Does Hobbes think we’re evil?

I think that many people may be too quick to label Hobbes as having a pessimistic view of human nature. But, obviously, I do not blame them.

Hobbes is pretty explicit in his presentation of humans in the state of nature. He states that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against ever man” (pg. 76, ph. 8). The life of humans in a natural state is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (pg. 76, ph. 9). Basically, in Hobbes’ opinion, “primitive” humans have a natural tendency towards chaos, because they are each only looking for what is best for themselves, and will do whatever is necessary to secure this – things that we from a modern perspective may consider unthinkable.  But is this bestial image of humanity evidence enough to claim that Hobbes believes we are naturally evil?

I personally do not think so. Hobbes, to me, is not a pessimist, but a realist. The logic behind his argument pretty much makes sense: in nature, people do what they do because they want to survive. Just as we cannot call a shark evil for killing and eating seals, we cannot call a person evil for killing another person if they are threatened by them or if doing so will benefit them in some way – it is only nature that they shall want to survive and thrive. Men (as in mankind) are each guided by their own passions, desires, inclinations, etc. which are “in themselves no sin” (pg. 77, ph. 10), and “no more are the actions that proceed from those passions, till they know a law that forbids them” (pg. 77, ph. 10). It proceeds that justice and injustice are imagined concepts that exist only in describing the position of an action relative to the laws created by a sovereign and upheld by society. There is no good or bad in the state of nature.

Though it may be somewhat of a stretch, one could even argue that Hobbes is actually pretty optimistic about the human condition. He comes up with an entire set of natural laws that describe what humans would be theoretically inclined to do – that is, make contracts of peace with each other and give up their bestial rights for the sake of being protected by a higher power. Human rationality makes us strive away from chaos and toward safety and order – what we may call society – of our own voluntary decision.

Poor Hobbes. I feel as though he was always quite misunderstood 🙁

2 Thoughts.

  1. I agree! Part of my motivation in Monday’s lecture was to make Hobbes seem more reasonable. You can see the presentation from that lecture, here. I think the laws of nature are things that we could see by our reason would be good to follow because they would lead us to peace, but in the state of nature it would be foolish to follow them unless others are willing to do so as well. So we need to set up a common power to enforce such rules to make it rational to follow them!

  2. I completely agree with your belief that Hobbes is not pessimistic but rather a realist. I don’t think your idea that Hobbes is actually an optimist is all that far fetched. In fact, I think his view on human nature is actually very lenient!

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