Hobbes is so freaking cool

Thomas_Hobbes_(portrait) edit

The portrait itself was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. I just photoshopped the shades on. Please don’t sue me.

I seriously appreciate Hobbes, his theories, and the way he explains them.

Settle down, settle down. I know many of you will disagree and, believe me, there is no one more in shock than me. It seemed like it was just yesterday that I was on the brink of a mental breakdown because of Plato. I wanted to burn my copy of Republic and vowed to never take a philosophy class. Which is why I am still blown away by how much SENSE Hobbes makes.

No, Leviathan isn’t the most exciting thing to read. But Hobbes never promised he’d be writing the next Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. No one’s giving him a New York Bestsellers’ stamp to put on the front of his books. And nor is Leviathan the easiest thing to read. But we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. This is Arts One. Reading hard books is what makes us cool. (Or just massive nerds. But it’s fine. We own it.)

Hobbes’ ideas are weird. What do you mean everything we smell or see are bodies pressing my organs? What do you mean humans all want to kill each other? What do you mean we should have a single ruler that we should all submit to out of fear? But Hobbes pretty much embodies the saying, “There is method to my madness.” He may sound like a bit of a nutjob at first, but if you actually pay attention and follow along, he actually makes a lot of sense. (Except for the bit about smells and everything being external bodies that press your organs – but I’ve chalked that up to the flawed science of the medieval times. These people thought that your horoscope sign had something to do with curing illness.)

When I first heard about Hobbes, it was in my grade 12 law class and we were learning about the philosophy of law and Hobbes’ theories was explained to us as being in the category of positive law, which is, in a nutshell, that law is an institution created by people (as opposed to natural law, which is that law is something universal and innate). We were taught a very condensed version of Hobbes’ theory: “Hobbes believed that all humans are naturally violent and war-prone, therefore laws need to be created and enforced so that we don’t all kill one another.” I was offended, obviously. I’m not violent. I’m not brutish. Excuse you. (See tangent #1.) So I went into Leviathan with a mix of skepticism and curiosity. I came away enlightened – he made sense. Humans are programmed to want to survive. That’s why we flinch when something is thrown at our faces. That’s why we have the reflex to pull away if we touch something too hot. That’s why we have a “fight or flight” instinct. That’s why we want to reproduce. And we will hurt each other if we sense a threat to our well-being. We desire peace because otherwise we will all die. None of this is all that crazy, really.

(Tangent #1: On the subject of being not violent or brutish, it makes me wonder whether we are only civilized people because we have the social constructs to be civilized. If you look at it, our behaviours are all determined by social conventions and because we are bound by rules. We aren’t allowed to steal, drive recklessly, or commit fraud, because it’s punishable by law. We shouldn’t chew with our mouths open, disrespect the elderly, or hit our children, because it’s frowned upon by society. So, in my opinion, Hobbes is right. Without social order and firm laws, humans would be all over the place. Even in Plato’s Republic, he said that even a just man would choose to be unjust if he could get away with it. So in that sense, it’s not a matter of human nature. You can be a good person, but in a world where no one else is good, you’ll need to do whatever you need to to survive. In our society, we are bound to Western customs and a legal system to keep us from violent means. And thank goodness for that – I would not survive in a fistfight for my next meal.)

His idea of having a single ruler that we all submit to, in the end, isn’t all that radical either. When you break it all down, it’ll look a lot like our government now. And even if it doesn’t, it’s not like this system is cruel or tyrannical. The ruler doesn’t get his power arbitrarily – the people are supposed to bestow the power onto them willingly or because they have to, out of fear of each other. In return, the sovereign would provide social order and protection. Any power that the ruler has is given to them by the people and the people is the “Author” of the ruler’s every move. That is the social contract. And we would want this in order to be a productive and peaceful race, according to Hobbes.

Now I guess the question is, in reflection, do I agree with Hobbes? Once you separate the root of what he’s trying to say from all his definitions and his annoyinglyth archaicth styleth of writingth (see tangent #2), he’s definitely right about a lot of things. And because of how meticulously he explains things, it’s pretty hard to disagree with the logic of what he says. Unlike Plato, he doesn’t write with an air of superiority, like we won’t understand certain things because we’re not philosophers (it makes me feel like a kid again, when the grown-ups tell me I shouldn’t pipe in during a “big people” conversation). It makes me feel a little more sympathetic to Hobbes’ cause when he doesn’t sound all high and mighty (because of the remnants of childhood bitterness I mentioned above). So do I agree with him? On most things, yes. He genuinely makes sense and his ideas aren’t completely unrealistic either. (Sidebar: I do, however, believe that a state should be secular. But that’s another conversation. Bottom line is, yes, I agree with Hobbes.)

