Written amidst the chaos of the English civil war as Cromwell’s roundheads faced off against monarchists and innumerable radical political and religious communities sprung up in the cracks, Thomas Hobbes’ call for a strong central government to command order and to restore and uphold the social contract remains one of the world’s most influential books on political philosophy.
Hobbes’ politics is explicitly rooted in his conception of human nature and what he deems to be the natural state of human existence – the war of all against all, encapsulated in his most-famous statement that life before the social contract and the state is always and everywhere “nasty, brutish and short”. Competition, selfishness, individual advancement at the expense of others – this is the natural drive of man, and is only held in abeyance by the real and legitimate fear/ knowledge that all others are motivated by the same self-interest and hence that the state of war is unending. Recognizing this, humankind is motivated to compromise – to surrender some of its own perfect freedom for protection against the unchecked freedom of others. The social contract and its political expression, the state, arises, then, from a general recognition of the tension between security and human freedom – “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself“. Selfish brutes that we are, we will kill or be killed unless there is something stopping us. A general consensus forms out of our instinct for self-preservation – I’ll rein in some of my impulses, you rein in some of yours. And we’ll set up someone with strength and power to enforce that compromise. That’s the gist of it.
Democracy, aristocracy, monarchy – whatever the form government takes, it is based on the premise of social contract as a means of protecting us from ourselves, says Hobbes. His preference, of course, was monarchy – not surprising given his dim view of human nature, which leads fairly easily to the conclusion that security and order are paramount (and hence the term ‘leviathan’, the great and sovereign power of enforcement). And so Hobbes pretty consistently takes a beating from those who think of themselves as ‘progressive’ or in any way left-ish, and his name has become synonymous with the most pessimistic view of human potential for goodness and for state policies that emphasize mistrust and discipline. And fair enough. There is no doubt that Hobbes privileged order over freedom, nor that his portrayal of our natural state as selfish and violent and insecure continues to exert dangerous influence in policy-making. But there’s more here, too. There is Hobbes’ call for full legal equality, on the basis that we all equally surrender our freedom to the state; there is Hobbes’ call for public works and social infrastructure – funded by general taxation – to support those in need. But in all, Hobbes thought us petty, pathetic creatures. While the other great theorist of human nature and social contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, presents a political theory that is rooted in the possible, in what-we-ought-aspire-to, Hobbes’ project is a different one, more akin to Machiavelli’s reflections on statecraft – a project grounded in the pessimism that is realpolitik. And politics, of course, exists where these meet, in the tensions, contradictions and compromises between what is what might be, between what we fear and what we hope, between the practicable and the possible.