March 17, 2008 Phil 104 secs 2-12 Hobbesian Egoism page 1
III people as mechanical systems
a) sensation, thinking
d) natural laws about people
VI “rights” and covenants: transfer of rights
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived in England during a period when there was a
civil war, a brief period when a “Commonwealth” was instituted, a king beheaded,
another king installed. Generally, it was a time of turmoil and uncertainty about the
legitimacy of various kinds of government. These turmoils along with others in Europe
(the Thirty Years War) were partly over religion and its relation to politics.
Among the issues that were actively being discussed was the nature and
justification of government. The theory that had been in place for several centuries, the
Divine Right theory that kings are God’s representatives on Earth, was being called into
question. Hobbes constructed a purely secular argument for absolute monarchy.
[The “divine right” theory of political leadership is just one version of a very ancient
tradition that goes back to the earliest civilizations. In Sumeria of 2500 bc, and later in
Babylonia, the King was the representative of the gods or of the chief god. In Egypt,
Pharaoh was himself a god as well as a representative of the higher gods. In Israel, King
Saul and King David are appointed by Samuel, acting on God’s orders. The idea is just
transferred to Medieval and Early modern Europe.]
Hobbes, when about 50 years old, decided to write a complete system of the
world and how people and politics fitted into the world. His book,
universally condemned as atheistic, heretical, and insulting to human nature.
These accusations are by and large true.
It is also true that this book, and the position it takes on politics and human nature,
strikes most people as coming embarrassingly close to the truth on many points. So it has
been enormously influential. Every political thinker since has directly or indirectly
addressed the challenge of Hobbes.
Hobbes proposes to figure out the nature of government by considering what
things would be like if there were no government, and seeing why it would make sense to
institute government. The hypothetical condition in which there is no government is
termed the “state of nature,” the pre-institutional condition of human beings. Hobbes
argues that in the state of nature, everyone will have good reason to institute an absolute
dictator, above the law, with the power of life or death over everyone.
(This is an important contrast between political theory since the 1600’s and
Plato’s thought. Plato took the existence and legitimacy of some kind of government for
granted. Hobbes, Locke, and all their successors tried to give reasons why government
arose and why government power was legitimate. The core contrast here is that Locke,