

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Answer

Hobbes believed the ruler should have complete authority and not be changed while Locke believed people could decide to change their government if they believed that government was not doing its job effectively.

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