Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thomas Hobbes

I was excited to read the next GBWW book on political theory, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, a work that is widely recogonized for its contribution in the development of modern political thought.  Before we had governments, Hobbes says, we lived in a "state of nature" where we were in constant war with each other. In this savage world we were in continual fear and the life of a man was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".  Governments were created to lift us out of this primitive condition and allow us to exist in peace.  However, in exchange for protection against bodily harm and property loss, Hobbes says that people under a government must surrender some freedoms. The relinquished power of the masses is then invested into a single body or person, who becomes the "Leviathan", the singular power that governs and protects the state and maintains justice. The Leviathan represents the will of the people and is expressed in an artificially created man, a super-entity, a single person, such as a sovereign. 

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived at a time when the government and monarchy of England were under assault.  Hobbes was born on the day of the unsuccessful invasion of England by the Spanish Armada.  Later he witnessed the English Civil War (1642–1651) between supporters of Charles I and Parliament.  Because of his association with the Royalist cause, Hobbes fled for Paris.  While in exile, Hobbes finished Leviathan (1651) a book which supported the need for a strong sovereign.  However, Hobbes developed rancorous disagreements with Royalists living in France, partially because his work did not support a divine right to rule. Hobbes also thought that religion  was just a construct of man designed to better understand the origins of causes and did not have any role in emperical science.  He was put in the awkward position of being forced to flee back to England which, following the execution of Charles I, was now a Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. Luckily for Hobbes, most people seemed not to mind having him back in England.  When the Commonwealth dissolved in 1660 the monarchy was restored under Charles II, who had in fact been formerly tutored by Hobbes. 

Hobbes was walking the earth during a time of scientific discovery and philosophical explorations.  Hobbes met both Rene Descartes and Galileo and was a secretary for Sir Francis Bacon. One thing that is interesting about the legacy of  Hobbes is that although he supported a strong monarchy his work has often been referenced by more liberal thinkers.  This is because the foundation of a successful government, as Hobbes believes, begins with agreements between individuals expressing a shared will to work together to achieve a common goal. This covenant between men is what Hobbes believes has made civilization possible.

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