(Tangent #2: I don’t think all of Hobbes’ writing is bland and dry. I thought his use of the bird trapped in a room with a window to describe why lying is awful was pretty brilliant. And sometimes, I think he’s actually pretty poetic, like this part in the introduction: “…why may we not say that all automata […] have an artificiall life? For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings, and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body, such as was intended by the Artificer?” I thought that was pretty beautiful. Or maybe it’s just because I read this with an audiobook narrated by a British guy. Everything sounds more elegant with a British accent.)

Holy cow, I wrote way more than I planned to or wanted to. TL;DR: Hobbes is really freaking cool and I’m really enjoying talking about his ideas and thinking about it all. Mad props to Hobbes – hope you’re doing well in the afterlife or wherever you think the soul goes after death. But I guess you don’t believe in ghosts or whatever because of the whole incorporeal business. In which case, I hope your decomposed remains are doing well. Just know that thousands of years later, we’re still reading your books and some of us think you’re pretty awesome.


  1. Honestly, I have to agree with you: generally, Hobbes’ arguments do make a lot of sense, even if it takes your brain a while to get past the archaic language. But, as you mentioned, it was kind of nice that Hobbes thought that everyone was capable of understanding his argument.
    However, I don’t think that Hobbes thinks that “no one else is good” (you mentioned this somewhere in the “tangent”). Rather, I believe that Hobbes thinks that, in the state of nature, you simply can’t trust others not to act according to their own best interests. In fact, Hobbes says that, in the state of nature, “there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies…it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body” (80). Thus, because everyone has a right to exploit, not only my emotions and property, but my body as well, I would not, generally, be willing to trust other people. After all, my new best friend has the right to use me as a “human shield” to ward off any attackers, even if doing so results in my death. This being said, Hobbes doesn’t say that your friend won’t feel remorse or guilt for your death. He only argues that, if it came down to choosing between your life and the life of another, you sure wouldn’t be rooting for the other guy.
    However, reading your post has caused me to wonder something. Hobbes says that, by his Laws of Nature, an individual “is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life or taketh away the means of preserving the same…” (79). He also states that “of the voluntary acts of every man the object is some good to himself” (82). So, if it is against human nature to willing kill yourself, then how does Hobbes’ theory explain suicide? In lecture today, Dr. Robert Crawford said that it would be likely that Hobbes would dismiss suicides or people with suicidal tendencies from his theory as “anomalies”. However, in today’s society, suicide seems to be making itself more and more prevalent. Therefore, I don’t really know if we simply avoid the topic by labelling everyone who successfully kills themselves as “abnormal”. Furthermore, people often end their own life because they are in so much pain (either physical or mental) that they just don’t see the point in living anymore. Thus, do you think that it is possible for people to be acting for their own good by killing themselves if doing so brings an end to their suffering? You seem to have a good grasp on Hobbes and his theory, so it would be really cool if you could give this some thought. 🙂

    P.S. In paragraph four of your post, you mentioned that you were a bit confused about how the whole “sense-is-an-external-object-pressing-on-my-organs” thing fit with Hobbes’ theory. Personally, I feel like Hobbes’ reasons for thinking this are more than just the result of the “flawed science of the medieval times”. In fact, I think Hobbes’ reasons behind how sense is produced fit quite well with his materialistic views, actually. I ended up writing a blog post on this titled “On Physics and Other Natural Phenomena”.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Cara! You’re awesome. (:

      You’re right on the “no one else is good” bit. I guess my point there was just that humans are naturally suspicious of others because of the fact that we have no idea about other people’s intentions, especially in a world where we all just want to not die.

      And thank you so much for bringing up the bit about suicide, because I thought about that exact thing when I read that part!

