Thomas Hobbes in United Kingdom
British Political and Social Thought: Thomas Hobbes
Introduction to Thomas Hobbes
The political and constitutional crisis of the 17th century produced two of the most important figures in the history of British political thought. The first, philosopher Thomas Hobbes, challenged the assertions of both the parliamentary side and the Stuart royalist camp. In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes repudiated the royalist argument that God gave kings absolute and indivisible power to rule, arguing that human beings make a conscious decision to be led. Long ago, living as free and equal individuals in a state of nature lacking any political authority, people voluntarily contracted to create a common governmental power over them. According to Hobbes, total freedom in the state of nature left each man insecure and frightened at the unrestrained power of other individuals, all of whom were driven by insatiable self-interest. Thus, Hobbes argued, government emerged from a rational and prudent act of will. Formerly free men consented to give up their freedom and to be governed, or, as Hobbes put it, to be held in awe by a common sword. The restraint that government imposes on personal freedom is thus justified by the security and order that government provides.
Leviathan infuriated the royalists by challenging the notion of divine right, but it also upset the supporters of Parliament because Hobbes advocated absolutist rule. Hobbes argued that the consent of the people to be led justifies an all-powerful government. Either a legislature or a monarch may exercise power as long as authority over society is complete. Any challenge to this authority jeopardizes the peace and security provided by government and is thus both illegitimate and dangerous. In Hobbes’s view, disobeying government will return individuals to the chaos and fear of the state of nature, where nothing restrains the appetites of competitive men. Many supporters of Parliament saw Hobbes’s idealized government, which he labeled Leviathan, to be just as authoritarian as the government that the Stuarts attempted to impose.” (1)