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POLITICAL THEORY – Thomas Hobbes

September 13, 2019


Thomas Hobbes was a 17th century English Philosopher. Who is on hand to guide us through one of the thorniest issues of politics. To what extent should we patiently obey rulers, especially those who are not very good and to what extent should we start revolutions and depose governments, in search of a better world. Hobbes’s thinking is inseparable from one major event that began when he was 64 years old and was to mark him so deeply, it colored all his subsequent thinking. Remarkably he died when he was 91 and so everything his remembered for today he wrote after the age of 60. This event was the English civil war. A vicious, divisive, costly and murderous conflict that raged across England for almost a decade and pitted the forces of king against parliament, leading to the death of some 200 000 people on both sides. Hobbes, was by nature a deeply peaceful and cautious man. He hated violence of all kinds. A disposition that had begun at the age of 4 when his own father, a clergyman was disgraced and abandoned his wife and family after he got into a fight with another vicar on the steps of his parish church in a village in Wiltshire. The work for which we chiefly remember Hobbes – “Leviathan” was published in 1651. It is the most definitive, persuasive and eloquent statement ever produced as thy why one should obey government authority. Even of a very imperfect kind in order to avoid the risk of chaos and bloodshed. To understand the background of Hobbes’s conservatism. It helps to realize that across the western Europe in the 17th century, political theorists were beginning to ask with a new directness, on what basis subjects should obey their rulers. For centuries, way back into the Middle Ages there’d been a standard answer to this: contained in a theory called: “the divine right of kings.” This was a blunt, simple but highly effective theory, stating that it was none other than god who had pointed all kings and that one should obey these monarchs for one clear reason. Because god said so and he would send you to hell if you didn’t agree. But this was no longer proving quite so persuasive to many thoughtful people who argued that the rule ultimately lay not with kings but with ordinary people who gave kings power and therefore should only expect to take orders from kings so long as ,but only so long, as things were working out quite well for them. This was known as “the social contract” theory of government. Hobbes could see that the divine right of kings theory was nonsense and what more was going to be increasingly unpersuasive as religious observance declined. He himself was privately an atheist. At the same time Hobbes was deeply scared of the possible consequences of “the social contract theory.” Which could encourage people to depose rules whenever they felt a little unhappy with their lot. Hobbes had received a firsthand of the beheading of the King Charles I on the scaffold in front of the banqueting house of the palace of Whitehall in 1649 And his intellectual labors were directed at making sure that such ghastly primitive scenes would never be repeated. So, in “Leviathan” Hobbes puts forward an ingenious argument that tries to marry up social contract theory with the defence of total obedience and submission to traditional authority. The way he did this was to take his readers back in time to a period he called “the state of nature”. Before there were kings of any kind and to get them to think about how governments, would have arisen, in the first place. Key to Hobbes’s argument was, that the state of nature would not have been a pretty place because humans left to own devices without the central authority to keep them in awe would quickly have descended into squabbling, infighting and intolerable bickering It would be a little like the English civil War but with people in bearskin bashing each other around with flint tools. In Hobbes’s famous formulation, life in a state of nature would have been nasty, brutish and short. As a result out of fear and dread of chaos, people were led to form a governments. They had done this willingly as social contract theorists maintained. But also under considerable compulsion: fleeing in to the arms of strong authority, which they, therefore Hobbes argued, had a subsequent duty to keep obeying. With only a few rights to complain if they didn’t like it. The only right the people might have to protest about absolute ruler or Leviathan as Hobbes called him. Was if he directly threatened to kill them. However, if the ruler merely stifled opposition, imposed onerous taxes, crippled the economy and locked up dissidents willy-nilly this was absolutely no reason to take to the streets and demand a change of government. As Hobbes wrote He admitted that a ruler might come along with an inclination to do wicked deeds. But the people would still have a duty to obey this person as: But these inconvenience is anyway the fault of the people, not the sovereign because as Hobbes adds if men could rule themselves they would be no need at all of common coercive power. As he went on: Hobbes’s theory was dark, cautious and not especially hopeful about government. In a more optimistic moments we want him to be wrong. But it seems, Hobbes’s name will always be relevant and fresh again. When revolutions, motivated by a search for liberty go horribly awry Hobbes maintained in the preface to Leviathan that he had written the book

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