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Thomas Hobbes "Leviathan" was the foundational text of social contract theory. It was the first really robust exploration into why people come together, under governments, and what makes those governments legitimate and workable.
Man in Nature
Man in Nature
Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 on a very momentous day. His mother went into labor when she received word of the invading Spanish Armada, which is just a great framing for his life. He was born in an age in which politics were do-or-die. Would England even survive? That was the question of the day on which he was born. 

He received his early education through the church, which was very common in those days, because the church was the largest vessel of educating people. Almost every educated man was invited to go into the clergy. But, rather than improving the world via a church congregation, Hobbes sought to improve the world through larger discourses and larger arenas. He actually began his intellectual writing with discourses not about political and social theory, for which he is very famous.

He began writing about what we would call physics, particularly, the physics of motion. He was fascinated by this idea of natural law and orderliness in nature. And then he would eventually translate that understanding of rules of motion to social interaction. There were natural rules about how humans interacted with each other and he thought that if you can get a good understanding of these rules then you could create more fruitful forms of government. Before too long, he found himself writing about questions that were very current and very dangerous. Hobbes thinking about government and civil society was built from the bottom up. First came his understanding of the nature of man. What was the individual in nature?

And man in nature was a bit of a brute. In order to survive in the natural world, the phrase that everybody remembers from Hobbes is that, life in nature is nasty, brutish, and short. It was marked competition and violence and warfare and insecurity and unrest. His take on humans perhaps influenced by his faith and his early education in the church, was that humans are not what they should be. Try as they might, they were fallen creatures. And unless they had help from their community, unless they had help from their ruling structures they tended to fall into disarray and to hurt one another. Humans came together, formed a social contract, formed systems of government in order to solve the discord among them. And if government failed to solve that, it was bad government.
The Leviathan
The Leviathan
The main idea of Leviathan, why it’s called Leviathan, is he thought that because humans were by nature unruly, and society in nature was unruly, that what people needed was a strong central authority. A strong central government. Here is how it worked: people came together, and they sacrificed some of their individual rights to a central authority, in order that that central authority would keep the peace among the people. That was the negotiation that was the social contract. That governing arrangement worked like a Leviathan, the strong central authority and it could be anything, it could be a monarch, it can be an oligarchy, but it was a strong central authority. Deriving its power from the people would then control the people in various ways like a many tentacled sea monster of a sort.

The word Leviathan speaks of a famous sea monster from the bible. Thomas Hobbes write Leviathan in an age in which the nature and structure of government was much debated. Politics were a deadly business and for the first time in world history non-royal people, commoners, were commenting on these politics in society. It became possible to publish a book on the questions of the age. By publishing political discourses’, Hobbes almost automatically made political enemies. He was writing in an age of Civil War in England in which it was important for people to take sides. And if you didn’t take a side then people assigned you a side. Leviathan was written primarily in exile. He was in Paris at the time. Because it wasn’t safe for him to be in his own native England. 

Ironically, after he published Leviathan the community of loyalists, the exiles that he was living with in Paris, got mad at him and threatened to kill him because they read Leviathan as being anti-conservative monarchy. He was sometimes accused of being anti-church or even being an atheist and that is because his philosophy had a, a somewhat, democratic strain to it. Which was, the strength of central authority, whether that be the government, or a church, really derived from and was directed at the good of the
people. And the philosophy of the age was that no, government came from above. People governed, individuals governed because they were given that authority by God.

The king was king because God appointed the king’s family. The church was the church because God appointed the church. What the people thought played no part in it. And Hobbes philosophy would have cut against that grain and it worried authorities.
The Contemporary Social Contract
He was a well-educated man and it is said that his final words on his deathbed were a simple statement. He said “a leap in the dark” because for him even death itself was another discovery. If Hobbes showed up today, he would be overjoyed to see a stable representative government. He was imaginative to see truly representative democracy. But if he showed up today and saw it, I think he’d like it very much. But he would be concerned about the revolutionary spirit that we see in many quarters of the world today.

There are many societies today that are trying to democratize, trying to liberalize their political environment but they are doing it with great violence and great discord, which was exactly the thing that Hobbes was trying to avoid. For him social contracting for better government did not have to be violent, it can be rational. Thomas Hobbes book Leviathan is foundational to the whole history of political theory and a good number of the ideas that he pioneered in that work still echo today in how we study and how we think about political questions.



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