Hobbes is the founding father of modern political philosophy. Directly or indirectly, he has set
the terms of debate about the fundamentals of political life right into our own times. Few have
liked his thesis, that the problems of political life mean that a society should accept an
unaccountable sovereign as its sole political authority. Nonetheless, we still live in the world that
Hobbes addressed head on: a world where human authority is something that requires
justification, and is automatically accepted by few; a world where social and political inequality
also appears questionable; and a world where religious authority faces significant dispute. We
can put the matter in terms of the concern with equality and rights that Hobbes’s thought
heralded: we live in a world where all human beings are supposed to have rights, that is, moral
claims that protect their basic interests. But what or who determines what those rights are? And
who will enforce them? In other words, who will exercise the most important political powers,
when the basic assumption is that we all share the same entitlements?
We can see Hobbes’s importance if we briefly compare him with the most famous political
thinkers before and after him. A century before, Nicolo Machiavelli had emphasized the harsh
realities of power, as well as recalling ancient Roman experiences of political freedom.
Machiavelli appears as the first modern political thinker, because like Hobbes he was no longer
prepared to talk about politics in terms set by religious faith (indeed, he was still more offensive
than Hobbes to many orthodox believers), instead, he looked upon politics as a secular discipline
divorced from theology. But unlike Hobbes, Machiavelli offers us no comprehensive philosophy:
we have to reconstruct his views on the importance and nature of freedom; it remains uncertain
which, if any, principles Machiavelli draws on in his apparent praise of amoral power politics.
Writing a few years after Hobbes,
had definitely accepted the terms of debate Hobbes
had laid down: how can human beings live together, when religious or traditional justifications
of authority are no longer effective or persuasive? How is political authority justified and how
far does it extend? In particular, are our political rulers properly as unlimited in their powers as
Hobbes had suggested? And if they are not, what system of politics will ensure that they do not
overstep the mark, do not trespass on the rights of their subjects?
So, in assessing Hobbes’s political philosophy, our guiding questions can be: What did Hobbes
write that was so important? How was he able to set out a way of thinking about politics and
power that remains decisive nearly four centuries afterwards? We can get some clues to this
second question if we look at Hobbes’s life and times.
2. Life and Times