      My edition of Leviathan is different from yours, so I can’t find the exact context where Hobbes wrote, “of the voluntary acts of every man the object is some good to himself”. But in that case, one could argue that suicide is voluntary and the person who wishes to commit suicide believes that it would be good to themselves. Still, Hobbes was pretty clear on his stance on suicide – it goes against nature and is therefore irrational. People shouldn’t want to die and I think what he meant by “some good to himself” would be to prolong life, or perhaps felicity (“continuall prospering”). And I have a feeling that Hobbes would be the kind of guy who believes that suffering is all just part of life and isn’t a valid reason for suicide.

      Now perhaps this was a product of his times. I’m not 100% sure, but I think that Christianity rejects the idea of suicide and perhaps this had some bearing on his view. But it probably mostly had to do with his idea that people have an appetite for felicity and an aversion to death, especially one that was sudden (ie. not natural). His whole argument was rooted in the idea that humans have a fear of death, so to want to die, for him, would be completely out of the question.

      On the other hand, the the other thing would to consider his idea of liberty: “Where the law is silent, I am free.” According to Wikipedia (I’m so scholarly), attempted suicide was illegal until 1978. So in that instance, if we’re allowed to put aside the laws of nature for a second, then technically, we would be allowed to commit suicide.

      As well, I remember Professor Crawford mentioning that while Hobbes believes that we have the right to life, we also have the right to a good life. What if a good life isn’t possible, due to a debiltating, terminal disease or mental illness? If we all have a right to a good life and it’s not possible to fulfill that right, then aren’t we entitled to the means to end it? Would Hobbes endorse a life of suffering? I’m not sure.

      It would be interesting to think about how Hobbes would react to the idea of doctor assisted suicide, especially since the Supreme Court recently ruled that people have the right to doctor-assisted death. If suicide is against the laws of nature and doctor-assisted suicide may become law, then Hobbes may say that the sovereign is not doing his job of upholding the laws of nature.

      But you’re right. Suicide is on the rise for a multitude of reasons and Hobbes’ rejection of it seems awfully archaic in the modern day context. I wonder how he would react to how we view suicide in our society.

      (Sidebar: Sorry for how disjointed all of this seems, haha. I’m just throwing out a bunch of ideas and I don’t think I answered your question very well. Sorry, I tried!)

      P.S., I haven’t had a chance to read your post yet, but I’ll be sure to do so, because the senses thing confuses the heck out of me.

  2. Hey Helen,

    Thanks so much for your awesome post! I love the allusions you’re making to modern times and to every-day life – it goes a long way towards humanizing Hobbes and making it easier for us to see how the things he asserts about human nature are still definitely true today. I especially thought, however, that his bit about the organs and sensation and stuff makes sense, and that his materialist theories were pretty brilliant.

    When I was a kid, I used to wonder why my insides felt warm instead of cold when I was sitting around lazily on the couch (soon I realized it was because blood was moving through my veins and it’s in motion therefore it produces heat yadda yadda). I also wondered why my heart would beat without me telling it to, or why I would continue to breathe. You get the point. Our body works so mechanically that Hobbes saying we were basically machines was only the next step. But our brain, our mind, is the conundrum – how can we say that we have the capability to reason and argue and say that things are not the way we see them (i.e. argue about metaphysics) when the rest of our body in fact works so mechanically? So when Hobbes says that the same physical laws can be applied to our thoughts, and that our brain and the way we think does in fact work in the same way as the rest of our body, and that our perceptions, delivered by the various nerves, etc. that interact with the world, are just our brains trying to make sense of the pressures, forces, input etc. that we’re receiving…he’s using his theory to thoroughly explain how humans work, and considering how much it seems like people who debate about metaphysics are sort of shooting in the dark (it’s like the Matrix – you can’t really prove that you exist), it makes a whole lot of logical sense. (Sorry, that was a really long thought.)

    I also appreciate the point you brought up about human actions being merely a product of society. True, there are definitely anomalies, people who act against the grain, but maybe in a different situation, a different time, they wouldn’t be considered crazy. For example, the Oatmeal, in one of his comics, makes a joke about how discrimination against homosexuality is the new discrimination against African-Americans – just 50 years later. Maybe it’s just that society is moving forward and complete acceptance of just about everything is what we’re working towards. Or, seeing all the incidents regarding racially-fuelled hate crimes in the news, there’s a set of prejudices that people are born with, and we can never get rid of them. I guess you could argue both ways 😛

    In short, I think Hobbes is pretty cool, too!


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