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 coloured all this subsequent thinking (remarkably he died when he was 91 and everything he is 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 deaths 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 began at the age of 4, when his own father, a clergyman, was disgraced, and abandoned his wife and family, after he’d 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 to 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 realise that across 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 had 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 appointed all kings and that one should obey these monarchs for one clear reason: because the deity 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 right to 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 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’s 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 rulers whenever they felt a little unhappy with their lot.
Hobbes had received a first hand account of the beheading of King Charles I, on a scaffold in front of the Banqueting Hall at the Palace of Whitehall in 1649 – and his intellectual labours were directed at making sure that such ghastly, primitive scenes would never be repeated.
So in Leviathan, he put forward an ingenious argument that tried to marry up social contract theory with a 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 could not have been a pretty place, because humans, left to their own devices, without a central authority to keep them in awe, would quickly have descended into squabbling, infighting and intolerable bickering. It would have been a little like the English civil war, but with people in bear skins bashing each other around with flint tools. In Hobbes’s famous formulation, life in the 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 governments. They had done this willingly, as social contract theorists maintained, but also under considerable compulsion, fleeing into 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 that people might have to protest about an absolute ruler, or Leviathan as he 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, this was absolutely no reason to take to the streets and demand a change of government.
‘Though of so unlimited a power, men may fancy many evil consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour, are much worse.’
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 as ‘humane affairs cannot be without some inconvenience.’ But this inconvenience is the fault of people, not the sovereign, because: ‘if men could rule themselves, there would be no need at all of a common coercive power.’ As Hobbes went on: ‘He that complaineth of injury from his Sovereign, complaineth of that whereof he is the author himselfe; and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himselfe.’
Hobbes’s theory was dark, cautious and not especially hopeful about government. In our more optimistic moment, 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 was not against revolution for any sinister motives. He just maintained, as he put it in the preface to Leviathan, that he felt compelled:
‘…to set before men’s eyes the mutuall relationship between protection and obedience.’